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Monday, June 5, 2017

The OCT softball final that was as good as promised

The 17th annual Ocean County Softball Tournament championship game promised to be an entertaining final.

And maybe the most intense final in its history.

Though Toms River High School East was given the top seed, the Raiders were not the hottest team even in town by the end of the season. Crosstown rival Toms River North was the team riding the hot hand going into the tournament. In the semifinal matchup on East's field on May 31, 1997, the fourth-seeded Mariners hit the Raiders in dribs and drabs to score a methodical 10-2 win to advance to their first final in four years.

The day itself was yucky, grey and cool, far from good softball weather. That Saturday was part of a semifinal doubleheader with the other game featuring second-seeded Central Regional and third seed and defending champion Jackson Memorial. The first game took two hours and 28 minutes to plod through, so the second game wasn't going to go off at 7:30 like I hoped it would. Instead, it got off the ground at 8 p.m.

And with a surging four-run top of the seventh, Jackson Memorial had taken a 9-5 lead and needed just three outs to clinch the win and a chance to do something no team had ever done in the history of the event -- repeat as a champion. But the Jaguars had a hard time putting away the Golden Eagles in the bottom of the seventh. A couple of errors and some walks helped to cut the lead to 9-8. And with two outs, the only obstacle in the way of the Jaguars finishing out business was junior shortstop and cleanup hitter Toni Penniman. On an 0-1 pitch, Penniman drilled a shot to left field that Cheryl Fossati, who went to the outfield after she could not finish what she started in the circle, did not spot. The ball went over her head, pinch-runner Meghan Barrett scored and Penniman ended up at third base with a triple.

But before anyone thought about extra innings, Kristy Tice, who had the indignity of being relieved in the circle in the top of the seventh when the Jaguars scored four runs, made up for the mess in the seventh by drilling a first-pitch offering from reliever Dara DeVincenzo to left-center field to win, 10-9, and send the Golden Eagles into the championship.

And so for the first time since April 30, the two teams would be back on a softball field, but this time deciding who was best in the county for the year. It was on that afternoon at Toms River North that the Mariners powered past the Golden Eagles, 6-2, behind the one-hit pitching of North hard-throwing right-hander Lauren Anderson, who had nine strikeouts in the game.

Anderson was only a sophomore, but she was already building a huge reputation around New Jersey as a strikeout ace and dominant hurler. She had already rolled up 251 strikeouts for the year going into this championship. The problem, though, was that her teammates couldn't get a clutch hit when needed. And it wasn't from a lack of trying -- scratching out a run or two in games was tougher than solving the Rubik's cube. There were some threats on the team, but stringing hits together was a problem.

North's top hitters would be their battery, Anderson and all-around standout junior catcher Teresa Andreani, who, too, had built a strong reputation as a standout catcher in the state. The Mariners were coached by the venerable Becky Miller, the only head coach in the program's history and now in her 27th year as the team's leader. Her Mariners were winners of 13 of the last 15 games they played, losing only in the state tournament, 1-0, to Shawnee even though Anderson threw a no-hitter in the loss, and to Allentown in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals when Allentown forced North to play on the day of its prom, meaning some key Mariners did not make the trip to play.

North had not won anything during the season -- its inconsistent play allowed East to win the Shore Conference Class A South title and with the state and SCT gone, the only thing left to go after was the OCT.

And with a win over Central just over a month earlier, it seemed as if Anderson and the Mariners were going to roll to this championship.

But there was a reason why for years I called the Golden Eagles' program "Big Game Central." Most of the time, the Golden Eagles, whether under former coach Norm Selby or its current coach at the time, Joe Winkelried, found a way under the most flappable of situations to win a game it didn't have a chance to win. In 1994, the Golden Eagles rallied in the bottom of the seventh to beat Ocean Township and win an SCT semifinal game, eventually going on to the championship in what would be Selby's final game as coach. In 1996, against those same Ocean Township High Spartans, this time in the NJSIAA Group III semifinals, Ocean Township scored in the ninth inning to take a 4-3 lead, only to have the Golden Eagles rally for two runs in the bottom of the inning to advance to the title game ... which they would win against Paramus, 1-0, for Ocean County's state softball championship.

And, of course, there was the Houdini-like escape against Jackson Memorial in the previous OCT game. These Golden Eagles were proven gamers when needed, but they needed a title to make their season complete a year after a state championship. They didn't win the divisional title, and were eliminated by Lower Cape May in the state tournament and lost a heartbreaker in the SCT to St. John Vianney. The OCT was left.

Leading the way was their All-State center fielder, senior Cheryl Zellman, who was again having a great year and on her way to North Carolina-Pembroke on scholarship. But she had plenty of company who had been there, done that in three or four years as varsity players. There was catcher Kelly Honecker, the steady force behind the plate and, like Andreani, one of the best in the county. Jill Homage was a solid first baseman who can hit for average and anchor the base defensively. And there was Tice, the steady hand in the circle who had a lot to prove in the championship after Winkelried removed her in that game against Jackson Memorial when she didn't have her best in the seventh inning.

But there were other key players on the younger level -- like Penniman, best known for the RBI single that knocked in Zellman the year before leading Central to that 1-0 win over Paramus, and like Becky Barrett, a veteran left fielder with a good arm and a nice bat. For at least the first six hitters in the Golden Eagles' lineup, they were solid.

This title game on Toms River East's field, though, was much more than a second seed against a fourth seed. North felt like it was wronged in getting the fourth seed compared to the second seed Central got, considering it was that week of North's win over Central that the tournament was being seeded. And North wanted to take away whatever swagger Central had from all the years it dominated the county softball scene. The Mariners had something to prove on this night and Anderson was going to be the unstoppable force facing Central's immovable object.

In other words, something had to give.

The night of Thursday, June 5, 1997, started as a cool one in the upper 50s under bright, but sinking sunny skies. Before we got the game off the ground, I, as a co-director of the tournament along with East coach Debbie Schwartz, had put together a ceremony honoring the 1987 improbable Lacey High championship team as a 10th and last seed. The problem was that only three young ladies from that team along with coach Mike Shern showed up -- and Kathleen Hanlon threw out the first pitch, though it was suggested to me by one of the other young ladies that the number of people there that night from Lacey's team was so small that everyone should have thrown a first pitch.

It was on to the game at long last. I was working the public address system and official scorekeeping duties on one end of a table, while Brian Bender, a fantastic young man with a lot of potential in the communications business, got to work the scoreboard for me on the other end. From near behind the plate, the game was being taped and broadcast for a showing a week later by Adelphia-8 cable with Tripp Rogers and Sue Shilling, a former Lakewood High outfielder, doing the call.

The first inning for both pitchers were routine -- Tice got a groundout, line drive and foulout for a 1-2-3 inning, while Anderson got two comebackers and a strikeout for her bottom of the first.

In the top of the second, Anderson delivered a single to center field. Junior second baseman Nicolette Schellato bunted her up to second, putting Anderson in scoring position and giving North the first threat of the night. But back-to-back popouts to Penniman by Alyson Barnett and Kathy Acosta ended the threat.

The bottom of the second began with Penniman delivering an opposite-field single to right field. Then came the first key play of the night. Tice dropped down a bunt that third baseman Lisa Miller fielded and threw to Schellato covering first for the out. But no one was available to cover third and seeing that, Penniman didn't stop running until she got to third without a throw.

A big play for Central. A big mistake for North.

That brought up Honecker. She fell behind 0-2 in the count. Then defending herself at the plate, she barely got bat on ball. It trickled up the right side of the infield. It couldn't have been more than 12 feet. But Andreani wasn't coming out to get it and Anderson and Barnett weren't getting there fast enough to make a play at the plate. Penniman slid home easily with the run to give the Golden Eagles the 1-0 lead.

To this day, when I bring that hit up to Honecker, I've said it was the most effective 12-15 foot grounder hit by anyone in OCT history. She gets a laugh out of that.

Anderson would get strikeouts of Robin Pepper and Dawn Wilson to end the inning, but the Golden Eagles had a 1-0 lead.

And it was up to Tice to make it hold up. Robin Rusin would bloop a single to left field, but she would be forced out on a grounder by No. 9 hitter Tonilynn Trombino. Tice would get a strikeout of leadoff hitter Megan Clarey and a foulout by Lisa Miller.

Tice, a 20-game winner in back-to-back seasons as a junior and senior, wanted a defining game for her career. Though she was the Most Valuable Pitcher in the 1995 OCT title win over Jackson Memorial, it was an unmemorable 11-4 Golden Eagles win in which the Jaguars stumbled and fumbled their way to nine errors. And as a junior, she was the starting pitcher in the Group III championship on North's field against Paramus when a freak accident off a riseball foul that she deflected into her own mouth ripped her lip open in the top of the first inning and forced her out of the game. It was backup pitcher Pepper to the rescue in that one, throwing a two-hit shutout in that dramatic 1-0 win over Paramus.

This time, Tice was front and center ... and having to make amends for what happened in that previous game against Jackson Memorial. Her teammates got her off the hook and she delivered the game-winning hit in that one. Now she wanted to be the star in what was her last game.

After Rusin had reached in the third, Tice put the Mariners down by retiring 12 straight batters, including striking out the side in the top of the sixth inning.

But Anderson was matching Tice zero for zero, though the bottom of the third got interesting when the Golden Eagles got runners on second and third and two out. She struck out Penniman looking to end the frame. Two innings later, Zellman had reached on an error by Schellato at second and after stealing second and third, was left stranded there when Anderson reached back to strike out Homage and Becky Barrett. In the sixth, the Golden Eagles had gotten Penniman aboard on a walk. She stole second and one out later, was sacrificed to third by Honecker. But Pepper hit a comebacker to Anderson to end the inning.

Nonetheless, Central had held service after that second-inning run. Tice was unbelievable and was three outs away from finishing up Central Regional's record sixth county title. By this point, I can feel the anticipation of a huge celebration since the Golden Eagles fans were next to me on the first base side of the East field.

But for the Golden Eagles to finish things out, it had to start with getting out the dangerous, left-handed hitting Andreani, who I would come to find out was playing from the fifth inning on in the game with a broken finger after a Zellman foul ball. She has always been a part of my "all-tough team."

Tice got to 0-2 on Andreani by hitting the corners or where her good buddy Honecker was putting the glove down. But as she went to find another corner on North's No. 3 hitter, Tice missed her mark. Honecker knew it. And Andreani made her pay.

