Heck-uva Tandem: Eastern field hockey fueled by sisters, again

Kara Heck, who scored 114 goals in her first two seasons, is joined in 2018 by her sister, Ryleigh, who could be one of the top freshman prep players in the country.

Eastern Regional High School junior Kara Heck (right) talking to her sister, Ryleigh, during a stoppage in play. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

Like any other school, Eastern Regional High School’s sports teams often benefit from having their share of brother and sister tandems.

What’s better than having one talented prep athlete? How about two from the same family on the same team?

There are many reasons Eastern’s field hockey team (19 straight Group 4 titles) has been a perennial national power for two decades, not the least of which include its strong feeder programs in the area and its passionate and ultra-competitive coach, Danyle Heilig.

But the Vikings have also been blessed with its share of talented siblings, from the Perrones (Olivia and Gianna) to the Walls triplets (Ashley, Lauren, and Melissa), the Deaners (Rachel and Jessica) to the Dawsons (Natalie, Sarah, Rachel, Meghan, Hannah, Melanie).

Heilig doesn’t feel comfortable trying to select a best all-time sisters duo from that group, but she’s proud to say she has another tandem that can jump into the same conversation in the not-so-distant future.

Eastern junior standout Kara Heck, who scored an eye-popping 114 goals in her first two high school seasons, was joined this month on the high school field by freshman sister Ryleigh.

“It’s fun,” said 17-year-old Kara, who has committed to play at Boston College. “We’ve played on the same rec league teams and we play on the same club team, but this is the first year for high school. As a junior I try to make sure I help and lead. She plays right behind me, so there’s also her doing a lot for me as well.”

“I know when I look up and pass the ball I can trust (where it’s going),” said 14-year-old Ryleigh. “It’s just cool to have a leader on the field, and her being my sister, too.”

Kara Heck breaks through the Camden Catholic High School defense during Eastern Regional High School’s first game of the 2018 season earlier this month. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

Since the two have obviously been teammates before, the chance to play together in high school isn’t exactly unchartered territory. But there is a certain aura of taking the field together at Eastern High School.

The Vikings’ vaunted program is eyeing its 20th straight state title under Heilig this fall, a run that’s included two separate, lengthy unbeaten streaks (142 straight games, from 2010–2016; 153 straight games, from 1999–2005, a national record that stood for 10 years).

“There’s pressure,” Ryleigh said, “but it also motivates me to play my best and try to play my best and to push my teammates, too.”

The youngest of the Heck clan, who moved from Shamong to Berlin last year — one of their older brothers, Andrew, is Eastern’s starting quarterback, while the other, Jordan, plays basketball at Stockton University — Ryleigh isn’t going to let the label of being a freshman define her expectations in her first high school season.

“I just want to play my game,” she said. “You know, not be (known as) the little freshman, but just play my game like I should play my game.”

Eastern Regional High School freshman standout Ryleigh Heck. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

With the Hecks on the field together for the next two years, Eastern should be able to maintain its South Jersey dominance and make a run at its first Tournament of Champions title in three years, too. Eastern had won four straight T of C titles (and six out of eight from 2008 to 2015) before the last two seasons.

“I think we have the potential for a lot,” said Kara, who tallied a goal and an assist in Eastern’s 5–3 win over fellow state power Oak Knoll on Sept. 15 and then collected a hat trick two days later in a win over Cherokee. “We have a lot of girls returning from last year and if we play our best we can possibly make a reappearance in the T of C.”

The Vikings will be tested early and often in 2018, with Shawnee, Moorestown, Bishop Eustace, and Haddonfield on the schedule, along with out-of-state games with Downingtown West (Pa.), Sacred Heart Academy (N.Y.), and Wyoming Seminary (Pa.) in the next month, too. With the latest sister tandem leading the way, it would hardly be surprising to see Eastern head into the state playoffs undefeated.

“The two of them read the defender that’s on them very well, kind of unlike people I’ve coached in the past,” Heilig said of the Hecks. “It’s as if they can really feel the defenders shift of weight, and then they move off of that. They protect the ball very well and they move off that shift.

“My husband compared it to like a good running back, if you think of a good running back, when that defense shifts, they’re moving in the other direction. I feel like that’s really how Kara and Ryleigh are — they have that beautiful ability that’s almost unteachable. It’s an awesome thing to watch.”

Eastern Regional High School teammates and sisters Ryleigh Heck (left) and Kara Heck (right) during a penalty corner in the first game of the 2018 season at Camden Catholic High School earlier this month. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)