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Saturday, December 25, 2010

The kind of shot you make to win trips to Hawaii

On the final Sunday night of 1985, I drew the assignment to go to Ocean County College and cover the championship game for the second annual WOBM Christmas Classic.

OK, I drew the assignment because I was the only one of the writers who worked on a Sunday, so it didn't take much to figure out who would cover the championship. But I was happy to do it and get away from the office.

Little did I know what was about to take place an hour and a half after the game started.

Now in 1985, I wasn't a basketball writer for the Observer, but since it was a popular sport in the county, I had to keep my eyes and ears open to the things going on at that time. The championship pitted two very, very good teams -- Southern Regional and Toms River North.

Southern was one of the county's iconic hoops teams, coached by the venerable Jim Ruhnke and led by all-everything point guard Jim Bailey and the gritty inside work of forward Ron Henefer and center Mark Olkiewicz.

North had a very nice team. Their leadership was provided by point guard John Truhan, swing man Ricky Garretson and lanky guard Joe Bisogno. But there was no doubt who the star of this Mariners team was.

He was 6-foot-7 center and dominant force Alex Blackwell, a sophomore with a ton of talent and a bright future ahead.

The two teams had met in the championship the year before, but Southern blasted North by 26 points. This time, though, I knew we were going to have a game. Right next to me on press row, I can see Ken Turp and Nick Werkman doing the taped broadcast for Clear Channel 8, which was and will always be one of the best local area cable networks ever. They did right by high school sports in the area and are, I am sure of it, greatly missed since Comcast bought the company out at the end of the 20th century.

The close game at halftime, though, was turned into a one-sided affair when Southern's defense -- a staple in the Ruhnke era -- used a box-in-one on Blackwell, rendering him useless for those eight minutes. Blackwell's teammates weren't much help either and North scored three points in the period.

Southern had a 39-26 lead in the fourth quarter and there was no way in Hades Southern was going to relinquish that lead playing that suffocating defense. The game was in the bag after all, right?

Problem was you could not keep Alex Blackwell down that long and once Garrettson, Truhan and forward Mike Nance started to deliver, the lead began to dissipate. A pair of free throws each by Nance and Blackwell, then a Southern turnover turned into a Bisogno basket. Now it was 39-32. Then after a Southern miss, Nance delivered a three-point play to make it 39-35.

The deluge didn't stop, either. Garretson nailed a jumper to make it 39-37. North got the ball back after a missed Southern free-throw attempt and after two opportunities to tie it, Garretson got a rebound and was fouled. With 2:05 left in the championship, he sank both free throws.

Remember that 13-point lead? North just rode a 13-0 run to tie it.

North fans in that gym were amped up to say the least. The OCC gym was louder than at anytime I ever heard it before or after in my career. And all the while, I'm thinking that this was the game tournament director and WOBM sports director Kevin Williams was looking for to put this tournament on the map. Ten years later in a column in the Observer, Williams even told me that this December 29, 1985 game changed everything for this tournament.

A Steve Lally layup made it a 41-39 lead with less than two minutes and finally stopped the hemorrhaging for Southern. Garretson hit one of two free throws, but Henefer delivered a layup to make it 43-40.

That's when it became one of the greatest basketball games I have ever witnessed. Truhan hit a short jumper to make it 43-42. On the next Rams possession, Henefer connected to make it a three-point game again. Nance scored and it was 45-44 with 24 seconds left in the game when Olkiewicz was fouled by Blackwell, sending him to the free-throw line for a one-and-one opportunity.

To this day, I'm sure Blackwell did not know this, but Olkiewicz was a terrible free-throw shooter. How bad was he? Going into the game, he was shooting 13 percent from the line in the young season. I don't have to try hard and still, I can make at least two out of eight attempts from the charity stripe.

If this was the plan, though, it worked to perfection. Olkiewicz missed on his first attempt and Blackwell came up with his ninth rebound of the game. Truhan brought the ball down for what North was hoping was a final shot. Imagine coming back from a 13-point deficit early in the final quarter -- and in an era, let me remind you of how old I am, when there was no 3-point shot -- to have the opportunity of winning a Christmas tournament.

This was Don Fix and Toms River North's reality. Truhan passed to Blackwell, who had Olkiewicz draped on him. Blackwell began his move to the basket as the clock started ticking down ... 10 seconds, nine, eight, seven, six ...

With five seconds left, Blackwell was fouled by Olkiewicz.