Andreani drilled a shot over new right fielder Meghan Barrett's head and on a field without a fence, Andreani could run all day. But Barrett was a faster runner than previous right fielder Pepper and that was what kept Andreani from an inside-the-park home run. Andreani was held up at third by Miller.

The table was set for North to tie this game and send it into the bottom of the seventh. Tice and Honecker needed to regroup. They had to get past Anderson first. Ticee worked the count to 2-2, then threw an outside fastball that was a borderline strike. Nevertheless, home plate umpire Rich Coleman called it a strike.

One out. Two to go.

Next up was Schellato, who was having a difficult night in the field. With an 0-2 count, Tice went to the corner on the outside part of the plate again. Coleman banged Schellato. Becky Miller was none too pleased and she came almost storming down from the third base box giving Coleman an ear full. Most umpires may have ejected her, but Coleman had an understanding ear and an even more giving demeanor. He let her have her say before she went back to her coaching box.

Two out. One to go.

By this point, Miller pointed to the bench and called on Kim McTamney to pinch-hit. Only a sophomore, she was now being asked to keep the game alive and get Andreani home from third to tie things up. Problem was Tice wasn't having anything of it.

First pitch, outside corner, strike one. Second pitch, outside corner, strike two. Central fans were fired up. You can almost feel that explosion and that the sixth title was in the Golden Eagles' grasp.

But on 0-2, Tice got too much of the plate. She knew it.

McTamney poked the ball just over Penniman's head and into left field for a base hit. Andreani scampered home. The euphoria was gone on Central's side. We were tied at 1-all. And though  Acosta grounded out to second baseman Wilson, it was a new game.

But Central had the last at-bat. Get a run and go home with the title. Pretty simple.

Sure! This was Lauren Anderson we're talking about. You think this stuff's easy?

Wilson tried to bunt her way on, but Anderson pounced on the bunt and threw a strike to Schellato covering the base for the first out. However, Tricia Friedman, the No. 9 hitter, was about to get on when her harmless grounder could not be swallowed up by Schellato -- her third error of the game -- giving the Golden Eagles the runner they needed to win the title.

Back to the top and the dangerous Zellman. She made hard contact with a first-pitch fastball and laced it into center field for a base hit, putting runners on first and second. That sent Homage up. She bunted. Andreani got the ball, but her throw to Miller at third base was too late to get Friedman.

Bases loaded, one out. And with No. 3 hitter Becky Barrett at the plate, it wasn't looking good for North. The Mariners would have to bring the infield in. Meanwhile, Winkelried was putting a much faster runner in at third base in freshman Amanda Smith to help force the issue with a play at the plate.

The count got to 1-1 on Barrett. Anderson threw the next pitch letter-high. Barrett made contact and hit a grounder to Schellato. She fielded the ball cleanly, then fired to Andreani at the plate.

It was a bang-bang play. Coleman had a difficult call to make.

He held his fist up and called Smith out at the plate. The broadcast of the game is something I still have to this day and I can tell you first-hand, it was so close, I wound up breaking that play down frame by frame. In the end -- and Coleman couldn't really see it because of how close it was -- Smith beat the throw home.

Well, Winkelried thought Smith beat the play at the plate and started celebrating like she was safe for a few seconds. Then he realized she was out and had the tough task of getting the other runners on the basepaths to get back to their bases.

And here's next why Andreani is one of the best catchers I've ever seen play the sport. The play at the plate was over -- but the play itself wasn't. Trying to find an advantage somewhere with the other runners, Andreani saw Zellman and chased her back to third (in all honesty, Andreani was not going to win a foot race with the speedy Zellman). But out of the corner of her eye, she saw Homage well off the bases. She reached out and touched Homage and North coaches and players went bananas claiming that Homage was out as well.

Once play finally stopped, Coleman grabbed his wife, Nancy, who was umpiring at third base, and Karen Hughes, who was at first base, and asked what they thought of the play and what they saw. When it was finally finished discussing, it was decided that not only was Smith out at the plate, but Homage was out, too, since no one had called timeout.

North had pulled off an unimaginable double play all because their studious catcher was thinking beyond the initial play.

Central fans were livid. I can still hear them to this day yelling at the umpires for the call. But there was nothing they could do. Turns out in the end, Homage was reacting to Winkelried's reaction of thinking Smith was safe at the plate. But no matter what Central may have argued, for the first time in the history of the OCT, the title game was going into extra innings at 1-all.

The seventh inning alone was exhausting. The teams had previously played an OCT game in 1993 -- and that game went a record 15 innings before North beat the defending champion Golden Eagles that night at Point Pleasant Boro High School, 7-4. That thought started creeping into my head as 9:30 p.m. rolled around.

Remember, immovable object versus the unstoppable force?

Tice, though, didn't have any troubles in the eighth inning, unlike the seventh. She got a groundout, popup and a flyout for a 1-2-3 inning.

Anderson struck out Penniman for the second time in the game to begin the bottom of the eighth. But Tice hit a popup that should've been the second out. And to make a bad night worse, Schellato had difficulty with a little bit of a swirling wind and dropped the ball for an error.

It was her OCT finals-record fourth error of the night, tying a mark first set by another North second baseman, Lesley Gertner, in the 1991 final against Brick. And by now, Central's fans, who were over by the first base side -- well, mainly the students -- were giving Schellato a hard time. And someone must have said something because from the corner of my eye, I can see Schellato giving the "We're No. 1" sign to the fans with a different finger. Hughes had to call timeout and tell the fans to knock it off, reminding them there's still sportsmanship involved in this event.

After getting Honecker to strike out, Anderson uncorked a wild pitch, moving Tice to second. On a 1-1 pitch, Meghan Barrett bunted beautifully away from any North fielders and beat it out, putting runners on first and third with two outs. Barrett advanced to second on the first pitch to Wilson. But there was no thought of putting Wilson on base to load the bases for Friedman ... Anderson was coming after her. She got the count to 2-2, then got one to the outside part of the plate that Wilson laid off of that Coleman called a strike, the third time Wilson got caught looking on a strikeout, giving Anderson 13 Ks for the night and moving the game along to the ninth.

Tice got Miller out to start the ninth, once again bringing up Andreani. And let's just say Honecker wasn't going to allow Andreani to play a role in a possible North title. Four straight balls, none even close to the plate.

Andreani was on base on the unintentional intentional walk. Anderson hit a comebacker to Tice that got Andreani to second with two outs. But Schellato, already having a rough game, popped out to Penniman to end the frame.

It was at that time, I started looking at who was coming up. Friedman was to start the inning. Then it was Zellman, then Homage and Barrett. I felt like if Central was to try to win the game, this was the opportunity to do so. And on top of things, it was getting a bit colder as temperatures that started in the upper 50s had gone down into the upper 40s on this early June night. I think anyone who was there, even in light coats or jackets, were feeling the chill at this point.

But for a cold as the weather got, Anderson was still bringing the heat. She delivered a heat-blower that Friedman barely got a bat on and hit a grounder to Schellato, who cleanly fielded it and threw to Barnett for the first out of the inning.

And now it was Zellman's turn at the plate. Like Tice with Andreani, Anderson wasn't going to give Zellman any cookies to spray throughout the field. She went low on the first three pitches, one even clanging off the backstop, to get the count to 3-0. On the next pitch, a borderline outside delivery, Coleman called a strike. I can hear the Central parents at that point complaining about that pitch and that it should've been a ball. But nothing was automatic.

Still, a 3-1 pitch is a great hitter's pitch. And it was on this pitch that years later, Zellman told me that the ball was "a little bit up and a little bit inside ... and just right."

The left-handed hitting Zellman clocked it like no one had all night against Anderson. The moment Zellman rocked Anderson's offering, all I can see was center fielder Trombino having to turn her back and race after the ball. She gave a valiant effort into chasing the ball down on the fenceless field. But Zellman was a bit faster than most of Central's hitters. She got to second, then to third.

And Winkelried wasn't slowing her down. He was sending her home, not wanting this game to go any further than it already had.

Trombino put a perfect relay throw to Acosta. Acosta in turn, threw a one-hopper to the plate as Zellman came sliding in to Andreani. The ball bounced past Andreani and to the backstop as Zellman slid in.

And it was over. In the most dramatic way you can imagine, Zellman's inside-the-park home run had given the Golden Eagles the 2-1 victory and their sixth OCT title. And I will forever hear Tripp Rogers' voice on that play for as long as I live:

"Three-one pitch <crack> ... BELTED! Center field, over the head of Trombino! Zellman, rounding first on her way to second. Zellman, rounding third on her way home. Cheryl Zellman! Play at the plate! She's in! With a home run! And Central has won the OCT in 1997! And look at the players surrounding Cheryl Zellman!"

Twenty years later, it is still the most dramatic play in OCT championship game history in what is still the greatest final ever played. Central players celebrated jumping on top of each other. North players came off the field like it was the slowest version of the Bataan death march ever. I can still see Trombino balling her eyes out with Anderson trying to console her.

The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat -- it's always what makes sports great. At 9:51 p.m., it was over. Now it was time to give out the awards for the tournament. I was given Rogers' other mike along with the one I used for the tournament to make the announcements for both the fans and the Adelphia-8 broadcast. First came North's second-place individual trophies and team award. Then came Central Regional's individual and team first-place honors.

And then came the individual honors for the tournament. All of them went to Central Regional: Zellman was the top hitter of the event at .533 (8-for-15), Honecker had no errors in earning defensive player of the tournament honors, Tice, who had something to prove that night and did, won the Most Valuable Pitcher honor, though North fans -- including assistant coach Mary Ellen Tutzauer -- had a right to protest since Anderson had struck out 41 batters in her three tournament games and brought up Tice's less-than-stellar effort in that Jackson Memorial game.

But there was no doubt on the OCT Most Valuable Player honor -- how many players say they ended their careers by hitting a home run in their final at-bat? Cheryl Zellman could and she walked away with yet another piece of hardware for the tournament.

It was 10:20 p.m. and I still had to get back to the office and write this amazing game up. I did it in just about an hour and we got out before the 12:30 a.m. deadline like we normally did.

This game is 20 years old, and to me, it still stands the test of time among great games. The sights and sounds I won't ever forget. Nor will I forget that wacky but amazing double play that sent the game to extra innings or that 12-foot RBI single or that RBI single on 0-2 with the game on the line.

Or that home run that decided the championship. I still have a copy of the video somewhere that one day I want to make into a DVD. I just can't find anyone that can do it for me.

I want people to see that amazing game. It really does stand the test of time.

The Central-North championship was entertaining and memorable, everything it promised it would be.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Left standing in the on-deck circle

The beauty of a game featuring the seventh and 10th seeds of a tournament is that you have two teams fairly close in talent facing off with another.

