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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-fiancée 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."

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The silent 46

When you cover a high school boys basketball game, there are many ways you go about it.

Some scribes keep a running dialogue of the game. Some just jot down notes to the side and fill in a scorebook. None of this is wrong by any means at all. Just as long as you're accurate by the end of the night.

My style: I have two pieces of paper in a notepad I take with me. The first page is that of a scorebook score sheet where you leave room at the extreme left side to fill in numbers and names of each player on each team, visiting players on top, home players on bottom. You leave room for four boxes going down to jot the 2s and 3s and free-throws made and attempted per quarter.

The second page is a mish-mosh of stuff: At the top, I put the names of the two teams playing, draw a line down the middle. Under that I draw a "table of four" to mark down how many turnovers each team makes during the game per quarter. On the extreme right and left sides at the top, I leave room for what each team shot from the field (field goals made and attempted). I draw lines under the team name for each turnover that's made.

Underneath all that I leave 10 lines open so I can put down the uniform number of the players who take shots or free throws during the game, mark an "x" over the made free throws or put an x with an arc leading to the number "3" for the 3-point field goals made or leave the "x" out if there's a 3-pointer missed. If I put an "L" next to the "x" and arc, it means a layup was scored. An 'SJ" stands for short jumper made, a "J" stands for a jumper made and a "DK" is for a slam dunk. I will draw boxes with uniform numbers in them and draw two circles (sometimes one for one-and-one missed opportunities or three circles for a three-shot foul behind the arc) for when a player attempts and makes free throws, the made ones shown by me darkening the circle. The next row I draw in for the middle of my page is for the players numbers (the starters are always the first five) and I mark off rebounds (X for a defensive rebound, O for an offensive board). I draw a line down to separate the rebounds from the "S" for steals and the "B" for blocks. Over the numbers of the players, I draw lines for each foul that's committed by the player. And finally, the final line I draw is at the bottom to mark off the running score along with the time for the basket or points.

Yes, a lot is involved in covering basketball for me, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Of all the sports I cover on a scholastic level, basketball is, by far, my favorite.

But when it comes to the boys basketball game, it's a little fast to keep up and, quite honestly, I fall behind during games. I mark off the important stuff on my mish-mosh page, but never mark anything off on my points page. Sometimes, too much of a game passes by and I can't catch up in the first half until, well, halftime. They only allow you a minute to catch up in between quarters after all. Sheesh!

Why do I bring all this up? Because catching up was something I found to be a challenge on the night of Friday, December 10, 2010. Every year, I try to cover at least one Interlachen-Crescent City boys basketball game. Not only are they two of the smaller schools in this sector of Florida, but the two head coaches, Interlachen's C.S. Belton and Crescent City's Al Carter, are two of the best human beings you will ever come across in your lifetimes. They have a true admiration for one another and it's fun to watch the teams, even in years when their best basketball wasn't very good.

On this particular night, I got to drive out to Interlachen's gym for the game. The host Rams came into the game with a 7-1 record and a 1-1 record in the "unique" District 4-3A Southern Division.

(Why are they in a Northern and Southern Division? I'll explain -- there were nine schools in the district and it wasn't as if all the schools were around the corner. Crescent City was the southernmost school and Baldwin near the Florida-Georgia state line was the northernmost. Yeah, that wasn't going to swim for Carter, who knew a yearly trip to Baldwin would mean his kids weren't getting home from the game until 12:30 in the morning. So they took five schools from the lower end -- Crescent City, Interlachen, Keystone Heights, Bradford and Union County -- and made them the "Southern Division" and took the four schools from the northern end -- Baldwin, West Nassau, Jacksonville Bishop Snyder and Baker County -- and made them the "Northern Division.")

And while Interlachen had already played eight games, Crescent City was playing in game number two. That's right -- just one game under the Raiders' belts. Why? They cleared the pre-Thanksgiving part of the schedule out just in case Crescent City made the state football playoffs and there would be no conflict. Sounds great ... that is, if your football team is really good. That football team in the 2010 season wasn't that good. So in reality, the football players who made the transition to play basketball had a lot of rest time!

One player who didn't need all that rest was Crescent City's talented shooting guard Jerrell Oxendine. Oxendine had shared Palatka Daily News Prep Boys Basketball Player of the Year honors the year before with Palatka's James Williams, a decision that I never agreed with and argued that even though Palatka went 25-2 in the 2009-10 season, they didn't have a superstar-type player like a Jerrell Oxendine (who technically lived in Palatka, but whose parents chose to send him to Crescent City). Oxendine had scored 34 points in the team's opening-game win.

He was surrounded on the floor by a lot of moving parts, but nothing sensational enough to run alongside him for 32 minutes. On top of that, two of the Raiders' players, forwards Laron Moore and Rami Brown, were both out sick, limiting coach Carter's roster to nine players, making Carter put reserves such as Dallas King and Marquis Batts into the starting lineup. But Oxendine had familiarity with two guys in the lineup -- one was center Cornell Wilson, a good player who could give you some points and rebounds down low, the other Jaylon Oxendine, a freshman point guard and Jerrell's brother. It was Jaylon's show to run in the backcourt, but it was Jerrell's show to ruin Jaylon's attempt at running the show because most of the time, the ball was going to be in Jerrell Oxendine's hands.

The Rams had a pretty solid starting lineup with Wilmer Charles down low, pesky Daquan Greene and Jakeem Perry causing trouble defensively and Corey Treadway doing a little of this and a little of that.

But Interlachen's main guy was junior Tamarick Williams. As a freshman, he was our paper's player of the year and by now, he was very much the leader of this team. He could play the point guard, he can shoot the ball -- oh, could he shoot the ball -- and he could fill the lane as a rebounder as well.

This game wasn't really about Crescent City vs. Interlachen or Al Carter and assistant coach "Pooh Bear" Richardson vs. C.S. Belton and assistant Gerald Swayze.

No, this game was about two high-flying stars in Jerrell Oxendine and Tamarick Williams.

I did my proper duty of copying lineups down, then finding my way up to the top of the stands. From there, the officials made their way on the court, followed by the starters and shortly after that, the game was under way.

The Rams jumped out to a quick 9-4 lead, throttling the Raiders in their 3-2 zone defense, not allowing much movement toward the basket. But the Raiders got going as Jaylon Oxendine found Batts for a layup, then Jerrell Oxendine floated in a short jumper. The Rams answered right back when Treadway delivered a layup, then Williams drained a 3-pointer from the right side, building the lead back to 14-8 with 3:44 to go in the first quarter.

