VOORHEES, N.J. — Three girls gossiped, laughed and finished each other’s sentences as they sat crammed in a hometown restaurant booth in late July.
They planned out their workouts for the afternoon.
They worried if they’d hate their roommates, just as any other soon-to-be freshmen would.
But these weren’t just any three 18-year-old girls heading off to college together.
Hannah Dawson, Jess Allen and Bryn Bain make up the Michigan field hockey team’s entire incoming class.
The girls all grew up in southern New Jersey and attended Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, where they played varsity field hockey for one of the country’s most prestigious programs.
Eastern has won nine straight state titles since 1999. The team has been consistently ranked in the national top 10, occasionally reaching No. 1.
But the program’s claim to fame isn’t a trophy or a top ranking — it’s a record.
Eastern owns the nation’s longest unbeaten streak in high school field hockey history with 153 straight games. Its winning streak against in-state opponents is equally impressive.
From 1998 to 2007, Eastern won 208 consecutive games against New Jersey opponents, a streak that ended last November.
“In the beginning, I guess I didn’t realize how great a program it was and how much they’d accomplished,” said Allen, who speaks just as confidently as she attacks the net. “Over the years, after learning how we were nationally known and had gone so long without losing a game, it kind of just hits you and made you work harder. You wanted to be good, just as good as the girls who came in before you.”
Playing for such an esteemed program can be a taxing experience.
The trio spent summers participating in programs within the United States Field Hockey Association, like Futures teams, which seek potential Olympic athletes. In July, Bain, Allen and Dawson all went to Junior National camp, a highly selective elite training program in Virginia Beach.
And while the girls improved their skills in these national development programs, they realize it was largely their high school experience that prepared them for collegiate competition.
In recent years, other former Eastern field hockey players have gone on to play for colleges like James Madison and Iowa, two of the top 10 teams in the nation.
Former Michigan captain and defender Lori Hillman (2002-2005) also played for Eastern.
One of the major benefits of playing for a highly touted program like Eastern’s is that the players get used to media attention. The team was heavily covered by local newspapers and even by the New York Times. Bain admitted she hates being interviewed after those experiences.
“It was definitely a lot of pressure, more than I think I could handle,” Dawson said. “Over the years, it just kept building up and building up. We didn’t really pay attention to the records, but the newspapers and everyone around us did.”
Fortunately, the three had a strong support network surrounding them as they dealt with pressure, on and off the field.
All in the Family
Field hockey is more than just a passion in Voorhees — it’s a family affair.
All three girls were introduced to the sport at a young age by family members, and each discovered her love for the game in a different way.
Dawson has four older sisters who all played high school field hockey, and all went on to compete at the collegiate level. The self-proclaimed “big Big Ten fan” grew up on the sidelines of her sisters’ games, and even met Eastern field hockey coach Danyle Heilig at age eight — giving her a glimpse of the future.
Allen’s mother, Hope, played field hockey for Iowa, and she always encouraged her daughter to give the sport a try. Allen excelled in soccer and field hockey at a young age, but she eventually had to quit soccer because both are fall sports in New Jersey. She has never given the decision a second thought.
Bain’s older sister played field hockey in high school, and her triplet cousins, who graduated from Eastern, all play together as seniors for No. 7 James Madison.
“They always kept a stick in my hand,” Bain said.
Eastern has benefited from the tight-knit community and active families surrounding the Voorhees area to create an excellent field hockey program. The majority of its players come from the towns of Berlin and Gibbsboro, which make up about 20 percent of the student body.
“There’s been lots of sisters and cousins,” Heilig said with a smile. “A lot of families.”
Three pieces in the puzzle
Michigan coach Nancy Cox first visited Voorhees in search of a talented midfielder.
She couldn’t have predicted that she’d find future impact players at forward and defense, too.
“Every time you’d watch Bryn play there were Jess and Hannah there as well,” Cox said. “It was hard to watch Bryn without seeing the other two.”
No. 9 Michigan adds depth to each area of the field this season with the Eastern trio.
Allen is a forward, constantly attacking the net. She scored 84 goals and tallied 31 assists during her four-year high school career.
“The thing about Jess Allen is, she’s relentless and has the ability to finish,” Cox said. “Those kids are few and far between.”
Dawson, a defender, patrolled the backfield for Eastern throughout her high school career. She received defensive player of the year honors from local and state newspapers.
“Hannah Dawson is just a true blue-collar, relentless defender,” Cox said.
Like Allen and Dawson, Bain’s high school stats were remarkable. She collected many accolades while at Eastern, and Bain led her team in scoring her senior year with 28 goals and 19 assists. It makes sense that Cox was first drawn to such a standout midfielder.
But even though they each have impressive résumés, it’s their presence as a unit that instills fear in opponents.
“They are all tremendous players,” Heilig said. “They’ve all been contributors with what they’ve brought on the field and off the field…There was a bar established, and they reached it, if not raised it a little bit.”
Another four years
Right now, they’re all smiles.
That may not always be the case over the next four years.
Bain, Dawson and Allen will compete, study and hang out together. Since they have been teammates and friends since middle school, you’d think they might have wanted to take a break from one another.
“In the beginning, I always wanted to go do my own thing,” Allen said. “Then I realized, it didn’t really matter. It’s so comforting to have two teammates who know how you play and know how you’re feeling.”
All three girls talk about the difference between familiarity on and off the field. Knowing the tendencies of each other’s play leads to on-field success, but helping each other through personal issues and problems creates an even stronger bond. Over the summer, the girls discussed worries about being freshmen at a large university.
“You can’t really ask (new friends), ‘Does this outfit look good?’ if you’re going out,” Dawson said. “These two will tell me if it really looks good or not. They’re not scared to be honest with me.”
All three realize they won’t get along the whole time. They expect ups and downs, like any other friendships.
“I’ll probably get sick of them,” Bain said with a smile.
Both former coach Heilig and current coach Cox find the situation unique but ripe with potential.
“The dynamics are interesting because obviously the three of them are very familiar with one another,” Cox said. “They know their strengths and weaknesses as human beings. I think the biggest challenge for all three of them will be integrating into the fabric of our team.”
Bain said their focus heading into the season is on meeting and getting to know all their other teammates.
“We’re going to make new friends when we’re there,” Bain said defiantly. “We’re not going to latch onto each other. No team likes a clique.”