National treasures: a Q&A with two stars of Eastern’s nationally-ranked teams

Eastern High School junior Riley Tiernan and sophomore Ryleigh Heck are just a couple of reasons the Vikings soccer and field hockey teams could each finish the season ranked No. 1 in the country. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Imagine a high school that has a football and boys soccer team each ranked No. 1 in the country. Or softball and girls track teams. Or boys basketball and wrestling. 

At Eastern Regional High School, they don’t have to imagine. The Vikings field hockey team (according to MAX Field Hockey) and girls’ soccer team (according to USA Today) have both been ranked No.1 in the United States this fall and have a reasonable chance to finish at the top spot when their respective seasons end in the coming weeks.

Eastern’s field hockey team, winners of 20 straight state championships, has been here before. If they win No. 21, the Vikings, currently No. 2 in MAX Field Hockey’s national poll, will almost certainly get a shot against No. 1 Oak Knoll, the only team to beat them in the last two years.

The soccer team, currently No. 1 in the country according to USA Today, was riding a 36-game winning steak heading into the Coaches Tournament semifinals and is an obvious favorite to collect its own Group 4 state championship.

The programs are only as successful as its players, and it’s a bonus that two of Eastern’s top athletes will be back next year, too.

As of Oct. 22, sophomore Ryleigh Heck, a University of North Carolina commit, had an eye-popping 58 goals and 16 assists in 18 games for the field hockey team. She eclipsed the 100-goal mark recently in her 45th career game.

On the soccer team, junior Riley Tiernan, a Rutgers commit, collected a hat trick in her first career game two years ago and hasn’t slowed down. She had 26 goals and 29 assists in the Vikings’ first 19 games this season and has really taken off in October, with 12 goals in a recent seven-game span. 

South Jersey Sports Weekly caught up with the two Riley/Ryleighs before their respective teams began their playoff pursuits.  

Riley Tiernan, a junior, committed to play college soccer at Rutgers University, following the path of her older sister, Madison, before entering Eastern. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

SJSW: So how do you explain this dynamic, Eastern having two of the best girls teams in the country in the same season? Both could be No.1 in the country at season’s end.

Tiernan: I think a part of it is the years (our classes) and how it lined up, but I think it has a lot to do with our coaching staff. We’re all very competitive. We have a very good program that comes in, a lot of athletes coming in (from middle school) and that definitely helps.

Heck: Obviously Eastern field hockey has been going at it for 20 years with state titles, so I think it started a while ago and we’ve just built up. … And we have good feeder programs, all the middle schools have good field hockey coaches. 

SJSW: Is there a competition between the two teams, even if its unsaid? Maybe that you motivate each other?

Tiernan: I think, yeah, when you see their success it definitely inspires us. When you see another team that’s successful you obviously want to follow in their lead. I’d say we look at them as an inspiration.

Heck: I agree. 

SJSW: And with field hockey, like you said, it’s been going on for a while, so you want to keep it going.

Heck: Our coach really pushes us, she shows us what other teams have done in the past and wants us to do even better than that. And keep the legacy going. … It’s a lot of pressure. [Laughs].

SJSW: How long have you been playing your sport?

Heck: Probably since I was 3 or 4. If I do the math, it’s been 10 years.

Tiernan: Around the same, maybe around 5 or 6.

SJSW: Both of you have really talented older sisters in the same sport. How does that help or hurt your own development?

Tiernan: It definitely helped me growing up. I was always around that atmosphere, watching them play, taking notes. At a very young age I was exposed to a lot of different players and I got to learn, so that definitely helped.

SJSW: Your sister (Madison) played at Rutgers. Is that a big part of you going there?

Tiernan: Yeah, definitely. I got to see (early on) what it was like to play at Rutgers, behind the scenes. So that was a main factor, I knew the environment and awesome culture.

SJSW: Same question – your sister (Kara) is pretty talented in her own right. Does that help? (Editor’s note: Kara Heck, out for the season with a knee injury, was Sun Newspaper’s Field Hockey Player of the Year in 2018). 

Heck: We’re pretty close in age so we’ve basically been playing with each other for the longest time. I basically just watch what she does and try to do what she does, only better. She always tells me how to get better, how to fix (things), and she tells everyone – she’s just a big leader to me. My brothers, too, watching them play other sports.

Ryleigh Heck, a sophomore who already has more than 100 career goals, is already committed to continuing her career at the University of North Carolina. (MATTHEW SHINKLE, The Sun)

SJSW: If we played a couple of pick-up games right now, soccer and field hockey, and your sisters were here and ready to play, who would get picked first, you or your sister?

Tiernan: Me. [Laughs]. And you (Ryleigh Heck), you’d be picked.

Heck: Yeah, probably me.

SJSW: [Laughs]. I like that. You have to be confident, it’s a part of the game. Would your sisters also pick themselves first?

Tiernan: My sister always tells everyone that, ‘Yeah, she’s better than me.’

SJSW: Oh, OK, cool.

