By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
When Egg Harbor Township field hockey coach Kristi Troster first saw Jenna Gray in an Eagles uniform four years ago, she knew the freshman was going to make a big impact on the program.
Coach Troster was not disappointed as Gray lived up to her potential — and then some. Gray chased down the school’s all-time scoring leader, Katie Champion, a 2012 graduate who tallied 64 goals during her career. Grey racked up a career-high 25 goals this season to finish with 66 in her career, No. 1 now on the school’s all-time list.
“Coming into her high school career, Jenna was already a standout. She had started playing club field hockey early, so even in seventh and eighth grade she was a dominant force. When she came in her freshman year, I expected her to really fill some big shoes and put us on a another level,” Troster said during a midseason interview. “I had Emily Gargan and a few other very good players, and Jenna came in and made an impact and made us that much better from the get-go. Most normal athletes usually have a sophomore slump or have some type of letdown season but she’s never had one of those. Her statistics have consistently gotten better every single year. More goals, more assists than the previous year. Right now she’s carrying this team on her back between her, our goalie Semra Alabarda, and Gabby Hiltner in the back. We have a couple young athletes, but I don’t have a lot of pure field hockey players. So right now she’s putting them all on her back and she’s just carrying us.
“Jenna has a little bit of a chip on her shoulder, a little bit of that, ‘go ahead, come at me, I’m gonna take you’ attitude,” Troster continued. “She does not mess around. I never have to worry about where her aggression is, she always has it. She’s a lot like her dad in that regard. He’s very much the same way playing street hockey and she’s played internationally for that as well. She is just a beast.”
Not coincidentally, Gray has been part of some pretty successful field hockey teams at EHT. Her freshman year the Eagles went 11-3 and made it to the sectional final in the covid-shortened season, then as a sophomore she helped lead EHT to a 17-4 record. Last year her squad posted 11 wins, and this fall the Eagles are still competitive despite being in a bit of a rebuild mode. Three of the four wins they had in their first 10 games came against two of the Cape-Atlantic League’s better teams — Ocean City and Millville, and they finished 7-12.
“I think freshman year was just a good year all around. Sophomore year I think was my peak year and the year I decided that I knew I wanted to play at the next level for college hockey. We had a pretty good run, and last year we also had a pretty solid run, too,” Gray said. “Players like Anna Smith and Kara Wilson were really good players to play with and great upperclassmen to learn from. I knew coming in this season it was going to be a little rough because we lost so many starters from last year. I knew I had to come at it with a positive mindset. We were able to come out with a win against Ocean City, which was big, and we’ve been doing much better than expected from the beginning of the season, and it’s exciting to be growing as a team.
“I’ve realized that the more positive I am and the more uplifting I am, the better we play. If I crack it hurts the team, so I just need to keep myself together,” she continued. “It’s tough being part of a rebuilding year as a senior but there’s nothing I can do about it. So I’m just trying to enjoy my senior and take it as it is just stay positive. I’ve always tried to just have fun playing with the people I’ve grown up with because it’s a different type of field hockey. Travel is a little bit more stressful because you have a lot of college coaches at the tournaments, but I just really try to have as much fun as I can.”
Troster said while Gray has always had outstanding field hockey skills, she’s grown into a great leader as her varsity career has progressed.
“This year, when you hear her talking to her teammates, that’s the next level of maturity. She’s not just yelling at them to get them to do things on the field, she’s helping them be in better positions. She’s helping coach them and make them better while she’s out there in the field of play and that’s the next step,” Troster said. “This year, it’s not just me looking at film on other teams or going through what happened the last time we played them. She’s actually looking at those things and being like, ‘hey, I think this could help us.’ She has a ton of field hockey knowledge, so I definitely like getting feedback because I can only see so much standing where I’m at. So getting that level of feedback from somebody who is out there in the midst of everything is super helpful.”
Troster said she expects Gray to continue to blossom at the collegiate level, where she’ll be a scholarship player at the University of Mt. Olive in North Carolina. The Trojans were among the Top 10 in the national in Division II and are coached by Daan Polders, who is the coach for the U17 national team and who also has coaching experience at Wake Forest and Michigan State.
“I think that’s a really good fit for her because their coach is someone who can continue to grow her talent past some of the coaching that she’s already gotten. I can do certain things to help her, especially defensively, but some of the offensive skill sets — I never was built like Jenna to be able to do some of the things that she does on the field, having her speed and length and everything like that. (Polders) is going to be able to continue to challenge her and push her forward, which I think she really respected. And I think that’s a huge reason she picked that school. She could go there and they could end up winning a Division II national championship. I think she could be an All-American at that level,” Troster said. “The strength portion (of college field hockey) will be helpful. We’ve really focused on conditioning this year and she’s very good with that, but at the college level the lifting is different in season and out of season. So I think between the strength and then even some of the speed training — even without all those things, this is how good she is. So I think if you add both of them in I think that could help her even more.”
“I’m really excited, and nervous, to go to college. My college is a little far from home, but it’s okay because you have to grow up someday,” Gray joked. “I’m excited to get training and my coach there is an outstanding coach. I feel like for my game, there’s a lot of things I can work on because nobody’s a perfect player and I’m excited to be able to get the chance to work on these things during high school season, travel season and moving forward into college.”
Gray said she plans to study special education when she gets to Mt. Olive because she’s had such a great experience helping out with the special education programs at EHT High.
“At school I usually help out with the kids during their classes. I’ve been doing that since freshman year. I give up my study hall for it, but I enjoy it so much,” Gray said. “It excites me just to see them every day and you get a different perspective of how everyone lives differently and adapts. I just love being with them and helping them out.”
Gray said she’s thrilled to put her name in the EHT record book and that she’s made a lasting impression on the Eagles’ field hockey program. And coach Troster has made a lasting impression on her, she said.
“Honestly, if she wasn’t the coach I probably would not be in the position I am today. I give all my credit to her for teaching me and making me into the person I am today,” Gray said. “She’s taught me a lot of life lessons and helped me get my mind straight and become a better field hockey player. Even in school, she’s always uplifting. Even if it’s 7 a.m. she’ll still talk to you and drop whatever she needs to do just to help you out. She’s just a very caring and good, genuine person.”
Troster said Gray’s no-nonsense approach to not only field hockey, but life in general, is going to serve her well at the next level.
“She’s that friend that you have who will shoot you straight no matter what,” Troster said. “She’s one of those people who will absolutely, as your teammate, have your back. But she’s also really going to tell you how it is. And there’s just a lack of those genuine type of people in the world. She’s not going to sugarcoat it. She’d be like, ‘you need to do this, or this is the consequence.’ That part of her I really respect.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays