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Rachel Stark | | December 6, 2014

‘Champ’ in the making

  Millersville's Champayne Hess scored just 2:51 in the first overtime to give Millersville a 2-1 OT win.

The 13-year-old girl was homesick. It was Wednesday evening, only hours after she had arrived at the nonprofit agency set to become her new residence. She was surrounded by dozens of other kids who, like her, faced abandonment, abuse, neglect, or some other form of trauma in their young lives.

But tonight was an attempt to put those troubles aside, at least momentarily. “Cupid Shuffle” blared through the gym speakers at Louisville’s Home of the Innocents, which offers residential and community-based services for thousands of local children each year. Pizza boxes lined tables. Dance circles formed. Student-athletes from the Millersville field hockey team, competing for a national championship today, shared dance moves and laughs with the pre-teen and teenage residents.  

Yet amid the camaraderie, the 13-year-old girl confessed to Millersville’s Champayne Hess that she just wanted to be home. Champayne knew.

The fifth-year senior from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, knew what it was like to be thrown into an unfamiliar home. She knew the feeling of missing family. She knew, because she was once that girl.

From when she was 6 years old through high school graduation, Champayne grew up in the Milton Hershey School, a cost-free private boarding school in Pennsylvania for children of low-income families. She remembers trying to scramble back into the car when she was dropped off for the first time and wondering why she couldn’t attend a “normal” school and live at home.

Now, Champayne is a bubbly 23-year-old about to graduate with a degree in anthropology and a job and a chance to cap off her college career with a Division II field hockey title. So when she told the teenage girl at the Home of the Innocents, “You will be fine,” she meant it.

Though Champayne and her Millersville teammates are in Louisville for the Division II Championships Festival, they made time on Wednesday to visit the Home of the Innocents as part of the division’s commitment to give back to the hosting community. Around 700 student-athletes interacted with approximately 1,700 Louisville youth at elementary schools, YMCAs, hospitals and other venues this week. The Home of the Innocents assignment was a perfect fit for Champayne.

“I understand these kids,” she said. “It’s easier to connect with people when you have the same type of experience. If you don’t go through it, you’re never going to understand, no matter how hard you try.”

As a kid at Milton Hershey, Champayne couldn’t sit still. Academics were always a challenge; she struggled to focus with ADHD. “They tried to put me in Girl Scouts, and that clearly didn’t work,” Champayne recalled, laughing. “So then they put me in sports, and that was the best thing they could have done.”

First it was soccer, then field hockey entered the picture in third grade. After watching a few older girls at the school excel in the sport and continue to play it in college, she realized that was the path she wanted to take. Field hockey would be her ticket out.

Millersville field hockey coach Shelly Behrens noticed Champayne -- who she calls “Champ” -- at a high school all-star game. “I knew right away,” Behrens said. “I saw the tools.”

The athletic piece was obvious, but Champayne was still struggling with school. Her high school career counselor told her she wouldn’t go to college. Two weeks before she was supposed to join the team at Millersville for pre-season, Champayne called Behrens and told her she couldn’t come. She fell short of the requirements for a scholarship, and she couldn’t afford it on her own.

-- Champayne Hess
“Just get yourself here,” Behrens responded. The coach guided Champayne in finding other forms of financial aid. But once at Millersville, Champayne learned the work was just beginning. She missed the academic requirements for the field hockey team her sophomore season and was forced to sit out. With Behrens’ continued guidance, Champayne adjusted her study habits and has since made the grade. And she’s done so while holding a job as a performance coach and fitness instructor at Power Train Sports and Fitness.

“It says something about the kid who was told she was too dumb to go to college,” Behrens said.

On the field, Champayne is at home. “I have a lot of things going through my head, but in field hockey, my body gets to take over and do what it naturally likes to do.”

She likes the adrenaline rush, she said, and isn’t bothered by pressure. “I’ve been under pressure my entire life.” Her performance is proof: Champayne scored the game-winning goal in overtime on Thursday against West Chester, sending Millersville to the finals for the first time in school history. And in the quarterfinals against Shippensburg?  “Champ” did the same.

As the Millersville women prepare for the championship, their coach reminds them to keep it all in perspective and enjoy the Festival ride. “It’s just a game,” Behrens said. “We get to play a game -- we’re the privileged ones.”

For Champayne, it’s a game that happened to change her life.