The ugliness of a game featuring the seventh and 10th seeds of a tournament, though, is the game is going to be far from talent-driven.

In other words, it's an intriguing game, but the old standard line is "you know what you're paying for."

On Saturday, May 9, 1987, I wasn't paying to see seventh-seeded Lakewood host 10th-seeded Lacey in the opening round of the seventh annual (and as it turned out, the most bizarre ever) Ocean County Softball Tournament. But I knew this was a game featuring two young clubs. There were very few seniors on either team, but I knew who the star senior was on both teams.

For Lacey High, the visitors on the scoreboard, it was all-everything shortstop Kathleen Hanlon. She had a very good bat and could make key plays in the field. It was her third year on varsity and she was ready to shine in this, her senior year.

For Lakewood High, there was Carol Walters -- and then there was everyone else in Ocean County. One of the most dominant players to ever set foot on a softball field, the shortstop was the glue to holding the Piners together. As a sophomore, she helped lead the Piners to the county championship game, one the Piners lost, 8-3, to Toms River South. And she was having a great senior year altogether, winning 24 matches as a second singles player in tennis to make All-County, then leading the Piners as the team's point guard to a second NJSIAA South Jersey Group III girls basketball championship in three years.

By this point, she had popped four home runs in her season. Against straight-throwing junior pitcher Tiffany Boczkus, I couldn't imagine the damage she might do in this morning game.

Boczkus led Lacey's Kiddie Brigade that included a sophomore first baseman (Debbie Lynch), a freshman second baseman (Denise Lucas), a freshman third baseman (Patty Brilly), a sophomore left fielder (Janene Spitaletto), and a sophomore center fielder (Andrea Arminio).

The Lions were 5-10 going into the game, too, but had won three straight to begin the process of transitioning into the future for third-year coach Mike Shern. There was going to be no other postseason action for the Lions. So if they were to make a late-season impression, the county tournament was it. Only one other time did the Lions make a final -- that was in 1982 as a first-year program with players who had played for Central Regional coming in to a new school. That year, the Lions were a 10th seed as well. They fell in the final to top-seeded and experienced Toms River South, 10-3.

But other than being a 10th seed in this year's tournament, that was about the only comparison you could find between those two Lacey teams.

Lakewood was a little older, though most of its starters were juniors. One of those juniors was pitcher Kelley Edwards. She was hot and cold as a pitcher. When she was on, she would get strikes and get outs. When she wasn't on, she'd issue walks like it was a holiday and innings would seemingly go on for quite some time.

Game time on this particular morning was 11 o'clock. I left at just before 10 to head over to the field, listening to American Top 40 on WJRZ-FM, the first song being the only two debut hits in the countdown that week -- Smokey Robinson's first hit in five years, "Just To See Her" at No. 40, and the Miami-based dance act Company B debuting at No. 39 with "Fascinated."

Oh, the little things you remember.

I arrived at Wilbur Thompson Field somewhere around 10:15 in the morning on a sunny day where the weather was slowly warming up. I can still see Lakewood assistant coach Bob Sattan warming up his Piners and most of them having trouble with grounders, the outfielders struggling with pop-ups to them. Only Carol Walters was gobbling grounders up without much problem and making precision throws to first baseman Angie Gately.

Before they warmed up, I watched Shern warm up with his Lions. They weren't all that much better out there on grounders, flyballs and popups, but hey, they made plays. If they did this in a game, they had a good shot at winning this darn thing and moving along in the tourney.

Minutes before the game, coaches Shern and Lakewood head man Dave McKelvey met at home plate, discussed the ground rules on the spacious Thompson Field and just after 11 o'clock, the game began. My view was over next to the Lakewood bench on the first-base side of the field.

The Lions were going to be hitting first. This was the first time I would be seeing both teams play this season. When you're not all that good, it's rare I get to see you play in person. But this is the tournament, so I get to see a lot of games in it.

The game started out normally with leadoff hitter Boczkus reaching on a walk, only to be erased at second on a Hanlon grounder to Walters for a forceout. But Spitaletto delivered a triple to the left-center field gap and Hanlon scored to make it 1-0. A Lynch grounder to Shayna Busto was mishandled and Spitaletto scored to make it 2-0.

It was only going to get worse -- Debbie D'Allesandro, the only other senior on the Lacey team along with Hanlon, singled to right-center to send Lynch to third. Lucas hit a squib shot that Edwards picked up and threw wildly to first for an error, allowing Lynch and D'Allesandro to score. A wild pitch moved Lucas to third and Armino walked to put runners on the corners. Sue Spitaletto, Janene's older sister, hit a grounder that Busto ranged up the middle to get, then threw to Walters at second for the forceout, which allowed Lucas to score. A groundout by Brilly finally ended the inning with Lacey holding a 5-0 lead.

Things seemed OK when Boczkus retired Edwards on a groundout to Hanlon to start the game. But up stepped Walters. The left-handed hitting standout took a 1-0 pitch to the outside part of the plate and drilled it to the left-center field gap. On that field, the ball could roll all day and it seemingly did as by the time Spitaletto got the ball, Walters had reached third and was cruising in with an inside-the-park home run, cutting the lead to 5-1.

It didn't stop there, though. Busto singled, Gately walked and Sue Shilling singled to load the bases. Sophomore catcher Robin White was ready to get Lakewood back into the game. But she hit a two-hopper to Boczkus, who threw to Sue Spitaletto at the plate to get Busto. Michele Morgan hit a grounder that Hanlon grabbed and tagged Shilling on her way to third to end the threat.

In the top of the second, the Lions were going to continue what they started against Edwards. Boczkus laced a triple to right-center field to begin the frame. Edwards then had a hard time finding the plate, walking Hanlon and Janene Spitaletto to load the bases. Lynch, though, hit a comebacker to Edwards, who threw to White to get the force of Boczkus at the plate.

But D'Allesandro walked and in came Hanlon. Edwards found the plate long enough to strike out Lucas for the second out, but she needed to get Armino next.

Nope. She walked her on a 3-2 pitch and in came Spitaletto to make it 7-1. Then to make matters worse, Sue Spitaletto singled to right field to bring in Lynch and D'Allesandro, making it 9-1. Once again, No. 9 hitter Brilly made the last out of the inning on a pop-out, but even on a field that had no working on scoreboard, even Lakewood knew there was concern down 9-1 in the second inning.

But Kris Simon singled, then Jackie Shaw walked. Both moved up on a wild pitch and leadoff hitter Edwards walked to load the bases.

Bases loaded ... and here comes Carol Walters to the plate. You can imagine that sick, awful feeling Mike Shern was having at that moment. On another 1-0 pitch, Walters lofted a flyball to center field that Armino was going to haul in and make the catch.

Nope. She dropped the ball. Simon and Shaw scored, Edwards got to third and Walters ended up on second on the error that kept her from having a perfect day at the plate. (This was a point of consternation between McKelvey and I for a time because one thing I've never done unless I'm absolutely 100-percent sure is to "assume" something will happen. I've never given an automatic sacrifice fly, plain and simple, on something like that.)

Well there went the chance of an out. Busto singled to right to score both Edwards and Walters and it was 9-5. After Gately popped out for the first out of the inning, Shilling hit a grounder that ate Brilly up alive, putting runners on first and third. A wild pitch followed to bring home Busto. After a walk to White, McKelvey had his two runners pull off the double steal, which they did successfully, allowing Shilling to score. It was 9-7. A wild pitch sent White to third, a walk to Morgan and a single by Simon suddenly made it 9-8.

And there was still one out. Lakewood wasn't done yet. But in one pitch, the Piners were done as Shaw hit a soft liner at Brilly, then threw to Lucas at second to double off Morgan when she forgot how many out there were.

Oops. Still, Lakewood was back in the game at 9-8. It was a game again, but I wanted sanity restored. I mean c'mon ... it' 9-8 and it's two innings into the game! By the end of this one, it was truly stated these two teams belonged with one another.

My hope for a quick half-inning came in the top of the third as Edwards got a strikeout of Boczkus and two flyballs to left field within nine pitches for a 1-2-3 inning.

After Edwards struck out to start the bottom of the third, Walters singled to right. And as expected, she stole second, then third without much of a challenge. After a pop-out and a walk to Gately, who stole second soon after, Shilling singled to left field to score both runners.

Remember that 9-1 Lacey lead? Yeah, it got wiped out with Lakewood leading, 10-9, after three innings.

The Lions put runners on first and second with no outs, but a Lucas bunt attempt was snagged by White, who threw to Gately to double off D'Allesandro at first, then Armino grounded out to Gately to end the inning.

Another zero inning for the Lions. And the Piners were feeling things swaying their way. Morgan led off the fourth by reaching on a throwing error by Hanlon. Singles by Simon and Edwards with one out loaded the bases ... for you know who.

One again, Walters ripped the first pitch she saw -- a 1-1 straight fastball to right field to score Morgan and Simon, making it 12-9. The throw to get Simon at the plate was late and allowed the runners to move up a base. This was important because Busto delivered a single to center that scored the two runners, making it 14-9.

Boczkus got Gately and Shilling on grounders, but I was just dumbfounded. The Piners had gone from being down 9-1 to up 14-9 with three innings left. This shouldn't have happened, but it showed me why these Lions were so inconsistent all year. Inconsistency, as they say, is the sign of a young team trying to find its way.

But just when it seemed like the Lions were ready to be counted out, they found their second wind in the top of the fifth against Edwards. Sue Spitaletto walked and Brilly singled her to second. Edwards once again found her pitches not finding the strike zone when needed. She walked Boczkus on a 3-2 pitch, then walked Hanlon on a 3-1 delivery to force in Spitaletto. Things were about to become worse as Janene Spitaletto got a hold of a 1-0 pitch and drilled it to the gap for a triple to bring in Brilly, Boczkus and Hanlon.

Lakewood 14, Lacey 13. Two pitches later, Lynch lined a shot down the right-field line. It seemed to take forever for Simon to retrieve the ball. By the time she got it, Lynch rounded the bases for a two-run home run and just like that ... Lacey was back on top of this insane game, 15-14.

And the inning still wasn't close to being over. D'Allesandro walked. White noticed D'Allesandro coming off the base and threw quickly down to Gately, who got the runner in a rundown before Walters made the tag for the first out of the inning. That was just a momentary stop. Lucas walked and moved to second on a comebacker by Armino. It was Sue Spitaletto's turn to become the next Spitaletto to deliver a triple, which she did to the left-center field gap to score Lucas, making it 16-14. Things might have been even worse if Edwards didn't catch Brilly's line drive at her face for the final out of the inning.

