Their work began four months ago, on the school’s softball field in mid-July. On that day, given all that was lost in the previous four months – senior trips, proms, an entire spring sports season – Eastern Regional High School’s highly decorated field hockey team honestly wasn’t sure what to expect of the uncertain fall season.
“It was very upsetting,” senior Stacey Lukasheva said of the time leading up to the preseason. “I remember we were on the softball field and we were all five feet apart, spread out. We just didn’t know if we were going to have a season.”
They wore masks. They kept their distance. And, amid a pandemic, they tried to remain optimistic.
“We still trained very hard in the summer because, we were like, what if we do (have a season)?” Lukasheva continued. “And here we are.”
After winning their 21st consecutive Group 4 state championship last fall, and playing in their 11th straight Tournament of Champions championship game, Eastern’s field hockey team had perhaps the most program-rattling offseason of their two decade-long run of dominance. Longtime, legendary coach Danyle Heilig retired in January. The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March. When August came, they still didn’t have a head coach.
But when the games began, a funny thing happened: Eastern was, well, Eastern.
The Vikings overcame every obstacle and rolled to a 22nd consecutive sectional championship. And in downright dominating fashion, too.
Eastern’s 9-0 win over Shawnee in the Southwest D championship on Nov. 21 was the culmination of a 2020 season that was anything but normal. And yet, the Vikings mostly appeared completely unaffected by their surroundings, winning every game they played (Eastern went 14-0 in a COVID-shortened season) and dismissing any doubts that they would come down to earth some following the coaching change (they won those 14 games by an jaw-dropping combined score of 140-2).
“I think it’s just important to know that this is our senior year and our last year with the team,” Lukasheva, who will play at Brown University, said of the team’s mindset. “We don’t have a lot of time. We just got together as a team and said that we needed to make this the best season possible because this is what we were given.”
Any disappointment of not being able to keep their national record state title streak alive – Eastern has won every Group 4 state championship contested since 1999 – was put aside for the greater good of taking care of what was in front of them, not on worrying about what was lost.
“From the beginning we tried to stay positive and win every game we could play,” said senior Grace Ferriolo, who will play at LaSalle next year. “And we never knew if there was going to be a next one. So we went into every game trying to win, trying to get done what we had to get done.”
“We could have been not playing at all,” Lukasheva said. “So we just took what we had and we made it work.”
Alex Marshall, an assistant under Heilig since 2015, was officially announced as the team’s new coach on Aug. 10, less than a month before school began. Marshall could have easily become overwhelmed with the task in front of her – trying to keep a 20-plus year dynasty alive amid all of the challenges of keeping teenagers in line during a pandemic – but instead the Haddonfield and College of New Jersey grad showed off some of her own coaching prowess and put trust in her talented upperclassmen.
“When they made the announcement that I would be the coach, nothing changed,” she said. “The girls had been working hard since July and they continued to work hard after that. I don’t think it impacted or changed anything. The girls had their high goals set. They wanted to make it to whatever the last game was, and that was our goal all season. That’s what we were looking to do. Whatever it took to make that happen and get here to the last day is what we were planning on doing.”
Eastern reached their goal, in part, thanks to strong senior leadership.
“They rallied the team to buy into everything this season,” Marshall said. “‘Hey, we need to wear masks, we need to follow all of the instructions.’ I felt like whatever I asked from the senior class, they were always going above and beyond to make sure they were organizing the rest of the team to follow suit.”
The Vikings steamroller of a season was also fueled by a junior class that could go down as one of the top groups in program history. North Carolina-bound Ryleigh Heck scored 76 goals – and would have made a run at Eastern alum Austyn Cuneo’s single-season state record of 96 goals if the team had played a full season – and fellow Class of 2022ers Riley Hudson, an Ohio State commit, and Izzy Bianco, a Louisville commit, combined for 23 goals and 52 assists.
Needless to say, if high school seasons are normalized next year, a chance to get their state title streak back up and running, along with capturing the program’s first TOC title since 2018, seem like achievable goals.
“Tess (Herman) and Kylie (Dawson) are pretty strong, too,” Heck, who is two goals shy of 200 in her career, said of her junior class. “I feel pretty confident. Our whole team will still be pretty close and we all play well together, so, I think it’ll be a good year for our senior year. I’m excited.”
But before looking too far ahead, the Vikings are simply happy with coming through a potentially tumultuous 2020 season unscathed and with their dynasty intact.
“We were a little bummed we couldn’t have a state championship, because I feel like we could have made it and we could have won,” said senior Carlee Thompson, who will play at Montclair State. “But we were just lucky enough. Our mindset was that we’re lucky to be here. … Even with COVID, we made the best of what we had. We were very lucky and fortunate to go through an entire season and get to play all of our games and get to play together during this crazy time.”