But like a good boxing match, the Raiders were willing to match the Rams punch for punch. Wilson put in a miss from Jerrell Oxendine, then Oxendine found a hole in the Rams defense, drove the lane and hit his layup, cutting the lead to 14-12. The teams traded baskets before Williams delivered another 3-point field goal, making it 19-14. Oxendine hit a layup to cut the lead to three, then reserve Antoine Atkins hit one of two free throws with 51.9 seconds to play in the period, making it 20-16.

The Raiders brought it back down, and with 39 seconds left, Jaylon found his brother in the corner for a 3-point field goal that he drained without much problem, cutting the lead to a point. The Rams had three opportunities to score before the end of the quarter, but Atkins missed twice and Williams missed once, leaving it 20-19 at the end of one quarter.

Already, this had the makings of an exciting game from start to finish. Jerrell Oxendine had nine points, Williams had eight. No disappointment thus far.

The Rams came out determined to stay in that 3-2 defense, doing their best to bottle up any movement the Oxendine brothers could do in this one, while trying to neutralize anything the Raiders' big men could do. Reserve Keon Sands was fouled and the Raiders player hit one of two free throws to tie the game, but the Rams had an answer -- Williams delivered a trey to make it 23-20 with 5:59 to go before the half.

The Raiders decided if they couldn't really get around that 3-2 zone defense, they'd just as soon be patient ... even if that meant neutralizing Oxendine's effectiveness. So Carter had the Oxendines slow the tempo down and just be patient finding the open shot. Jerrell Oxendine was able to get open for a long jumper that he hit to make it 23-22 with 4:43 left. After Williams missed on a 3-point shot, Wilson pulled down the rebound and fed Jaylon Oxendine. Somewhere in the Rams' defense, Jerrell Oxendine saw a seem, demanded the ball from his brother, then drove the lane to score the basket and get the foul on Charles. He missed the free throw, but the Raiders were ahead again.

At the other end, Perry missed and the Raiders brought the ball back down. Jaylon Oxendine found Batts for a layup and the Raiders had a three-point lead.

You could sense the shift taking place. The Raiders were finding their patience was paying off. Belton called a timeout to settle things down. The problem was that he couldn't shoot the ball for his players. The Raiders tightened up on their traditional man-to-man defense and the Rams went ice cold the rest of the half. The only basket they hit the rest of the half was a 3-point field goal from Williams. They added a free throw by Treadway with 7.1 seconds left before halftime, but found themselves down 31-27 at the break.

Normally, I gather my notepad and check the fouls situation since there seems to be a sickness in Putnam County basketball that whoever runs the scoreboard -- whether at Palatka, Crescent City or Interlachen -- just can't find the buttons to press to tell the crowd who got a foul and what number foul it was on the player. Turns out I was looking at this game and seeing a lot of fouls being accrued thus far.

Crescent City, remember, dressed up nine players for the game. Just nine. They didn't exactly have a lot of wiggle room here and they had eight team fouls. Interlachen had five at the break and they weren't in much trouble. But the way they stopped scoring before halftime certainly was alarming to both Belton and Swayze.

I went back to where I was sitting. I still had about five minutes left before the break ended to count up the numbers I had jotted down. The Raiders had 23 rebounds and ending a lot of Rams possessions in one (shot)-and-dones. The Rams had 14 rebounds and if not for the slashing-and-dashing Williams, they'd have just seven at the break.

As for the individual battle, Oxendine was leading Williams, 16-14.

The Raiders had turned it over 10 times in the first half, including eight times in the second quarter when they took the lead! I'm sure Belton had a premonition they had the ball a lot thanks to Raiders miscues, but couldn't do anything correctly.

That should have left him with a sense of staying in the 3-2 zone. But as the second half began and after Charles hit one of two free throws to make it a three-point lead, something changed. All of a sudden, the Rams were chasing after people defensively. They had gone from playing in a fairly effective 3-2 defense into man-to-man. That may have worked down low to neutralize anything they may have tried, but it did one other thing.

It gave Jerrell Oxendine the green light to set Rams defenders guarding him on fire.

As Carter would tell me years later about the switching of that defense that night, "Jerrell was never going to be denied that night."

After two possessions in which Oxendine had no part of the final shot each time, he made his presence felt on the third possession. After Batts missed a 3-point shot from the corner, Jerrell Oxendine pulled down the rebound, hit the putback and was fouled by Treadway. He completed the three-point play to make it 34-28 with 6:24 left in the quarter.

The Rams battled back, though, as Williams scored on a putback of a Charles missed shot, then after a Jaylon Oxendine missed trey, Perry hit a layup to make it 34-32 with 5:17 left in the quarter.

Again, it was a game. But in a matter of 38 seconds, the Raiders pulled out as Jerrell Oxendine beat his defender to the basket and scored on a layup, then King got a pass from Jaylon Oxendine and beat his defender to the basket for another layup, making it 38-32 with 4:21 to go.

Jerrell Oxendine and Treadway traded one free throw made each before a putback of a Treadway miss by Charles cut the lead to four. But a Jerrell Oxendine layup in which he beat his defender off the dribble was followed up on the next Raider possession by an Oxendine putback of a Batts shot that made it 43-36. And after a Charles miss at the other end, Oxendine took his defender on one-on-one, then stuck a 20-footer in his face to make it 45-36 with 2:04 left.

The next 31 seconds were left with fast-paced, back-and-forth basketball that man-to-man defenses allows you to play. Nothing but missed shots in the next five possessions. Finally, the Raiders ended the madness when Batts rebounded a Jaylon Oxendine missed shot and scored to make it 47-36, the biggest lead of the game for either side. Then off a missed shot by Atkins, Wilson rebounded again and the ball found Jerrell Oxendine's hands. Seeing an opening, he once again had too much quickness, beat his defender to the spot and weaved through the big men down low to deliver another layup to make it a 49-36 lead with 1:14 to go in the quarter.

One thing, though, the Rams were able to do in this game was draw fouls ... lots of fouls! They had the Raiders at seven fouls in the quarter and that didn't matter because the fouls the Rams were getting were on shots, so that meant automatic trips to the free-throw line. In the last 67 seconds of the quarter, Williams drew a pair of fouls on a slowly frustrated Jaylon Oxendine and hit three of the four shots, cutting Crescent City's lead to 49-39 going into the final quarter.

The fast-paced action of the third quarter did not allow me to accumulate the numbers I had on my stat sheet as the one minute I had wasn't enough to get the job done. Now I was left with catching up at timeouts and trying to figure numbers in between free throws if they were allowing me to do so.