Though it took 14 pitches, Boczkus finally had her first 1-2-3 inning in the game with a comebacker, strikeout and groundball to keep Lacey's 16-14 lead.

This game was already two hours and 10 minutes old, and I just didn't know what else to expect at this point.

The top of the sixth began with Edwards issuing her unreal 13th and 14th walks of the game to Boczkus and Hanlon. But Hanlon hit a hard-shot, one-hopper that Shaw gobbled up, stepped on third, then threw to first to complete a double play. But that opened a base up for Hanlon, which she stole. Lynch hit a groundball to the sure-handed Walters ... except for this moment where the hop on Lakewood's field flummoxed her and she couldn't pick the ball cleanly. The error allowed Hanlon to score and Lacey had a 17-14 lead with six outs to get.

But guess who was hitting third in the inning? Yeah, I can look across the field at Shern being very stoic, but I can tell his stomach was turning again. No. 9 hitter Shaw walked to start the inning, but Brilly got an Edwards grounder and threw to Lucas at second to get the force.

At least Walters was not walking to the plate as the tying run, a relief for all those on the Lacey side. On a 2-0 deliver, though, Walters reminded Boczkus and everyone there why she was the best softball player in the county -- she drilled a shot over Armino's head. By the time Armino tracked the ball down, it didn't matter. Walters had just hit her second inside-the-park home run on that gigantic Thompson Park field and the Piners were down 17-16. Busto flied out, but Gately walked and stole second, putting the tying run in scoring position.

Shilling gave a 2-0 offering a ride to center field. Thought she may have gotten it all, but it hung up there too long. Armino tracked down the flyball to end the inning.

Most of us were pretty exhausted after six innings. And with the lead being a run, the intrigue was only going to build up as the seventh inning began. But for that to happen, Edwards needed a shut-down inning. There was no getting around that fact.

And so when she walked Lucas to start the seventh -- her 15th walk of the game -- it was going to be far from smooth sailing. A wild pitch -- only the second of the game as White had done a terrific job catching Edwards throughout the game -- moved Lucas to second. After Armino popped out, Sue Spitaletto sent a flyball to right field. Simon was under it ... but dropped the ball, Lakewood's fourth error of the game. Having to wait to see what would happen, Lucas could only advance to third. Brilly then grounded out to Busto, allowing Lucas to score and pinch-runner Sue Peters to get to second.

But just as it looked as if the Piners may get out of this down two runs, Boczkus hit a grounder that Gately had trouble gathering for Lakewood's fifth error of the game. Worse, a throwing error on the play by Edwards (the sixth error) allowed Peters to come home, making it a 19-16 game.

Hanlon grounded out to Walters to end the inning at long last, but the Piners were going to have to work harder than they anticipated in the bottom of the seventh.

Then again, this game allowed for very little to be easy. Boczkus, having throw 113 pitches going into the bottom of the seventh, just needed to have a nice, tidy inning and the victory would be all hers, giving Lacey a quarterfinal-round date with second-seeded Monsignor Donovan.

Nice and tidy, though was asking a whooooooole bunch. White began the bottom of the inning with a base hit to right field. Morgan hit a nice shot into the hole between third base and shortstop that Hanlon was able to glove and throw to Lucas to get the forceout on White. When Boczkus struck out Simon in just three pitches, the victory seemed finally within reach for the Lions.

Little did Boczkus and her teammates realize that the finish line was a much longer distance than they thought. Shaw roped a triple to left field over Janene Spitaletto's head. Morgan scored and the lead was two runs.

And the top of the lineup was coming around for the sixth time in this wild one. It was up to Edwards to continue this game. She had to come through. If she did, guess who was coming up?

So Boczkus had no choice -- get Kelley Edwards and get the heck off the field for the last time or possibly suffer the consequences of one last duel with Walters, who had tattooed the ball all morning and afternoon to 4-for-5 with five runs scored and five RBI, including two home runs.

Sometimes, the line between success and failure is paper-thin. So Boczkus did all she could to get the ball to the plate, but had worked the count to 3-2. I can still see Walters in the on-deck circle, taking her swings and watching the action intently. On what would be her 127th pitch of the day, Boczkus forced Edwards to hit a grounder at Hanlon. Hanlon scooped the ball up and threw a strike to the left-handed Lynch at first.

The umpire put up his fist to designate the "out" call.

It was over in three hours and seven minutes. Lacey had escaped with a 19-17 victory in what was at that time the highest-scoring OCT game in history. There were 36 runs, 23 hits, nine errors and 23 walks. Amazingly, there were no hit batsmen.

McKelvey lamented about the errors in this one that cost his team a trip to the next round of the tournament. "That's been the problem all season long," he told me afterward. "To me, there's just so much inexperience where we give four-five outs an inning."

Shern was just happy to escape Lakewood's home field without having to face Walters one more time.

"I told Tiffany that we needed to get people out in the seventh," he said. "If we didn't get them out, we were in trouble. And in a situation involving Carol Walters, I'd put my money on her. She most likely would've ended the game."

Years later when I retold the quote to McKelvey, he scoffed at the idea that Walters would be able to beat Lacey by herself and in that at-bat. "With an open base, I would've walked her and taken my chances. I wouldn't have let Carol beat me at that point."

But I reminded McKelvey that Busto, the next hitter, was 3-for-5 with four RBI in the game.

"I'd still take my chances on her before I take my chances on Carol Walters."

Of course, we'll never know since Boczkus got the out that was most important -- the last one.

And little did I know that when Lacey won this game, they were about to venture off on a journey that would see them stun one team after another. I've said this is maybe the most bizarre OCT in its history. Only 10 out of the 15 county schools entered that year (Toms River North was noticeably absent because they played a tournament in Pemberton and couldn't have too many games on their schedule going in, though honestly, I never bought that excuse for one moment. Let's just say there was internal strife between two coaches in that year's event.), and with Lacey as the last seed, not many teams took these Lions seriously.

But then came the shocker of the tournament -- Lacey beat seemingly unbeatable Donovan, 15-8, in eight innings to move to the semifinal round, where the Lions won another wild one, 13-12, over sixth-seeded Toms River South to reach the final. In the final against fifth-seeded Toms River East, the Lions prevailed, 7-5, to win what would be their first and only OCT championship, scoring 54 runs in four games, still an OCT record for one tournament to this day.

The Lions ran off an eight-game winning streak at the end of the season to finish at .500 at 10-10. It was a nice way to end the season.

For the Piners, the clock was winding down in the amazing Carol Walters' career. Who knows exactly how far they could have gotten if she had been able to get to the plate one more time? McKelvey would be Lakewood's head coach until resigning after the 1993 season. Shern coached the Lions for 28 seasons, retiring from teaching after the 2009-10 school year. He'd take the Lions to two more OCT championship games, but both would end up in losses to Toms River East in 1994, 9-5, and in 2007, 2-0, as Lyndsey PeQueen tossed the first championship game no-hitter.

Little did I know that in 1987, though, this first game of that year's OCT would set the tone for the rest of the event.

It was beautifully ugly ... and definitely worth remembering.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The old and new of Putnam County track in one state meet

My first experience in covering a state high school track and field meet was in 1985. It was the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II and III championship meets at Hammonton High School. All I did was take sheets of paper that were being passed around on this particular day and copy them off onto a notepad.

It was what we called "agate" meets. In other words, you never saw much in terms of the events being run in person, but you sure knew what the results were. And then it gets embarrassing when you're actually there and you can't actually view it, but you're asking questions to the young man or woman who just competed and succeeded in the event.

I grew a disdain for covering track and field. At the Observer, we had 15 schools to cover and they were all spread out among the four classifications. The big school at this meet was Manchester in Group II, where coach Bob Conover could talk all day and all night about his Hawks if you allowed him to. Chatty man to say the least.

Don't get me wrong – I appreciated the athletes who competed, just not the process of a long, long day at a warm complex in which you need to stay protected or else there's a good chance you'd fry.

By the time I moved from one paper in one state to another paper at another state, this time the Key West Citizen, I got to work with a true lover of track and field ... a great coach in the sport named Dave Perkins. He coached Key West High's team and I got to do the 2001 FHSAA championships, which were held at Coral Springs High School. I had two schools I was covering that day – not a multitude like I had in Ocean County, New Jersey. It was just Key West and Coral Shores.

Finally, I got to watch a track meet. I wasn't having to play the role of an agate clerk.

And when I got to my next gig in Palatka at the Daily News, it was more the same, except it was now three schools (Palatka, Interlachen and Crescent City). In my second year at the paper, I watched not one, but two of our county athletes, Crescent City Junior-Senior High high jumper Mickey Gilyard and Interlachen High 3,200-meter runner Jeremy Criscione, win state championships on that same Coral Springs High School track I had been years before.

One year later, I almost watched another athlete, this time Palatka's Ki'Aaron Session, do well in the triple jump and high jump, but late jumps in both events by other athletes stopped him from gold medals as he finished second in the long jump and third in the triple jump at Showalter Field at Winter Park High School.

Every year, I'd go to the state meet with the hope of seeing gold medal glory, but it'd be taken away by much better athletes from other areas of the state.

Then came a young lady named Kayshia Brady. She was a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. As a seventh-grader in 2007, she made the blocked shot on the final shot attempt of the game to give Crescent City its first district girls basketball championship in 22 years. As an eighth-grader, she earned an eighth-place medal in the shot put at the FHSAA 2A state track meet after she was ranked 16th and last of the competitors in the field that day. And as a five-year starter in the middle for coach Holly Pickens, she had an amazing volleyball career in which she won our paper's player of the year honor three straight years and won the honor of the top volleyball player in class 1A in her senior year, 2011, where she led Crescent City to district and region championships and to the first Final Four for the program in 25 years.

Overall, she was an eight-time Daily News athlete of the year in her three sports total, volleyball, basketball and track. This young lady was special.

But there was one thing she had not accomplished in her time at Crescent City -- a state championship, whether as a team member or individually representing Crescent City. After her mom forced her away from doing track as a freshman (it's a long story, I still don't understand why that happened then), she came back as a sophomore to finish third in the shot put at the state meet. She duplicated that feat as a junior in the same event at the 2011 state meet.

