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Inside the game that changed Kristen Hamilton’s soccer career in a matter of minutes

During her three years as a professional soccer player, Kristen Hamilton had never started a game and never scored a goal. But she checked both those boxes Saturday, playing a crucial role in helping North Carolina Courage to a 3–1 win over the Boston Breakers.

It took Hamilton only three minutes in her first professional start to score her first goal in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), giving the Courage a 1-0 lead over the Breakers. Just 10 minutes later, the 25-year-old forward scored the second goal of her career, bringing the Courage up 2-0.

Hamilton, who suffered an ACL injury after going as the 36th pick to the Western New York Flash in the 2014 NWSL draft, didn’t play until last year, when she appeared in 15 games for the Flash before the team moved to North Carolina. So far this season, the University of Denver alum had seen only 67 minutes of action off the bench for the Courage before her start on Saturday.

[More from Excelle Sports: 15 incredible things that happened during the NWSL’s ninth week]

“I was nervous, but I felt confident,” Hamilton told Excelle Sports of the starting assignment. “This team is very uplifting and supportive. I never felt like I was coming into a lineup where I didn’t belong. I was excited.”

Hamilton was handed the opportunity after the Courage’s regular starting forwards—Jess McDonald and Lynn Williams, whom Courage head coach Paul Riley refers to as the “Twin Towers”—were injured, McDonald with a hamstring strain and Williams with an ankle sprain.

So Riley went with the attacking combo of Hamilton and forward Ashley Hatch, who also plays for the U.S. Under-23 national team. Hamilton scored the first two goals while Hatch, making just her second start, had the third.

“I honestly was really comfortable with Hatchy and Hammy playing tonight because Hammy has been excellent the last two or three weeks,” Riley told Excelle Sports after Saturday’s game. “To know that we’ve got two forwards in Hatchy and Hammy who can replace the ‘Twin Towers’ is massive. Obviously, we still want to get Lynn [Williams] and Jess [McDonald] back and get everybody fit and healthy. But Hammy was brilliant tonight. She’s a very clever player, and I don’t think anyone realized how good she was. She got us 3 points tonight, and we’re really happy for her.”

Riley was thrilled for Hamilton—and not just because her goals helped the first-place Courage improve to 7-3-0 in league standings.

“Before [Saturday’s] game, I told the team, ‘It’s worth getting out of bed to coach you guys,’” Riley said. “And now seeing Hammy do well, it’s even better to get out of bed tomorrow morning and come to practice tomorrow.”

Hamilton’s performance Saturday also earned her Player of the Game honors and an on-camera interview, which was broadcast on the video scoreboard to fans in Sahlen’s Stadium, the Courage’s home field in Cary, N.C.. Some of her comments, though, were drowned out by her teammates who assembled behind the cameraman to scream “Hammy!” as the forward did her best to keep a straight face.

“Kristen Hamilton is one of the hardest workers that I know,” Courage midfielder Sam Mewis told Excelle Sports. “She and Hatchy have worked so hard for this. They’re in practice every day working their butts off. It’s just unbelievable to see them score today.

“Sometimes when you are a reserve, you can mentally check out,” Mewis added. “But they don’t do that. They stay sharp and keep themselves ready. The depth of this team continues to amaze me. I’m confident that any one of our reserve players can come in and do an extraordinary job.”

Hamilton knows her job as a reserve player is to be ready when needed. But being ready to start a game, she says, is much different than the call a player get to jump off the bench in the final minutes.

[More from Excelle Sports: Why did the Courage lose again? Hint: It didn’t have to do with playing Jessica McDonald in back.]

“It’s difficult to get playing time on this team with Jess McDonald and Lynn Williams up top,” Hamilton said. “I’ve been behind Lynn for the past couple seasons. I just got my opportunity [Saturday] and I wanted to take advantage of it. It was really good to come out and get to show what I can do. Instead of coming on in the 80th minute, getting to come in and get a start felt good.”

Despite her outstanding performance Saturday, Hamilton says she knows that chances are high she will return the Courage bench when the McDonald and Williams are healthy again: McDonald is the NWSL’s all-time leading scorer and Williams was the team’s leading scorer last year with 14 goals. But Hamilton is happy where she is in her career.

“I haven’t been a part of a team that is this cohesive in a very, very long time,” she said.  “I think it’s something special. Paul is a phenomenal coach, and I think I’ve grown and learned a ton from him, so I just want to stay in this environment.”

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