Legendary Legacy: Eastern’s Heilig announces retirement

Eastern Regional High School field hockey coach Danyle Heilig is retiring from her post as field hockey coach. She led the team to 21 state titles in 21 years and an astounding 513-14-6 record since 1999.

After 21 near-perfect seasons, Eastern Regional High School field hockey coach Danyle Heilig announced on Monday that she is retiring from her coaching position at the school. Heilig arrived at Eastern in 1999, won Group 4 state championships in each of her 21 seasons, and compiled a 513-14-6 record. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

The never-ending run of state titles that began immediately with her arrival, the national records, the nearly regular distinction of being labeled the No. 1 team in the country, the overall wins and winning percentage that are so stunning they are almost difficult to believe, none of those accomplishments — nor the impact Danyle Heilig had on dozens of scholastic athletes over the last two decades — would have happened if not for her decision to go home to Moorestown for a weekend during her fifth year at James Madison University.   

During that weekend back home, in October of 1995, Danyle Heffernan met Chris Heilig. Suddenly, her priorities changed.

“My original plan when I was leaving JMU was to become a grad assistant,”  recalled Danyle Heilig, fresh off being part of the Division-I national championship field hockey team and playing four years of college lacrosse, too. 

“(I would) get my master’s in educational leadership and possibly get into college athletic administration,” she continued. “I still remember my professor telling me not to step away from student teaching. I was like, ‘No, I’m never going to become a teacher.’ And literally a month later, I met my husband … When I met him, the teaching-coaching route was just the natural thing to do.”

Danyle Heffernan knew who she wanted to be with and where she wanted to be. The rest, as they say, is history.

And now it’s over. Perhaps not Eastern field hockey’s dominance. But an era has come to an end.

On Monday night, at the end of the team’s annual end-of-the-season banquet, Heilig announced she was stepping down as Eastern’s field hockey coach, ending a run unlike any other in South Jersey scholastic sports history. 

Danyle Heilig, a 1991 Moorestown High School graduate who played both field hockey and lacrosse at James Madison University, winning a national championship in field hockey in her senior season, arrived at Eastern in 1999 after one season at Haddon Heights High School. (MATTHEW SHINKLE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Heilig, a fierce and fiery competitor on the sidelines who demanded perfection from herself, her staff, her players (and, sure, the officials, too), is calling it a career after 21 seasons. She wants to spend more time with Chris and their three kids (twin sons Declan and Cooper, 13-year-old seventh graders, and daughter, Tiernan, an 8-year-old third grader).

“It’s time,” Heilig said. “It’s time for me to be Mom, full time, to be home with my kids The boys are much more heavily involved and my daughter is getting to an age where she’s playing and needs coaches and I cannot imagine anyone else teaching my daughter how to play the game of field hockey. So the writing is on the wall in those respects; it’s time for me to be home.”

After a successful one-year stint at Haddon Heights in 1998, Heilig arrived at Eastern in 1999 and led the program to a state title, the third in school history and first since 1990. Another followed in 2000, and another in ‘01. And on and on. 

From ‘99 to 2019, Eastern’s Vikings won 21 straight state titles (a national record); took eight of the 13 Tournament of Champion championships since New Jersey began holding the event in 2006; rolled off a national record, 153-game unbeaten streak; and finished a season as the No. 1 team in the country nine times since various websites began running such polls in 2002. 

Heilig will no longer be on the sidelines at Eastern but she’ll remain heavily involved in the South Jersey field hockey scene. She’s the club owner and director of Uprise Field Hockey Club.

But the legacy she leaves behind on the high school hockey scene is legendary. 

A Moorestown High and JMU grad first hired as a girls track and cross country coach at Cherry Hill East in the mid-’90s (two sports she admittedly didn’t have any experience with), Heilig began her high school field hockey coaching career in 1998. Her final coaching record is eye-popping: 527-16-10.

Under Heilig, Eastern’s status as sleeping giant in South Jersey field hockey ended and a national hockey titan emerged. Among the Vikings accomplishments: 21 state titles, nine years without losing to a New Jersey foe, a national record unbeaten streak, and regular status as the No. 1 team in the country. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

After taking a Haddon Heights team that had won a total of five games from 1995-’97 to a 12-win season and conference title in ‘98, Heilig arrived at Eastern.

Her Eastern teams went 513-14-6, with 21 state titles in 21 seasons.

“The only word that comes to mind when you talk about her career is historic,” said Phil Smart, athletic director at Eastern from 2004 to 2016 and currently the school’s vice principal and supervisor of technology. 