Now all that was left in her incredible career was the state championship. And leading up to the state meet, she went up against Victoria Reiman of Jacksonville's The Bolles School. And on Reiman's home turf, Brady beat the fellow senior by 6 3/4 inches, 41-foot-8 1/2 to 41-1 3/4. It made Brady the favorite to win the event, representing little, middle-of-nowhere, farm-land Crescent City against Reiman from plenty-rich, highly sophisticated private institution Bolles School.

Kayshia Brady was more than the price of admission for the FHSAA 2A championships, which were held on Saturday afternoon, April 28, 2012, at its new host site, the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. So I had an easy one-hour trip from Palatka to UNF, which I took off from work the day before so I could get a good head start for the next day.

But she would not be alone representing Putnam County at this meet. Palatka was to be represented at the meet by triple jumper Leroy Owens, who had placed third in that event in the region meet, not making him a favorite to win a medal, and Jaquille Melton was a state qualifier in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes after taking third in both events at the meet. Again, he wasn't a favorite to win a medal in either event. And Interlachen High had Jennifer Roberts, a sophomore, competing in the long jump.

More on those folks later.

Field events were taking place first and the shot was under way as I arrived at UNF. I was getting acclimated to a new place on this beautiful, sunny, warm Saturday. I parked somewhere close to the front gate, came upstairs to the press box to drop my backpack with my laptop and battery inside, then marched back down to where the competition was being held all around the track. The shot put was being held on a field away from the track itself and you had to weave your way around a maze of fences to find the right opening. By the time I arrived, Raiman was up for her second throw.

Those close to Brady -- her mom sitting in a chair taking pictures along with her brother, who coached her personally in the event -- were ecstatic that she was able to break her personal-best throw of 42-0 with a launch of 43-4 on the first throw of the day. That was a gauntlet-setter.

But Raiman let loose with her second throw. There was no doubt she nailed it.

"Forty-three feet, 10 inches!"

There was a silence from the Brady camp. Turns out Raiman had just nailed her personal best. And there was no doubt that with her next five throws, the Crescent City senior was going to have to throw her all. On her third throw, Brady delivered her best throw.

"Forty-three feet, six inches!"

It wasn't as far as Raiman's throw, but it gave her hope as the 16 competitors were chopped down to nine for the final. Turns out, though, both had given it everything they had early on. There were scratch throws within their last three throws. And Brady just couldn't deliver another throw that was as good as the 43-6 she had just put out there moments earlier.

Raiman had won the state title and in the cruelest of cruel fates, Brady was left to finish second, probably wishing the roles had been reversed from the week before when she stunned Raiman in the regional meet.

No matter how many honors she won in her illustrious high school career, the lack of a state championship would remain a void. I waited until after the medal presentation to talk to Brady. I took a picture of it with a stoic Brady on the second-place block next to a hands-held-high Raiman, who was on the first-place block, smiling with her medal draped around her neck.

Brady made no excuses in the end.

"I'm upset. I'll admit it," she said. "I've been going for first place since eighth grade, but I still left high school with a lot and I PR'd on my last day. I'm completely grateful. These six years of school have gone by so fast and I'm just so happy for everybody that came (to the meet that day) ... my coaches, my family. I'm just grateful."

But honestly, she was ready to cry. I can see it. She did a great job of holding it in. She said all the right things a good loser should say. I reached out to her and gave her a hug. She deserved it. I felt bad for her. She may have thrown her best ever at that track meet, the last one of her life, and yet, someone else took the glory away from her.

I can feel the slight tremble in that hug. Like many great athletes I've covered in 30-plus years, Kayshia Brady was a true gamer. I loved that quality in her. On this warm afternoon, it wasn't enough. (And to make matters worse for her, her favorite basketball player, Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose, damaged his ACL in Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference first-round playoff against the Philadelphia 76ers, and yes, she knew about it before she left UNF that day.)

I saw Raiman soon after and decided to interview her after her momentous win.

"Last week, I was struggling with my practice (throws)," Raiman started. "I don't think I threw well. (Brady) threw better and I didn't have a great day so I commended her for it. She had a great day, too, today. This week, I bounced back, got my practice throws back and threw well here."

Then I found out Raiman was going to be throwing the discus, which she won the 2A state title in later that day, and shot put at the University of Kentucky on scholarship. Not bad. Brady, meanwhile, was signed, sealed and delivered to start her education at Florida Southern College on a volleyball scholarship, part of many scholarships she got for her athletic and academic prowess.

That would be the last time I saw Kayshia Brady in athletic competition. It makes me sad to even type that sentence. She enjoyed a great career at Florida Southern and graduated in 2016 from the school.

But her career wasn't the only one I was watching end on this day. Owens was about to take center stage as part of the triple jump competition. He had been our county's football player of the year and was signed to a scholarship at Florida International University for the sport the next year. And he was a member of the All-County boys basketball team in his one year playing for new coach Donald Lockhart.

Track and field was to get him prepared for the next football season at FIU. But Owens had issues with new Palatka coach Steven Gonzalez. Unlike previous coach Kyle Rice, who was a football coach disguised as a track coach, Gonzalez was a track coach who dabbled in coaching football. And Palatka High athletic director Matt McCool hired Gonzalez strictly as that track coach to make track athletes better and bring back the glory that was once in the sport in the early 1980s.

As a matter of fact, in the middle of the season, Owens quit track. Yes ... he quit the track team! Ultimately, though, the light switch went on in his head and he realized that his new track boss was only trying to help him be better. Gonzalez always maintained that in that first year as head coach – a position he claimed just a few weeks before the 2012 season began when Rice suddenly quit after he found out he was not being retained as the school's head football coach – he had trouble trying to get the athletes to work with him.

So it was amazing that Owens was even here! His athletic ability guided him to the state 2A championship meet at UNF. As a 13th seed out of 16 competitors, it sure didn't look like he'd advance beyond the first round of 16. Though he qualified for the state meet with a leap of 43-10, both Owens and Gonzalez believed if the senior could pull out a 45-foot leap, he'd have a good shot at qualifying. That was his best shot, actually.

Two attempts had not gotten Owens where he needed to be. But as the case in field events, it takes just one leap or one throw to cause enough chaos and shake up rankings. And with one more jump left in the third round, Owens took off furiously down the narrow stretch of paved ground toward where he would skip twice, then leap as far as he could.

On this third attempt, everything was nailed. I can remember him getting up excited knowing he nailed his leap. Then the announcement from the person holding the measuring end of the tape came.

"Forty-five feet, six inches."

A smile came over his face. He knew he made it to the final round. And though he would not do any better than this jump, it would still give him a medal to go home with as he finished seventh. And it wasn't as if he could've gotten sixth or better – Jacksonville Ribault's Josh Anderson was a full foot ahead of him in sixth.

It made history. Owens was the first PHS boy or girl to go home with a state medal since Session's double in the triple jump and long jump at the 3A state meet six years earlier.

"I had to think bigger," Owens said to me afterward on the leap. "You don't give a target (number), but you think bigger. This medal means a lot to me because I worked hard for it. I worked all four years for it. Not everyone gets a chance to go after a medal at state, so I'm satisfied with what I did."

So was his 30-year-old coach who waited for this moment after spending his entire adult life involved in track and field. He said, "I'm definitely pleased that he took it to the finals. He made his magic work. We talked about getting to 45 (feet) as his goal and he made it."

Gonzalez, though, still had Melton left to run in the sprints. He qualified for the finals in both the 100 and 200. But on a track with nine lanes, the PHS junior sorta got lost out there. He missed out on taking home a medal, finishing ninth in both events, a bummer indeed.

As for Roberts, she did not put her best effort forward in the long jump as she finished with a best leap of 15-11 for 13th place. But it was the young lady who won the event with a state record 20-6 1/2 jump that suddenly had my attention.

Her name was Robin Reynolds and she was competing for Miami Jackson High. By the time her day was over, she had become the most decorated female track and field athlete in state high school history winning four gold medals and finishing her career with 14 golds total. But here's the thing – her parents were both standout athletes at Palatka High School.

Suddenly, I had a column for next Saturday. After they put that last gold medal around her after winning the 200-meter dash, I finally cornered her, told her who I was so I didn't scare the Bejesus out of her, and we ended up chatting for about 15 minutes. Her mom, Robbie, went to the state meet one year as a hurdler at Palatka. Her dad, Clifton, was Palatka High's three-year starting quarterback, including in 1981 as a sophomore when the Panthers went 14-0 and won the state 3A championship with a senior leader at running back named John L Williams. Two years later as a senior, he quarterbacked Palatka to the state 3A title game before the Panthers lost to Titusville, 28-21.

The conversation and column both worked out very well by the end of the next week.

It was a joyous day. It was a sad day, too. Not many track meets I've ever attended had a lot of ups and downs like this one did. But I didn't know it at the time until years later how special this meet was on UNF's track.

While this would be the last hurrah in the high school career of Kayshia Brady, this would be the beginning of an outstanding coaching career for Steven Gonzalez.

In 2015, Gonzalez coached his first state champion when Eron Carter won the state 2A championship in both the discus and shot put and the Panthers finished fifth in the state 2A team standings at UNF. A year later and now at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Carter won his third state title, repeating in discus, while on the girls' side, his standout speedster, Ka'Tia Seymour, would win the 100- and 200-meter dashes and would anchor a team involving Kari Rasher, Tazarryia Poole and Jaelyn Hendrieth to the 4x100 relay championship. They would be the first three gold medals ever won at a state track meet by PHS girls.

At the end of that 2016 meet, PHS took third in the final boys team standings behind American Heritage of Plantation and Cocoa, while the girls would finish in eighth place. Even better, of the 15 boys and girls who traveled to Bradenton, 14 of them went home with a medal.

Just ... simply ... wow. Sadly, Gonzalez's claim of a "lack of support" from the PHS athletic department forced him to quit as both boys and girls track coach. He eventually took on the head boys track coaching job at North Marion High School. And wouldn't you know it – who would replace Gonzalez as the PHS girls track coach? Yup ... Robin Reynolds.

Small world.

When the meet was finally done for me by around 8 p.m. ... and it was a long day ... I packed my stuff and headed out of UNF and back to Southside Boulevard to a sushi place I had a number of meals with along with my friend Summer, who had moved on just the weekend before to take a job in Dallas. It was called Yummy Sushi. I forgot what I ordered, but damn, it sure was good. As I ate, I took a picture of my meal for Summer to see and texted with her throughout about that first few days in Dallas.

Just a small part of what made that 2012 2A state championship one that I will always remember.

It was the day I got to appreciate track and field more than I did before.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Fifty points about me turning 50

So not that long ago, I got asked about how I am able to function and how I view life.

