WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. — After the game, Eastern field hockey coach Danyle Heilig was in an honest mood.
It was bitter cold and windy and Heilig's team had just lost the Tournament of Champions final, 2-1, in overtime against Oak Knoll on Friday night at Kean University. Someone mentioned to her, in an effort glean a bit of positivity in such a raw emotional moment, that her goalie, Nina Santore, had played a pretty good game.
Heilig rolled her eyes and said sarcastically, "You think?"
Santore, the star sophomore goalie, didn't just have a good game, she was heroic. She was consistently brilliant throughout the game, with nine saves including knocking away a penalty stroke in the first half.
The phrase 'We'll be back here again next year' is common coach-speak after a championship loss. Usually it's said to console the players.
And Heilig said it, too. But she was a bit more defiance in her tone.
Heilg said it like she knows what's coming. And it's hard to argue against her point after her team's performance, even in a loss.
With so many of Santore's teammates — particularly fellow sophomore Kara Heck, who scored Eastern's lone goal — it's easy, even for the untrained eye, to see the Vikings' elite talent.
It's harder to tell that Eastern only fielded four seniors. Their opponent Oak Knoll was veteran-heavy, led by senior Gabby Andretta, one of the best offensive weapons in the state.
"We know we can build from this," said Santore, whose team was fresh off a Group 4 state title. "And we know great things are going to come."
Of course, history is on Eastern's side, anyway. There have only been 11 Tournament of Champions finals played in New Jersey state history. Eastern has played in 10 of them, winning 7.
There was a three-year stretch between 2013 and 2015 when the Vikings beat Oak Knoll three consecutive years.
So Friday night would appear to be something of a changing of the guard.
But, not so fast.
"To take a team with so many seniors to overtime, I'll take it," Heilig said.
Both teams entered the game with 24-0-1 records — the only tie was to each other earlier in the year. While there were moments in the game when Eastern was in control, Oak Knoll had the better of the chances throughout, including missing two penalty strokes.
And over the last eight minutes of regulation and into overtime, the Royals found another gear and dominated play.
Bridget Murphy buried the winner, a wide-open shot off a feed from Ali McCarthy with 6:50 to play in the extra period.
"I give Oak Knoll credit," Heilig said. "They had a real eagerness to their game down the stretch, and we didn't match it."
Despite being outshot and having a disadvantage in corners, Eastern scored first when Heck converted a dart from 15 yards out with 12:38 left.
The lead was short-lived, Oak Knoll tied the score two minutes later and put relentless pressure on Eastern for the rest of the game,
"You have to come out to play. I think we played hard. I just don't think we played smart," Heilig said, channeling her honesty. "I think in the overtime, we looked scared to death.
"But we had a great season. The seniors did a great job of pulling this team together. And we're going to be great next year. Just look at our lineup."