Field Hockey: Eastern's guiding Spirit

By Phil Anastasia

TOMS RIVER -- Eastern High School won 11 state titles in a row in field hockey before Karlee Spirit put on her shin guards for her first practice as a freshman in the summer of 2010.

She knew it. She understood it, too.

"It's a legacy that's handed down to you," Spirit said. "As soon as you come here, you know what the standards are, what the expectations are."

If there were times during Saturday's state championship game when the weight of all that astonishing accomplishment seemed to push down on the Vikings, there always was a voice chasing away the doubts.

Spirit, a senior back and the best field hockey player you probably haven't heard enough about, would put her stick on his hip, clap her hands and encourage her teammates.

She would exhort them to win one more battle for the ball, to create one more corner, to convert one more opportunity, to score one more goal.

"She's an incredible leader," Eastern coach Danyle Heilig said after her team won its 15th straight Group 4 state title with a 3-0 victory over Bridgewater-Raritan.

Eastern might look like a machine from the outside, a team that could star in its own "Almost Human" television series about a sports program that cranks out state championships with automated efficiency.

But those are teen-age girls inside those jerseys. Like everybody else, they can get frustrated at times, especially given the heightened expectations created by the program's remarkable run of success.

"It's a heavy load for kids to carry," Heilig said. "You have to remember, 'They're kids.'"

The Vikings get plenty of direction from above from Heilig and her assistants. But teams also need leadership from within -- and that's what was so notable about Spirit's performance on a cloudy, cool afternoon at Toms River East.

"There were times when we were a little silent," Spirit said. "It's my role as a captain to try to be a leader and to encourage everybody else to be a leader, too."

Spirit came up through the Berlin feeder system, dreaming of playing for Heilig and representing Eastern. She's such a great player that she could be an Olympian one day, but she's a little unheralded for an athlete of her stature.

There's a couple of reasons for that. One, her junior teammate, Austyn Cuneo, is the greatest goal-scorer in the history of the sport at the scholastic level and that fact tends to draw a lot of attention.

Spirit also is easy to take for granted because of the nature of her game. She's not flashy, although she has a short, powerful stroke that somebody should videotape and show to young players: "Here's how you hit a field-hockey ball."

She plays offense and defense with equal passion. She scores goals but always looks for an open teammate. She never seems out of position.

"Her work rate is second to none," Heilig said. "She's the kind of player you hope the younger players will look up to because there isn't a second out there when she isn't giving 110 percent."

Spirit, a Wake Forest recruit, understood what it meant to play for Eastern before she put on the jersey for the first time.

She wasn't daunted by the challenge. She embraced it.

That's why her voice rose above those rare moments of silence on Saturday, and why her contribution to the cause stretched far beyond the stat sheet.

"I've always been a competitive person," Spirit said. "It's the way I was raised. This is the perfect place for a person like me. It's the perfect place for anybody with the same mindset."

-- Contact Phil Anastasia at panastasia@phillynews.com

-- Follow @PhilAnastasia on Twitter

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