Eastern field hockey rolls on without state’s best player

The Vikings, No.1 in the nation according to MAX Field Hockey, will play in 2019 without two-time, first-team All-American Kara Heck.

Eastern senior Kara Heck, who racked up 156 goals and 78 assists in 74 games in her first three varsity seasons, watches from the sidelines during a game at Cherry Hill East. Heck, who will play at Boston College next year, is out for the entirety of her senior season after undergoing right knee surgery in June. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

On Thursday afternoon, she found a spot at the end of the bench and watched. The action was fast and furious. But she had to resist her instinctual, competitive drive and stay off her legs.

It felt unnatural, especially after being out on that field for three straight years as one of the state’s top field hockey players. For Eastern senior Kara Heck, this is like solitary confinement, except she has the best seat in the house for the activity she can’t join.

“It didn’t hit me at first, not until I was out here (this week), on the sidelines,” said Heck, who underwent ACL surgery on her right knee in June, shortly after suffering the injury in a lacrosse game. “It’s affecting me more now than when I got injured.”

But on Friday, Heck was back on her legs, taking an important step. Nearly three months out from surgery, Heck was cleared to begin a light running program. 

Heck, the South Jersey Player of the Year as a junior and a two-time MAX Field Hockey first-team All-American (she was second-team as a freshman), will miss the entirety of her senior season. After scoring 156 goals and tallying 78 assists in 74 games, leading Eastern to a 74-4-1 record, three state titles and a Tournament of Champions championship last fall, Heck has to watch from the sidelines in 2019.

While her teammates aim to collect an unprecedented 21st consecutive state championship this season, with arguably the toughest schedule they’ve ever had in the coming two months, Heck won’t be able to do what she does best: compete. Eastern, No.1 in MAX Field Hockey’s preseason national high school rankings, will play No.3 Oak Knoll (NJ), No.5 Cox (VA), No.10 Wyoming-Seminary (PA), No.15 Sacred Heart (KY) and No.18 New Trier (IL) this season.

“It sucks I’m not out there with them, but I’m on the sidelines cheering them on,” the Boston College-bound Heck said. “I think our team is going to do just fine this year.”

Heck was named the South Jersey Player of the Year as a junior and was also selected first-team All-American for the second straight season. She scored 156 goals in 74 career games. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

No, there’s no replacing Kara Heck, even when you have one of the deepest rosters in the state, which includes her younger sister, Ryleigh, a University of North Carolina commit who scored 44 goals as a freshman last season. But the Vikings are fortunate to field an experienced roster in 2019; they lost only two starters to graduation. 

Elisa Pettisani, a four-year starter, solidifies the defense in front of the talented senior goalie tandem of Lindsay Tripodo and Nina Santore. Kylie Zielinski, Tara Somers, Kendall Jung, and Amanda Middleman lead an experienced senior class. All nine seniors, including Heck, will play field hockey at the collegiate level next year.

“We’ve got a lot of seniors that have been a part of this for a while and we have a nice junior class that has really developed and have been nice products of the program that can really step in and contribute,” Eastern coach Danyle Heilig said. “I think when you can look at your bench and see a few kids that you feel confident putting in for periods of time, I think it makes you feel better for sure.”

But when those ultra-competitive games take place in the coming weeks, it’ll be easy to wonder how much better Eastern’s talented roster would be with Heck on the field.

Eastern senior Tara Somers taps in a goal against Cherry Hill East on Thursday. Somers is among the experienced stalwarts of the Vikings senior class, which is without Kara Heck this season. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

“Oh, I was shocked. It was a big shock,” Tripodo, who will play at Shippensburg University next season, said when she first heard about Heck’s injury late last spring. “But then I realized, we have so much talent. Our senior class has been playing together for our entire lives almost, since second grade. And we have a lot of younger talented players. Obviously it’s a devastating loss not having Kara with us, but we have other players that can’t replace her, but fill some of what she brought to our team.”

The million dollar question is whether Eastern can repeat last year’s remarkable run: make it through the challenging regular season schedule unbeaten and remain undefeated en route to state and T of C titles, too.

“I’m really confident because a lot of our players have skill, have been on varsity (for a while), I think we only have one first-year starter, but she knows the game and has been practicing with us,” said Santore, who will play at Quinnipiac University next year. “So I’m really confident.”

Seniors Nina Santore (96) and Kara Heck watch the action Thursday at Cherry Hill East. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Heck, meanwhile, will sharpen her cerebral field hockey skills. While she can’t physically contribute, she’s already been taking mental notes as she watches the game from a new perspective. She’ll satisfy her competitive drive by contributing to the team as quasi-coach.

“I’m still here,” she said, “to help them get through all of those games.”

Heck’s high school playing career has been cut short, but she’ll remain committed to the game in a new way.

“Beyond the fact that she’s losing her senior year, she’s losing her last opportunity to play with her sister, she’s losing an opportunity to potentially set records where she could get her jersey retired, and as good as Kara is, she’s never been the state player of the year, if you can imagine that,” Heilig said. “So to me, that’s what’s really sad, she’s losing those opportunities. But I think everything happens for a reason and that it’ll make her hungrier at the next level.”

Elise Pettisani, a four-year starter for the Vikings, is one of eight seniors who will play field hockey in college. Pettisani committed to Rutgers after her sophomore year. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)