I know this much though -- Oxendine had a big third quarter, though I needed to translate that from the stat sheet to the score sheet. And Williams had an OK third quarter, but his team may have lost a little bit of energy with the missed shots (I did know from the little pockets of time I could count the Rams were an abysmal 3-of-19 from the field that period). Williams, I did figure out, had five of his team's seven points in the period, giving him 19 going into the third quarter.

I had yet to get to what Oxendine had done since the Raiders had scored more points and I needed to focus on that stat sheet and not the score sheet.

Williams began the fourth quarter by drilling his fifth 3-point field goal of the game, but first in the second half, making it 49-42. Once again, though, Jerrell Oxendine had an answer, taking the ball to the hole and scoring on the one-on-one defense that obviously had little or no effect on him, making it 51-42. Then after his third steal of the game, Jaylon Oxendine was fouled, hitting one of two free throws, making it 52-42.

These Rams were down 10 again, but like they had over the years and even after this game, they showed no quit. Charles scored and was fouled by King. He missed the free throw. Then after a Raider miss at the other end, Perry drained a trey to make it a five-point lead with 6:52 to go.

Then the game got crazy: Jerrell Oxendine scored on a layup, followed at the other end with a layup by Treadway, followed back the other end by yet another layup and score by Oxendine. This one-on-one covering of him was a sham -- he could've beaten college kids on drives to the basket, let alone trash-talking 16- and 17-year-olds who did just that ... talk a good game. Carter would tell me that the young man who was talking trash to Oxendine in the second half once the Rams went into that man-to-man defense only motivated his star player. Still -- and as Belton would point out after the game and years later about this particular game -- his team was too slow to react to Oxendine's drives and give the much-needed help defense that was needed to stop the guy wearing No. 3 on his uniform.

The Rams turned the ball over again on Jaylon Oxendine's fourth steal of the game and he drove to the basket. He missed the shot, but there was his brother to play cleanup with the rebound and score to make it a 58-49 lead with 5:48 to go.

Belton called a timeout. He started to light into his team the way he knew how to get the guys motivated. Meanwhile, I spent the time I did have counting up what I had missed in the third quarter ... and some of the fourth quarter. I couldn't get it all done, but I was slowly catching up.

Right out of the timeout, the Rams got aggressive and got the ball to Williams. He was fouled by Jaylon Oxendine, who took exception of the foul and was hit with a technical foul on top of that, giving him four for the game. Williams hit both free throw attempts and the Rams had the ball back. Williams was again fouled, this time by backup Sands.

But Williams missed both attempts and the Raiders rebounded. Jerrell Oxendine demanded the ball, took the ball to the hoop and was fouled by Perry, who had the task of having to take Oxendine on the one-on-one in the second half. Yup ... he apparently was the trash-talker and suddenly, he wasn't in the game anymore since that was his fifth foul. Oxendine calmly sank his two free throws to make it a 60-51 game with 5:27 left.

The Rams would have the ball three straight possessions and could do nothing, including two more missed free throws by Greene. At the other end, Batts would follow up another Jaylon Oxendine miss with a basket, making it 62-51 with 4:32 to go. Greene followed up a missed Williams shot to make it 62-53, but Wilson responded with a layup to push the lead back to 64-53. Then a pair of steals took place, the last one by Williams for a layup made it a nine-point game, but time was running out.

The Rams picked up another steal and Treadway was fouled by Jaylon Oxendine while rebounding a missed Charles shot. That was five fouls and Oxendine was gone from the game. Treadway hit his two attempts to make it a seven-point game with 3:23 left.

But it was Jerrell Oxendine back to the rescue. He picked up a foul on Treadway and buried both his free throws to move the lead back to nine with 2:57 left.

Seven seconds later, though, and with the Rams close to desperation mode, Williams put up a shot and missed, but Treadway came up with his second offensive rebound and was fouled by Sands. With the Raiders in the double bonus now with over 10 fouls, it gave Treadway a chance to get the Rams closer. But he missed both shots. Zack Swayze, the assistant coach's son coming off the bench, came down with the offensive rebound and was fouled two seconds later by King. It was King's fifth foul and he was now gone from the game.

Swayze hit the two free throws to make it a 66-59 game and Carter was starting to look concerned. He looked down his bench where Jaylon Oxendine and King were now mere spectators and the thought of two putting two guys into the game that hadn't played the entire time was starting to become a worry. If one thing did do the Raiders in that year, it was the lack of a bench, even as they were winning 18 games that season.

Eventually, though, Trenton Long and Scott Curry had to enter the game in these last two-plus minutes, just so they could protect the other guys on the court who had multiple fouls.

One player, though, that wasn't in danger foul-wise was Jerrell Oxendine. Now the point guard, he had full autonomy of what to do. And once again, his defender had no chance of stopping him. He took it to the hole and hit a layup, making it 68-59.

Once again, the Rams rushed the ball back the other end where Williams was fouled by Sands ... and yes, it was Sands' fifth foul. Sands' "sands" had run out in his personal hourglass for this game.

Carter called a timeout this time to assess the situation. Since he had to figure out which five players he was going with after his third player fouled out in a two-minute span, he needed the full timeout. It was at this point where I could finally catch up on everything. I was pretty much there when a guy a few rows down from me called up to me.

It was Bryant Oxendine, Jerrell and Jaylon's dad. He wanted to know how many points Jerrell had.

"I'm still counting because of the pace of this game, but I'm almost there. At the next timeout, I can tell you."

Williams had the ball in his hands to shot free throws, which gave me the rest of the time to finish out what I was almost done tabulating. He hit one of two free throws and the lead was 68-60.

The Raiders had the ball back and whatever pressure the Rams put on them wasn't working. Once again, Jerrell Oxendine found a hole and rushed through it to the basket. He was fouled by Charles and went to the line. He missed his one-and-one opportunity (the Rams never got to 10 fouls in the half), but Wilson came down with his 16th rebound of the game. He missed, but Oxendine was fouled on the loose ball.

Belton called another timeout. This was the last opportunity to tabulate everything ... which I finally did and was up to speed. I counted up Oxendine's numbers and was be surprised at what I just figured out. I counted again.

"Mr. Oxendine!" I yelled to the dad. He looked back at me.

"He's got 44 points!"

This mouth-open look came across his dad. I think he knew his son had a big game, but to hear 44 points was simply remarkable. In Putnam County, you have to be special to get that many points in a game. As long as I covered basketball at any level in my years, I never covered a game with someone scoring 40 or more points. These points may have come in aggressive ways, but they were silently piling up as the game went on.

