Heckman key to defense of Saint Francis

Aleigh Heckman, a Shikellamy graduate, passes the ball upfield during Saint Francis’ game against Bryant last year.

First-year Saint Francis women's soccer coach Ellie Davis dealt with some injuries in the defensive backfield last fall.

Fortunately for Davis and the Red Flash, one of the defenders that was available could play multiple positions. Shikellamy graduate Aleigh Heckman started the season as a center back before moving to outside back to finish her redshirt freshman season.

"We had some players injured and most of them were backs, which is what Aleigh plays," Davis said. "Luckily, we have the flexibility of playing her in the middle or out wide. It's really good to have a player with that flexibility."

Heckman first saw the field at center back, a position with which she was very familiar.

"I started the year as a center back, which is more defensive-minded," Heckman said. "That was where I played in high school, and I felt my job was to try to make sure our goalie didn't even have to touch the ball."

The team's injuries then forced her to play a different role.

"I switched to outside back — which I originally went to college to play — and that was almost like playing cross-country," Heckman said. "You still have a defensive mindset, but it's like you have to play offense and midfield."

With the Braves, Heckman had a defensive focus, but she did have experience playing other positions. 

"Luckily my club coach played me on offense, in the midfield and as an outside back," Heckman said. "I personally feel outside back is more my position. I don't have to worry about the defensive side as much, because I'm solid there. But I need to improve on my offense."

Davis said there was a lot to like about what Heckman brought to the field in her first season.

"She is a really good athlete," Davis said. "She's fast, strong and has a very good vertical. She was a high jumper in high school, and you can definitely tell. She can serve some really good balls. She's good defensively, especially in terms of reading when to help against offensive players. Those are the biggest assets she brings to the team."

The coach said she was looking forward to seeing Heckman play in the spring, which would help determine where she played in the future. However, the coronavirus pandemic forced the Red Flash to cancel their spring season.

"That's going to depend," Davis said about where Heckman would play next season. "With spring being canceled — we were probably going to play her in both (positions) this spring — and the freshmen coming in, and her flexibility, we'll have to figure out where all the pieces fit best."

Despite having limited contact with coaches — and no formal spring practices — Heckman has already been hard at work to prepare for next season.

"Our coach sent us a lot of workouts, and the strength and conditioning coach sent workouts," Heckman said. "I've been doing some bodyweight lifting and going for runs. 

"I went on a run with our goalie from high school (Riley Barrett), who is my best friend. We just ran in town and then kicked the ball around a little bit."

Heckman also has plans to work out with Tesa McKibben — one of the best players in Saint Francis history and a Montoursville graduate. Heckman worked out with McKibben before stepping foot on Saint Francis' campus.

"I was lucky to know her," Heckman said. "She helped prepare me."

Even with that preparation, Heckman said there was a big adjustment to college soccer.

"The biggest difference is in skillset," Heckman said. "A lot of players on the team came from development academies, and I played from a little club based in Lewisburg. I thought my skills were good, but these girls were at another tier.

"My fitness was good. So I made sure to maintain that because I didn't want to have to worry about that heading into college soccer."

Heckman redshirted during the 2018 season.

"It was definitely hard to stand on the sidelines and not be able to play," she said. "Of course I was still part of the team, but it was difficult not being able to play. I love to play so much, and that made me appreciate it more."

She said she took advantage of that time, which helped lead to her success as a redshirt freshman.

"My focus was on improving for the years I would get to play," Heckman said. "I improved a lot, even over the summer (heading into 2019). I focused a lot during that time to show what I could do and improve.

"I was just telling Riley, 'It's weird how much better I got in one year.'"

Heckman said in some ways the biggest adjustment she made on the field was more mental than physical.

"A big part of adjusting to college was needing to read the field a lot faster," Heckman said. "For next year, I want to continue working on my knowledge in the field — I had a coach call it your 'soccer IQ' — so when I get the ball, I know where I want it to go. Along with that, I need to keep working on my footwork, so I can execute getting the ball where I want it so my team can score."

Davis said she saw Heckman improve in that area, and hoped it would continue next season.

"She's been working on her awareness — scanning the field before the ball comes to her and really working on making good decisions," Davis said. "Especially in training, you could see her trying to scan the field before receiving the ball. She made a conscious effort to improve, and you could tell throughout the season."

The Red Flash went 7-9-1 last season as they dealt with injuries, Davis being named coach two weeks before the season began, and not having an assistant coach until a couple games into the season.

Heckman said not only is she focused on improving for the future, but that Davis' first year set a foundation for better things to come.

"We don't like to say it, but it was building year," Heckman said. "We all built together. We made adjustments, and next year will be better. Then they'll keep getting better."

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