OBSERVATIONS ON VOORHEES EASTERN'S RECORD UNBEATEN STRING
By Al Mattei
Voorhees Township (pop. 28,000) is off Exit 32 just east of Interstate 295 in southern New Jersey. This municipality's previous claim to fame was The Echelon, one of the earliest planned office/retail/commuter complexes in the nation, hard by a high-speed rail line that takes workers to Philadelphia.
In the sports world, it has also been known as a home away from home for professional athletes. The Flyers pro ice hockey team practices there, and it is the bedroom community for a number of present and former members of the Eagles' football team and the Phillies baseball team. In fact, a youth summer all-star team featuring a number of Phillies' offspring got a raft of publicity when it excelled in regional and state play.
But nothing could have prepared Voorhees and the nearby towns of Berlin and Gibbsboro for the wildly successful field hockey program tucked away next to a golf course at a place known as Coffins Corner. There, on a weatherbeaten grass pitch right next to the east wall of Eastern Camden County Junior-Senior High School, is the home field of a team that has utterly buried their opponents in a barrage of athleticism, desire, skill, daring, and excellence.
The Vikings varsity field hockey team has created a dynasty that goes far beyond its four consecutive state championships. Indeed, on the day before Halloween 2003, the denizens of Coffins Corner set out on a quest to set the national record for their 107th consecutive game without a loss. Eastern was able to subsume Marlton Cherokee (N.J.) 2-0 on that day to set the record.
The unbeaten streak has not often been talked about within Vikings team meetings or huddles, although as the day approached, the immenseness of the achievement had begun weighing on some peoples' minds.
"I do think the streak is really starting to get to the kids," Eastern coach Danyle Heilig said after her team hurdled North Caldwell West Essex (N.J.) 2-1 in one of the team's major 2003 non-conference games. "We don't ever talk about it unless the media brings it up, but when we stepped on the field with the No. 2 team (West Essex's ranking in New Jersey), I sensed a bit of nervousness. I just had to remind them at halftime that they were ranked No. 1 in the state for a reason. Once we began playing our game, we showed that confidence."
It is a confidence that manifests itself in its coach. Heilig was a two-sport athlete at Moorestown (N.J.) and James Madison University before coming back to southern New Jersey in the late 1990s.
She first got notice by taking tiny Haddon Heights (N.J.) deep into the state tournament the year before getting the call to coach Eastern.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Heilig, through the end of of the 2003 season, has yet to lose a field hockey game at the Eastern helm. The team is a product of her intensity and a drive that is evident from the moment pre-game warmups start. She pumps her fist when things go well, or when she wants to make a point to a player. She can be heard in a huddle, exhorting the team on to new lessons.
It is an unbridled, intense enthusiasm that is often missed by team alumnae when they go off to college programs as diverse and powerful as Iowa, North Carolina, Penn State, and Michigan.
Heilig is not alone with her pursuit of a championship. Her brother, Edward Heffernan, is an assistant coach, and she has added Tabitha Gary and Colleen Cech to the staff in recent years. Like Heilig, all three are Moorestown graduates.
But she also has more than just coaching expertise at her disposal. She has the luxury of getting players with a good foundation of skill and game experience. The Berlin Community School junior high field hockey program has posted a record the past several years that is almost as impressive as the high school's.
Through mid-October 2003, BCS, coached by Ed Kirkwood, recorded 52 wins in its last 54 matches and outscored its opponents by a ridiculous margin.
Thanks in large part to BCS alumnae, the Vikings varsity won four straight Group IV championships through the end of the 2002 season, winning the inaugural TopOfTheCountry trophy for the best scholastic field hockey team in the United States.
And in 2003, the team went for a slice of immortality -- surpassing the nearly 40-year-old record for the most field hockey games played without a loss.
The size of the streaks were immense, at least in field hockey terms. No team in the state of New Jersey had won as many as 70 games in a row until Eastern surpassed that mark in 2001. The record for the ultracompetitive (albeit ultrasuccessful) South Jersey region had already been surpassed by then.
By the end of 2002's undefeated, untied campaign, the team had won 84 straight games and had not lost in 90 outings. The Vikings were cognizant that they were a regular-season away from tying the all-time unbeaten record of 106 games. And with a little luck (given the fact that all 106 games of Oklahoma City Casady (Okla.) were wins), that record might have been threatened in 2004.
But when Woolwich Kingsway (N.J.) earned a 1-1 draw out of the Vikings in mid-season, that win streak ended at 92, third all-time behind a 93-game win streak by Walpole (Mass.) and the Casady streak of 106.
The Vikings walked off the field, heads down. Calls and emails between current players and alumnae were apologetic in tone, but after a healthy bout of reassurance, the team steeled itself towards breaking the record.
Indeed, a 6-0 win over Runnemede Triton Regional (N.J.) that tied the unbeaten string at 106 was much more businesslike than what was expected.
"Someone came up to me and said how the kids didn't even look excited," Heilig says. "I think it's because having the record is what they're really looking forward to."
With the win over Cherokee, they got it.
Each game Eastern plays from here forward beginning in the fall of 2004 not only extends its unbeaten record string, it also extends a new win streak as well as brings the Vikings closer to a sixth straight state championship.
Sure, that dominance does not approach the record for consecutive state championship wins; that is still held by by Bethesda-Chevy Chase (Md.), whose nine-year championship ended in 2003.
Could be Eastern's new goal.