But that was questionable. On the play, Blackwell was in the act of shooting as he finished his move to the basket and got fouled by the Rams' big man. As the whistle blew, the ball kissed off the window and into the basket.

To this day, I still believe the referees got this call wrong, wrong, wrong. This should have been a three-point play opportunity.

Now the North big man was left to have to deliver a one-and-one free-throw shot with five seconds to go. Southern had put the pressure squarely on this 15-year-old manchild. With a large Southern fan base screaming as loud as you can imagine, Blackwell calmly nailed the first free throw to tie it at 45.

Right there and then, Ruhnke called his final timeout to freeze the youngster. He was also drawing up a final play just in case Blackwell would hit the second free throw. At this particular point, I started wondering why Ruhnke called the timeout then instead of after the second free throw, knowing the game was tied already and a one-point deficit with a timeout would at least give his kids a chance to regroup and call a final play instead of making it up in case of a rebound or the made free throw.

Still, both teams went back out on the court. As I watched Blackwell bounce the ball at the free-throw line, I was ready to fill Blackwell's name in under tournament Most Valuable Player honors since this tournament was his coming out party.

Blackwell put his second free throw up. Swish. North 46, Southern 45, five seconds to go.

The five seconds, I thought, were a foregone conclusion. What possibly could Southern do with five seconds and now no timeouts?

That's when I learned that the game wasn't over until the clock read :00.

Olkiewicz took the ball out of bounds, but Truhan and Garretson were already on top of Bailey like flypaper. So the Southern center had no choice but to throw it to the one open guy.

Steve Lally. Lally took the pass, dribbled the ball quickly over the midcourt line and fired a desperation heave at the basket as the buzzer sounded.

Swish! The darned thing found nothing but net!

North fans who were ready to storm the court and party with the Mariners after this amazing comeback from 13 points down were suddenly stopped in their tracks by the least likely of endings from the least likely of players.

To this day almost 25 years later, I can still see that scene moments after that prayer was answered and Southern had come away with the 47-46 victory. I can still see the Southern players jumping on Lally near the OCC logo at midcourt. I can see Ruhnke and assistant coach Dick Manzo jumping wildly, almost as shocked and as excited as the Southern fans were.

And I can still see the upset looks on the faces of the North players who had that championship taken away from them. And I can still hear Nick Werkman going absolutely bonkers on the air after that shot had gone through.

After the game, the affable and humorous Bill Hewitt, North's assistant coach, put it in the only way Bill Hewitt could at that particular moment.

"That's the kind of shot you make to win trips to Hawaii."

In 1995, and 10 years after making that once-in-a-lifetime shot to win one of the greatest basketball games I've ever covered, Lally admitted to me he could never hit that shot anywhere, anytime, not even when it was just himself, a basketball and a basket. Not before that night, not since that night.

Mere moments after I was ready to scribble Alex Blackwell's name in the spot for tournament MVP, I wound up putting Jim Bailey's name there. He wound up with the MVP, but Blackwell went on to the better career.

Blackwell starred at North for two years before transferring to highly touted Oak Hill Academy in Virginia for his senior year. He ended up at Monmouth University where he was a standout in his four years before the Los Angeles Lakers took a look at him and gave him a couple of cups of coffee in the 1992-93 season. To this day, he and Chris Fleming, who had a nice career at Lacey High School and then University of Richmond, are the two best "big men" I have ever covered in the sport.

Southern went on to win the WOBM Classic in Bailey's senior year in 1986 before falling in the finale in 1987 to Joe Spitale-led Brick, who was coached by Don Fix's brother, Dick.

As for the WOBM Tournament, it is still a staple of the Jersey Shore scene 26 years after it started.

But who knows what might have been the fate of the tournament if not for that Sunday night, December 29, 1985.

The night Steve Lally hit a shot that would have won him a trip to Hawaii.

If Hawaii was offered. He had to settle for a tournament championship.

Guess that wasn't a bad consolation prize, really.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Can we move the Christmas basketball tourney final outdoors?

In this business, we take our work seriously.

Seriously. We have to. As journalists, we're supposed to be on top of everything. Doesn't matter what's happening behind you, way ahead of you or off to the sides, your focus is on the action.

And I'll admit, there are times my eyes wander when covering an event. But the focus has to be there for the important things that take place during a contest. After all, you have to be able to successfully tell a reader what is going on at all times.

But there are times I do admit when even I don't want to be at an event, not because it isn't worthy, but because our minds wander toward other things we'd like to do.