Anyway, Jerrell Oxendine hit his two free throws to make it 70-60 with 1:12 left to play. This game was pretty much over.

But someone forgot to tell the Rams. The Rams rushed the ball down the court and Williams took a 3-point shot, only to be fouled by Long. That meant three free throws for Williams, but the Rams' star could only muster two out of the three, cutting the lead again to eight points.

Oxendine looked for another opening in the Rams' defense. He was being denied this time. That was OK -- he found an open Wilson, who beat his defender on the block to score the layup and make it a 72-62 game with 55 seconds left.

And when Williams missed a 3-pointer, that should have been it as Wilson claimed his 17th rebound of the contest. But Wilson missed a layup, Batts got the rebound and got the ball to Long, who was blocked by Charles. Williams grabbed his 10th rebound of the game and got the ball to Treadway, who was fouled by Wilson. But Treadway could muster one free throw out of two tries, making it a nine-point game at 72-63 with 28.3 seconds left.

When looking back at the game, another problem the Rams had was their free-throw shooting -- they were a poor 10-of-20 from the charity stripe. That's a lot of open circles that could have put them back in the game, prompting Belton to say afterward, "I'm almost ready to use hypnotism with these guys."

Oxendine tried his 33rd shot of the night. He missed and Curry missed the follow-up shot. Ralph Minter, another reserve, rebounded and got the ball out to Williams for one final shot -- he drained his sixth trey of the game, giving him 32 points in the end on 9-of-24 shooting.

The buzzer ended with Crescent City scoring the 72-66 triumph over the county rival. I confirmed my totals with the Raider books, who also had Oxendine for 46 points on 18-of-33 shooting. About the only person that may have stopped Oxendine on this night was Michael Jordan, and he may have been given a run for his money. Oxendine barely missed a double-double by pulling down nine rebounds.

The one Raider who did have a double-double was Wilson, who had 10 points and those 17 rebounds. Batts finished with eight points and seven rebounds. Overall, the Raiders pulled down 51 rebounds compared to the 34 Interlachen had. As for the Rams, Williams had 32 points, 10 rebounds and three steals. Treadway had 13 points and here steals and Greene put up seven points and six rebounds.

At the end of the game, Oxendine explained his success that night with confidence:

"I knew I was quicker than Interlachen's guards. No matter who they put out on me, I always felt like I could get the first step."

And he did, accumulating the most points any Putnam County player had scored in a game in years. In team-oriented Putnam County, a game with someone scoring 30-plus points is something. But in this particular season, Jarrell Oxendine was head and shoulders above everyone else -- even in a season in which Palatka High went to the FHSAA 4A state semifinals in Lakeland. He was our paper's player of the year without hesitation, averaging 25 points a game, including a 34-point performance in a memorable final home game against those Palatka Panthers on a February Saturday night in which the Raiders pulled out an amazing 94-92 win in front of a crowded Raider gym.

The Raiders and Rams, though, were never good enough to overcome a good Bradford team and Bradford would represent the "Southern" division of the District 4-3A tournament championship game.

Oxendine went from graduation that June to Lynn University, but he never truly liked the atmosphere in South Florida, so he transferred closer to home at Flagler College in St. Augustine, where he carved his own niche. He played overseas after graduating and helped assist St. Augustine High School's basketball team before finding a professional club in 2016 with the Orlando Waves in the American Basketball Association.

That night in 2010 was unique and will forever always be for the way Jerrell Oxendine put points up in an aggressive manner, yet the way he piled points was so quiet that I didn't know he was doing it that affectively until the game was nearly over.

Sometimes, you never know until you have time to see how that stat sheet tallies up.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The very "different" player of the year photo

By the time I was 22, I was feeling my oats in this business they called print journalism.

Four years into it and I already felt like my creative juices were flowing at long last. The fall of '88 sports season had wrapped up. I had my normal two sports to put together for Ocean County Observer All-County teams. There was gymnastics and there was field hockey.

Field hockey was the one sport in which my boss would always do the same layout each year -- he'd dedicate most of the front page to sprinkling mug shots of players on the side going vertically with their names and schools under them and have one "feature" shot that would go right at the top in the middle of the layout as our "player of the year."

I liked it, actually. And I began to put together the All-County team for this past year with numerous young ladies who would represent Ocean County on the 13-girl squad first team. The four really good teams that year were Point Pleasant Boro, Central Regional, Toms River East and Toms River North. North had most of the players on the All-County team -- and they had the one young lady who was, in my opinion, the player of the year. Now, keep in mind, we didn't designate a player of the year back in those days at the paper, but if we highlighted them and led off the All-County story (a looooong drawn out story, too) with them, the feeling was that the reader pretty much understood what I was driving at -- she's the best player that season.

In that fall of 1988, I knew exactly who our player of the year was in the county -- it was North's senior veteran goalkeeper, Linda Kurtyka, who the year before was the goalie of the Mariners' NJSIAA Group IV state championship. Thing was, this 1988 North team had so many different personalities on it -- from the quiet Katie Vignevic and Christy Emmert to the outgoing Marie DeFrancesco and Lori Garrabrant -- it was easy to know them individually. And they were really good as players, which made it easy to cover them.

But North couldn't go far that year without Kurtyka, the fast-thinking, fast-moving goalkeeper with the amazing reflexes. She was deserving of the "honor," even if we didn't officially hand one out. North's defense in 1988 was good, but not quite as good as the state championship team the year before. And she bailed her teammates out often, especially in the postseason.

Still, though, she had to deal with the bitter loss in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV title game against Shawnee when she lost out on a 50-50 ball with 18 seconds left in regulation time that the Shawnee player got to first and flicked behind Kurtyka and into the net, sending the game into overtime and eventually penalty one-on-ones in which a backup Shawnee goalie swatted everything away in a 2-1 victory on North's field. For a long time, I had a picture of one of the officials, who did many a North game as well as other field hockey games in Ocean County, trying to console a teary-eyed Kurtyka, who was beaten on two goals in the one-on-ones.

The loss was heartbreaking considering the winner of that game was most likely going on to win the state Group IV title, which Shawnee ended up doing.

So assembling the All-County team was fairly easy that year. But I wanted to do something completely different from the regular "action" shot that I'd get on the phone with the young lady or her coach and tell them to get their uniform, equipment and hockey stick and just meet our photographer at the field for a picture session.

I had seen other newspapers -- including our rival Asbury Park Press -- do some fancy feature shots for their All-County or all-area teams. If they could do them, why couldn't we? Just because we were still in the dark era with black and white pages and photography should never impede on your creativity.