Heck: My sister is a little cocky. She’d pick herself.

SJSW: What’s the third best sports team at Eastern?

Tiernan: Definitely not our football team.

Heck: [Laughs]

Tiernan: Um, I don’t know, lacrosse maybe.

Heck: Yeah, we did go to the state final last year.

SJSW: The baseball team did that, too.

Heck: Yeah, probably baseball and girls lacrosse. 

SJSW: Who is the best overall athlete at Eastern?

Tiernan: [Laughs]

SJSW: I know, I’m putting you on the spot. [Laughs]

Heck: Definitely you (Tiernan) and Kelli (McGroarty). I would say …

Tiernan: It’s so hard. 

Heck: I don’t really know.

Tiernan: And it’s hard to compare sports. 

SJSW: How about let’s ask this one – who is the best boys athlete at Eastern?

Tiernan: Jack Winsett?

Heck: Yeah, he was pretty good (at baseball) and basketball, too, but he graduated.

Tiernan: Noah (Klinewski) from the soccer team?

Heck: Yeah, he’s pretty good. [Laughs]

Tiernan has recorded 15 of her 27 goals this season during nine games in October. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

SJSW: So what we’re saying here is if we ranked all the best athletes at Eastern right now, the first boy wouldn’t come in until around fifth overall. [Laughs]

Tiernan: That’s true. 

Heck. Yeah, the girls have definitely taken over. [Laughs]

SJSW: Who do you think is the best Eastern athlete ever?

Heck: I know English Gardner went to the Olympics. There’s another in the NFL.

Tiernan: Eli Apple.

SJSW: Rachel Dawson.

Heck: Yeah, that’s another in the Olympics.

SJSW: It’s hard to pick one. Do you guys have role models?

Tiernan: Definitely my sister. She plays the same sport, I grew up watching her play. She plays professionally (for Sky Blue). I definitely take notes and learn from what she does. She tells me straight up what I need to fix. She’s brutal, but she can say the things a coach can’t.

Heck: Probably my dad. He’s been coaching basketball for like 30 years and he’s always there watching me and my sister. He really just makes me learn, not only how to play, but how to be physical and how to fix both the simple and complicated things. And I’d say my sister, too. Even though she’s hurt she tells me what to do on and off the field.

SJSW: If you could pick any one player from South Jersey and put them on your roster, who would you pick?

Tiernan: I would have to say (Washington Township’s) Amanda Attanasi for sure. She’s a really good player and I’ve known her for a while. We could use her.  

Heck: Um… [sighs]. So not from my team?

SJSW: Yeah, anyone you can add to make your team better. I guess you could say your sister: a healthy Kara Heck definitely helps your team.

Heck: I was going to say my sister but she’s on the roster! [Laughs] Maybe Liv Bent-Cole (from Camden Catholic)? Do you know who that is?

SJSW: I wrote about her last week.

Heck: I used to play with her when I was little. We’d go against each other.

SJSW: She’s really good. How was the college recruiting process, fun or stressful?

Tiernan: It was definitely fun for me. I committed when I was young, going into eighth grade. I didn’t even understand at that time. But now seeing other teammates talking about it, all the stress, and it’s kind of nice not having to stress about it.

Heck: I committed last year. My sister committed as a sophomore and I thought it was weird to commit as a freshman but then I realized it’s good to get it over with if you know where you want to go. Then you’re set.

Heck has scored 60 goals in 19 games this season. She has scored four or more goals in seven different games. (MATTHEW SHINKLE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

SJSW: Who is your favorite high school team to play against?

Tiernan: Our best competition is Shawnee so I’d say them. Definitely Shawnee or (Washington) Township, because they challenge us and we know going in it’s going to be an exciting game and we have to work our hardest.

Heck: Probably Oak Knoll. It’s our only loss this year. We always get nervous when we play them, but we know it’s going to be a good game. We want to play them again and see what happens.

SJSW: Do you two have any motto or words to live by?

Tiernan: Definitely ‘work hard’ because that’s very important. I always say that in our huddle before we go onto the field and everyone knows that’s what I’m going to say. I think that no matter how talented you are, if you don’t work hard and give it your best, you’re not that great. Hard work can sometimes outshine talent on any given day.

Heck: I definitely agree – work hard. Those are two words you say before every game. I was going to say the same thing as (Tiernan). [Laughs]

SJSW: Let’s say we’re at the state championship games for both of your sports, rosters are being announced, and you get to pick the song that plays when they say your name.

Heck: I was going to say “Panini,” I don’t know if you know that.

Tiernan: Little Nas X. 

Heck: Yeah [laughs], but I might change it. There’s a song that goes something like, “Now it’s my time.” (Editor’s note: Probably “Shoota” by Playboi Carti).

Tiernan: If I got to choose it? Umm… I don’t know, it’s hard, I have a lot of favorite songs. I like “Last Breath” (by Future) from the movie “Creed” with the “Rocky” theme song in it. It says “hustle ‘til your last breath” and that inspires me. It makes me want to work my best.

(RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)