In 1984, I was a focused, 18-year-old journalist who was still cutting his teeth in this business when my boss told me I was going to the championship of the Buc Girls Basketball Christmas Classic on December 29, 1984. Toms River East, my alma mater, was facing a very good Mater Dei team, a parochial school from Middletown, for the championship.

This would be one of the first basketball games I ever covered, so a Saturday afternoon game in Little Silver at Red Bank Regional High School wasn't a bad thing.

But as the morning of the 29th came, there was something very unusual about it. Unlike most winter mornings where the cold permeates the New Jersey air in the usual way we need that air to breathe evetyday, this was not that cold, winter morning.

If I had no knowledge that this was the third-to-last day of the year, you could have convinced me that this was March 29. Or April 29.

All I heard leading up to the game, first on television and then on radio, was how beautiful this day was going to be. Stepped outside. Very warm. Indian Summer came late this year, didn't it?

I had a decision to make, though it really wasn't in the thought process when I woke up that morning: Go to the game dressed in a short-sleeved, collared shirt and long pants or be radical and go to the game in a T-shirt and shorts.

Be professional or be me. Then I asked myself, "Self, when are we going to be experiencing that warm, summer day in December again? What are the odds of that happening?"

The T-shirt and pair of white shorts won out. The folks thought I was crazy. They insisted the temperatures were going to be in the 40s by the time night came. I compromised and took a light jacket with me for the ride.

The easy way to get to Little Silver would be taking the Garden State Parkway to Exit 109 and heading east, weaving from one road to another until finding Red Bank Regional High School, a school which a former boss of mine who came from that area said could have been called Little Shrew Bank Regional because the towns Red Bank Regional filtered from were Little Silver, Shrewsbury and Red Bank.

But I was a little different. OK, I was a lot more programmed than others. Without familiarity of schools in Monmouth County when I first started, one of the first things I purchased was a an atlas of that county. On that atlas were where all the high schools were located, very unique for 1984 as far as I was concerned.

And I headed up earlier than I would have had I taken the Parkway. Nope, on this day, I was making Route 35 my route of choice. This day was going to be stretched out to the max as possible. Jumped into my 1973 Chevy Chevelle and took the long way there, windows down, taking in everything within the speed limit.

By the time I found Sycamore Avenue, that was the trigger to turn right and weave my way around road after road until I found the high school -- 20 minutes before the game started.

The last weather report on my AM radio station, 660 WNBC, pretty much spelled it out.

"Sunny and 72."

And now I had to go indoors to cover an event that was meant to be played outdoors on this one day. Couldn't we convince East coach Chuck Potter (who was my junior year history teacher) and Mater Dei mentor Kevin Attridge to move the game to a court in the nearby area? Wasn't basketball meant to be played on a blacktop court in some park?

Not the organized version of high school basketball unfortunately. But a heck of a game it was.

The lead never got more than three points throughout for either side, though I learned one lesson that day from sitting at the scorer's table -- DON'T sit next to Chuck Potter or assistant coach Bill McVeigh. A call went against East, a very questionable one, and as I was marking down on my scoresheet, I heard an emphatic hand right next to me go "thwap" on the table in anger. Startled, I look up and Potter and McVeigh, who would take over for Potter after that season, are barking loudly at the officials.

I think they were already having enough of them when senior standout Denice McKenna picked up her fourth foul early in the third quarter.

But East had a foil for all this. Guards were feeding center Carla Whitley at will and she kept connecting for layups to keep the Raiders in the game. Whitley finished with 17 points and eight rebounds.

Late in the fourth quarter, Whitley hit on back-to-back layups to give East a 38-35 lead. Jeannie Warner of Mater Dei answered with a pair of baskets to make it 39-38, then Sue Begley scored on a short jumper and the Seraphs had a three-point lead with less than a minute to go.

In spite of losing standout and top scorer Shonda Becker with a sprained ankle during the game, Mater Dei looked on its way to the title after wresting control away.

Then stepped Laura Acker. East's talented point guard nailed a jumper with 42 seconds to go to cut the lead to one point. East forced Mater Dei into a turnover and had the chance to win the game.

East found its leader. McKenna got the ball, but was fouled with two seconds left. Nail the two free throws and East goes home with the title.

Well, they may be called free throws, but there's nothing easy about them. My around-the-corner neighbor had the chance to play heroine after being on the bench with foul trouble through most of the second half, but clanged the first one. She hit the second free throw and we were going to overtime at 41-all.

