Looking back, the Eastern field hockey’s team’s past four-year stretch has been something special to watch.
The Vikings are routinely a top team to watch across in the state and country, thanks to the coaching prowess of Danyle Heilig, who retired after the conclusion of the 2019-’20 season and emphasized a team culture that resulted in Eastern winning the last game of their season year-after-year.
Since her departure, two of her former assistant coaches have taken over as head coach in back-to-back years, continuing the winning tradition.
Following Alexandra Marshall’s 14-0 season last year at the helm for the Vikings, Kerry Heck entered this year in charge at Eastern. According to Heck, much of the emphasis over the past two years has simply been on keeping things the same.
“With my first full season here as head coach, it was just about keeping things the same,” Heck said. “Keeping the expectations the same, keeping the culture the same, keeping the play the same…
“I thought that was important to do,” she added, “especially since a lot of these juniors and seniors know what it was like when they first got here, and we wouldn’t want to change that.”
With the season over, it’s safe to say that keeping the old ways of Eastern field hockey paid off, as the Vikings notched their ninth program Tournament of Champions title – the final year of the annual best-of-the-best tournament – on their way to a 25-2 season.
Eastern’s high-powered offense this season was led by senior Ryleigh Heck, who set the national single-season record for goals, with 125 at the end of her Vikings’ career to complete a comeback win against Oak Knoll in the Tournament of Champions final.
But the “playmakers,’ as coach Heck calls them, deserve just as much credit for playing an integral role in helping Eastern to yet another stellar season.
Seniors Izzy Bianco and Riley Hudson finished the year atop the assist leaders in the state, at 52 and 43, respectively.
Coming into the season, Bianco wanted to get the most out of her final year on the field, especially after last year’s seniors saw such limited opportunities to shine with a shortened schedule.
“Coming off last year’s short season, I was just hoping to capitalize as best as I could this year,” Bianco said. “Our team always has state championship and TOC aspirations every year, so not even getting that chance last year was really difficult. So our senior class was really hungry coming into the season to get back to that stuff.”
Hudson, more than aware of those aspirations, said she felt like the team chemistry was strong early in the season and continued to get better as the year progressed, especially since this year’s Tournament of Champions may be the final one.
“We have a really big legacy to live up to with what this school has done in years past, but we had a really strong core group that kept our goals in mind right from the start,” Hudson said. “Between not having TOC last year and losing it our sophomore year after winning it my freshman year, both those years were frustrating, so that was a big motivating factor for those of us in the senior class to bring that home this season.”
Heck, who finished her career with a staggering 323 goals, said the senior class knew very well going into their final game what it felt like to both win and lose a Tournament of Champions final. So, despite a 3-0 deficit at halftime, the team rallied for a comeback in the second half, making history in the process.
“Personally, us seniors knew what it was like to win and lose a TOC final … Losing it is probably the worst feeling in the world,” Heck said. “When we went down 3-0, there was still something in our heads that told us we knew the game wasn’t over, and it was that experience from the past three years.
“We just refused to give up; we wanted it more.”
With its victory, Eastern secured a ninth Tournament of Champions victory, the most wins by a single team since the competition’s inception in 2006. From that point, Oak Knoll won three titles, while West Essex and Shawnee both won one. Eastern appeared in the Tournament of Champions final all but one year that the tournament was played.