Northern Highlands vs. Ramsey rivalry continues by Kevin Czerwinski special to The Record
When NV/Demarest completed its stunning run to a Bergen County field hockey championship last fall, it ended an 11-year stranglehold that Ramsey and Northern Highlands had on the crown.
The Rams, who saw their streak of consecutive county titles snapped at three last year, and the Highlanders each won five titles and were named co-champions in 2011 during that stretch. The two schools have established their dominance over North Jersey competition while building one of the best rivalries in Bergen County.
Ramsey and Northern Highlands have played 21 times, including Tuesday’s season-opener, in regular season and playoff games since 2008, with the Highlanders holding a 11-9 advantage with a tie in the 2011 Bergen County title game. The Highlanders have outscored the Rams 33-31 during that stretch, following a 2-1 overtime win on Tuesday.
Additionally, when Northern Highlands lost, 1-0, to Westwood on Sept. 16 and the Rams dropped the county title game to Demarest, it marked the first time that either school had lost to a Bergen County team – other than each other – since 2008.
So when the two teams squared off Tuesday it marked yet another chapter in a once-heated rivalry that has developed into one of mutual respect. That Northern Highlands defeated Ramsey certainly mattered in the standings and gave the Highlanders some early bragging rights. But it also kicked off another season in which the two schools figure to be the teams to chase in what has become an annual contest of who can topple a pair of programs that are among the most consistent in any North Jersey sport.
“The kids take a lot of pride in what they do,” said Northern Highlands coach Rich Smith, who picked up his 200th career win last season. “They know the reputations of these two programs prior to joining them so when they join them they get wrapped up in that. They want to continue the legacy of doing well.
“When I coached at Westwood [from 1997-2002], the cross country team was very good and I thought ‘How could this team be so good every year?’ I realized that winning breeds winning. It’s an atmosphere. The kids come into a program ready to work. We have common goals and we set them together. They empty themselves on the field and it’s a prideful thing for them.”
While Smith instilled that winning attitude and approach at Northern Highlands – and it took several years for him to do so – he admittedly didn’t give Ramsey the respect it earned as coach Becky Fantry-Mills built her program in similar fashion. Smith said that when the Rams started to improve it took him by surprise and that may have contributed to what he called “a little cattiness in a five- or six-year window”.
“I can’t disagree with that because it was much more contentious years ago,” said Fantry-Mills, who has a career mark of 162-51-7 and she begins her 12th season as Ramsey coach. “It has become a much healthier rivalry I think. I always preach to play with class, respect and sportsmanship and it’s become a healthy next-door rivalry. He [Smith] and I have become much friendlier. We were never unfriendly but I never really felt the love from him in the early years. I think he’s much more appreciative of what other coaches and programs are doing now and I appreciate that.”
That Ramsey and Northern Highlands have been able to establish such successful programs and remain consistently at the top of the food chain in North Jersey speaks volumes about how Fantry-Mills and Smith have constructed their programs. Fantry-Mills has had one player – two-time North Jersey Field Hockey Player of the Year Kassidy Shetler (Rutgers) – go to a major Division 1 school.
Smith, meanwhile, had Kristin Heaney, whom he called the “gold standard” for Northern Highlands, play collegiately at Lafayette. So neither program has been rife with big-time stars and All-State players.
Shetler was a four-year varsity starter at Ramsey and believes that preparing for Northern Highlands every season plays a part in why the Rams and Highlanders have had so much success overall.
“We always prepared to come back and play that one game,” Shetler said. “That was the game we prepared for all season. We put in the extra work to be the better team. I know Rich and Coach Fantry push their kids a lot.”
While the two teams added another chapter to their rivalry Tuesday night, both coaches point to the 2011 title game tie as one of the games that stand out the most. The Rams held a late lead before Northern Highlands tied the score with less than 30 seconds remaining. Northern Highlands, in a sense, won the game while Ramsey felt it had suffered a defeat.
“We’re both on the same page for this stuff,” Fantry-Mills said. “Heartbreaks for us are successes for them and vice versa. At the end of the day, though, it’s still about the kids and teaching them to have a healthy rivalry. Go out and beat that team but in the end, they are kids just like you.”
Results since 2008
Sept. 26, 2008: NH 4, Ramsey 2
Oct. 13, 2009: NH 2, Ramsey 0
Oct. 20, 2009: Ramsey 1, NH 0
Nov. 1, 2009: NH 1, Ramsey 0 (County Final)
Oct. 12, 2010: NH 4, Ramsey 3
Oct. 24, 2010: NH 3, Ramsey 2 (County Final)
Sept. 16 2011: Ramsey 2, NH 1
Oct. 23, 2011: NH 2, Ramsey 2 (County Final)
Sept. 6, 2012: Ramsey 2, NH 1
Oct. 21, 2012: NH 2, Ramsey 1 (County Final)
Sept. 12, 2013: NH 2, Ramsey 0
Oct. 20, 2013: NH 2, Ramsey 1 (County Final)
Sept. 18,2014: NH 1, Ramsey 0
Oct. 19, 2014: Ramsey 2, NH 1 (County Final)
Sept. 19, 2015: Ramsey 2, NH 1
Oct. 25,2015: Ramsey 3, NH 0 (County Final)
Sept. 15, 2016: NH 2, Ramsey 1
Oct. 23, 2016: Ramsey 3, NH 2 (County FInal)
Sept. 15, 2017: Ramsey 1, NH 0
Oct. 15, 2017: Ramsey 2, NH 0 (County Semifinal)
Sept. 4, 2018: NH 2, Ramsey 1