Greaaaaaaaaaaaat!! This beautiful day and ride back to Toms River is now going to have to wait. But it would only be one extra session.

Laura Acker made sure of it. She fed Whitley for yet another layup to make it 43-41. Mater Dei's offense was frustrated by whatever the Raider defense did, and the Seraphs did all they could to get the ball back. They fouled Acker with 56 seconds left. She buried both free throws. Then she got a steal and was fouled again with 22 seconds left, nailing both free throws and sealing the Raiders' 47-41 win and her tournament Most Valuable Player honor.

And like that, it was over. The title was East's and I couldn't wait to get back out and head back the same way I came up -- using Routes 35 and 70 and into Route 549 back to Toms River.

That sort of got detoured. One of my high school classmates, Maureen Sweeney, a former basketball and soccer player, was there to watch. We decided to go for late lunch at Monmouth Mall. Still remember eating at the old Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips. After we hung out for a bit, we were both on our way home.

Interestingly, I wouldn't see Mo again until almost 25 years later at our high school reunion.

A lot of memories of a late December day, most noted for a Christmas basketball tournament championship on a day that never felt anything like Christmas time.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Seeing history in Bridgeton ... as well as most of South Jersey

Lakewood High School at the Jersey Shore has always been known for its greatness sports-wise on a basketball court. But for a time or two, football at LHS had seasons where it thrived.

And long before we used Google maps, Mapquest and GPSes, we had police departments and word of mouth when it came to finding places.

How are these two things inter-related? Saturday, December 6, 1986. That's how.

Let's start with the former. The Lakewood High School football team was having a special season that fall of '86. Actually it had started with a little winning streak at the end of the 1985 season with victories at home against Manasquan and on the Sunday after Thanksgiving against long-time rival Toms River South, 15-14, at South.

So momentum was there for the '86 season. These Piners had many of the pieces from that late '85 run back, including running back Calvin Johnson, senior quarterback Billy Gee and a ferocious two-way competitor at running back and linebacker in senior Tony Brown.

The stars aligned for that rare, fabulous season.

The Piners qualified for the state playoffs for the first time in their program's history and were given the No. 2 seed in NJSIAA South Jersey Group III where on November 22, they would host No. 3 Woodrow Wilson of Camden in the first round. They took care of business against Wilson as Brown rushed for 132 yards and a score in a 20-13 victory.

Not a bad debut. That would mean a SJ III championship date at top-seeded Bridgeton. In between, the Piners would lose a heartbreaking 7-0 battle for the Class A South title to a very talented Toms River South team on Thanksgiving, so they would be going into the game on a down note.

I was at Lakewood for the Wilson game. As a matter of fact, I was there for those wins at the end of the '85 season against Manasquan and South. I knew the makeup of this team coached by George Bessette. Knew that if they got rolling, these Piners would be hard to stop.

And now, let's talk about the latter and that point of contentiousness ... finding the way to Bridgeton High School. The school itself sits out on the main highway in South Jersey on Route 49. That part was known, but getting there was a totally different situation.

As stated before, we had no GPSes to look at to steer us in that direction and we had no Internet to look up the school's location and get directions like we do now. Oh, hell no! How did a good reporter get to his destination back then?

1) We had to rely on directions given to the home area school by the school it was going to. And as you will soon find out, it was literally hit or miss if the translation over the phone was similar to that in French class when someone at the front of the room was given a word pronounced correctly and passed about from one person to another so by the end of the game, the last person turned "Parlez-vous Francais?" into "Artsy to you, OK?"

2) Calling police dispatchers to get to that place. Either the dispatcher knew the place very well and could give precise directions or pass it on to an officer in the building on duty who could do the same thing. Trust me, though those dispatchers and officers were friendly, I'm sure the last thing they really wanted to do was give us fourth-estaters directions to their area and hope we understood everything they said on the phone to us the first time.

And so at about 9:30 a.m. on December 6, I got to the Ocean County Observer parking lot waiting on John Pelzman, a young correspondent as I was who was covering the game with me. He was writing the main story, me the sidebar. This allowed me to cover the game on the field, where normally I would do it from the press box.

We decided to take his little red Honda down to Bridgeton. With the directions that I was given by my boss on paper straight from Lakewood High School, we headed on our way out on Route 70 west to the U.S. 206 circle to go south.

There were many different ways we could have taken to get to Bridgeton, but if you've ever been to Bridgeton, there's nooooooooo easy way to get there. You just wing it.

