BERNARDS TWP., NJ - It definitely was a day for Girl Power when Tobin Heath, Basking Ridge native and soccer World Cup Champion and Olympian, arrived to cheers from young female soccer players at Friday's dedication of a township soccer field now named after her.
But as soon as Heath walked onto the field at Pleasant Valley Park and reunited with past coaches and many others who knew her since she was a young child said to be obsessived with working her skills with a soccer ball, it was also a reunion. Heath, who started school at Oak Street elementary school and moved through the township school system before graduating from Ridge High School in 2006, had played on many Bernards Township fields.
"My first siting of this talented young lady was when she was eight years old and on the field over the hill," said Tom Anderson, president of Players Development Academy, and Heath's first team coach.
Heath was actually too young to join the team at her first tryout, Anderson recalled. But seeing the skills and passion for the game that the skinny little girl already demonstrated, he said, "I told her, 'You are on the team, anyway.'"
Heath willingly shared the spotlight at Friday's with the girls from each age group, starting from elementary school students who play soccer for FC Berna through the Ridge Red Devils girls varsity team, who collectively kicked balls into the goal at one end of the field.
Bernards Township Administrator Bruce McArthur said that the field, previously known as Pleasant Valley Field No. 2, underwent a complete overhaul before it was dedicated to Heath. The field will be used exclusively for soccer, he said.
Part of Friday's ceremony included the unveiling of a "Tobin Heath Field" sign that also listed some of her main soccer accomplishments on local, national and international fields.
"Obviously, this is a huge honor," Heath said during her comments. "I grew up just a kid with a ball and a dream, and that's what I want this field to be - a place for kids to dream."
Heath added, "It's really cool for me to have my family here, and the people that have loved me and supported me, especially my coaches, and some I haven't seen in a while, but obviously played a huge part in why I'm here, and why I'm standing here."
"This is the place I am from," said the 28-year-old soccer star.
Heath added she feels "incredibly grateful to have grown up in this community," living on Rankin Avenue with her parents, Cindy and Jeff. She expressed the hope that in "giving back," young players who are not as fortunate to have grown up in a place like Basking Ridge will also have an opportunity to play on the field that has named after her.
Heath later said she was able to attend the ceremony because she was in the area; the National Women's Soccer League professional team on which she plays, the Portland Thorns, was playing the N.J. Sky Blue team at Rutgers University on Sunday.
In introducing Heath, Mayor Carol Bianchi expressed the township's pride in Heath, whom she described as a strong "woman of faith" and so much more as well as a champion soccer player.
Other speakers from Ridge High School - including Athletic Director Rich Shello, the current Ridge Red Devils girls soccer coach Katie Donahue and Todd Hebden, Heath's coach while she played for the girls soccer team at the high school - spoke of how she supported other players on the team who weren't as skillful as her.
Donahue said that Heath has been a "great person to be inspired by" and had been quoted on t-shirts worn by players. The player who helped lead Ridge to a state championship when she was on the team also was an inspiration when in 2015 the varsity girls soccer team had an undefeated season that led to a state championship, she said.
"Tobin is one of the best soccer players in the world," Hebden said, adding he had seen her working on some of the skills she has mastered now back when she was a teenager player for the Ridge girls team.
But he said that while Heath is very competitive, but also was one of the most cognizant and caring of people.
After the ceremony, Heath joined the girls who were chosen to kick the first balls into the goal on the revamped field.
She also spoke to friends and fans after the event had officially ended.
The field was filled with mostly female soccer players who had come to see Heath. Katherine Odita, a local fourth grader, said she had wanted to try soccer as something new.
"It was good," township third grader Cara Donnelly said of the ceremony. She said she would practice more after seeing Heath.
Some of Heath's soccer achievements, both professionally and at Ridge, include:
U.S. Youth Soccer Association U-15 National Champion
N.J. High School State Champion
N.J. High School Player of the Year
NCAA Division I champion
NCAA First Team All-American
National Women's Soccer League champion
World Cup champion
Last public appearance in Basking Ridge
Heath, 28, visited Basking Ridge and greeted hometown fans in July 2015 one week after scoring the final goal in July 5th's World Cup Team USA women's soccer victory over Japan.