BY JEFF FALK
Haleigh Echard always thought she was a pretty good soccer player. Then she started believing that she was a very good one. Now she knows she’s a great one.
You see, Echard is one of these people who needs outside affirmation to completely validate her own beliefs.
Recently, Echard, a senior-to-be at Cedar Crest, received the most reaffirming outside influence that a female soccer player in the country can get, when she was chosen to compete at the developmental camp for the United States Under-18 women’s national soccer team. Echard, 16, is one of 24 girls from across the nation selected to a training camp for the under-20 team which will represent the United States at the 2016 World Cup.
Echard departs Saturday for the week-long camp in Carson, California.
“I guess when I was being recruited by Penn State, which is one of the top six teams in the country, I realized I was a pretty good player,” said Echard, who ultimately committed to the Nittany Lions. “I didn’t think I could play at that high of a level. But it was like, ‘Wow, I guess I can.’ I do know it, but I’m a very humble person. I don’t go around bragging about it. I just go and do it. I guess I realized it this summer, like ‘I can play with the top players in the country.’
“If you told me I was one of the best players in the country, I would say, ‘Thanks!'” Echard added.
The possessor of a stride that seemingly chews up defenders, and a quick first step, Echard has great vision, a powerful leg and a pass-first mentality. But given the fact that she’s only 16, the United States Under-18 national camp possesses the power to bring out even more of Echard’s potential.
“It’s not really a set team yet,” said Echard. “I’m still trying out. But yeah, it’s a big honor.
“I’m really excited for it,” she added. “I’m a little nervous. I know I have to give it my best shot because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“It’s absolutely incredible. I’m beyond proud,” said Echard’s coach at Cedar Crest, Lauren King. “I’m very happy for her. It’ll be a great experience for her. I know she’s been training her tail off for Penn State. She’s been eating differently and lifting. I think it’s just paid off for her. It’s an honor few have ever achieved.”
At the urging of her coach at Penn State and her elite travel coach, Echard’s playing skills were uncovered by United States national team officials during an Elite Club National League game in Colorado in June. At the time, Echard was unaware that she was being scrutinized.
“Someone associated with the team came and watched one of our games,” said Echard. “I guess they liked what they say. And then when I got home there was an e-mail inviting me to the camp.
“My coach told me after the game they were there,” continued Echard. “We were playing the number-one (club) team in the country and I was playing outside midfield. We were down 2-1 and I just kept going. I just kept going at their defenders one-v-one and beating them, time and time again.”
Last fall, Echard was the driving force behind the Cedar Crest girls’ soccer team’s first-ever run to a Lancaster-Lebanon League championship. From her midfield slot, Echard accumulated 12 goals and six assists.
“I’d say my game is just taking players on, one-v-one, which you don’t see a lot of in the women’s game today,” said Echard. “I think that’s one of the things Penn State liked about me. I catch a lot of players by surprise. But if I have space, I can cut inside.
“It’s pretty cool to be able to represent your country,” added Echard. “It’s exciting.”
“I know it’s definitely pretty rare,” said King. “I’ve heard of one other girl who’s been invited to the national team try-out and she wasn’t from the Lebanon, Lancaster, Harrisburg area. I think a lot of Lebanon County is very happy for her, because she’s representing the area on a national level.”
Echard began playing soccer at a very young age. And since then her love for the game has never waivered.
“I’ve been playing since I was four,” said Echard. “And it’s always been soccer for me. I remember the first goal I scored, because it was for the other team. I started at the rec level, and when I was eight, the rec coaches were like ‘You’ve got to get on a better team.’ And then I started playing on the Pennsylvania Classics team with guys.
“This was always a goal I had,” Echard concluded. “I was in the Olympic Development Program when I was 12, but I was always told I was too small to play on a national team, so I wrote it off. I sort of gave up on it. That’s why I was so shocked when I got the email.”
“I’m excited for the season,” said King. “I know we’re definitely going to have a target on our back, but it might motivate us more. We have a very solid group of seniors, which is good for us.”