When the field hockey season started in early September, there were two main questions.

Is Shawnee for real? And will Eastern continue to be the standard against which top programs are measured?

Shawnee this season moved from South Jersey Group 3, which it had dominated, to Group 4, in which the Renegades, who finished 18-5, proved that they are indeed an elite team.

Eastern suffered two regular-season losses but in the end proved to be champions, and the Vikings are still the measuring stick in New Jersey.

Here is a look back at the 2008 season:

Team of the year

Eastern, ranked No. 1 by The Inquirer, finished with a 25-2 record, a national-record 10th consecutive state crown, and the Tournament of Champions trophy.

The Vikings accomplished all of the above despite a crack in their hull that began on Nov. 14, 2007, when they lost, 3-2, to Oak Knoll in a semifinal of the Tournament of Champions to halt a 208-game unbeaten streak spanning nine years.

Fielding a squad that was one of the oldest at Eastern in the last 10 years, coach Danyle Heilig sized up Washington Township as a potential problem even before the season started.

Heilig was correct. The crack grew wider on Sept. 19 when the Minutemaids upset Eastern, 3-2, to become the first South Jersey team since Shawnee in 1998 to beat the Vikings.

The hull appeared to be taking on water when Eastern lost to Wyoming Seminary, 2-1, eight days later. However, Seminary was then ranked No. 1 in the nation by Topofthecircle.com. Then on Oct. 18, the Vikings shut out Emmaus (Pa.), 1-0. At the time, Emmaus was the No. 1 team in the country, according to Topofthecircle.com.

The hull was made whole, and the Vikings sailed to victory in their next 20 outings, starting a new winning streak for the teams that follow.

"As far as the definition of a team, this has probably been one of my best in 10 years," Heilig said. "Ever since their loss to Washington Township, as difficult as it was, it was very good for them. They really put together what they wanted out of this season."

Coach of the year

Washington Township's Jeannine O'Connor became the first South Jersey coach to devise a winning strategy against Eastern in nearly 10 years when her players defeated the Vikings, 3-2, on Sept. 19 in an Olympic Conference American Division game.

The plan was to beat Eastern to the ball and send it into the passing lanes where the forwards could carry it upfield for a good shot. Also, Marisa Shoepflin had to play flawlessly on the left wing because Eastern kept the ball on its right.

Of course, the Minutemaids (18-3) had to implement the plan, and they did so as their coach encouraged them through the ordeal, inspiring them to believe in themselves.

"On the bottom of my board, the last thing I wrote [before the game] was 'Believe,' " O'Connor said after the victory. "We were putting on a lot of pressure and as soon as you put a ball in, everybody believes."

Township's Lindsey Hatch and Shoepflin drilled in a pair of goals for a 2-0 lead before Eastern scored.

Winners of the year

Bishop Eustace, Glassboro and Eastern were the only area teams to advance to the state group finals, but unlike the Vikings, Eustace and Glassboro returned home empty-handed. Still, they were winners.

Central Jersey Group 2 titlist Eustace (20-3) was not ranked by The Inquirer in a preseason poll, but by the time it lost to West Essex, 3-0, in the state-title game, the Crusaders were ranked No. 2.

In the postseason, Eustace defeated Monmouth Regional, 5-1; Cinnaminson, 1-0; Delran, 3-1; and Haddonfield, 2-0.

"In the preseason, I had a special feeling about this team and felt that we'd be back here," Eustace coach Krissy Holach said. "Two years ago, we lost to Oak Knoll here."

Glassboro (18-3-1), the South Jersey Group 1 champion, lost to Oak Knoll, 1-0, in the state final. In the postseason, Glassboro defeated Pitman, 2-0; St. Joseph, 2-1; and New Egypt, 2-1.

"We lost, 1-0, which shows how good we are," said senior Ashlee Willis, who led the 6th-ranked Bulldogs in scoring with 26 goals. "We could have won."

Spark plug of the year

Lisa Patrone is the engine that that has been driving Washington Township for the last three years. And every opposing coach has had to devise a way to slow down the diminutive junior midfielder.

"[Patrone] is the spark plug. She has incredibly quick wrists and moves the ball well," Eastern's Heilig said.

Delayed reaction

Kingsway's Caitlyn Jenkins was staring into space when a reporter brought her back a few minutes after the Dragons' 1-0 loss to Ocean City in the South Jersey Group 3 championship game. Kingsway's leading scorer, Jenkins had gone scoreless and the gravity of the moment was sinking in. "This is extremely disappointing," the senior center forward said as tears began to form. "This is my last year and my last game, and I didn't realize it until now."

Surprise of the year

Rancocas Valley, between Oct. 6 and Oct. 30, had a record of 0-5-4. But when the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 4 tournament started on Nov. 3, the Red Devils were healed from the injuries that had short-circuited their offense and defense.

RV keeper Teresa Mathews was scintillating in the cage, registering shutout victories over Toms River East, top-seeded Toms River South, and Hamilton East to help lead the Red Devils to the sectional crown. "We got our [championship] jackets. This game was extra," Mathews said after Eastern rolled over RV, 7-0, in a state semifinal.