The University of North Carolina's Rachel Dawson, a graduate of Eastern High in Camden County, has been selected as the country's top collegiate field hockey player. She will receive the prestigious Honda Sports Award, given annually to the top female athletes in 12 NCAA-sanctioned sports.

"It's a huge honor to receive this award," said Dawson, of Berlin. "So many people have helped me get to this point, including my coaches, my teammates, my family and my friends."

As a senior, Dawson, a defender and midfielder, scored a team-high 19 goals. She captained the Tar Heels to a 24-0 record and the NCAA championship. "We persisted after a couple of years of adversity," Dawson said. "It was a really memorable season."

By winning the award, Dawson, a two-time all-American, is eligible to win the Collegiate Woman Athlete of the Year Award. The winner, to be determined by separate balloting involving all NCAA-member institutions, will receive the Honda-Broderick Cup at a ceremony in New York in June.

Dawson, who said she is hoping to qualify for the Olympic team next year, also thanked her coach, Karen Shelton, who won the award three times.

"She has been a great inspiration for me, not just in terms of hockey, but in terms of leadership and as a role model," Dawson said. "She knows what it takes for a woman to be successful in both sports and life."

Shelton, who won the award in 1977, '78 and '79, heaped praise on the nation's top player.

"She had a huge impact on every facet of our team and provided great leadership on the field and off," Shelton said. "From the start of the preseason to the championship game, her competitive intensity set her apart and helped others reach new heights. She was not only the best player on our team this year, but is the most valuable ever to wear a Tar Heel field hockey uniform."

Along with Dawson, Maryland freshman Katie O'Donnell, a graduate of Wissahickon High; Jen Long, a junior at Penn State; and Pam Spuehler, a senior at Boston University, were the four nominees selected by the National Field Hockey Coaches Association for the Honda award.

O'Donnell, of Blue Bell, totaled 18 goals and 17 assists while helping lead the Terrapins to an 18-3 record and their 13th straight NCAA tournament appearance.

Contact staff writer Rick O'Brien at 610-313-8019 or robrien@phillynews.com.