Making her own name: Kylie Dawson adds to family field hockey legacy

After watching six aunts star at Eastern, in college, and with the U.S. National team, Eastern’s Kylie Dawson is a rising field hockey talent.

Ten years ago, the last of Eastern Regional High School’s Dawson sisters, Melanie, graduated and left a hole the school hadn’t had since the mid-90s: a field hockey team without a Dawson. The girls regularly dotted the rosters of the U.S. National team and Olympics. But their niece, current Vikings junior Kylie Dawson, has emerged this year to continue the family’s field hockey legacy. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

When Meghan Dawson joined Eastern High School’s field hockey team in 2003, a two-decades long dynasty was still in its early years. 

But the tall, talented multisport athlete still felt the lofty expectations placed on her that weren’t quite the norm for most 14-year-olds. She walked into the school as a freshman three months after the graduation of her older sister, Rachel Dawson. 

Rachel was the best player in the history of Eastern’s program. The best player in the state in 2004, she was the eventual winner of the Honda Award for the National Player of the Year at the University of North Carolina and a future, three-time U.S. Olympian, too.

Meghan’s other two older sisters, Natalie and Sarah, were accomplished players in their own right who earned D-I college scholarships and also became members of the U.S. National team.

“Being the younger sister, you just look up to them and you have all of this love for them,” Meghan Dawson, now the head coach at Appalachian State University, said last week. “You (say to yourself), ‘I want to do what they’ve done and I want to be as good as they are.’ And then the pressure starts setting in.

“My response was, ‘OK, fight.’ … It instilled this kind of fight and it helped me deal with it,” she added. “Instead of looking at it as pressure, I looked at it as just competing. And admiring my sisters and all they accomplished and all they had done, wanting to do that, but also wanting to make my own name and be myself.”

The mindset worked out well for Meghan, who followed Rachel to UNC, where she helped the Tar Heels to two national championships after being a two-time NFHCA all-American and New Jersey Player of the Year at Eastern and before also making the U.S. National team. She continued to pave a path for her two younger sisters, Hannah and Melanie, too.

And perhaps better than anyone, Meghan knows exactly what it’s been like for current Eastern defender Kylie Dawson.

Melanie, Rachel, Meghan and Hannah Dawson, four of the six Dawson sisters who helped fuel Eastern Regional High School’s field hockey dynasty, pose with their young niece, Kylie, who now stars for the Vikings. (Photo provided)

Two years ago, Kylie Dawson – Meghan’s niece and the daughter of Dave Dawson, the oldest of eight Dawson siblings — arrived at Eastern. For the first time since 2009, there was another Dawson on the Viking roster, and it was impossible for a freshman with that name at that school to fly under the radar.

Two years later, Kylie’s coming-of-age story is not unlike those of her aunts: the tall and talented junior helped Eastern collect its 22nd straight sectional championship last month in a win over Shawnee and has emerged as one of the top defenders in the state, too.

“Work, and my coaches and teammates pushing me in practice,” Dawson said of her meteoric rise from junior varsity player as a freshman to highly-recruited Division-I college prospect as a junior.

And as for trying to live up to the name on the back of the jersey?

“My whole family is really supportive,” Kylie said. “They build me up, so I really don’t feel that much pressure. I don’t feel the pressure to carry the name, because everyone is just so supportive of me doing my own thing and being my own person and just playing.”

Eastern junior Kylie Dawson takes the field prior to the team’s sectional title win over Shawnee last month. The victory gave Eastern its 22nd straight sectional championship. The beginning of the run was fueled by Dawson’s aunts: Sarah, Rachel, Meghan, Hannah and Melanie. (RYAN LAWRENCE/The Sun)

Dave Dawson said his daughter has had an independent streak since she was a baby and that it’s served her well in leading a new generation of Dawsons at Eastern. (Unlike her aunts, Kylie doesn’t have any sisters; her younger brother, Logan, is in eighth grade).

“When she would go to college clinics or USA Field Hockey events, and the players would introduce themselves, she would always just say, ‘Kylie’  (instead of her full name),” her father recalled. “But then her teammates would be like, ‘No, tell them your last name so they know you’re a Dawson!’ and Kylie would be like,’No. I’m just telling them my first name.’ She wanted to do it on her own.”

And the kid who had a hockey stick in her hands before she learned to walk and grew up in the bleachers at Eastern, UNC, and U.S. national team events, has done just that. 

“She’s creating her own name,” Meghan Dawson said. “And we all had to do that. I had to be Meghan Dawson, and not Rachel Dawson’s or Sarah Dawson’s sister. But she’s got it now.”

Kylie, who also runs on Eastern’s track teams in the winter and spring, saw her field hockey career take an important step prior to her junior year. While continuing to grow as a player on Eastern’s highly competitive team (the Vikings have won a national record 21 straight state championships), and with club teams UPRISE (led by former Eastern coaching legend Danyle Heilig) and her current team, Spirit of USA (where she’s coached by former Camden Catholic standout and U.S. Olympian Michelle Vittese), the newest field hockey Dawson was one of three Eastern players selected to the United States U-16 National team. 

Only 34 players across the country were selected for the team, which prior to COVID, was scheduled to train in North Carolina and California earlier this year before a trip to England, too.

“Obviously all of that got canceled,” Dave Dawson said. “But it was a big jolt to her confidence.”

Kylie’s game continued to blossom just within the abbreviated fall high school season, too. Not long before the playoffs began, Eastern coach Alex Marshall gave her rising-star defender some homework: Watch the first game of the season and your most current game and let me know what you see differently about yourself.

“And she said, ‘Wow, look at my confidence, how much stronger I’m playing. I’m stepping up to the ball,’” Marshall said, relaying their conversation. “So after watching her grow this season, I’m excited about her coming back next year.”

College coaches are excited with Kylie’s potential to keep improving, too. Last June, when coaches were cleared to reach out to recruits, Dawson received more than two dozen emails and phone calls from colleges  across the field hockey world, from the ACC and Big Ten to Ivy League schools, too.

“It’s a little stressful but exciting at the same time, finding where you fit in,” Kylie said.

Kylie Dawson watched her aunt, US Olympian Rachel Dawson, prior to the 2016 Summer Games. (Photo provided)

The same could probably be said for the lifelong path of following her aunts into field hockey stardom.

“We have such a great community here (at Eastern), all of the alumni, the players on the team, it’s really nice,” Kylie added. “And I can always text my aunts and ask for help. And just (for) motivation — anything.”

Kylie isn’t dissimilar from the Dawsons who came before her in that way. She’s as humble as she is skilled.

“I don’t think people understand the pressure she’s been under,” Meghan Dawson said. “She would be playing little kid field hockey, and the first question when she says, ‘I’m Kylie Dawson,’ is, ‘Oh, are you related to the Dawsons’ or ‘Your aunts are the Dawsons?’ and, ‘Oh, you’re Rachel Dawson’s niece?’ From Day One. So she’s never escaped that. And going to Eastern added that extra pressure. You’re following in the footsteps and can you handle it?

“I’ve known since she was younger that she was going to take her time to develop,” Meghan continued. “Luckily with my job, I’ve been able to watch her grow, from recruiting tournaments. She just does so much good, that it’s simple. She’s not flashy, she doesn’t need to do everything, but she does a lot of little things right, and that is really making her (a complete player). And now she has the confidence to explode.”