Pretty heavy stuff, come to think about it. I gave a basic answer which satisfied the person who asked.

Or so I thought. He kept pressing me on things I missed out on or things you get excited about. So I told him, "I'm sure there are things out there that most people experience and I never will, but that was my choice. And very few things in my life get me excited. I can't even build up enough joy to root for a favorite team anymore because when I became a sportswriter, I saw things through a different window."

In 32 years in this business, I've seen a lot of things through a different prism. My hue is a bit more tinted a specific way than most people's. And that's fine with me.

So as No. 50 rolls in, I figured it'd be best you got to know me through 50 points I've learned about me over this bit of time travel or things I believe in. So here you go.
  • Don't expect me to be your friend that easily. I am not that easy to get along with at first because you need to build your trust with me. I'm that cautious. So I hope you have a world of patience, or else.
  • I'm selfish. Bang! There you go! I'm selfish. I'm about me. I've done so much for so many over the years that I forgot about me. OK, so that's not completely true. I still do the occasional favor for someone if they are kind enough to ask and I know them. But I stopped doing that for the most part.
  • As Howard Stern once famously said, "If you don't agree with me, then I don't like you." Too many poxes out there in this world trying to get under your skin, so I listen to them, shake my head, disagree and if they continue to yell their bloody heads off or continually drone on and on and on and on and on about something, thinking they're going to win the fight, I cut them off like a bartender at 1:45 a.m. You will not be allowed to be a pox in my world due to your own stupidity.
  • You weren't a part of my struggle to succeed in my business. Only the people I worked around get the credit.
  • Oh, yeah -- my work is far more important than anything else. If I ever lose this ability to be at my best at this job, I don't know what I'd be. And that'd be my fault and I'd accept blame.
  • On a similar note ... I do accept blame. Maybe I take the blame too much. But when a relationship fails, it's my fault. When something I write in a story or put on a page is wrong, it's my fault. I'll still have most people's backs if someone messes up and I had something to do with it, even slightly. But I know that person will be responsible quietly (and to me privately) for something they've done wrong.
  • My free time is my free time and I share it with very few people.
  • If you don't communicate with me after I've reached out to you, don't expect me to get back to you anytime in the distant future, let alone the current time, unless I absolutely have to.
  • "Friends" pass in and out of my life rather easily. I've got two very close male friends, yet I rarely speak to them.
  • The moment you fuck up our friendship, that's it. And I can live with that. I spent a number of hours growing up going to the houses of my parents' "friends" who in some cases turned against them, stabbed them in the back, and we had no contact with them after that. So I have plenty of practice. At least I don't have children to inflict that pain on.
  • I don't want to hear a lecture from you on why you think I should be more outgoing and outward. I've done that ... it wasn't beneficial to me and that's not who I am.
  • If you cross me, I cut you. Remember, I have the power to make you into an outcast if I did things for you on a positive level and you turn on me.
  • I believe in karma -- you will get yours in some way in the end if you cut me or cross me.
  • I believe in the good of all people. There's a lot of very good things done by good people out there. You give them a chance and they will shine. Those are the people who are inspiring to me.
  • I like change when change is beneficial to everyone involved. If you change something because it's beneficial to a small amount of people and only suits your needs, you're an asshole.
  • Playing the martyred victim works for a very short time. Then we have to move on.
  • I'm impatient as hell. I want things fixed and done now, now, now! I like my answers now, now now! Good things come to those who wait? When you're building the Taj Mahal, yeah, but not when I need something that can be taken care of immediately. I'm difficult and it's one of my major stumbling points. You don't ever want to be around me when Wifi goes down wherever I am. My cable company hates me.
  • I have a soft spot for babies ... as long as they go home with their parents.
  • I have a soft spot for children ... as long as they don't break stuff up and eventually go home with their parents.
  • I like kids, but don't love them to ever want one. We can be here all day on this one, but I knew as young as 12 years old that I never wanted to be a parent. Parenthood is a treasured lifetime occupation that should not be taken lightly. I can't be a parent 24/7/365. Parenthood is not for everyone. Respect those playing the role who have matters under control.
  • Speaking of which, I can't stand people who say, "I'd be nothing without my kids." Bullshit! You could be something, but you chose not to. In numerous cases, parenthood is the one way you could be something. Translation: Don't ever sell yourself short!
  • Politics, I believe -- no matter if we're absolutely correct about the issues or not -- divides us to a point where we may never have a true compromise among "friends." So if you never talk to me again, I understand. Because it's going to be a while after this past election for me to talk to some of you.
  • I don't bite my tongue very well when it comes to some issues.
  • I work well with others when others work well with me. Then we have a problem when we don't, especially when I try to espouse what wisdom I have and you ignore it.
  • I'll be honest ... I ain't feelin' you sometimes. Stuff happens, I guess.
  • I don't like being defended. If you can't see something I did and why I did it for the betterment of a situation and someone has to come in and explain why I did it to you, you're a complete idiot. If you get mad at me for it, you're a complete asshole.
  • If you do things for me and with me that work in a positive manner, you get my highest respect. If you stay with me, I'll pay back your loyalty in some way. I'm rather big on loyalty. Very few people in my life have, sadly.
  • I really have no zest to see the world beyond our country's borders because there's still so much here I want to see that I may never get to see in my lifetime. I've come to accept that.
  • I can complain all day about the salary I make, but the truth is, I accepted this a long time ago, so I don't. My business doesn't pay very well. I do simply love what I do and this is what I wanted to do in my life once I figured it out in high school.
  • If anyone tells you that we can enjoy things for free by just going places, that's a bullshit lie. Most places I have gone of some "interest" cost money to get into.
  • Beauty is still the greatest "free" thing we have out there. So much surrounds us that is beautiful -- birds, trees, flowers, the sky, whether blue or not. They're still worth the price.
  • The music of 1976 is mountains better than the music of 2016. I feel sorry for the good musicians out there whose music is being weighed down by the horsecrap that's being played on Top 40 radio.
  • As hard as it is for me to do, I never look a gift horse in the mouth. They do have your best interest in mind.
  • I'm cynical. You can tell me something's fool-proof and I'll find the fool that ruins the theory. I'm simply awesome like that. Not everything is what it's supposed to be, so when you tell me it is and you're wrong, I get you on it!
  • Social media has ruined all proper writing. In other words, "I'm soooo not n 2 u!"
  • The best sandwich in the world is a ham, swiss and turkey sandwich on rye bread with tomato, onion and mayonnaise.
  • Peanut butter and jelly is the fiber of what we are all about.
  • A great scented candle makes for the best odor eater in a house or apartment.
  • I'm not that religious a person. I do some (not all) of my Jewish holidays, but that's it. No one should be admonished for being religious, but for God's own sake, stop overpowering me with your beliefs and thoughts on your deity. It's like the girl who I have no interest for -- she simply does nothing for me.
  • If you're constantly arguing with me over the stupidest shit, what the hell are you doing still having an argument with me? Don't you have anything better to do? Again, social media continues to ruin us as people.
  • I do look at some of you on Facebook with your "views" with a tilted head, mouth open and an imaginary balloon over my head with the letters "WTF?" written in it.
  • If I never get married in my life, I won't lose sleep over it. I envisioned being married before turning 40. Now I'm 50. It's far from an issue. My ex-fiancĂ©e told me 10 years ago as she walked out the door, "You couldn't live on your own for more than a year." I've lived on my own for 10 years. She's been married twice since the engagement ended. Who has more of an issue of living alone now, huh?
  • I love pizza. I'm not so sure I love what it does to my waistline.
  • In 2013, I did a self-test to know if I had hyperthymesia to know if I have an autobiographical memory, something actress Marilu Henner has that makes you remember not only what you did a certain day in your life, but you can remember intimate details about it and what day of the week it was. I found I did not have it, but I scored very close to having it. So I take it whatever way I want.
  • I have trust issues that most women have for men and men have for women. In the last 10 years, I ruined a lot of potential relationships because I couldn't make that commitment to put my heart into that relationship. Still clouds any potential relationship I will ever have again.
  • "Love" is something I've never truly understood and being "in" love is something I don't even embrace nor do I even bother to understand that phrase anymore. You can't force it on yourself to someone who may be in love with you to say it back if you can't feel it. To me, the phrase "I love you" is just so damn hollow when I say it. No one is deserving of that.
  • I'm learning every day to appreciate millennials a little more. It's a slow process.
  • It didn't mean anything to me when I turned 30. It didn't mean anything when I turned 40. But now at 50, it means a hell of a lot more. There may not be a 60 in my future. I understand this.
  • I really don't care what you think a lot of times. So if you hate me, want to unfriend me, quietly slip out of my life in the middle of the night, that's fine. I promise to get over it quickly. As I've said numerous times, I came into this world without a friend, I can easily leave it without one and an empty funeral. Ain't no one gonna miss me.
  • Finally, I think about my own mortality every day. At least once a day. You can't help it. Do I have five good years left, maybe 10? Will I be lucky to squeeze 20 more years? None of us know when our time is done and over with and I suspect some of my "friends" will not make it to the other end of the decade. It's not mean thinking, it's just reality. So do what you want to do every day, even if it's the smallest of things. There's no unlimited number to what you want to do and no one's wearing a stopwatch to tell you when it's time to put the things you love and enjoy down. So make it a very good or even a great day each and every day, regardless of the circumstances. You don't ever get that day back.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

"Guess Ocean County College is going to the nationals this year"

If you ever attended Ocean County College and you knew the sports scene fairly well, you knew within a nanosecond that the "rival" school resided in the county above at Brookdale Community College.

And there was no question that when it came to that rivalry, there was no rivalry in some sports.

That included softball. No matter who coached at OCC, the Vikings were always second-best to the Blues, who became more of a national power in the rankings because of coach Bo Scannapieco. The man knew his stuff, and success leads to good players coming aboard to help the program. He rightfully established a power at Brookdale by the early 1990s. Not many teams could beat them and, soon, the Blues were going off to the Division III JUCO national tournament (Division III is for non-scholarship players, so a coach has to be a great schmoozer to bring players into the fold).

OCC, too, had a great schmoozer as coach. He was Dick Strada, one of the most colorful and enjoyable people I have ever known in my 30-plus years of sports journalism. Need something from him, he could get that to you in an instant. Had him for one semester as a teacher. Brilliant time I had learning from him. He coached OCC's ice hockey and was Toms River High School East's first ice hockey coach. I never got to cover his Viking teams playing hockey, but I got to cover East in hockey, especially in his best year with the program, 1988-89.

