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Chatting with the Courage: Jaelene Hinkle talks about her journey in the NWSL

Get to know one of the best defenders in the NWSL

Chatting with the Courage: Jaelene Hinkle talks about her journey in the NWSL
Andy Mead/

In the four years since she was drafted, Jaelene Hinkle has become one of the best wing defenders in the NWSL and has made eight appearances for the United States Women’s National Team. She was named to the NWSL Best XI for March and April this season and is well on her way to being selected again for May. Her ability to provide width on attack for the Courage opens up space in the middle and has helped North Carolina go undefeated through the first ten games of the 2018 season. She has the ability to make pinpoint passes from 30+ yards in the closing minutes of games and has assisted on two game-winning goals in the 90th minute or later in 2018. She is tied for the league lead with three assists.

On Wednesday night the North Carolina Courage went into Orlando City Stadium and beat the Orlando Pride 4-3 in the highest scoring match of the 2018 NWSL season so far. Dirty South Soccer’s Aaron Bellamy had a chance to talk with Jae before the match, exploring her interest in soccer and her journey from playing club soccer in Colorado to getting drafted in the first round of the 2015 NWSL College Draft on through her experiences in the National Women’s Soccer League.

DSS: What sparked your interest in soccer growing up and did you play any other sports?

Jaelene Hinkle: I didn’t play any other sports until high school when I did basketball for a year, just more so to be with friends than play, but nothing serious.

[For soccer] Well, both of my older siblings played, so I just watched them and how much they loved it and how much fun they were having so I thought I’d join in.

DSS: Tell me about your NWSL draft experience.

Jaelene Hinkle: So I actually didn’t go down to Philadelphia where they were having it that year, and so it was just me and my parents and my boyfriend at the time and we just had the draft streaming on our iPads, and I actually found out where I was going in the announcement that way. So it was still pretty exciting just to have people so close right there, and just a little bit surreal, too, even though I wasn’t there.

DSS: Did the teams call and interview you, or was it a surprise that you were going to get drafted that early?

Jaelene Hinkle: I hadn’t talked much with the teams. Me and my college coach had talked a bit and thought that I could be in the first round, but I wasn’t entirely sure and New York had been mentioned as one of the places that I could go, but I guess it was still a bit of a surprise. I did talk to the coach and the organization after the draft was over.

DSS: Tell me about that first season with Western New York. You started every game your rookie season. What was it like being a rookie on that team?

Jaelene Hinkle: It was exciting just because there had been a lot of changes with that team when I got drafted. Me and the other four girls [Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams, and Sabrina D’Angelo] that had been picked who played there all had really significant impacts our rookie year, and I think that was huge personally for my development being able to come in and play right off the bat, so I was super thankful for that and it was definitely challenging. [It was] very much a growing experience. The league is different and just the level of play and who you are playing with and against, so I think I learned a lot that first year for sure.

DSS: And then the next year you guys made it all the way to the [2016 NWSL] Championship. What was winning that championship like, especially in the way that it was won? (The Western New York Flash beat the Washington Spirit in penalty kicks after scoring the equalizing goal in the 121st minute of the match.)

Jaelene Hinkle: I think it just said a lot about our team and our coach and just the belief that we had for ourselves. I mean, no one expected us to go that far, let alone to win anything, so I think it was just a really cool experience of just how important, you know, our self-belief and just as a team coming together and making the most of our season, and rallying with each other in that situation because we were so off the grid. I think that’s what made it even more exciting, that we just did our thing and played good games and didn’t really think too much of it, and just putting forth that effort day-in and day-out, and the results of that being the Championship Game. That was really cool and special.

DSS: How did you feel about going from Western New York to North Carolina? Were you happy with the move? Surprised?

Jaelene Hinkle: Yeah, I think it was a little bit of everything. I mean, we were all super grateful for the time we had in New York and I think being in Buffalo really helped us as a team to get to know each other and stuff. We got to spend a lot of time together and we did enjoy our chances and I think we were just excited because of the huge soccer community down in North Carolina and just realizing the impact that we could have there and our ability to grow the game and inspire the next generation who are already playing and established in North Carolina, so I think that was a really exciting part of the move, just being involved in that.

