Eastern falls in TOC title game

Eastern Regional High School’s field hockey team stands for the National Anthem prior to the Tournament of Champions title game on Friday at Kean University. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

When Eastern High School field hockey coach Danyle Heilig called a timeout with 16 minutes remaining and her team trailing by four goals, you wondered about the possibility of something that seemed impossible. 

And that was remarkable in itself, thinking a team could rally back from that deficit.

But the team that was on the wrong end of the score was also the team that had won eight of the 12 NJSIAA Tournament of Champions titles since the tournament began in 2006, a team that has won 21 consecutive Group 4 state championships, a program that once reeled off a national record 153-game unbeaten streak, a team that is filled with so much talent and pride that, after losing in the TOC finals to West Essex in 2016, handed West Essex a stunning 10-0 defeat in the semifinals of the same tournament two years later.

“When you can score in runs like I know we can,” Heilig said, “that was the goal.”

Eastern got a goal two minutes later. But when the final whistle sounded, the score was the same as when the same two teams met during the regular season in September.

Eastern, ranked No. 2 in the country by MAX Field Hockey, fell to Oak Knoll, the No. 1 ranked team in the same poll, 4-1 in the TOC Championship game on Friday night at Kean University.

The game marked the sixth time in the last seven years the two schools have squared off in the TOC title game. Eastern has won four of those games, including in 2018.

“We were pumped up, we won states and we were prepared for this,” said Eastern sophomore Ryleigh Heck, who scored 78 goals in 25 games this season. “But Oak Knoll is a great team. They’re No. 1. …. By the end they just kept going and we collapsed. I don’t think we brought it all out tonight.”

 Oak Knoll scored all of its goals in 10 minutes of game time, scoring the game’s first goal with 4:54 left in the first half and later upping the lead to 4-0 at just over four minutes into the second half.

Seeing your opponent take a 0-0 game and turn it into 4-0 that quickly could be a sizable psychological hurdle to overcome.

“I think it is, but that’s what good teams do,” Heilig said. “When that happens you have to be able to understand that there’s a lot of game left. I don’t know that we controlled our emotions as well as I would have liked to see. But, you know, kudos to them, they played a great game.”

There were tears afterward, but Eastern’s seniors could still hold their heads high when they turn in their jerseys: they won four state championships during their high school careers. They saw the program go 97-6-1 during that time.

“You watched two of the best teams in the nation on the field today,” said Heilig, who has led Eastern to an eye-popping 513-14-6 record to go alongside the 21 straight state titles since taking over the program in 1999. “Legitimately No. 1 and No. 2, and both teams have squared off against the best teams in other states and won. It’s a testament to Jersey hockey. I think it’s exciting for our state. 

“And the kids had a great season. They had a great state tournament run. Winning a 21st straight state championship game was outstanding. This would have been great icing on the cake but it just wasn’t our time this year.”