Back to the ride, though. Still going down on 206 past the Atlantic City Expressway and into Hammonton, which turned into Route 54. John and I were a good hour and change into the ride and figured if we kept on this road, we'd probably see the Delaware Bay, but according to the directions, we had a turnoff, but here's the catch -- there were four other roads in that turnoff that would take us on our way to our destination.

We thought we had the road. Turns out the road we turned on to according to the directions was leading us directly northwest of Bridgeton. Now we were on some country road looking at cornfields heading to who knows where?

Again, no GPS, no cell phones to call up Mapquest maps. Just John, myself, and a New Jersey atlas which did not have all the backroads printed.

We didn't stop once or twice. We stopped three times to ask for directions. All the nice helpful people tried, but we were way out of the way of where we were supposed to go.

Nice directions. Thanks, LHS!

Now it was 12:10 p.m. We had a 1 p.m. kickoff. Somehow, someway we decided to keep driving until we found a sign, something, anything that looked like Route 49. Fifteen minutes later, we did. Followed that until we saw Route 49 in front of us. Then we saw how far out of the way we went -- Bridgeton was to the left, not the right. John turned. About 10 more minutes later, we found the stadium by accident going about 45 mph past it. That was par for the course on this trip. We turned around and got in to this old-looking stadium that must have been built in the 1920s which was located off campus.

It was 12:35 p.m., still enough time to get ourselves together and prepared for the game.

And what a game John and I saw. Gee broke a scoreless tie by running the option to the left side, finding a block, then using his trackster's speed to go 49 yards for a touchdown. Richie Morgan's extra-point kick made it 7-0.

But the real story of this game was Brown defensively. With 25 seconds left in the third period, Dean Kolonich scored for Bridgeton to cut the lead to a point. Mysteriously -- and probably because Bridgeton had no kicker -- coach Don Reich decided to go for a two-point conversion and rely on his defense to hold what he hoped was an 8-7 lead. But Kolonich, the Bridgeton quarterback, threw a pass that Brown knocked down, keeping it at 7-6.

Then near the midway point of the fourth quarter, Lakewood had to punt. Morgan boomed it away to Anthony McIver. McIver fielded the punt, but there was Brown to strip the ball away and recover it at the Bridgeton 21.

Brown and the defense of proud assistant coach Jan Krisbergs kept the Bulldogs and two-way star Darrin Doss in check. They made one final stop in Brideton territory to secure the 7-6 victory, though at the end of the game, a frustrated Doss crashed through Lakewood's line as Gee was doing the victory kneeldown and sent Brown flying to the turf.

This was a bad scene. The Bridgeton cops had to come on to the field to help both teams' coaching staffs break up the free-for-all that delayed the game for nearly 10 minutes and calm an angry Brown down from finding Doss and tearing his head off.

But it was Lakewood who got to celebrate the win. I remember how relieved Bessette was that it was over. And I remember the proud smile on Kristberg's face afterward. He was a rookie coach for Ed Brandt, now the school's athletic director in '86, when LHS had its last really good season in 1974.

Lakewood was not known for its football and that's the case even today -- even as legendary Brick High coach Warren Wolf coaches the Piners now and tries to push them back to a point of respectability. LHS is a basketball school, always has been, always will, and proudly, too.

For one season, though, it was football that shined through.

So John and I left this old stadium to head back, this time in the other direction. We stopped at KFC in town to finally eat, then map out what we thought would be an easy way back to Toms River.

As stated before, there was no easy way back. It was about 4:45 p.m. and almost dark. Whatever directions LHS gave us, we weren't following those back. We took Route 49 east, but the problem here was this -- Route 49 does not have a major artery to hook up with. So we turned one way, then another. Before long, it was almost 6 and we were lost. To complicate matters, we had to be done by 10 p.m. and it was dark.

And John was running out of gas in that little Honda. And there were no gas stations in sight.

Welcome to backwoods southern New Jersey.

Desperation set in. We decided to stop at some random house to actually see where we were. Though we were not invited in, the kind person at the door told us to just follow the road we were on until we saw the Garden State Parkway.

The Parkway?! Where the hell were we and what the hell exit are we at when we get on?

Turns out the friendly person in the random house we chose was right. He told us about a gas station right near the Parkway where John could fill up at something like 79 cents a gallon -- oh those were the days!! Then we found the Parkway and jumped on.

Figured we were above Atlantic City around mile marker 40 or something. Nope. It was Exit 25. John and I got back to Toms River by almost 7:30.

