Forever Eastern United: Vikings field hockey, Girls Fall Team of the Year

Eastern Regional High School’s field hockey team suffered two losses in 2019, both to the private school New Jersey team ranked No.1 in the country, Oak Knoll. But they scored wins over top national programs from Pennsylvania, Illinois, Virginia and Kentucky and also collected an unprecedented 21st consecutive Group 4 state championship this fall. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

The 99 words are still there for anyone to see on a news story that turned 12 years old last month.

“End of a Dynasty” read the headline in The New York Times.

The lead continued with the theme.

“Eastern High School’s nine-year dynasty in New Jersey field hockey is over,” it read.

The story was from Nov. 16, 2007, when Eastern Regional High School’s powerhouse field hockey team fell in the Tournament of Champion semifinals to Oak Knoll. The loss was the program’s first in-state defeat in nine years, snapping a 208-game unbeaten streak against New Jersey foes.

Fast forward a dozen years later. End of a dynasty? Hardly.

Although the Vikings once again lost to Oak Knoll, this time in the TOC title game last month, they also beat everyone else on their schedule, including a who’s who of the top teams in the state and from around the country, too. They went 23-2, with both losses coming to Oak Knoll, the No. 1 team in the country, according to MAX Field Hockey

They collected an unprecedented 21st straight Group 4 state championship, a run that began when head coach Danyle Heilig took over the program in 1999.

Eastern has won eight of the 13 Tournament of Champions titles, claiming the distinction as the top team in the state, since the tournament began in 2006, including seven since the “End of the Dynasty” headline appeared 12 years ago last month.

“There’s no stopping it,” said Elise Pettisani, one of nine seniors on this year’s Eastern state championship team. “We’re just passing on the same traditions that have been carried on the past 20 or so years. Everyone understands that being a part of this program is more than just a commitment. It’s all the dedication and the time and the hard work put it into. It’s an understanding.”

Eastern’s senior class went a perfect 4-0 in state championship games during the high school career, helping the Vikings take a streak of 21 consecutive state titles into the 2020 season. All nine Eastern seniors will continue their field hockey careers in college. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

“To be a part of such a great program with such a long legacy, it’s definitely a lot of hard work,” added fellow senior Kendall Jung, “and it’s definitely not just the team we have this year but the generations of hard work, passing it down from the next team to the next (and so on).”

Rather than succumb to the pressure that comes with putting on an Eastern uniform, wearing the weight of the program’s prestigious history each time they take the turf, this year’s version of the Vikings’ seemingly unstoppable field hockey program rose to the challenge of the toughest schedule in team history, gracefully dealt with the losses of two All-Americans last spring, one to graduation and another, current senior Kara Heck, likely the top player in the state, to injury, and added their own hardware to the school’s trophy case, too. 

Eastern’s field hockey team, which finished the season as the No. 2 team in the nation, is South Jersey Sports Weekly’s selection as the girls fall Team of the Year.

“It’s exciting,” said Heilig, who has a 513-14-6 record in 21 seasons at Eastern. “There are some outstanding athletic teams (in South Jersey). So I’m proud that we are. I think the fact that we challenge ourselves and continue to challenge ourselves kind of sets us apart. And I think that’s what’s exciting for the girls. Being a part of this program is a lifestyle. And they buy into it. It’s allowed them to be super successful.”

In 2019, Eastern was challenged right out of the gate. They trailed 1-0 at halftime against eventual-state finalist Camden Catholic on the opening day of the fall season before rebounding en route to a 4-1 win. 

Eleven days later, the Vikings began a stretch over four consecutive weekends of testing themselves against the best teams near and far. After a 4-1 loss to Oak Knoll on Sept. 14, Eastern collected wins over Cox (Va.), New Trier (Illinois), Downingtown West (Pa.), Sacred Heart (Ky.), and Wyoming Seminary (Pa.). 

Eastern didn’t just win those games, but won most of them fairly easily, by a combined score of 39-5. When the season was complete, Eastern defeated five teams ranked in the Top 25 in the country and state champions from four different states.

“It was really cool,” senior goalkeeper Nina Santore said. “Because what high school team gets to say they’re playing top teams from other states?”

Eastern sophomore Ryleigh Heck scored 78 goals and collected 23 assists in 25 games this season. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

The philosophy of taking on out-of-state titans was simple: New Jersey field hockey is among the best in the country, so why not prepare for a postseason run against the best other states have to offer?

“I just think it’s fun,” Heilig said. “I don’t think it’s fun stepping on a field and beating someone 13-0 and stalling the ball for 15 or 20 minutes. And I think it shows the kids that they really are the No. 2 team in the nation. We beat an Illinois state champ, a (Pennsylvania) state champ, a Virginia state champ. .. I literally put the most challenging schedule together that I could and we friggin’ rocked it. We rocked it.”

The fact that Eastern, which will see all nine of its seniors move on to play the sport at the collegiate level next fall, was able to “rock” that schedule, and advance to the final game of the year, an opportunity to avenge its only loss in the TOC championship game, without the services of Kara Heck, Sun Newspapers Player of the Year in 2018, is a testament to the program as a whole.

Is it easy to expect 14- and 15-year-old girls to come into a varsity program with such a storied history and never feel the enormity of the winning streaks and state title streaks, and the stress of keeping it all alive? Of course not. 

Eastern Regional High School players welcome Kylie Zielinski onto the field during pregame introductions at the Tournament of Champions championship game. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

While they’re still teenagers, the athletes that decide to play field hockey at Eastern are ultra-competitive and mentally tough. They thrive under the pressure of the program.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a pressure,” Jung said. “We have high expectations that we put on ourselves and that just motivates us to do better and to strive to do great things.”

“It pushes you to be the best,” Santore added.

“You definitely feel pressure,” Pettisani said, “but it’s more of a support system rather than you’re feeling that you have to live up to something. Each year we’re our own team and each year we’re working toward the program that was built before us. It just motivates us to work harder for the legacies behind us.”

When they held up the fourth state championship the school collected during their high school careers, Eastern’s seniors could look back on the program’s 97-6-1 record during those four years, of playing in four Tournament of Champions championship games, of never losing a game to a South Jersey opponent and of losing just four games to in-state foes.

The dynasty appears to be alive and well.

“Every year is a different group,” Heilig said, “and I can really look back and remember teams, specifically what stood out about that team and what I remember about that team. I think you have to look at it as a new year. I think if you’re talking to 14-, 15-, 16- and 17-year-old kids and you’re talking about the years before them, my lord, it weighs on them enough. It could frighten them. 

“I think it’s more about what they’re doing, and the game in front of them, and the support of the people that played before them, and that’s really what we talk about. It’s about the love of the program and the enjoyment of the program and the memories that they’re making that I want them to reflect on.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s a pressure,” senior Kendall Jung said the annual task of keeping winning streaks and state title streaks alive. “We have high expectations that we put on ourselves and that just motivates us to do better and to strive to do great things.” (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)