By John Gillis
In the state of New Jersey, the sport of high school girls field hockey clearly ranks among the very best in the nation.
From a quantitative standpoint, with 223 schools sponsoring the sport and 7,982 girls participating, New Jersey ranks third and second in the nation in those two categories, respectively, according to the NFHS’ 2011-12 High School Athletics Participation Survey.
From a qualitative standpoint, there always seems to be an abundance of outstanding field hockey programs in the Garden State.
However, perhaps no other high school in the state ‑ or in the nation ‑ stands taller than Eastern High School in Voorhees, New Jersey.
For starters, Eastern’s 15 New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) state championships ranks eighth in the nation, according to the NFHS’ online multimedia National High School Sports Record Book.
Even more impressive is the fact that its currently active streak of 13 consecutive NJSIAA state titles from 1999 to 2011 stands alone as the national record, a full four state titles ahead of the school in the runner-up position.
Eastern reeled off 93 consecutive victories from 1999 to 2003, which ranks second all time. However, its national-record “unbeaten” streak (games that did not end in a loss) is an amazing 153 consecutive games from 1999 to 2005. During that span, Eastern won 149 games, and had no losses and four ties. The Vikings hold an impressive 47-game margin over the team in the runner-up position in that particular record category.
Eastern competes in NJSIAA Group IV, which is the state’s largest enrollment classification. Following the state championships in the four enrollment classifications, the NJSIAA conducts its “Tournament of Champions,” in which the state champions in those four enrollment classifications are seeded and then play one another to determine an “overall” state champion.
Since the Tournament of Champions was first held in 2006, Eastern has been a dominant force. In those six years (2006-2011), Eastern has won the TOC four times, placed second once and third once.
Leading the Vikings field hockey program since 1999 has been coach Danyle Heilig. During her first 13 seasons as coach, she has led the program to 13 consecutive NJSIAA Group IV state titles and to eight undefeated seasons. In recognition of her efforts, she was named National Field Hockey Scholastic Coach of the Decade in 2010. However, she is quick to give credit all around for that amazing success.
“I think there are a few things that go into the success,” Heilig said. “We have kids who just bought into my philosophy as a coach. There was a determination to just outwork our opponents ‑ that’s a big philosophy of mine. I have this desire to achieve perfection and the kids wanted to win. The kids have the support of their parents as well as school administration.
“As a result, there’s a tradition here now. It’s a well-oiled machine and there are expectations of kids coming into the program. They understand the program. Every year, we have to step it up a notch. Nobody wants to be on that team that doesn’t win the state title. I’ve had some very strong assistants over the years to go along with the great players, parents and administration.”
Heilig is no stranger to field hockey and no stranger to success. She was an all-South Jersey forward on the Moorestown (New Jersey) High School field hockey team that won state titles all four years of her high school career (1987-90).
From there, she went to James Madison (Virginia) University, where she was a four-year starting midfielder for a program that won the NCAA national championship during her senior year (1994). She also played lacrosse at James Madison and was part of the U.S. Lacrosse team for two years.
“I had every intention of going on to grad school after college, but I met my husband, got engaged and got into teaching at the high school level,” Heilig explained. “I wanted to stay involved with sports since they were such a big part of my life.
“Despite the fact that I had never been to a cross country meet before, my first job was coaching cross country and track at Cherry Hill (New Jersey) East High School. In 1998, I coached varsity field hockey at Haddon Heights (New Jersey) High School. The program had won just five games total during the three previous seasons. We did very well and had an incredibly rewarding year as we went 14-2-4 and won the conference title.”
After one season at Cherry Hill East, Heilig assumed the head coaching job at Eastern. She wasted little time her first year as she led the Vikings to the 1999 NJSIAA state title, which was followed by 12 more.
Two of the hallmarks of Heilig’s tenure at Eastern is she has always been a firm believer in playing the best players, regardless of age or experience, and she has been the beneficiary of several families that have produced many outstanding players.
“Absolutely, the best players have to play,” Heilig said. “I tell the players and parents that we haven’t won 13 state titles without the best players at each position. There’s no guarantee year to year that you’ve got a starting position – you’ve got earn that each year.
“We’ve had many families that have produced many great field hockey players for the Eastern program. The Dawson sisters are a great example of that. The oldest one was Natalie, whom I didn’t coach. I did coach the next five, however ‑ Sarah, Rachel, Meghan, Hannah and Melanie. All of them went on to play in college, and Rachel competed in two Summer Olympic Games – in Beijing in 2008 and in London earlier this year. The Dawsons are a story in and of themselves. Other families have included the Allens (Jessica and Corey), the Bains (Meghan and Bryn) and the Evangelistis (Valerie, Brittany and Taylor).”
The experience of simply being part of the Eastern field hockey program is indeed a unique thing for its players.
“There’s something special about being here,” Heilig said. “The community knows you and people relate Eastern field hockey to our high school. You’re a ‘somebody.’ That’s a special thing and the kids enjoy being part of that. We get decent crowds at our games and it’s exciting. Our players may never get crowds like that at their games in college.”
In addition to coaching field hockey, Heilig effectuates change and improvement to the game she loves by serving on the NJSIAA Field Hockey Rules Committee.
“I love the game of field hockey and being on the rules committee is very enjoyable,” Heilig said. “I like to bring new ideas to the table. Anything we can do to improve the game of field hockey is a positive thing.”
With 13 consecutive state titles under its belt, the Eastern field hockey program looks to extend that streak this fall. This year’s squad appears to be one of its best.
“We’re doing very well,” Heilig said. “We’re currently 13-0 and ranked No. 1 in New Jersey. We are also ranked No. 1 in the nation by Top of the Circle.com.
“We’re a very experienced team with 11 seniors, eight or nine of whom start on a consistent basis. We’ve got a handful of juniors who have been relatively consistent starters since their freshman year.”
In addition, we have possibly the best sophomore in the nation in forward Austyn Cuneo, who set the New Jersey state record as a freshman when she scored 69 goals. She already had 35 goals this year. We also have a great freshman midfielder in Madison Morano.
“We don’t talk about the [state championship] streak at all. We’ve had streaks before, such as the national-record 153-game unbeaten streak. When that came to an end, it was rough obviously. I don’t believe you have to lose to learn lessons. However, when you lose, you have to pick up and learn from it.”
With her tremendous success, it is only natural that the nation’s top college programs would covet having Heilig as their coach, and it is also only natural that Heilig has thought about that possibility.
“As far as the next level, there‘s part of me that would love that opportunity,” Heilig said. “The competitive part of me wants to do it. I am confident that I would do well at the next level.
“However, the realist side is I’m a mother with three kids and a husband. I love where I work and teach and I have great benefits. Maybe five to seven years ago I would have jumped at it. But, I love where I’m at right now.”
John Gillis is the associate director of publications and communications of the NFHS. If you have any comments or articles ideas, please forward them to Gillis at firstname.lastname@example.org