“I don’t know if anyone has had that level of excellence in any sport during any era of competition,” he continued. “It’s of historic proportions, the success that she’s had and she’s done it in different eras with different athletes … And most importantly, she’s able to get the student athletes to give up themselves for the (good) of the team.

“I’ve never seen a coach that has been able to do that to the extent that she does,” Smart added. “Team always comes first.”

“Forever Eastern United” was the motto Heilig inherited from previous coaching regimes at Eastern that had led the program to success as one of the top teams in South Jersey. But not long after Heilig arrived, the team was the top team in South Jersey; the state; and for nine times in 18 years, the top team in the country, too.

“I always knew that Eastern was a little bit of a sleeping giant,” she said. “I was always surprised that they never got beyond that game with Shawnee, which was that game back then. So I knew there was potential. But for what we accomplished? Not in a million years would I have ever thought that.”

The combination of formidable feeder programs in the district (led in the early years by Berlin’s Ed Kirkwood and the all-world Dawson sisters, including Rachel, a three-time Olympian) and a passionate, driven coach reared by competitive parents and successful coaches at Moorestown and JMU, made Eastern field hockey the most dominant program in South Jersey sports for two decades.

“The only word that comes to mind when you talk about (Danyle Heilig’s) career is historic,” said former longtime Eastern athletic director Phil Smart. “I don’t know that anyone has had that level of excellence in any sport during any era of competition.” (MATTHEW SHINKLE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Among the most influential coaching mentors for Heilig was her JMU field hockey coach, Christy Morgan.

“She taught me an enormous amount about intensity, about work ethic, the responsibilities of being a part of a team and really pushing yourself out of your comfort box to achieve greatness,” Heilig said.

Sometimes — especially early in Heilig’s tenure — that intensity and push for perfection, for the game’s entirety, rubbed others within the field hockey community the wrong way. Even casual observers of game scores may have raised an eyebrow three months ago, when Eastern was beating opponents by scores of 14-0, 11-0, and 9-0 in the Group 4 playoffs.

“I always felt like it was one of those situations where you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t,” Heilig said of regular accusations that she ran up the scores. “If you keep kids in and you stall the ball, then you’re humiliating kids. So if you stall the ball, you’re a bad guy. If you keep scoring goals, you’re a bad guy … I’m not going to take away from the kids who worked their tail off to be out there to be the best they can be. They deserve to play, they deserve to score goals. 

“I’ve always also taken it from that standpoint of, there are women in girls sports who don’t see the opportunities that are out there for young women,” Heilig added. “This isn’t necessarily about holding hands and having fun and playing a game we love … I always felt like we never really spoke of a male coach running up the score. It was OK. ‘That’s what guys do. They’re working hard. They’re going after things.’ Why can’t women do that? I tried to treat the female hockey players here at Eastern like any good male coach would treat male athletes. I’ve always felt that way. I’ve always pushed my girls to be the best athletes they can be; they’re females and they deserve that same opportunity.”

In addition to overcrowding the school’s trophy cases with new hardware each fall, Heilig helped dozens of student athletes continue their careers via college field hockey scholarships. High school All-Americans became impact players at Division-I colleges. And more than a couple, like Heilig, got into coaching, too, when their playing days were over.

“It’s time,” Danyle Heilig said of stepping down as Eastern’s field hockey coach. “It’s time for me to be Mom, full time, to be home with my kids.” (MATTHEW SHINKLE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Before Heilig’s high school coaching career was officially over, she led Eastern to another banner season this fall. The Vikings defeated five teams ranked in the Top 25 in the country and state champions from four different states en route to a 21st straight state title, before falling to North Jersey’s Oak Knoll in the Tournament of Champions title game.

Just inside the gate at Kean University, minutes after the Oak Knoll defeat, the emotion of the moment finally overcame Heilig. The tears flowed as she traded hugs with her family.

“I think I’m probably most proud of the relationships you foster through coaching with the girls,” Heilig said. “I love the fact that I still maintain contact with so many players. It’s nice to see how successful so many of them have become in life. And I’d like to think that being a part of this program taught them a lot of things beyond the hockey field. 

“The wins are awesome and the state titles, they’re never, ever going to forget things like that, but to see the girls and to be a part of that in four years, during a really crucial time for them, I think is one of the neatest things,” Heilig added. “Seeing them successful in their jobs, watching them with their children, having them come back here with their kids. That’s cool  … 

“I think when kids reach out just to say ‘thank you’ for the impact you’ve had on them, to me, that’s the best compliment I can get.”