Dick Strada had a way of answering a question. You ask it, he'd take a moment to formulate the answer, then in a soft-spoken manner, he'd come up with something that was both relevant and sarcastic.

In other words, he was an absolute joy for a young reporter.

But when OCC's athletic department ended the hockey program in 1989 when few teams played the sport then, Strada needed another outlet beside East's hockey team. So when the head softball coaching job opened after Joe Riccio stepped down in 1989, he took it on. And though the Vikings were good, they were nowhere near as good as what Scannapieco put together at Brookdale. They were a penthouse compared to OCC's nice townhouse.

Then things changed in 1991 when Ocean County had one of its greatest softball seasons ever. Most of that talent would go off to play college somewhere else, but before they did that, they took on a group of college players in a charity all-star game in July 1991 in Lavallette and the high school players killed the college players in that game, the college team coached by Strada.

Scannapieco was able to get some of that Ocean County talent to wander toward him at Brookdale, recruiting Lakewood High's talented duo of shortstop Addie Dix and center fielder Jen Cranley and standout Brick High pitcher Viki Kara along with Green Dragon teammate Kerry LaPlata. Teamed with some talented Monmouth County players, Brookdale was once again a force for the next couple of seasons.

But something happened before the 1993 season. OCC, which had been building a decent program under Strada, suddenly brought in key cogs. One was Lacey High catcher Silvia Cacoilo, a first-team all-county player.  Strada was also able to make Cacoilo, who could play any position if need be, an outfielder. Then they brought in a talented shortstop in Joie-lin Scott from Brick Memorial High. And they got a nice gift that year when two standout players from that Class of '91 transferred in, Kelly Arnold, who had gone to a small school that wasn't her fit, and Heather Richards, who moved back to Ocean County after one year at the University of Delaware.

Richards pitched Toms River North to a huge 1991 season, including championship game spots in the Ocean County and NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tournaments. Arnold was a first-team All-State catcher from Toms River East, who had to do a whole bunch of everything when the Raiders were just 5-19 in '91.

Now Strada had a credible catcher and a credible pitcher. And that could be trouble for any opponent ... even big, bad Brookdale.

But before the season began, Strada had an immediate issue -- Cacoilo was having trouble with her college courses and was razor-thin close to being declared academically ineligible. But as Cacoilo would put it herself, "All those extra hours of tutoring paid off. I had to take so many tests just to make up the grade."

And it so happens that Brookdale was right there on OCC's schedule for the third game of the season. The Vikings had won their first two games, and that was a game talked about among Vikings players, including the new players, since the schedule had been revealed.

However, one thing was getting in the way of this matchup for Tuesday, March 30, 1993 -- the weather. For three days, it had rained practically non-stop and that was after our part of the country had recovered from an ugly Nor'easter. Just two days earlier in the awful, rainy weather, my mom and I attended the funeral of one of my high school friends, murdered at his job in cold blood.

On this particular Tuesday -- yup, you got it ... rain. But there was a window in the forecast that the rain was going to stop and stop long enough to drain out whatever was still remaining on Brookdale's field. The game started at 3:30, but it wasn't until noon when the final verdict had come down to play the game.

Having to rent a car at this point because of an accident to the bottom of my car that put a hole in a part of it and not seeing it for a week, my rental and I got to Lincroft safely to Brookdale's field. I parked in a spot beyond the outfield, so I walked in from there, grabbed my lineups for both teams and sat in the stands on the OCC side.

That's when I heard about the "incentive" the Viking players had going into this game from Strada. He happened to have a copy of the Star-Ledger with him. In a story involving Brookdale's team, Scannapieco proudly touted his team, saying that if a team is better than his, "they're going to nationals because this is the best team we've ever had here."

These Lady Vikings were going to do all they can to take this man to task, a man they were far from fond of, as well as Strada, who is as down to earth as you will ever meet in a person.

But to do that, they had to break Kara. A Kara-Richards matchup was a big thing in 1991 -- they met each other four times that season and Kara beat Richards and the Mariners three times, including the Ocean County championship game, 9-2.

The Vikings had an early threat against Kara, loading the bases with two outs. But Kara wriggled out of it with a forceout.

Then came the third inning. A half-inning after Richards had nailed Kara with a pitch, Kara nailed Richards with a pitch to start the inning. A wild pitch moved Richards to second, but Kara got her composure under her by striking out Scott and Arnold. Two outs and it left it up to cleanup hitter Cacoilo. Kara threw an outside pitch to Cacoilo, who in all her years of high school ball had never faced her before.

Turns out Cacoilo liked outside pitches ... a lot! She took the offering to right field for a base hit. Strada sent Richards home and the Vikings had a 1-0 lead.

Meanwhile, Richards continued to handle her work in the circle the way she handled it while she was the Mariners' standout pitcher at North -- businesslike without any gestures. She loved having close friend Kim Niedzwicki behind the play at North for two years, but she had a calm presence behind the plate in the confident Arnold, one of the best catchers I've ever seen play the position.

The Vikings kept it at 1-0 going to the bottom of the fourth when the Blues put on a rally. Karyn Ippolito and Deana Ivanicki both singled with one out, and once again, Richards had to face her opposite number, Kara. She got the count to 2-2, then got her to chase a bad pitch for strike three. It left it up to Terry Johnson. Once again at two strikes, Richards had Johnson chase a pitch she should not have been chasing.

Strike three. Inning over.

Viking players were pumped, but Richards had to reassure them they still had three more innings left.

That's because Kara wasn't allowing the Vikings a whole lot either. In the top of the fifth, though, the Vikings threatened to put the game away. Arnold reached on a walk and that brought up Cacoilo, who was 2-for-2 at this point against Kara. Another outside pitch and Cacoilo roped it to the right-center field gap. Arnold was legging it out as best as she can and Strada was not afraid to send her home. It took two fantastic throws, the first one to Dix, now the Blues' second baseman, and the second one from Dix to catcher Marya Moore, to nail Arnold and keep it a 1-0 game.

Meanwhile, Richards kept the Blues down and off the scoreboard. In the bottom of the sixth, the Blues had another rally with runners on first and second and two outs. And, again, Richards went to what worked for her, getting Johnson out on strikes for the third time in the game to end the inning.

Scannapieco, meanwhile, kept his cool in what was a truly tremendous game. One more inning. Something could happen.

And it did.

Rene Haskamp, one of Richards' North teammates who was in her second year with the program, started the inning by getting hit by Kara. Back to the top of the lineup where Richards, too, was plunked by Kara, her third hit batsmen of the game. Kara's wildness continued when she walked Scott to load the bases.

Kara settled in to strike out Arnold for the third time this day. But who was it coming up next? Yup, Cacoilo. By now, Scannapieco was on to Cacoilo, so he shaded his outfield toward right, but keeping the infield in their normal spots. This was huge because this time, Cacoilo hit a rocket just past Kara and into center field for a base hit, easily scoring Haskamp. But when Cranley had issues picking up the ball on a somewhat wet field for an error, Richards scored.

It was 3-0, more than enough for Richards to seal the deal in the bottom of the inning.

These ladies from OCC were fired up more going into the last frame. Richards got one out, but Moore reached on an error and Cranley singled. Dix walked to load the bases. And Ippolito, one of Brookdale's biggest threats, came to the plate. She got a hold of Richards pitch and belted it to right field. Cacoilo kept chasing it back and finally settled under it, catching it for the mere sacrifice fly to give Brookdale its first run.

But the Blues were down to one out, and Richards induced Terry Patterson into a flyball to none other than the star of the show on this dreary Tuesday afternoon. Cacoilo secured the flyball out and Vikings players celebrated the 3-1 win as if they just won Game 7 of the World Series.

Not to knock the importance of the game. It was Strada's first-ever win over Brookdale and it was the Vikings' first win over Brookdale in a long, long time. The players gave Strada a Gatorade water bath afterward.

Kara finished the game by scattering seven hits – four of those by Cacoilo – and struck out 10 Vikings. But she was out-dueled by Richards in one of the best performances I ever saw her pitch. Richards scattered five hits, walked four and struck out seven and delivered grace under pressure a number of times.

Seizing on the opportunity to talk about the quote by Brookdale's coach, Richards said afterward, "I think he underestimated us. I think he figured, 'Oh yeah, Ocean County. Who cares if they have a couple of good players?' I think we proved we're a clutch team and we can hit off of good pitching. And I think he spoke a little too soon."

Brookdale's players and coaches disappeared pretty quickly after that loss. OCC players and Strada celebrated before the lights got turned out and they headed back to Toms River.

For one shining moment, though, OCC had the better of Brookdale with some of the best players I ever saw play battling it out on Brookdale's field. And as I pointed out in my lead when I pointed out Scannapieco's original comment in the Star-Ledger, my next line was much-needed.

"Guess Ocean County College is going to the nationals this year."

"I was nervous. I thought I was going to start biting on my sleeve," Strada admitted afterward. "Brookdale has been the nemesis, the team to beat, and we finally did it."

The Vikings did have a nice season under Strada, but not good enough to play in the nationals, though. Brookdale continues to have a dominant program under Scannapieco all these years later. Kudos for continuing what he started, kind of like Geno Auriemma with the UConn women's basketball program.

But I always go back to that Tuesday afternoon in late March 1993. Because it was that day, the rivalry really did have meaning.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Why he made soccer a "beautiful game"

They call soccer the "beautiful game." There are times when I have no understanding as to why they call it that. Many times, I'd cover a high school soccer match and it was a push-fest, tackle-fest, kick-the-ball-out-of-bounds-or-all-over-the-freakin'-complex-fest. Far from beautiful in my opinion.

But there are certain players I've come across in over 30 years that define this sport as the "beautiful game." I had thought in all my years of covering the sport at the Jersey Shore I had seen it from such players as Rob Johnson of Jackson Memorial or Ted Gillen of Toms River East or Kim Yankowski, Jennifer Shutt or Christie Pearce from Point Pleasant Boro High School, players who made playing the sport look awfully easy no matter what position they played.

That's when Veit Couturier came along. It was the winter of 2009-10 and the German-born young man was a foreign exchange student that year. He could have chosen a number of places to go.

He chose Crescent City, Florida. Florida was a part of the name of where he was going. Crescent City isn't anything like what you see in the tourist's guide of the state. They call Crescent City the "Bass Capital Of The World." I wasn't sure how much the young man liked to fish. Crescent City, located in southern Putnam County, is a sleepy little hollow of farm area and lakes.

Yeah ... so not in the tour book of the state highlights. But he adapted well to the small town and had an awesome host family whose kids were going to Crescent City Junior-Senior High School, so at least he knew people who could connect him with others.

