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Sept. 13, 2019 — The Garden State Firm

Meetings in field hockey between Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) and Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.) are not, technically, a “rivalry.” Rivalries usually occur through accident of geography, and rivalry games on a team’s schedule are normally guaranteed to happen every single year through a conference schedule.

For example, in the NFL, the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants are rivals, having to play 33 percent of their NFC East divisional schedule against each other. The Giants, however, are not rivals of the New York Jets, even though they play in the same stadium and regularly meet each other in exhibition games.

There are many famous rivalries in world sport — Barcelona-Real Madrid in soccer, Ohio State-Michigan in collegiate football, Giants-Dodgers in baseball (no matter which coast you’re on), and Montreal-Boston in pro hockey. Now, some rivalries belie geography: a dozen years of competition between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers brought up a true rivalry between Hall-of-Famers Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

So, whenever Eastern and Oak Knoll’s field hockey teams get together on the pitch, like they will do at Oak Knoll’s Chatham sports complex tomorrow at 10 a.m., it will have every hallmark of a rivalry.

The game will be an exhibition of good hockey, with skill and pace. There are likely to be multiple lead changes, even more switches in momentum. And you might see something in the contest not covered by the National Federation rules book.

Indeed, the competition between the two sides is more than just a simple sporting rivalry. There are contrasts between the size of the schools; Eastern’s 9-12 enrollment is a bit more than 2,000, while Oak Knoll’s 9-12 enrollment is a shade north of 250.

Eastern is a public school, playing in NJSIAA’s Group IV. Oak Knoll is a private school, playing in the NJSIAA’s non-public division. One team has its home in the northern half of the state of New Jersey, the other in the southern half where the scholastic game was born in 1909.

The two teams, and the two coaches, are a study in contrasts. Eastern is a quick, skilled, attacking side that will jump on top of you if you show any weakness, especially when it comes to penalty corner execution. Several times, they have broken the 200-goal mark for a season as a team. Head coach Danyle Heilig won an NCAA championship in the 1990s with James Madison University.

Oak Knoll is also a quick and skilled side, but with an emphasis on defense. They have been particularly excellent at penalty corner defense under head coach Ali Good. Good is one of the few high school coaches with multiple victories over Eastern during the Danyle Heilig Era:

EASTERN vs. OAK KNOLL
(Eastern leads series 6-3-1)
2007: Oak Knoll 3, Eastern 2 (OT)
2010: Oak Knoll 4, Eastern 2
2013: Eastern 3, Oak Knoll 0
2014: Eastern 3, Oak Knoll 2
2015: Eastern 3, Oak Knoll 1
2016: Eastern 6, Oak Knoll 2
2017: Eastern 2, Oak Knoll 2 (tie)
2017: Oak Knoll 2, Eastern 1 (OT)
2018: Eastern 5, Oak Knoll 3
2018: Eastern 3, Oak Knoll 1

So, if this game is not called a “rivalry game,” then, what is it?

We may find our answer in one of world sport’s biggest rivalries, the “superclassico” between Celtic and Rangers, two soccer teams that call Glascow, Scotland home.

A newspaper commented back in 1888 that these two teams, representing different neighborhoods, religions, and ways of life from each other, were “like old, firm friends.” The term “Old Firm” has stuck.

I think that Eastern and Oak Knoll, for all of their conflict over the course of 10 games over the last 12 seasons, have found a kinship with each other — coaches, players, parents.

I’m calling this game “The Garden State Firm.”

The next edition is tomorrow, and it should be a dandy. Again.

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