The Survivors: Ali Cavin, Lawrenceville (N.J.) and Betsy Welsh, Princeton (N.J.) Day School

One in an occasional series.

By Al Mattei


Lawrenceville (N.J.) and Princeton (N.J.) Day School played a field hockey game the first weekend of November 2003 to determine the champion of the New Jersey Independent Schools' Athletic Association.

But what people should remember about this match is not just the final result, but two of the young women who took part that day.

They are as different -- and as similar -- as you will ever see. And but for the miracles of medicine, they wouldn't have been participating at all.

Seniors Ali Cavin of The Lawrenceville (N.J.) and Betsy Welsh of Princeton (N.J.) Day School both play the right side of the field, and both wear the number 13.

And both have gone through more in their young lives than most teenagers. Cavin had an operation at the age of nine to enable her spinal cord to better circulate fluid in order to prevent possible paralysis. Welsh, on the other hand, lost her junior year of field hockey to Hodgkin's disease.

It is an amazing testament to medical advances that the people in their support circles are so casual about the ordeals these young women have endured. But as people who have lived these experiences first-hand, they have a unique perspective as well as the ambition to play Division I field hockey, despite the overwhelming odds.

Ali Cavin is carrying the field hockey ball up the left side of the field, against the grain of what most coaches teach. Then, she cuts inside, wrong-footing a defender by cutting against the flow of the play.

One slap of the stick is all that is necessary for the ball to roll over the line. "Yesssssssssss!" she says about the first goal she was to score her sophomore year at The Lawrenceville (N.J.) School.

But just being here, in this situation, goes against convention. Ali Cavin has had to make some deft moves in her young life already.

When she was just nine years old, she was diagnosed with a rare illness that required much of her spinal architecture in her brain stem to be re-engineered.

"If they hadn't caught it," she says, "it would have led to paralysis."

Normally, very young patients would never have undergone the surgery. But this was no ordinary patient. Cavin was already a top-notch youth soccer player, and her frenetic energy would not be stilled.

As she left St. Christopher's Hospital in Philadelphia, her doctor pulled her aside.

It's rare for a lot of kids to walk out of the hospital the way you did," Cavin was told in admiration.

But after the skilled surgeons at made it possible for Cavin to have the life she has today, she cut against the grain.

She quit soccer.

"I have really weak knees," Cavin said, noting the sleeve on one of her legs. "The thought of playing against people trying to slide-tackle me wasn't appealing."

In her hometown of Langhorne, Pa., she picked up the sport of field hockey in middle school, playing through her freshman year.

But then, she made another cutback against convention. She enrolled at Lawrenceville rather than play for the storied program at Langhorne Neshaminy (Pa.), which won the 2001 District 1-Class AAA title.

Cavin has been a wonderful asset to the Big Red. She has become one of the top assisters in the region as an attacking midfielder and as a right back, becoming an indispensable free-hit specialist inside the 25.

She would like to go to a university with a good field hockey program that will allow her to become a better player.

"I want to stay with field hockey," she says. "It's something I love to do, and helped me bounce back to recovery when I was nine."

Whether it's the Fuchs sisters from Centereach, N.Y., the McDavitt sisters from Walpole, Mass., the six Dawson sisters from Voorhees, N.J., or the Kenney sisters and their brother from Readington, N.J., the game of field hockey runs deep in American family life.

The dynamic usually dictates that the younger sisters are better than the older ones because of natural competitive tendencies and the drive to surpass a previous standard; the ability to learn from the older sister's mistakes; and occasionally, evolution in tactics and technology.

Betsy Welsh, the third field-hockey playing sister for Princeton (N.J.) Day School, may never develop the body of statistical work of her older sisters Lauren (the leading scorer in Dartmouth College history) and Alley (presently at Dartmouth), but has outdone both in one respect.

Welsh, a member of the class of 2004 at PDS, is a recovering cancer patient, having undergone chemotherapy for Hodgkins disease in 2003.

Betsy Welsh inherited much of the same bravado and fearlessness her sisters exhibited on the hockey field even as this bundle of kinetic energy had to stay very still for long periods of time her junior year.

In bed for long periods of time at the Sloan-Kettering facility in Manhattan, she did a lot of thinking when she wasn't doing her schoolwork.

Once she came back to school full-time, wearing a flak jacket to protect a catheter implanted in her chest, she even got back onto the athletic field, scoring a little in lacrosse in the spring of 2003.

She has spent a lot of time looking back on her 17 years in the summer and fall of 2003, but has done an equal amount of time looking forward.

Of course, being young, she is just looking forward to her next game; PDS was in a stretch in late October and early November which could have seen the Panthers play seven games in nine days had the team won its way to the championship games of the Mercer County Tournament and the NJISAA state tournament.

Long-term, however, Welsh has a few goals in mind.

"This past year has made me think about going into something medical, but I don't really know yet," she says. "I've put 'undecided' on every major option. I'd love to study pre-med, but it's a big decision, and I'm not ready to make it yet," she says.

But her ultimate goal is one that is much more immediate.

"First and foremost, I want to go Division I and play field hockey."

Given the competitiveness and the vicissitudes of the recruiting process circa 2003, it will be difficult for Betsy Welsh and Ali Cavin to get past all of the doubters -- both within U.S. college programs and within the self.

But both have had the unique success of dodging death's door, a skill that cannot be learned on a hockey field.

"When people complained about the stupidest things at school last year, I'd just sit there and listen knowing that when I'd go to the hospital there would be people so much worse off," Welsh says.

The NJISAA final, won by Lawrenceville 2-1 over PDS, marked a new and very special chapter in what could very well be America's best field hockey rivalry. But unlike the multiple overtime matches, odd circumstances, and critical umpiring decisions of the past, the last chapter of the 2003 season showcased a rivalry formed mutual respect and admiration as well as proximity.

Especially on the part of two young women who have come so far, both in life and on the field of play.

"I am a survivor, and so is Betsy, and I totally look up to her for that," Cavin said after the NJISAA title match. "Our team deserves this championship, and Betsy did too, because she worked hard for this. I'm very proud of her, and very proud of our team."