I wanted to do something different with Linda. Why? You just have to know the person to understand what you want to do. When I first met Linda Kurtyka, she was a freshman on the North girls soccer team that her head coach, Jean Konyhas, told me would be special. I didn't truly get to know her, though, until her sophomore year. It was a game at Shelter Cove Park, home of Toms River East's girls soccer team. North, behind the midfield play of Kurtyka, beat East on that spring Saturday in 1987, and would take the A South championship that year, ending East's run of outright A South championships at three straight years. As I was leaving the parking lot at the park, I see Linda walking by. My eyes caught hers and there I saw it for the first time -- the smile that melted the entire town of Toms River.

Twenty-year-old guys like me didn't care that Linda Kurtyka was 16 ... a smile like that does wonders.

For the next year and a half, I got to know her ... and even do sparring verbal "jabs" on the phone to sometimes break her out of that shy state she was in. I pretty much knew her and her mom and dad, Claudia and Kurt. They were all great.

The thing was, I wasn't sure how or which direction I wanted to go in with this feature picture. Different ideas rolled through my head, but knowing Linda, I wasn't sure they were going to go swimmingly with her. Then I remembered a picture I had seen earlier in 1988. It was a poster of Oakland Athletics sluggers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, dressed up like Jake and Elwood Blues from Blues Brothers fame with oversized baseball bats, embracing their "Bash Brothers" persona. At first, I thought, "I don't know about this." But the more I looked at it, the more I began seeing Linda in that suit and tie hiding behind those pretty brown eyes with a pair of shades.

I smiled. I knew this was going to work.

I called Linda up to tell her she was going to be the feature shot for the All-County team -- and to wish her a happy birthday since I had not seen her after the loss to Shawnee. That game was on November 11, 1988, she turned 18 just nine days later.

Next, I told her my plan for the picture and though I can hear some hesitation at the other end, I can feel her warming up to it to the point that she liked it. Done deal! In some cases, I had to win her trust.

It's now Monday, December 5, 1988. I knew she was going to find a suit (she had a father and two brothers after all), a dress shirt, a tie and shoes for the occasion. The only thing she didn't have for the picture was a hat. This is where I have to go and do the work.

All day on that Monday, I called around to various stores in Ocean County that might have a Stetson hat. Must have tried over half a dozen. None of them had what I was looking for ... none!

So much for Ocean County helping an Ocean County guy. My next option was stores in Southern Monmouth County. I tried one store there. They didn't have what I was looking for. Finally, I hit paydirt with a dress store that sadly no longer exists. It was Wilkins in downtown Manasquan. They finally had the hat I was seeking. Told them I'd be there sometime after 6:30 p.m. They were open until 8, so I had time.

On my drive from my Toms River house to Manasquan, I made a stop over in the Silverton section where the neighborhood newspaper store and Quik-Chek were located. I parked near the pet store where my family purchased food and other stuff over the years there. As I get out of the car, I see two people I know -- one is Marie DeFrancesco and the other is Heather McVeigh, close friends and North seniors. I'm getting out of the car on this cold night in the upper 40s as the sun begins to set and say, "Hi" to them and congratulate Marie on making All-County and that she has a mug shot she needs to take at the paper this week and to be there. Once I have that conversation, I walk into Quik-Chek to get some gum and a drink and I'm on my way out to my car and heading to Manasquan.

By now as I approach the car, I see Heather and Marie again, except this time, I see Marie outside and Heather inside and Heather has Marie locked out of the car.

"Umm, is everything OK, Marie?"

"Yeah, yeah. She's being difficult. She's going to let me in."

"OK, have a good one."

I turn on my car and just as I'm ready to pull the car into reverse, I can hear Marie angrily going, "Let me in!" Then a moment later ... she spits on the windshield. For a moment, I cringe watching this, but then I start laughing when as soon as that spit landed on the windshield, Heather, whose father, Bill, I knew for years as a Toms River High School East teacher, then as head girls basketball coach, flicks the windshield wipers on to wipe it away.

I'm pretty sure Heather allowed her buddy back in the car and that they got along rather well after that. But it's just one of those silly, stupid things you still have sitting there in your head generations later, knowing these two were going to be mothers someday. Oh, those kooky kids that graduated from the Class of '89!

So I go on my way down Hooper Avenue until it turns into Route 549 for where I jump onto Route 70 in Brick, for which I will take into Monmouth County until I can find my way toward downtown Manasquan. I had been to Manasquan High School a couple of times, but never to downtown Manasquan. Nightfall had come completely and I was parking in a diagonal spot facing the bank of shops on one side of Main Street. I honesty didn't know how many stores I had to walk around until I found it, but it turns out it was only three stores down. Great luck on my part.

I walk inside, introduce myself as that guy who asked about the Stetson hat and one of the ladies working the store went to the back. When she got back, she had this big box for which inside was the hat in question. I opened the box, took it out of its holding place and put it on my head. I looked at myself in the mirror of this beautiful hat and I said, "That's what I'm looking for!"

It cost me $34 with tax. Yeah, it was expensive then, but hell, I liked it so much that this hat was going to not only help in the photo, but was going to be in my possession for as long as I wanted it. After all, I bought it, I wore it! I got it home, put it on my bed and headed to work that night.

The picture was slated for Wednesday, December 7. I got the box with the hat in it, put it in my car and made the trip to nearby Toms River North. I had called Linda the previous night to confirm we were still going on with the picture. She said yes and that I'd meet her in the North trainer's room of Dan "Doc" Czarniewski.

I arrived about a half hour after school had let out on that day and inside were a couple of student-athletes getting ankles taken care of by Doc. I'd known Doc for quite sometime since I also knew his brother Rob, a longtime soccer coach at Toms River East. There sitting on a table waiting for myself and our photographer, Tom Spader, to arrive was Linda. She was dressed up for the occasion in a suit that was twice her 5-foot-6 size and a tie that looked like it took work to get on.

And as I go toward her, my eyes caught something below eye level that was moving. I looked down.

It was a dog ... it was Doc's dog, a beautiful, brown-haired, large creature that was just sitting on the floor behaving. The dog was going to be a part of the photo as well, suggested to me by Linda, who had some thoughts of her own in this particular picture.

We were going all out. I told Linda that we were to meet Mr. Spader over by the North field hockey field where the goals were still up. We took the walk through the parking lot and toward the field. Thankfully, not a whole lot of people were staring or even outside wondering what was going on.

Minutes later, Tom arrived. The photo shoot itself took about three to five minutes, but in the end, he snapped off two pictures that worked brilliantly. The first was of her wearing the sunglasses on. But for the sake of the All-County team and showing faces, we ultimately ran the picture of her in the outfit without the sunglasses, posing alongside the post with the dog on a leash as her protector.

