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Jan. 7, 2022 — The case for Ryleigh Heck

One in a series of posts laying out arguments for the greatest scholastic field hockey player of all time.

Two years ago, we ran a series of posts trying to compare individuals who dominated their eras in field hockey, from Maryanna Watson in the early 1960s to Mackenzie Allessie in the late 2010s.

We had to add this past year’s national scoring champion to the comparison.

The global Coronavirus pandemic did a lot to affect field hockey seasons nationwide. Some teams didn’t play at all; some played limited seasons.

Ryleigh Heck, in 2020, did something better than anyone in recorded scholastic field hockey history had ever done. She struck for 76 goals in just 14 matches, a rate of 5.43 per game, which is the highest-known per-game rate we’ve ever seen in the history of U.S. scholastic field hockey.

And in 2021, she scored more goals in a single season than anyone else, netting 125 goals in a championship season for Voorhees Eastern (N.J.).

How do you measure someone like Heck against the greats of the past? Sure, you can use the gross metrics of the 2021 season and the per-game metric of 2020.

But there are three things you need to remember about Heck when you compare her. First, she has the same kind of relentlessness as Austyn Cuneo. She will come at you from all directions, from the first minute to the last.

Second, she has a lot of the same skill set as Mackenzie Allessie. What she also has is a deadly backhand shot, which she has used on numerous occasions to score goals in important games.

Finally, she has that intangible timing of knowing when to score, like Diana Taurasi in basketball or Abby Wambach in soccer. Never was that more evident than in the final week of the 2021 season, when Eastern was competing in the Tournament of Champions.

In the semifinal round, the Vikings met up with North Caldwell West Essex (N.J.), a team with numerous seniors and several excellent results in 2021. With time running down in the third quarter, she sprinted down the field and launched a long shot from the top of the circle that flew into the backboard. The goal brought the Vikings to within 3-2, but she wasn’t done. She would score two goals 3:02 apart to start the fourth period and giving Eastern a 4-3 win.

Two days later, in the Tournament of Champions final. Eastern fell behind 3-0 in the first 19 minutes before Heck pulled the Vikings back with goals in the 21st and 29th minutes to pull within 3-2. In the final minute of play, with the score tied, the entire assembly at Kean University had to know that Heck would be the recipient of the ball on a late penalty corner. A three-way pass play found Heck nine yards from goal and, with three defenders ready to pounce on her from behind, rapped the ball into the goal cage with time expired in regulation.

In short, Heck scored seven of the final eight Eastern goals of the season, and these were all goals scored when the Vikings were behind or looking to take the lead. If that’s not clutch, I don’t know what is.

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