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Archive for January 27, 2020

Jan. 27, 2020 — BULLETIN: Heilig stepping down at Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) after an unparalleled career

This evening, after the customary end-of-season field hockey banquet in the cafeteria at Voorhees Eastern (N.J.), Danyle Heilig made the announcement that she would no longer be the head field hockey coach.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the announcement was made the same day that Morgan Wootten, the legendary high-school basketball coach, was laid to rest after a ceremony at Hyattsville DeMatha (Md.). Also fitting that it was just about a year after fellow Moorestown (N.J.) graduate Deanna Knobloch left the Moorestown girls’ lacrosse program after a 500-win career.

Danyle Heilig was not just a coach. She was a titan, if not sometimes tightly-wound in terms of intensity, will to win, and the expectation and commitment she wrung out of her players over 21 years at Eastern and one season at Haddon Heights (N.J.).

The greatness she brought out of several generations of field hockey players was made manifest in some of the greatest field hockey ever seen on a scholastic pitch in North America.

Her Viking teams took full advantage of a move from grass to artificial grass in the mid-2000s, making McAleer Stadium into a fortress as well as one of the best atmospheres to watch a game.

And perhaps most of all, the Eastern Vikings were perhaps the single most dangerous field hockey team to play against coming out of a timeout or coming out of the halftime break, so powerful were Heilig’s halftime speeches.

The speeches were not invective, but they were convincing. Heilig’s training as a child thespian allowed her to reach every one of her players, getting them all to buy into the collective effort of playing a simple stick-and-ball game at a level to which some colleges aspire.

As a motivator and teacher of the game, Heilig did so much for her team without scoring a single goal. I once saw Eastern draw level with an excellent North Caldwell West Essex (N.J.) team less than 20 seconds after a late timeout.

I once saw Eastern fall two goals down twice to conference rival Sewell Washington Township (N.J.), and were still a goal down when an injury following a second shot off an Eastern penalty corner resulted in not only a penalty stroke, but a long officials timeout as a bloodied Minutemaid had to be helped off the field. Eastern would score two goals in the next 1:40 (plus an untimed corner at the end of regulation) to win a playoff game. It remains the one game which could have broken Eastern’s championship streak, and is still a topic of conversation in some restaurants and diners up and down I-295.

I also saw Eastern come back from two goals down in the 43rd minute to down an excellent Millersville Penn Manor (Pa.) team, with the game-winner scored in the dying seconds.

A roster of Eastern greats could fill megabytes — Rachel Dawson and her five sisters (and an upcoming niece), the Walls triplets, Kelsey Mitchell, Austyn Cuneo, Ryleigh Heck, Lori Hillman, Nikki Santore, Alana Barry, Karlee Spirit, Kara Heck, Caitlin Gregory, Shaun Banta, and on and on and on.

But it’s not just the individuals that were awesome. Her best teams, especially the 2002, 2012, and 2017 versions, were as close to automatic as a high-school team could come, sometimes scoring more than 200 goals per season as a team. And this is in a game in which goals are rare, and in which clean and obvious possession is not a given, like in football or even lacrosse.

Heilig never apologized for the way she drove her team. She was not obligated to hold the scoring down against opponents who were not at the same level as her teams were, even as the rise of social media and what others thought of Eastern made it harder to focus on the job at hand.

She also was unapologetic about taking advantage of policies which allow non-resident tuition-playing students to enroll at Eastern High School, similar to what happens all the time in lacrosse, swimming, and other endeavors in New Jersey.

Heilig now turns her attention to running her club side, Uprise. The thing is, I have a feeling that she is a leading indicator of the coaching talent likely to defect to the club side, with an eye on whether USA Field Hockey will do what U.S. Soccer has done and sanction a national developmental league for clubs.

Within the scholastic realm, her impact in less than a quarter century is undeniable. She had 527 wins, 10 draws, and 16 defeats at Eastern and at Haddon Heights. Do the math, and compare it to the Belichicks, Summitts, and Krzyzwskis of sport. It’s astounding.

Most importantly, she was undefeated in NJSIAA state tournament play through the group final for 21 years. It seemed as the only things that could stop the Vikings were Hurricane Sandy (which truncated the postseason field hockey calendar in 2012) and the occasional competitor within the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions.

It is within the T of C where Eastern finally found a rival: Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.), a team which beat the Vikings twice in 2019.

Moving forward, it is not going to be easy seeing the Garden State Firm this fall and in the future without seeing both Heilig and Oak Knoll coach Ali Good on the sidelines. They have each raised the bar so high over the last two decades not only in New Jersey, but nationally.