I wish we had run the picture of her with the sunglasses because it fit perfectly to the whole Blues Brothers theme that I had in mind. But in many cases, you never think everything out perfectly.

Once the pictures were snapped, Linda asked our photographer if she could get the negatives for the picture for which he said he would.

The All-County field hockey story came out on Sunday, December 11, 1988, and there was that picture of Linda Kurtyka dressed up like a Blues Brother in front of the cage and the dog facing away from the camera. By the way, the picture with the sunglasses on has the dog facing the camera completely.

Too bad you have to show faces for these type of stories. But one thing did stand out in both stories -- that Linda Kurtyka smile.

The next Wednesday, Linda told me she had to be at Toms River East for some sort of event, so I told her I was taking my sister somewhere with me and that I'd meet her over at the school with the negatives. I parked next to her car and she got out. And nonchalantly, I kiddingly struck up a conversation line that would indicate we'd known each other for years.

"Hey there! I got your birthday gift right here," I started. "Here are the negatives. Thanks for the good time!"

Whether I caught her off guard I don't know, but she snapped right back, "Oh, you wish!"

Three months later on Friday, March 17, 1989, I was invited back to the Kurtyka household to do an in-depth, long interview with her as part of a feature story I wrote on her and her soccer and field hockey years at North. (I did the same thing exactly three weeks later in interviewing another talented Class of '89 senior in Central Regional High School softball standout Kelly McGowan.) I spent two good hours with her as she was preparing for her final season at Toms River North before heading to North Carolina State and play for the Wolfpack on scholarship.

In those four years, I got to watch someone grow from a shy girl with a pretty smile to this beautiful, talented and mature young lady ... and yeah, the same smile.

When I looked back on this particular "feature" picture years later, there were so many young ladies, especially in that particular Class of 1989, I could have used to do this particular Blues Brother-style picture.

But no one had that "thing" more than Linda Kurtyka did.

Why? She had style. She had that smile. And she was bad-ass, but mature enough to keep it on a playing field. If she put her mind to it, I believed Linda Kurtyka could succeed in whatever she wanted to do. And she's doing that and being creative in her line of work in Southern California these days.

Of all the young ladies I ever covered in my 30-plus year career, Linda Kurtyka will always be my favorite.

She made it easy for a 22-year-old journalist with creative juices to allow an idea or two to happen.

Oh, and I still have the hat all these years later.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

September 28, 2011: From a dead car in the morning to elation after midnight

For as long as I live, the entire day of Wednesday, September 28, 2011 will forever live in my mind.

But to set this up, I have to go back a couple of weeks beforehand. So here it goes:

It was just over two weeks earlier. I had already stated an interest with the NFL team I cover home games with since 2003, the Jacksonville Jaguars, that my one road trip would be to Charlotte, N.C. to see the Jaguars face off with rookie Cam Newton and the Panthers and their new head coach, Ron Rivera. That was planned for Sunday, September 25.

The only thing I had not done yet was call Dan Edwards, the Jaguars' marvelous media coordinator, to get those passes. Figured I'd put that off a day.

Well any thought of those plans happening would get shot out of the air by one simple phone call. My sister called me and hit me with this news:

"Mom's coming down to Florida to visit cousin Marcia and she's expecting to fly back from Orlando with you."

"When is all this taking place?" I ask.

"She's going to be there until the 28th. You are going to take her with you that Sunday home."

Well that was that for that. No trip to Charlotte. The way things went with the Jaguars that 2011 season, it wasn't worth the trip in the end anyway.

So instead of Western Carolina, I'm now making new plans for a trip to South Florida for September 24-26. I had already asked my boss, Andy, off for that day since I didn't want to have to rush home from Charlotte and get right to work at 7 p.m. on that Monday. So I was cleared.

My next job was to call my friend outside of Fort Lauderdale, Doloria, who had spent some time with me in December 2010 in Palatka. Told her I was heading her way and if she wanted to hang with me. She was glad to see me again since we hadn't seen each other for ninth months. All that Saturday morning and afternoon, I traveled to South Florida. It was about 4 p.m. when I got to Doloria's place in Davie. Her son, who was 22, was there and I was happy to meet him for the first time.

We took off not far after that and checked in at a hotel in Jupiter, not far from my cousin Robin's place. We went out to dinner and I called Marcia to ask her if we could come over. It was late by now and we agreed we'd all meet at Marcia's the next day.

That Sunday, I get to hang with Doloria near the pool of the hotel, even though it was a slightly overcast day. By 6:30 that night, she and I were on our way to Marcia's. I've made the trip to my cousin's house enough times to know where it is, even as darkness was becoming more obvious with the daylight savings time coming.

We arrived at Marcia's where my mom was along with Robin. I gave my mom a big hug and then introduced her to my friend. I had not told them she was African-American, but I didn't think it would matter anyway. I just wanted to see a response.

I never got one because they treated her like she was one of their own. We got to hang out all night and catch up on things. We had a good time with dinner and dessert. Doloria and I took off for the hotel at just after 11:30 that night.

The next morning, the 26th of September, I had to take Doloria back to her place, which was a 45-minute ride one way. When I was done with that, I had to meet Marcia at her place to pick up my mom to take back with me to Northern Florida. She had packed most of her stuff with my mom and I picked her up to go at about 2 p.m. We were on our way to a restaurant in Stuart to meet my ex-girlfriend, Beth, who was living in West Palm Beach with her husband.

We get in, catch up on old times, and I can see Steve was a little uncomfortable with his wife's ex-boyfriend and his mother there. I think he was trying hard to impress, but he didn't have to. Hey, he got my ex in the end. He had nothing to prove, really.

We spent about 90 minutes in the restaurant and left around 3:40 p.m. when my phone goes off.

Marcia's calling me, telling me my mom forgot her watch.

"Meet me right off I-95 by the Sunoco station," she said.

So I did. About 15 minutes later, she arrives with the watch and once again, we say our goodbyes.

Now I'm heading north up I-95 and I have two options: My mom and I could go see my late girlfriend's mom and brother, who still live up in Vero Beach and she'd get to see her 3-year-old son, Nio, who she was pregnant with when I first met her in 2007. I got no answer on the phone from her brother at all, and I wasn't up to springing surprises on the family one bit.

