UNION – It’s crazy to think of everything the Eastern High School field hockey team’s seniors accomplished during their high school careers before Friday.
They’ve earned a career record of 106-0-1, including 75-straight victories, four state championships and three Tournament of Champions titles. On Friday, the Viking seniors ended their run on top with a 5-0 victory over Oak Knoll in the TOC final at Kean University.
“I’m very close with this senior group,” Eastern coach Danyle Heilig said. “They’re such amazing young women and such amazing leaders and players. It’s exciting for them. Three of them have been three-year starters, one has been a four-year starter. It’s wonderful to see them go out on such a high, but it will definitely leave a void in our program and it surely leaves an enormous void in my heart.”
It was Eastern’s fourth straight TOC title and seventh overall in the 10-year history. Only Shawnee (2007) and Oak Knoll (2010) have won TOC titles besides Eastern. The TOC in 2012 was cancelled after Superstorm Sandy.
After arguably the best field hockey player in history in Austyn Cuneo graduated last spring, the rising seniors were relied on to be the leaders throughout this season. They went above and beyond that role all year, with Nikki Santore leading New Jersey in goals (69) and assists (36) with Madison Morano not much further down the list with 44 goals and 29 assists.
“We definitely knew losing Austyn it was going to be a big loss,” Santore said, “but we knew what we had to bring and I think we did a great job of it. We just focus on multiple scorers a game instead of counting on one player, and Austyn was a great player, you’re never going to have that again, but having everyone on the team be a huge player in the whole game is nice.”
Friday’s game showed just how important those seniors were to the success of the Eastern program, as Santore assisted twice and scored once while Alanna Gollotto added a goal.
“It’s awesome,” Santore said. “There’s no better feeling than this, and making this happen in our senior year by winning 5-0 — It’s just awesome.”
Even with the experience leading the way for the Vikings, it was Eastern’s future that shined brightest under the Kean University Alumni Stadium lights. Three of the Vikings’ five goals were scored by underclassmen, including two by sophomore Jessica Maute.
Maute expressed how she had a little bit of nerves coming into the game, especially because she wanted to send the seniors out with a bang, but it didn’t affect her at all once the opening whistle sounded.
“I know people focus on the upperclassmen and the seniors, but those [underclassmen] have been in their second year or third year as starters, and they are enormous players,” Heilig said. “It’s nice for people to be able to recognize their strengths as well and I don’t think they could’ve played bigger over our state run.”
Junior Alexis Pettisani’s goal, which opened up the scoring at 25:52 of the first half, set the pace for the entire game moving forward. It was almost an exact replica to the start the Vikings had Wednesday against Warren Hills.
“It’s your last game, you’ve got to keep it going,” Heilig said when asked what the difference was. “On Wednesday, we knew there was another. Tonight, this was the last time we were ever going to play as this unit.”
The Vikings quickly fired back again about six minutes later, again off a corner. The ball was sent to the top of the circle, and though the next pass from Santore was tipped, it still found Maute who knocked it home.
Four of the five goals for the Vikings were started on corner plays, which is a strong showing considering corner defense is one of Oak Knoll’s strengths. Heilig said her team specifically worked on corners in practice, picking up tips from the game film of Eastern’s 3-1 victory against the Royals on Sept. 19.
The end result of Eastern’s hard work? No losses in 133-straight games, another perfect 27-0 season and once again proving they’re the best field hockey team, not just in South Jersey, but perhaps in the entire country.
EASTERN 5, OAK KNOLL 0
Player of the game: Eastern’s Nikki Santore for her two assists in the first half and her one goal in the second.
Play of the game: Late in the game with the score 4-0, Eastern’s Alanna Gollotto took a pass off a corner and lifted a lob shot over the Oak Knoll defense and into the cage with about a minute left in the game.
Well said: “All of the girls are just so great and this group of girls is so special and it’s just so exciting. I love it.” – Eastern’s Jess Maute.
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