Austyn Cuneo sets national mark

Courtesy the Cuneo family

Austyn Cuneo hugs her mom, who reluctantly took a job as a middle-school field hockey coach years ago. The rest is history.

Three balloons -- in the shapes of the numbers 1, 9 and 2 -- marked the occasion Wednesday afternoon when Austyn Cuneo set the national record for career goals in high school field hockey.

Cuneo, a 5-foot-9 junior for the Eastern (Voorhees, N.J.) Vikings, scored three goals in an 11-0 win over Cherry Hill East (N.J.) to break the record of 191, set last year by Lexi Smith of Florence (N.J.).

The record was tied when Cuneo scored 3:20 into Wednesday’s game, and Smith’s name was pushed back to No. 2 at the 7:23 mark.

Eastern coach Danyle Heilig then called time out so that Cuneo could be properly honored.

“It was awesome,” Cuneo, 16, said of setting the record. “I felt a mix of excitement, relief, joy and everything else you can think of.”

Cuneo admitted she wept out of happiness -- but she wasn’t the only one.

“I was fine until I saw Coach Heilig shed a tear,” said Cuneo, a quiet and intense kid who gets A’s and B’s in school. “I saw how proud she was, and my mom cried, too. I just saw how everyone was so happy, and I couldn’t help but get emotional, too.”

Cuneo, who committed to North Carolina as a sophomore and wants to become a physical therapist, tied a state record when she scored 69 goals as a freshman. She nearly duplicated that number last year, when she finished with 68.

This year, she has 56 goals for the 15-0-1 Vikings, who have won 14 straight state titles, all of them under Heilig.

Courtesy of The Cuneo Family

Austyn Cuneo has 56 goals and counting this season.

Eastern has four regular-season games left and as many as seven in the postseason. If Cuneo, who represented Team USA on its U17 roster in Holland over the spring, can keep up her 3.5-goals-per-game average, she will break her own New Jersey single-season record before the playoffs even begin.

But it’s possible that none of this would have happened had it not been for her mother, Monica Cuneo.

Monica, a physical education teacher at Winslow Township Middle School (Atco, N.J.), was sitting in her office one day when an administrator said someone was needed to coach field hockey.

“I said, ‘Don’t look at me. I don’t know anything about field hockey,’ ” said Monica, a former Division II college softball player. “But they promised me I would just be the assistant.”

One year later, the head coach quit, and Monica was handed the job.

“I took it because they had no one else,” she said. “So I read some books about the sport, went to clinics and watched videos.”

A couple years later, Austyn, who was in second grade at the time, started attending her mom’s practices.

Pretty soon, the middle school girls floated an idea to their coach.

“They told me I should put Austyn in the games because she shot harder than they did,” Monica said. “So we sent Austyn to a couple of camps, and she fell in love with the sport.”

Austyn, it seems, is a natural athlete. She recently took up golf and beat both her parents after having played only four or five times.

“She’s chipping balls like she’s been doing it for years,” Monica said.

Austyn also plays lacrosse, but field hockey is her sport of choice.

Heilig, who played college field hockey at James Madison, believes Cuneo is a special talent.

“I’ve coached kids who went on to the Olympics or became college All-Americans,” Heilig said. “Austyn is one of the top five or 10 players I’ve coached.

“She has a great skill package -- very athletic with good shot selection. She has a wide variety of shots and incredible power and accuracy.”

Heilig said most high school players just try to get a shot off, with accuracy becoming a secondary concern.

“But Austyn sees space,” the coach said. “She can elevate her shot, and that’s something she has worked on and perfected at this level.”

Teammate Karlee Spirit, a senior who has committed to play at Wake Forest, said Austyn has the support of all the girls on the team because of her humble nature.

“She never takes credit for herself,” Spirit said. “She always thanks her teammates. That’s why it was so emotional for us when she set the record. Playing with her is a true honor.”

Spirit, who drives Austyn to school each day, said her friend is always right on time and is equally reliable on the field.

“She’s tall, strong and fast,” Spirit said. “She does amazing things with the ball. We may feed her the ball and give her these nice passes, but she knows how to finish.”

By the end of next year, Austyn figures to push her scoring record to a hard-to-reach echelon, but that’s when the most difficult part of her challenge will truly begin -- college.

“But there is no doubt in my mind,” Heilig said, “she will have great success at the next level. North Carolina has one of the top programs in the nation, and they were pursuing her aggressively at an early age. There’s a reason for that.”

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