DSS: Last season obviously didn't end how you guys wanted, but you got to play Portland the first game of this season and won. How did you feel going into the game and how did it feel afterward? (The Courage lost to Portland Thorns FC 1-0 in the 2017 NWSL Championship)

Jaelene Hinkle: You know, I think obviously in the back of our mind it was cool to have a rematch of the final game, but I think for us we always start the year with a blank slate and, you know, we’re not trying to prove anything or take past experiences into our future games that we have. I mean it was very exciting because Portland has always been a good squad and you know it’s always going to be a tough battle with them, so it’s always just fun being able to play them and have that competitive rivalry with our team makes it more exciting. After the game, it was cool because we got to start with a ‘W’ and that’s always nice.

DSS: And so everything has gone pretty much as well as you could hope up to this point. Obviously undefeated through nine (now ten) games is extremely good with seven (now eight) wins and three (now four) on the road. Does anything stand out to you as to why this season is going so well or is that just how everything was supposed to be for the team?

Jaelene Hinkle: I wouldn’t say it’s how everything is supposed to be, it just shows as a team how much we want to grow each season, and I don’t think we ever reach the point in our squad where we “made it” or “arrived” and I think that always helps with that mindset going into each game. What can we learn by playing them? You know, what have we worked on during the week that we can now demonstrate in the game? Our team is so much about growth and knowing there is always more to be learned and there are still things to develop and I think that shows so far in the season how each game has progressively gotten better for us. I think even adding new people this year with drafts or trades. It just shows in how we’ve done so far and how we hope to keep going.

DSS: You personally have had a fantastic season so far, getting named [to the NWSL Best XI] in the only two months we’ve had so far. How do you feel like you’ve grown this season, even over last year?

Jaelene Hinkle: I think for me a big part was just learning to be more confident in my play and I think for me personally the last few years of just playing consistently and really developing my own skills in order to make the team better has shown a bit in my play this year. I think that’s exciting and I’m starting to learn how to be a leader and to exude that confidence not only on the field but with my team. And I mean, playing for this team it’s easy to feel welcomed and supported and while you make mistakes on this team it’s easy to try new things, and I think for me it’s just been a lot about focusing on improving myself so that I can help the team move forward. I’m happy with how it’s gone so far.

DSS: Speaking about the person on the opposite side of you. You guys lost Taylor Smith and that was sad, but Merritt [Mathias] has come in and done a fantastic job. How did she come into the team and start playing so well?

Jaelene Hinkle: Yeah I think again it says a lot about our team and supporting people. We obviously do miss Taylor and she was such a big part of our team off the field as well, but I think when a new person steps into the team it’s our job to make sure that they feel welcomed and supported and that they can feel free to bring their style of play to our team and I think Merritt fits really well in that she brings that attacking presence and that’s what [head coach] Paul [Riley] likes out of our outside backs. It’s not just good defenders, but how can they add to the attack, and I think Merritt has completely transitioned to that, being the skilled attaker that she is. She is very coachable. She likes to work on things after practice with all of us, and I think it says a lot about her fitting into the team and feeling confident enough to express herself on the field, which is great.

DSS: Are there any offensive players that you really enjoy going up against that test you on other teams?

Jaelene Hinkle: Maybe Mallory Pugh, just we’re from Colorado and we trained in the offseason together. We’ve got that Colorado connection, so that’s always fun, and even our club coaches will reach out to us after a game. Yeah, it’s always fun, I enjoy that.

Hinkle steals the ball from Mallory Pugh during a 1-0 home win for the Courage.
Andy Mead/

DSS: On an off day, you don’t have practice, what do you like to do on an off day?

Jaelene Hinkle: I would say I’m a coffee shop person. I really enjoy going and finding new places in Raleigh I haven’t been to. Bringing a book.

I have a golden retriever, so I like to take him out for walks or do more activities with him on an off day because we don’t get a lot of downtime. Yeah, especially in Raleigh the summers are definitely gorgeous, so it’s nice to just be outside and not have a soccer ball. An off day it’s just nice to enjoy the little things in life.