Friends of Football writer Joan Grey continues her series of feature stories about the growing number of young New Zealanders who seek student football scholarships in the United States.
In part 3 of her series, Grey follows the progress of Hannah Blake, a 22-year-old Aucklander who has combined study and playing football …
PART 3: Spotlight on Hannah Blake: Football Fern and Michigan Wolverine
Football Fern Hannah Blake has the academic drive to match her outstanding football talent.
Blake graduates in late 2022, six months ahead of schedule, with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Communication and Media with a minor in Business Administration from the University of Michigan.
She’s been studying in the United States since 2019 on a college soccer scholarship, playing for the Michigan Wolverines.
As well, she already has six international caps for New Zealand’s Football Ferns.
Ranked one of the top 25 academic universities in the world, the University of Michigan is considered a ‘Public Ivy’ with a selective acceptance rate of only 26% of all applicants.
Blake has been playing NCAA Division I, the highest level of US college soccer. Her team, the Michigan Wolverines, competes in the ‘Big Ten Conference’ against the top athletic universities in the US Midwest.
“I struck gold with the Michigan team,” she says.
“I was a bit nervous they wouldn’t get my New Zealand sense of humour but, luckily, Michigan was right up my alley. A lot of the girls were very similar to me and that allowed for a really great team culture.
“It has become a home away from home. I seamlessly transitioned in, and now I’m graduating.”
Before heading to the United States, Blake played premier women’s football for Three Kings United and was selected for the Future Ferns Domestic Programme.
Blake’s football career
- 2014-2018 St Kentigern College first XI
- 2015-2019 Three Kings United (Lotto NRFL Women’s Premier League)
- 2016 U-20 and U-17 FIFA Women’s World Cup
- 2017-2019 Football Ferns Domestic Programme (FFDP)
- 2018 U-20 FIFA Women’s World Cup
Blake says US college soccer is high calibre, and more about physicality compared to premier women’s football in New Zealand.
“That translates into the way that American teams play; it’s very fast-paced and not as technically focused. It’s more about who’s faster and who’s stronger.
“The conference that Michigan is in is called the Big Ten. There’s a saying ‘big 10, big girls’, and some of the players that I’ve played against are very tall 6’, 6’2″. The physicality side for me was a big adjustment.”
Balancing top-tier collegiate soccer and studying at the academic university has been a challenging but rewarding experience for the central attacking midfielder.
“It’s called student-athlete for a reason, the student comes first, and I’ve definitely learned that. I would say that it’s not too rigorous as long as you manage your time well and remember that you are also there to get a degree at the same time.”
In addition to her US college commitments, Blake has represented New Zealand at full international level.
“We go on tours to all corners of the planet. It can mean late nights on tour but it’s nice because there are a lot of girls in the same boat. The last time I went on a tour we had a bit of a study session to keep each other motivated.
“My Michigan coach has been most supportive and understanding. A lot of international games happen during the college soccer season so it’s taking us away from playing with Michigan.”
How Blake landed a US soccer scholarship at Michigan University
Blake set her sights on a US college soccer scholarship from a young age.
“Having the opportunity to get a degree with all of this paid for was something that I thought was so cool.
“I was always so into the idea and that made decisions easier because I wasn’t weighing up pros and cons. It was more like ‘I want to go, where do I want to go’ sort of thing.”
Blake started with a list of her top 100 US colleges and sent emails to the college soccer coaches.
“I would write a bit about myself in an e-mail, attach highlight clips of me playing at the time and a soccer CV sort of thing and send that out.
“The U-17 World Cup was a really great experience and I was lucky enough to get exposure through that.”
Blake played in the 2016 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup and both the 2016 and 2018 U-20 Women’s World Cups. In 2017, at just 17 years of age, Blake débuted for the Football Ferns against Thailand in a two-match tour.
“I would hear back from a few schools and have calls with them. As that was going on I was refining my list and looking at where I wanted to go academically.
“I narrowed my list down to two schools — Michigan and the University of South Carolina. My dad and I flew to the US and looked at both schools.
“When you look at schools online it’s easy to think they look very similar and comparable. When I came to Michigan and saw everything in person it was amazing and South Carolina was no doubt an amazing school as well but I didn’t necessarily see myself there as much as I did at Michigan.”
