Red Lion girl doesn't let premature birth or small size deter her from reaching D-I level

ROB ROSE
717-505-5418/@robrosesports
Red Lion's Hannah Downs, right, scores a goal as Central York's Sydney Valdes defends during field hockey action at Horn Field in Red Lion, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. Red Lion would win the game 4-2. Dawn J. Sagert photo
  • Hannah Downs has committed to play field hockey at NCAA D-I Lehigh University.
  • Downs and her twin sister were born premature and given little chance to survive.
  • Downs was trained by former Central York star and Team USA member Lauren Moyer.

From the moment she entered the world, Hannah Downs has had to work harder than everyone else.

The Red Lion High School junior, and her identical twin sister, Isabelle, were born prematurely and weighed just 1 pound, 9 ounces each. The twins were given little chance at survival and spent nearly four months in the York Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit before they were able to come home.

Hannah was required to spend her first year at home because of a weakened immune system. These days, however, the Lions’ field hockey standout is rarely in the house.

After years of scholastic and club practices and private lessons and training sessions, the 5-foot, 103-pounder has achieved a goal she worked tirelessly to fulfill. Monday, Hannah verbally committed to play at NCAA Division I Lehigh University.

Small size didn't deter her: Despite the circumstances in which she was born, Hannah never let the physical challenges she faced deter her from achieving her dream. In fact, she found motivation in constantly having to prove herself against bigger players.

“I was always the shortest person in the class, but I didn’t think of it in that way,” Hannah said. “I kind of took the positive aspect out of it and made the best of it. I just make the most of it and make up for it on the field with other aspects. I just always know that I can work harder than anyone else and I will work harder. If someone challenges me, I will always give 110%.”

Susquehannock's Megan Stiffler, left, and  Red Lion's Hannah Downs battle to control the ball during field hockey action at Horn Field in Red Lion, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. Susquehannock would win the game 2-1. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Working harder than most is an understatement. 

Trained by a local legend: Hannah plays for the Lions and is a member of the Spooky Nook club team. She gets personal training at S3 Performance Training, and at the start of 2020, after she was already a York-Adams League first-team all-star in 2019, added a local legend to her list of trainers.

USA Field Hockey standout and Central York graduate Lauren Moyer spent a large part of 2020 in Pennsylvania because of the COVID-19 pandemic and offered lessons to interested athletes. Moyer said Hannah never missed a chance to meet when she was in the area and the pair worked out at least once a week for the past year.

Lauren Moyer in USA vs. England in pool play of the Vitality Hockey Women's World Cup at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre in London, England on July 25, 2018.

“I could tell from the very beginning that she was really eager to learn and wanted to put the work into developing her game,” Moyer said.

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Red Lion field hockey coach Carol Gillmen said she could see an improvement in Hannah's skills after working with an elite player such as Moyer. In addition to the strength and speed improvements she made through her personal training sessions, Gillmen saw an ability to make unique and difficult moves only a player with Moyer’s experience could teach Hannah.

“I have always said no one works harder than Hannah,” Gillmen said. “Every practice, every game she just is super dedicated and has put in the hours that has gotten her to Lehigh.” 

Red Lion Head Coach Carol Gillmen during field hockey action against Susquehannock at Horn Field in Red Lion, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. Susquehannock would win the game 2-1. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The recruiting process: After she posted another Y-A D-I first-team all-star season in 2020, Hannah's college recruiting started to pick up. She earned an offer from NCAA D-I Holy Cross in November.

Just before Christmas, the offer came from Lehigh. The dream she envisioned when her high school career began was on the brink of being achieved. The hours of practice and training had created the opportunity she always wanted.

“It was rewarding because I finally knew I at least had some interest,” Hannah said. “My hard work paid off.”

Monday, she made it official. Hannah rushed home from school to get on a Zoom call with the Lehigh coaches, when she informed them of her verbal commitment. Hannah sent a text to Moyer with celebratory emojis and her father, Kevin, filled his online shopping cart with Mountain Hawks’ gear.

New Oxford's Alysia Kraus, left, attempts to knock the ball away from Hannah Downs of Red Lion, Monday, October 7, 2019. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Short-lived celebration: The party was short-lived though. Fittingly, Hannah had a practice to attend that night. No days off or breaks. It's what put her in this position and nothing would be different on the day she realized her dream.

Her commitment to Lehigh marks the first Red Lion field hockey player to join an NCAA D-I squad since Tori Garifo attended Iowa in 2008.

Hannah also excels academically. She was recently inducted into the National Honor Society and is class president.

It's not a bad resume for someone who began her life fighting and working hard to survive, Hannah's drive and motivation to succeed hasn’t wavered. The girl who was always the smallest person in the class or on the field is now headed to play field hockey at the highest level. She knows it was her dedication that got her there, despite the challenges in her path.

“It feels rewarding and makes me feel that anything you put your mind to is possible,” Hannah said. 

Reach Rob Rose at rrose@yorkdispatch.com.