It’s probably not fair to compare a high school sophomore to an all-time great, but when you’re a member of Eastern Regional High School’s prestigious field hockey team, comparisons are difficult to avoid.
The program has churned out 21 consecutive Group 4 state championships, has been ranked No.1 in the country several times during the last two decades, has produced national team members and an Olympian, and regularly sends at least a handful of seniors onto Division-I college programs when they graduate.
Ryleigh Heck, a 10th grade scoring dynamo, is just getting started. Heck followed up an impressive freshman campaign by scoring nearly twice as many goals as a sophomore in leading Eastern to another championship season, earning South Jersey Sports Weekly’s Field Hockey Player of the Year honors.
“It’s honestly a great honor – I’m excited,” Heck said. “It’s just so cool and such an honorable thing to have, so I’m thankful for it.”
Heck is the second straight member of her athletic family to claim the award: her older sister, Kara, won South Jersey Player of the Year honors last season. In 2019, Ryleigh Heck and the Vikings played without the elder Heck after Boston College-bound Kara suffered a knee injury in a lacrosse game last spring.
If the Vikings were supposed to look shorthanded this season, they did a good job of hiding it in steamrolling through the competition in South Jersey, beating a who’s who of nationally ranked, out-of-state teams, and taking their season all the way to the last game, losing in the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions finals to Oak Knoll.
The younger Heck was instrumental in the Vikings’ season, scoring an eye-popping 78 goals in 25 games. And she only got stronger as the season progressed: 48 goals of Heck’s 78 goals came in Eastern’s final 14 games.
Quick math: that amounts to nearly 3.5 goals per game during the season’s final six weeks.
“Ryleigh is a manipulator on the field,” Eastern coach Danyle Heilig said. “She can manipulate the opposition, she reads them so well, sees their body movement and works off that so well and so beautifully. Someone compared it to being a good running back – when they see a defender shift, they’re moving the other way. That’s really the way Ry is. She really manipulates defenders and goalies and exposes them within a second. As soon as they do something to try to stop her, she’s working off of that. And it just makes her lethal.”
Heck’s lethal scoring ability makes it worth drawing some comparisons that could have come off as far-fetched when she played her first game as a freshman a little over a year ago. Consider this: Heck’s 122 goals in her first two seasons aren’t far off from the 137 goals that former Eastern Viking and all-time state scoring record-holder Austyn Cuneo tallied in her first two high school seasons.
Cuneo, currently starring at Rutgers University, scored a whopping 328 goals at Eastern, including a single-season record of 96 in her junior season.
“(Ryleigh) had 78, which is a tremendous amount of goals,” Heilig said when putting Heck’s 2019 scoring into historical perspective. “And I feel like kids make their biggest growth really junior to senior year and sophomore to junior, so I’m excited to see what she’s going to bring in the next two seasons.”
“I don’t think everybody else is looking forward to it, but we surely are,” she said.
While goal records are fun, Heck, who is already committed to play collegiately at the University of North Carolina after she graduates in 2022, is far more focused on wins. In each of her first two seasons, Heck has enjoyed being a part of two state championship teams but has also seen both what it’s like to win and to lose the final game of the season (in the TOC championship).
“It’s definitely about keeping our streak going,” Heck said of Eastern’s state championship run, the longest in state history for any girls sports. “I feel confident for next year. … With (nine) seniors leaving, (I’ll try to) become more of a leader. This year I was just a sophomore with a big senior leader group. (But) I think next year and the year after it’s just about working hard and see what comes.”
And as for the comparisons to any of the other championship teams to wear the same uniform since 1999, or to the best players the program has ever produced? It’s part of the territory and nothing that scares uber-talented and competitive athletes like Heck.
“I definitely think there’s pressure,” she said of Eastern’s history, “but we like it because it motivates you to keep going.”