Prestigious NJ High School Program makes transition to college play smooth for quartet of Rutgers players
The Eastern Regional High School field hockey team has not faced defeat in its last 139 games. Four members of the current Rutgers field hockey team contributed to their alma mater’s record-setting clean slate.
Freshmen Alanna Gollotto and Nikki Santore rejoined their former teammates junior Jade Dixon and senior Kimberly Jevic this season as Scarlet Knights after playing together as Vikings in high school.
For these Eastern alums, moving on to the college level was not much of a transition when it came to field hockey — and Rutgers' head coach Meredith Civico was not surprised.
“Honestly, they could probably beat a handful of college programs, without a doubt,” Civico said of the Vikings. “They’re a program with a winning culture and a long standing tradition of winning and the players from that program know what it takes — they’re fierce and they’re competitors. I think if you look at most of the top programs in the country, they probably have a player or two from Eastern.”
Head coach Danyle Heilig runs a different kind of high school program.
She boasts a 389-8-5 record through her 17 years at the helm of Eastern’s program and has won 15 conference championships, 15 South Jersey Group IV championships and 15 NJSIAA Group IV championships.
The statistics and record say enough but Heilig’s players are the true emulation of the kind of team Eastern is and the kind of athletes it produces.
“When I graduated I was like … I feel like I’ve been playing college for four years,” Jevic said. “I think (Heilig) does a good job of pushing you to your limits to get the most out of you as an athlete. You think you gave everything and she makes you know that you can go more.”
Despite being new to the Banks, Gollotto and Santore have both been starting for the Knights since the 2016 season opener. Gollotto has been holding steady on the back end and already has a defensive save on the season, while Santore leads the team in points and is tied with sophomore Linde van Schaik for most goals.
Again, Civico was not surprised by the production of her newcomers. There's a reason why 'Fence the Garden' is as relevant for Rutgers field hockey as it is for the football program.
“We want to keep the Jersey kids in Jersey and that’s really our tactic as far as recruiting," Civico said. "The best hockey in the country is played right here in this area and Eastern High School in particular is one of the top programs, if not the top program in the country.”
The dynamic of Eastern field hockey extends outside the white lines of the field and beyond each player's graduation date.
Heilig instills the motto “Forever Eastern Unity” into her program in order to emulate an enduring family culture — and her players, from the very first class of '99 to this year’s current roster, continue to enact it.
“Everyone’s so united by the 'FEU' idea and it goes across generations. People have kids now who’ve played there and they’re like, ‘Oh, how’s Rutgers?’ and I’m like, ‘You know I go to Rutgers?’” Jevic said. “It’s crazy how it ends up being a really small, united community, which is awesome.”
A few weeks ago, all four of Rutgers’ Eastern alum went to watch their former team play against Oak Knoll and extend their winning streak with a 6-2 victory. Freshmen parents not only knew who the Knights were, but also said they were working on arranging a game to come see the former Vikings play at Bauer Track/Field Hockey Complex this season.
When asked to describe the kinds of relationships Eastern field hockey players have with one another, Gollotto did not hesitate is saying, “literally sisters.”
“I think I speak for all of us, we’ve played on a lot of different teams," Gollotto said. "There’s nothing like (the) Eastern field hockey team.”
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