That idea went out the window. My next option was calling my step-grandmother Gladys, who lives in Clearwater. I get her on the phone and tell her I have mom with me. She was delighted to see her and I put her on my phone with her. It was around 4:45 p.m. and the exit for Vero Beach was coming off -- State-Road 60. You go east, you get into Vero Beach and to the ocean. You turn left, you get the Vero Beach Outlets and just about nothing for 75 miles other than the Florida's Turnpike exit for Yeehaw Junction.

I figured I'd get to her place by about 8 p.m., but well over 100 miles seemed to take forever, especially after getting out of that nothingness of an area known as Central Florida and hitting every single traffic light on the way to Tampa. We had to make two bathroom breaks along the way.

By the time I reached Tampa, it was 8:40 p.m. and I still had the Campbell Causeway to drive on to get to Clearwater. By the time I reached her development where she lived, it was 9:10 p.m. Thankfully, she was still up and about and watching the first game of a three-game, season-ending baseball series between the Yankees and the Rays at Tropicana Field.

She was delighted to see us get there. She would catch up on times with my step-grandmother since she hadn't seen her since 2007 when her stepbrother Lewis got married. He came over for a while, and after that, his wife Eileen came over. We ended up leaving sometime before midnight, but I'm glad we got everyone together for a few hours that evening.

Now I wasn't going to tell my mom I had some issues with my automobile, a 1998 Toyota Corrolla, which had just got over 200,000 miles six months earlier. After pushing that car as far as I could, I wanted to take the back way to Palatka, even if it took an extra hour to get there. We traveled up U.S.-19 into Crystal River, then veered off onto SR-44. It was a turn after that onto SR-491 through Beverly Hills until connecting onto SR-200. Once I got back into Ocala nearly two hours later, we hopped on I-75 to Exit 358, where I knew my normal way around there to SR-326, then onto US-301, and onto SR-20 where finally sometime around 3:30 in the morning, we arrived back at my apartment in Palatka.

I had her sleeping on the sofa in the living room and I was in my bedroom. That morning and afternoon, we went out to a pair of places in town, the last was my place of employment, the Palatka Daily News. Unlike seven years earlier when my mom and dad came to town to visit, it was during the day and she got to meet Andy, my boss, Larry, and my publisher and personal savoir, Rusty. She got to see I worked with very good people while I was there. We stopped over at Publix where we picked up the dinner for the night -- I made us grilled salmon with green beans and corn.

Then I showed her the television clicker and told her I would be home sometime around 12:30 in the morning. It was an easy night for a Tuesday and I left to come home at around 12:45 a.m. But as I pulled into my parking lot at my complex with my tail going in first, I started to hear a noise in my car.

I didn't think anything of it at that moment and just came in to see mom was up. She had done little unpacking since she was only going to be with me for a day. We had to be out the door by 9:15 for a 2 p.m. flight out of Orlando.

It is 8:15 in the morning, Wednesday, September 28, 2011. My task at hand was to get mom to the airport after we first picked up her phone that she forgot her charger for on the trip down to Florida at the nearby Radio Shack. Those folks were nice enough to allow her to keep the phone overnight. If my sister or dad needed us, they could get her on my phone since I had left it with her.

Getting things packed wasn't that difficult a task. I made coffee that morning and around 9:10, we were to get on our way for the 2 1/2-hour trek to Orlando International Airport. Got everything settled, turned the ignition on.

Nothing! All I heard was the rattling sound of something in my car that sounded like a belt was out of place. I opened up the hood of my car ... and it was. The belt to my fuel pump was snapped. I didn't have many options other than a rental car at that particular moment.

The only place in town I had business with and knew would get the job done for me was Enterprise. But I had to wait. It wasn't until about 9:45 when we could be picked up, make a side trip to get mom's fully charged cell phone at Radio Shack, then be on our way to Enterprise to pick up the rental. It seemed as if it would take forever to get the business of the rental over with. But they were only going as fast as they could as they figured out which car I was going to take for the day.

We got to the rental desk at about 10:15. We didn't leave until 10:50, which now put me behind a serious 8-ball, trying to get my mom down to Orlando as fast as I could. One obstacle that was in the way was gas -- they don't give you more than just over a quarter of a tank to begin with, so you are on your own to fill the tank up. It was 12:30 in the afternoon and I had just arrived at the gas station off of I-4 in Deltona to get some gas in. I put in about $5 since that would take care of the rest of the trip to the airport.

By the time she finished going to the bathroom and I had picked up something to drink for us, we were out of the station by 12:40. It was still another 10 miles to the exit for the Greeneway toll road and another 35 minutes to the airport.

To this day, I still don't know how cops didn't catch me going 85 mph in a 70 zone. Once we got to the airport, I was able to get her to where she needed to check in. I told her to call me to make sure all was fine as I found a place to park after she got in.

Five minutes later, the phone rings.

"It's OK," she says. "The flight's been delayed an hour."

There was a sigh of relief. I met her outside the gate she was supposed to go through. We hugged, kissed, told each other we loved them and I left her to go through security and wait for her flight back to New Jersey.

I had done what I was asked to do -- get her to the airport and on her way home. I jumped back into my car and decided to take a leisurely trip back to Palatka. Heck, I had the car for the day and it wasn't as if there was a huge day of work ahead of us. Wednesdays are rarely ever busy because of how religious it is for activity that night where I was living.

After getting gas at the closest Mobil in Orlando, I took SR-436 onto I-4 and back off onto US-17 to take it all the way back up to Palatka. By the time I arrived somewhere between 5:30 and 6 p.m., I had contacted a guy named Troy, who happened to see what was going on under the hood earlier that morning when I first had my issue. He was willing to come look at it and evaluate if he could fix it or not. He looked at it after I got back and figured it shouldn't be a problem. Told him I'd see him in the morning.

I had picked up something to eat from Publix that night and headed to work sometime after 7 p.m. Mom had already let me know she got back safely, so all was good.

My job on the night was normal -- make sure our Scoreboard page was set up properly to put our weekly football picks grid on the page and to pick up the two local events that were taking place.

But my mind was somewhere else. It was the final night of the Major League Baseball season. What was a tradition to end the season on a Sunday, now it was ending on a Wednesday night, away from the frenzy of Sunday NFL play. The Rays, my favorite American League team, had done an amazing job of cutting the deficit from nine games behind the Boston Red Sox in the search for the American League wild card to tie them after taking the first two games of their series with the rival New York Yankees.

Early in the night, I had already gotten my two events on the evening: Palatka High's volleyball team had beaten Interlachen in four sets, and the Palatka High boys golf team took second in a three-team competition with Nease and St. Augustine at Ponte Vedra's Valley Golf Course.

