More than seven years ago, Joe Favinger, a relative of Natali Foster and a cousin of her aunt Kim Walsh, died at 25.
The loss was emotional for Foster, Walsh and the entire family. To cope, the family turned to sports, particularly field hockey, to brighten a dark time.
“It was a part of our whole family,” Walsh said about the sport. “It was something for our whole family to just be together a lot. We really, really needed that after we lost Joe.”
In fifth grade in the Twin Valley school district at the time, Foster’s field hockey career was just taking off, while Walsh, a former field hockey player at Twin Valley and Towson University, was promoted from assistant coach to head coach at the high school ahead of the 2015 season.
With field hockey serving as their outlet, the bond between the aunt and niece began to solidify.
“We started spending more time together,” said Foster, one of the five finalists for the Reading Eagle’s annual female Athlete of the Year award, which will be announced June 29. “We thought of the ‘what-ifs’ and didn’t want to waste our time.”
The pair capitalized on the opportunity that lay ahead, as Foster climbed through the ranks while Walsh developed a winning field hockey program at Twin Valley. Seven years later, the pair’s journey culminated with a victory in the state championship game, with Foster serving as the Raiders’ senior captain and Walsh as the head coach.
“At the end of the day, this is so awesome and sports are amazing but your family is important, ” Walsh said. “(Field hockey has) been a positive light for us.”
The path to the state title didn’t come without some struggles, however. When Foster moved up to the high school as a freshman, Walsh didn’t shy away from coaching her hard.
“I knew what her potential was,” Walsh said. “I wasn’t there just to promote her, and I needed her to earn everything. I had to make sure that she was pushed the hardest.”
Foster grew frustrated at times with Walsh, who was also her high school softball coach, during her first two years of high school. Walsh would make Foster go for morning runs, which Foster despised, in addition to the team workouts.
“She hated it,” Walsh said. “She used to get so mad. It wasn’t always easy.”
Despite the occasional disagreements, Twin Valley field hockey experienced success on the field, advancing to the state semifinals in 2018 and 2019. Foster led the team in points both seasons, and scored a team-high 31 goals as a sophomore in 2019.
“She knows that I can be pushed pretty hard,” Foster said about Walsh. “She always pushes me. She always believes in me and always has my back.”
Foster began to appreciate the tough love as a junior, and the bond between her and her aunt continued to grow. The Raiders won the 2020 county title, the first for the Foster-Walsh combo.
“I think she started to see it as she was a junior and especially as she was a senior (as to) why I expected a little bit more from her,” Walsh said. “I expected a lot from her as a player, but she also expected a lot from me as a coach.”
In addition to their success on the field, the bond between the two grew off the field, as well. According to Foster, Walsh served as a mentor in not only sports, but also in school and life.
“She’s like a big sister to me,” Foster said. “She’s my rock.”
Twin Valley field hockey started the 2021 season 16-1 before falling to Upper Perkiomen 2-1 on Oct. 15. The loss brought the Raiders closer together, and they won 11 straight games to finish the year.
“The most memorable moment (of the championship season) was when we all came together again,” Foster said. “It’s like a second family and when things aren’t going right, you want to fix it. When we fixed that, it was so much better.”
Twin Valley blazed through the postseason, winning the county and District 3 Class 2A titles before advancing to the state final. The Raiders beat Gwynedd Mercy Academy 3-2 to capture the PIAA Class 2A championship. Foster scored two goals in the third quarter, including the eventual winning goal with 3:16 left.
“That was the best feeling ever,” Walsh said. “We had been working so hard. It was just so cool to do it with her.”
Foster was named the Berks Player of the Year in 2020 and 2021, while Walsh was named the Berks Coach of the Year both years. Foster led the county in goals (64), assists (51) and points (179) in 2021. Her 140 career goals rank second in Berks history, while her 126 career assists rank first all-time.
“Being able to be in the competitive field with her has just given us this bond,” Walsh said about working with Foster. “It’s just been so amazing to do all of this and accomplish all of this with her.”
After all the on-field success in two sports, the relationship between Foster and Walsh has never been closer. The pair still go for runs in the mornings, despite Foster’s time at Twin Valley having recently ended.
“I probably wouldn’t get up and go (by) myself,” Walsh said. “If she’s going to be out there, then I’ve got to be out there with her.”
Immediately after Twin Valley’s field hockey team won the state championship, Foster hopped the fence to celebrate with the fans. The first person she hugged wasn’t a family member or friend, but was a young girl who Foster had helped coach at the Raiders’ youth field hockey clinics for elementary-aged players.
“She gets the community feel,” Walsh said. “The kids love her (and) they look up to her.”
Foster, who will continue her education and field hockey career at Drexel University in the fall, said she would be interested in coaching field hockey following her time at Drexel. Foster served as a volunteer coach with Twin Valley Youth Field Hockey, working at clinics and at their annual summer camp.
“I love helping little kids,” Foster said. “I’d love to grow the game and help them as much as possible.”
According to Walsh, Foster has what it takes to be a coach because of her knowledge of the game and vision of the play on the field.
“She understands the game so well (and) she can see the whole field,” Walsh said. “That’s so important as a coach — to see the big picture. If you can’t put it all together, you just can’t be successful.”
Playing field hockey, basketball and softball throughout high school, Foster found little time to rest between sports.
Despite the busy schedule, she welcomed the change of pace
“I just got used to it throughout the years,” Foster said. “I wanted to put in the work early so I was used to the change in sports.”
Foster played in 11 high school sports seasons, as the 2020 softball season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Out of those 11 seasons, her teams never missed the District 3 playoffs and qualified for the state playoffs nine times.
“The quality that really sets her apart is her competitiveness and her determination to win,” Raiders girls basketball coach Doug Myer said. “She really led by example.”
Foster is a four-time Berks champion, winning a pair of county titles each in field hockey and softball.
“I got to grow with all the girls throughout the years,” Foster said. “The bond that we had in all three seasons, nobody has ever felt that feeling before.”
Foster was an All-Berks selection five times, including in field hockey, girls basketball and softball this academic year. In addition to leading the Raiders to the state field hockey title, she helped guide the girls basketball and softball teams to appearances in the county, district and state playoffs this school year.
As a senior, she averaged a team-high 13.4 points per game and was a defensive force in basketball. In softball, she played center field and hit .457 with 12 doubles, 27 runs and 42 RBIs.
“As outstanding as she is in three different sports, playing at least an all-county level in all three sports, she is very humble,” Myer said. “She loves to be around her teammates. Being on a sports team is where she seems her happiest.”
Foster was a three-time first-team All-Berks and All-State selection in field hockey and a two-time All-State selection in softball (this year’s teams in softball have not been announced). She was a 2021 second-team All-American in field hockey.
“She just grew into her role on both the field hockey field and on the softball field,” Walsh said. “It was really cool to see.”
With her storied career at Twin Valley over, Foster acknowledged that her accomplishments would not have been possible without those around her.
“I would just like to thank my teammates, my family, friends, coaches (and) everybody who has ever helped me to get to this point,” Foster said. “I would not have been able to reach any of my goals that I have already succeeded without them. I just wanted them to know that they’re a big part of my life and I really appreciate all of them.”