Take a look in the stat sheet following any Eastern Regional Field Hockey game, and it’s safe to say you can expect to see the name Ryleigh Heck a number of times under the goal column.
Earlier this year, the senior notched her 200th career goal with the Vikings, becoming only the seventh high school player in U.S. history to reach such a feat, with New Jersey now having two names on the list. Eastern graduate and former Rutgers multi-positional player Austyn Cuneo holds the state record with 328 goals.
The 200th goal came in Eastern’s 6-0 shutout against Cherokee at the start of the season, a game that was rather emblematic of the Vikings’ route to success: stellar defense on the backside of the field, coupled with Heck lighting up the stat sheet on the opponent’s side of the field.
Looking back, Heck says she felt slightly hesitant at first going into the game, since she knew she was on the cusp of 200 career goals to start the year, just two shy of the mark.
“I knew I was probably going to get the 200th goal in that first game, so I felt a little under pressure at first just knowing that,” she said.
“I was hesitant at first, which I’m usually not when I’m on the field, but it was exciting and a relief when I finally got it.”
Upon reaching Eastern, Heck joined the team as a freshman, just in time to play with her older sister Kara, who netted 156 goals in her first three years before an ACL injury during the spring before her senior year robbed her of a chance to reach 200 career goals herself.
That first year, Heck made the move from center midfield to center forward approximately three-quarters of the way through the year, a move that then-Eastern coach Danyle Heilig made to make the nationally ranked team even better as the postseason approached.
Growing up and still with other teams to this day, Heck still tends to play center midfield; she believes it is probably her strongest position on the field. But the position move was one that her former coach believed would get the best of the Heck sisters at that time and make them stronger, and it’s a change the senior has stuck with now three years later.
“I really only play center forward for Eastern to be honest; I grew up playing center midfield and I still do for club and literally any other team,” Heck said. “But I also really enjoy center forward too … I didn’t realize at first how much you can score here and how powerful of a position it is.”
Heck’s mother Kerry, who is also in her first year as head coach for the Vikings after spending four years as an assistant coach, says she’s seen her daughter grow tremendously over her four years at Eastern.
“It’s been a pleasure seeing her grow into the player she is currently, and she’s still always looking for ways to improve,” Kerry said. “Whether it’s general fitness for the season or field hockey specifically, she’s training every day, no matter what.
“She’s just a workhorse,” the coach added.
Eastern is 6-0 through its first six games of the 2021-’22 season, having scored 50 goals and only given up three in that time. Of those 50, Ryleigh Heck has registered 32 herself and assisted five, putting her in the running for the state’s goals leader on a daily basis.
After a 14-0 season last year when the team only gave up two goals all year, but no opportunity to play in a Tournament of Champions, both Hecks echoed the desire of this year’s team to get back that championship.
After a hot start, though, the team’s first-year coach and her players have been quick to remember they have a long way to go before such an accomplishment, and that the real tests on their schedule are just beginning.
“The girls have those team goals that they’ve talked about and hung up in the locker room,” Kerry said. “They want to make it to the Tournament of Champions. They feel that they can get there and they can win it, but they know they have to put in the work on the field and it won’t come easy.
“A lot of our out-of-state games will hopefully help prepare us for end-of-season, postseason play,” she added. “These kids work hard and are 110 percent all the time when they’re out there … and they have a great senior class and great leadership amongst them to help make their goals possible.”