That gave me plenty of time to finish up my end of the scoreboard page as we waited on the outcome of this Rays-Yankees game. And it didn't look good in the second inning when Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira sent a ball in orbit for a grand slam, giving the Yankees a 5-0 lead. He added another home run in the fourth and when Andruw Jones went yard in the fifth, the Yankees had a 7-0 lead.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox had taken a 3-2 lead in the top of the fifth inning and needed a win and a Rays loss to get the AL wild card.

Those scores would stay like that for a number of innings. I had already started thinking about a Red Sox-Rangers first-round series. It was about 11 o'clock, and normally at that hour, you start getting into the final stretch where the deadline is 12:30 a.m.

While that was all taking place in the American League, the National League picture had become clearer with the Philadelphia Phillies taking out the Atlanta Braves in 13 innings, 4-3, over an hour after the St. Louis Cardinals had shut out the woebegone Houston Astros, 8-0, to steal the National League wild card away from the frustrated Braves. My boss, a diehard Braves fan, was not too pleased by that outcome.

Now the game was in the bottom of the eighth. The Rays, who I grew to love as my AL team once I started covering games in that ballpark in 2007 and enjoyed conversations with their outgoing and knowledgeable manager Joe Maddon, still the best manager or coach I've ever interviewed in all these years, were down to their last six outs. It wasn't looking good still.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi had started Dellin Batances and had used six relievers by the time they got to Boone Logan. Johnny Damon singled and Ben Zobrist doubled him to third. Casey Kotchman was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Out goes Logan and in came Luis Ayala. He walks Sam Fuld to bring in Damon. It's 7-1. Sean Rodriguez is hit by a pitch, scoring Zobrist. It's 7-2.

And I'm wondering all the while, "Why the hell does Girardi not have Mariano Rivera up to pitch? The Rays still need this game to make the playoffs!"

But no Rivera. Ayala is still pitching. After a strikeout, B.J. Upton lofted a sacrifice fly to make it 7-3. There's two outs and runners on base for All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria. On the first pitch, I could hear the crack of the bat, look at the ball flying on TV over the fence and realize, "Oh my goodness ... it's 7-6!! Just like that!!"

At the same time this is going on, I turn back to ESPN to see the bottom of the ninth in the Red Sox-Orioles game. Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon is on the mound to close out the game and the Red Sox playoff berth. Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds strike out, leaving the Orioles down to one out left.

That brings up Chris Davis, the team's third baseman and a midseason acquisition from the Texas Rangers. Davis laces a double to right field.

There's something. Then No. 9 hitter Nolan Reimold takes one deep to right-center field that bounces over the fence for a ground-rule double to tie it up at 4-all. At the least now, there's extra innings after the blown save.

But it wasn't ending there -- leadoff hitter Robert Andino singled to left field just out of the reach of Carl Crawford. Reimold was waved home to the plate. Crawford -- who had signed a deal to leave Tampa Bay to play for the Red Sox -- fired to the plate, but he was not in time to cut down Reimold.

The Orioles had done it! They had done it for themselves and for the Rays. Now it was up to Tampa Bay to take care of business.

But down 7-6 in the bottom of the ninth, it wasn't feeling good. Still, where the hell is Mariano Rivera?!? He should be out there finishing this!!!

Cory Wade was the newest pitcher to come into the game for the Yankees to close out the game. He got Zobrist to pop out and Kotchman to ground out. There was one more obstacle in the way -- Dan Johnson. Three years earlier, he had come up in a pinch-hitting role against Boston and hit a September home run against Papelbon to help lead the Rays to the win and ultimately clinch their first American League East title.

Now he was being called on in a pinch-hitting duty to do something again. The count got to 2-2. Then Wade grooved one inside the strike zone. Johnson crushed it. It was only a matter of whether it would stay fair or not.

It did. Home run! Tie game!! Oh, my goodness, this really is happening!

An hour really goes by and nothing happens. It's now just after midnight -- 30 minutes before deadline -- and the game is in the bottom of the 12th inning. The Yankees were on their 11th pitcher of the game, Scott Proctor. He struck out Upton swinging, bringing up Longoria. He worked the count to 2-2. Somehow, I knew something was going to happen, whether it'd be a double, maybe a home run. I felt like it was "time" for something amazing to happen.

Sure enough, on the next pitch, it did.

When Longoria's bat met ball, I thought it was a line foul at first. But the way the ball was travelling,  a low line drive, I figured at best it would be a one-hopper off the wall. However, visiting that ball park a number of times, I always noticed that short cutout in the wall between left field and the left field foul pole. Never thought in a million years it'd come into play.

But when that ball disappeared over the fence on the right side of the foul pole, I ... literally ... lost ... it!

I'll never forget Dwayne Staats' call of that shot: "Two-two and a line shot down the left field liiiiiine ... THAT BALL IS GONE! AND THE RAYS WIN IT! A LINE DRIVE HOME RUN BYEVAN LONGORIA AND THE RAYS STORM THE FIELD!!"


They could have heard me in Crescent City and I didn't care. The Rays had pulled off the absolutely impossible and helped finish off one of the greatest collapses in Major League history. The Red Sox had a 99.4 percent chance of making the playoffs as of the beginning of the month. Now they were going to sit home and watch the playoffs as the Rays got the wild card.

All my Facebook friends who thought the Red Sox were a lock to make the playoffs went suddenly silent. For a long time, too.

It was a very good night to say the least. The Rays had ended what was an absolutely horrible start to my day. It made it worth getting through in the end. And something I won't ever forget in my life.

The next day after that, I took the car back to Enterprise, they drove me home, I met Troy, who drove me to one of our local auto supply stores to get a belt for $46. But he didn't have the tool to get the belt in. Thankfully, one of our Daily News carriers, Don, knew a lot about cars. He and his son would eventually come over on Saturday morning, October 1, to get that belt on because they had the tool that poor Troy didn't. And for my gratitude they got the problem fixed, I took both Don and his son to our local eatery, Angel's, for lunch because they asked that.

And Troy would be happy -- even though he was frustrated for not getting the car fixed, I was a man of my word and bought him an 18-pack of beer ... just like he asked. He did everything he could up until fixing it.

Unfortunately, my mom wouldn't do so well after I got her on the plane in New Jersey. She had a stroke in November 2011 and it was also figured out she had ongoing dementia, which would ultimately claim her life in February 2014.

For as long as I live, I will never forget that Wednesday when baseball ended its season without any football interference. To this day, many call it the greatest day of baseball ever.

I'd agree with that. After what I went through in the morning when I had one job to do and barely did it, it was well worth the ending.