Well that winter, he went out for the Raiders' boys soccer team. It was an interesting mix of players to say the least -- this 6-foot-2, hulking presence from Germany connecting with talented players from Hispanic and Mexican families. They connected in a big way, too. In their first year together, the Raiders won the District 4-3A championship, their first district title in five years, when they beat rival Keystone Heights, 1-0, at Keystone Heights High on a first-half headball goal by Couturier, one of a county-boys record 35 goals he scored that season.

Most people figured that like every other foreign exchange student, Couturier was one and done.

But a funny thing happened -- turns out this young man with the steel blue eyes and male model looks waived his right to return home and finish his schooling here. He loved Crescent City and the school that much!

And so with most of the pieces back from that championship team, it was expected that the Raiders were going to be the favorite to win the district title again. The Raiders rolled through the regular season without much issue, going 13-1-2, and Couturier setting the overall county record for goals in a season, which was previously held by Interlachen High girls player Alana Christian of 39 two years earlier.

So happens that the District 4-3A tournament was being held this winter on Crescent City's field. The Raiders aided their own cause by claiming the top seed in the tournament. They drew a bye, then got to host West Nassau High School of Callahan.

They didn't disappoint. But it was bizarre -- the Raiders won handily to move to the final with Couturier scoring four goals to give him 46 for the season. But the bizarre part was how many of these young men who played for West Nassau High, which sent a baseball player to the Major Leagues in Howie Kendrick years earlier, wanted to take pictures with Couturier afterward. I'm not kidding -- they wanted to pose in selfies or on camera chip cards with the Raiders' main player as if he was going to be next seen as a member of Germany's 2014 World Cup team. Even the coach wanted to pose with him.

Earlier in the night, Keystone Heights, who was the third seed, advanced to the final with an overtime goal against Alachua Santa Fe. For Keystone coach Trevor Waters, this was an amazing win. He didn't expect this team to be playing in the state tournament, but because of that win, they were going to be doing that regardless of how they would do in the final against Crescent City. The winner and loser of district tournament finals automatically advances to the state tournament.

Waters had a young team -- he was starting six freshmen, including goalkeeper Eric Wood, as well as two eighth-graders. The Indians managed to carve out a 10-6-5 record with that young team, though, a credit to the youth programs that bring Waters ready-made players. Everything at this point was going to be icing. But even Waters knew beforehand it was going to take a Herculean effort to stop Couturier and the rest of coach John Thomas' Raiders. This team was arguably Thomas' best in his 17 years running the program.

A win was expected in the championship game, set for Friday, January 28, 2011.

But no one expected what was to happen next.

I rolled up into the parking lot at Crescent City Junior-High just as the game had started. Usually, you can get away with doing that minutes after the kickoff. But the Raiders had already gotten the ball into Indians territory. Antonio Perez was fighting hard to keep the ball away from a pesky Indians defender. Then with a little room, he put a high ball into the box.

In what was to be the moment of the night, Couturier rose among the players as high as he could and slammed a perfect headball over a defender who was more in the way than he was trying to defend and past Wood for a 1-0 lead just 1:57 into the game.

I had barely shown my press credential and started walking toward the net when I witnessed all that happening.

From that moment, I knew Keystone Heights was in trouble. I can hear Waters' high-pitched voice yelling his players to go at it harder than they already had and the game was not even two minutes in.

It was only going to get worse. At 5:23 into the match, a Raiders player delivered a shot on net. Wood made the save, but couldn't grab the ball. Couturier did, and slipped a shot past his defender and the goalie making it 2-0.

Those first two goals were workmanlike, blue-collar, get-dirty goals. The next goal was about to be a piece of poetry. Couturier collected the ball near the midfield line, put two moves on defenders that were wondering where he went, and Wood suddenly found himself without much back-line protection. His 15-yarder never had a chance for Wood to make a play on it.

Just 7:40 into the game, it was 3-0.

For the next 13 minutes, the teams ramped it up with the Indians trying to put an intimidating and physical presence on the other nine field players the Raiders had since they couldn't do anything against Couturier. They couldn't catch him and he was just too big for them. The Indians may have had one player taller than 6-foot. The rest of them had no shot at doing anything with the Raiders' star.

Just after the water break the teams took at the midway point of the half, Michael Quintana put a pass through Keystone Heights' box that no one could get a hold of with foot or head. One player did, though -- yeah, him again. He one-timed a shot from about 10 yards that Wood couldn't reach.

Twenty minutes and 32 seconds into the match, Couturier was leading the Indians by his lonesome, 4-0.

By now, you could see the look on Waters' face. He knew it was over and that for one time, his talented team was "just happy to be there."

For the next few minutes, Couturier was trying what he could to help set up his own teammates for scores, passing up on obvious goal opportunities. Problem was that as good as his teammates were, they weren't on the same level with him. It was a little frustrating.

So at the 28:20 mark, things went back to where they were before as Ellio Robles, a junior, put a shot into the box that found Couturier. He blasted his shot by a helpless Wood and it was 5-0.

The only highlight of the night for the Indians came just as time ran down in the first half. Trey Bland, the other and forgotten top scorer in this game, took a rebound off goalie Oriel Jaramillo and poked a shot into the net for his 28th goal of the season, giving the Indians a good feeling going into halftime, but still down 5-1.

Waters did everything he could to praise his team for not quitting and getting that goal late. He was encouraging them to just keep fighting, keep battling and more good things would come. At the other end, Thomas and new assistant coach Jeff Lease were calmly talking to the players about not letting up and doing what they had done in the first half. They knew they had this game won, but the matter now turned to getting back to what they had started in the first half and finishing it out emphatically.

It was only one half, but that was the single, most amazing piece of work I've ever seen a soccer player accomplish on a field. Five goals on a minimal amount of shots taken.

You could see as the second half started the Indians doing all they could in an attempt to cut off any more dramatics from the German exchange student. Then again, he didn't really have plans to do a lot of the work by himself.

Smartly, the other Raiders stepped up with Keystone Heights doing everything they could to keep Couturier off limits from the ball. And when there was that opening, Couturier grabbed the ball at his feet and put himself in a position to score.

In this one instance, though, he got tripped up in the box. That constitutes a penalty kick. But Couturier was not called upon to do the honors -- that was left to teammate Reymundo Hernandez. He nailed his shot past Wood at the 49:55 mark to build the lead to 6-1.

For the next 13 minutes, the game remained equal as the Indians tried to build a threat against the Raiders' defense. They got their one corner kick of the night, but that got turned away. Then after a foul call against a Keystone Heights player, Jaramillo made some magic of his own. After the players cleared the goalie, Jaramillo boomed a kick toward midfield.

Couturier just happened to be there with a defender in front of him and one behind him. He won the battle for the ball, then beat that defender behind him and the one after him who tried to make a stop on him. That left Wood, who was by now seeing him in his nightmares long before he ever closed his eyes for the night. There was not much Wood could do as before he could make a move out on the ball, Couturier launched a rocket shot past him for his sixth goal of the night at the 63:47 mark to give the Raiders a 7-1 lead.

Four minutes later, Couturier finally was able to help someone else score as he provided the pass to Luis Gonzalez for a short-shot goal to make it 8-1 at the 67:18 mark.

By now, it was inevitable that the Raiders would finish out the victory via the eight-goal mercy rule. It was a matter of how quickly it would happen.

That part would take five minutes. This time, it was Perez, the young man who provided the high ball just two minutes into the match that led to Couturier's first goal, that would finish it. He placed a perfect pass in the box that Couturier collected. With an opening to take a shot, he launched a 12-yarder to Wood's left and inside the far post at 72:32.

And it was over. Crescent City 9, Keystone Heights 1, the game stopped on the mercy rule. The Raiders were dominant in every possible manner, out-shooting the Indians, 25-5. Wood would finish with nine saves to his credit, but that only glossed over the shell-shocked look he walked off the field with after the game.

The Indians players and Waters gave Couturier lots of love afterward and wished the Raiders on in their state tournament opener at home with Jacksonville Episcopal. The Indians couldn't stop the star attraction. They couldn't even contain him.

To this day, the seven-goal, one-assist night is still the greatest performance I've ever witnessed on a soccer field. To those who came down to Crescent City that night to watch this mastery of the game by one player, they came away with memories for a lifetime.

By the time the game had ended, Couturier went from 46 goals on the season to 53.

In modest critique of himself, Couturier downplayed his own performance, saying afterward, "It was not perfect, but it was still a great game. I can't say more about how great my teammates were. As I've said before, we win as a team, we lose as a team."

And that had been his credo all season. He couldn't have scored all 53 of those goals by himself and not without great teammates.

After the game, Waters was stoic, saying, "(Couturier) is an awesome player ... in a league of his own. With our young guys, we have no one who could body him up. We have a bright future, but tonight belonged to Crescent City."

This game, though, would be the last winning moment for Couturier. In the state tournament opener at home, a classy and more talented Episcopal team ran up and down, over and under and back and forth around Couturier and his teammates in a 5-0 victory.

He was in Putnam County for two years, but his smoothly dominant style of play and 88 goals scored along with back-to-back district crowns has made Couturier a legend and still the greatest player to ever grace a soccer player in county history, boy or girl.

There was one other thing that Couturier left behind as he graduated from Crescent City that late spring -- the confidence he gave to his teammates to win as well. The next two years, the Raiders would win their third and fourth straight district championships, both against regional rival Pierson Taylor, the first 1-0 in 2012 on a Robles direct kick from 25 yards away with less than four minutes left in the match, then 3-1 behind 35-goal scorer John Spence in 2013. And for the first time in program history, the Raiders won state tournament matches in those two years after Couturier graduated, beating Gainesville P.K. Yonge in 2012, then beating those vaunted Keystone Heights Indians in 2013. But both times after those wins, the Raiders fell in the regional semifinal round against those Pierson Taylor Wildcats who lost to them in district championship matches.

As for Veit Couturier, he got to play college ball in Daytona Beach at Embry-Riddle University and would play semi-pro ball. And do you remember when I mentioned above about how he has those steel-blue eyes and the male-model looks? Well, guess what he did after he graduated college?

Yeah, Veit Couturier did modelling work. Darn good, too. No wonder why any young lady who saw him play soccer in Putnam County got lock-jawed when they had to describe him.

He was too good to be true. I gained a friend for life in this young man, who I knew was bred for success in whatever he wanted to do.

In more ways than one -- and not just from that late January night in 2011 -- Veit Couturier showed why soccer really is "the beautful game."