What’s involved in Blake’s US soccer scholarship?
Blake secured a four-year, full-ride scholarship at the University of Michigan.
In her first year, as a freshman, Blake lived in a college athlete dormitory and roomed with a teammate.
“It’s kind of nice when you first come, all you really know is your team and they are your automatic friends. As you progress you sort of branch out and meet more people.
“After one year, you’re left to your own devices. I lived with some girls on my team for two years and now I live in another house with some girls who swim.”
In her first year living on campus, Blake’s meals and accommodation were all paid for by the university. Once she moved into a house, she was given a monthly allowance to cover the cost of rent and meals.
“They look after me very well. Anything you can think of is covered, they even take care of treatments or surgeries for injuries as well.
“I have a lot of friends who have torn ACLs, and they’re taken really good care of. They still come to practice and sit on the sidelines and do their rehab. Kudos to them, it must be tough but they’re still definitely a huge part of the team even if they are injured.”
Typically, scholarships continue for players with long-term injuries.
“It’s my understanding, you signed for four years so no matter what happens you have your scholarship for that four years. You would have to medically retire from the sport and give up your spot on the roster. Someone else would be able to come in so you wouldn’t technically be a student-athlete anymore but your education would still be fully paid.”
Soccer scholarship recipients, like all players on the team, need to meet academic expectations and keep up with their studies.
“There is a certain threshold and if your Grade Point Average (GPA) drops below it you become ineligible to compete in games. You have to sit it out until you can raise your GPA back above the threshold, however long that takes.”
Scholarship players can withdraw from the programme if they choose.
“It’s pretty easy to do, no one’s going to hold you hostage and make you stay if that’s not something that you want to pursue. If you come and maybe it’s not for you, it’s not the end of the world, you’ve always got the option to go back home.”
A scholarship athlete can also transfer to another US college to play for a different team.
“If you and your coach agree that the school isn’t the right fit for you, you can be put in a transfer portal. Once you’re in the portal other team’s coaches will be able to see that you’re in there.”
The NCAA transfer portal is a system that covers all three NCAA divisions and aims to make it easier for college athletes to transfer to different institutions.
“You stay studying at your current school until another school comes along that might be right for you and then off you go fingers crossed.”
A day in the life of Michigan Wolverine Hannah Blake
During the NCAA Division I college soccer season, from August to November, the Michigan Wolverines train and play six days a week.
“We train every day except Monday which is fully off and our games are on Thursdays and Sundays.”
Here’s the breakdown of a typical day for Blake during football game season.
University classes start at 8am and run through to 2pm in the afternoon, then Blake heads to team training at the stadium.
“I don’t have a car and usually I’ll carpool with some teammates.
“We get to the stadium about an hour or so before practice starts to get tape for injuries and things like that. Sometimes we’ll have a meeting with the coaches to watch film from our last game or look at film of our upcoming opposition.
“After training outdoors on the grass, which is about an hour and a half, we’re free to go for the night. The night usually involves getting some dinner probably with teammates and then studying so nothing too glamorous.”
With no scheduled games, the off-season is more training-intensive with 7am sessions before class.
‘We’ll train a little longer; it might be a 2-hour session, with some dedicated fitness. It’s very strength and conditioning heavy in the off-season.”
Classes finish up around 2 pm then it’s off to a gym session with her team.
“There are enforced rules by the NCAA which is the governing body of all college athletics. You can only train for 20 hours in a week and it’s up to your coaches how they divide that up so we’ll usually have both Saturday and Sunday off which is pretty nice.”
Michigan is known for its warm summers and freezing winters, sometimes plunging to negative 20-degree celsius.
“Off-season is when we train indoors because usually it’s snowing in Michigan by then.
“The offseason is definitely a lot more tiring and not as fun, but it puts you in a good spot to go back to the season after that.”
More about US College scholarships
This story is part of a three-part series explaining what young New Zealanders face if they are keen to combine study and football in the United States.
Read her series of stories here …
Friends of Football writer Joan Grey loves playing and writing about football. She captains the Strathallan College Girls First XI and represents Franklin United in the NRF Women’s Championship.