And waiting for us was an upset boss, who snapped at anything if it didn't please him.

"Where the hell have you been?!"

"Getting lost in all of South Jersey!"

"Didn't you follow the directions?!"

"The directions were wrong! They sent us all over goddamned South Jersey! Tell your goddamn cronies at Lakewood High to do a better job next time in getting us godddamn directions! These were freakin' terrible!"

I'm not sure if Chris Christopher or Greg Darroch, who had watched Pennsauken beat Toms River South around the corner at South that afternoon, had any expression after that tirade. But I think my boss realized at that particular moment that he couldn't push around this 20-year-old anymore. I had to stand up for myself and John. The pressure, after all, was on us to get our stories done in about two hours.

John wrote about the game, I wrote about Tony Brown's performance and had to do the summary agate on the game. In a 7-6 game, there's not a whole lot to report agate-wise.

And by 9 p.m. we were done. John went back to his place in Seaside Heights, and my boss, Chris, Greg and myself were off the floor sometime around 10.

A nearly 13-hour day I won't ever forget for a number of reasons, but mostly because of a state sectional championship won by a football team whose school is better known for its prowess on the hardwood.

And because John and I saw more of South Jersey than we bargained for that day.

It was definitely a different time.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The night that 'forgotten' Keys team won a football title

Rudy Tomjanovich once famously stated after his Houston Rockets won their second straight NBA championship in 1995, "Never underestimate the heart of a champion."

His Rockets, a sixth seed in that year's NBA Western Conference playoffs, rose up to repeat their title.

But what if your program has never won a championship? In the late summer 2000, the Marathon High School football program had never been a champion. As a matter of fact, if you lived in the Florida Keys like I did, the attitude was "Key West, and the other schools."

Talk about being the red-headed stepchild.

That all changed, though, during that magical fall. And with a team loaded with talent, one young man stood out on the football field.

He was a senior running back and linebacker named Joey Struyf, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound rock who was a headache for opposing defenses to bring down when he had the ball in his hand. Though he shared the backfield with quarterback T.T. Holmes and fullback Jovani Gonzalez, fellow seniors on a senior-laden team, Struyf was the center of attention.

And rightfully so. Struyf went for over 100 yards rushing in nine of the Dolphins' 10 regular-season games. It was his one failure, though, that stood out the most. That was his eight-carry, 29-yard effort that Key West held Struyf down to in a convincing 35-0 rout on Sept. 29.

The Key West-Marathon game ... oh yeah, the biggest freakin' high school football headache of my career. I took a ration of crap from Key West supporters because I picked Marathon's Dolphins to win that game. And I took a ration of crap from Marathon coach Jerry Jones -- a very good man with a resemblence to the great Ernest Hemingway but as stubborn as the day was long -- for a column I had done the day of the game on former Marathon coach Steve McAnelly. Apparently there were some problems back in the previous century before Jones took over for McAnelly in 1999.

It was so bad that after the Marathon-Key West game he refused to talk to me. As a matter of fact, he refused to talk to me for another week before he realized there was no conspiracy out there to undercut his position as MHS' football coach.

How can he accuse me of doing so when I was actually one of his biggest supporters.

Just some of the really stupid stuff I had to deal with in my time in the Keys.

Marathon bounced back from the Key West loss, winning the last five games to finish 9-1 and capture the District 12-1A championship. Next up was the state tournament and rematch with Miami Country Day. In '99, Marathon won its first-ever state tournament game with an 18-15 victory at the Miami-based school.

This time around at home, it wasn't close. Marathon prevailed, 29-6. Next was Zion Lutheran of Deerfield Beach, another tough program. No problem there. Gonzalez broke off a 59-yard score, Marathon's "Blue Bandits" came up with a number of turnovers and Struyf went for 184 yards in a 33-7 rout.

One more game to a regional championship. This time it would mean being on the road against another top-notch team in Hollywood Christian, the District 11-1A champion with a 9-3 mark going in. According to the Florida High School Athletic Association rules, if a district champion had hosted two games in the state tournament and the other team had hosted just one of two through that point, the team which hosted the one game got the home field.

Hey, it's the way the rules are written.

A fellow district champion hosting a game -- even if the game was six miles from their campus at Hollywood Hills High in Broward County -- against a district champion having to travel 130 miles is a big advantage. Anyone with any knowledge of the Florida Keys knows you don't get from Point A in the Keys to Point B on the mainland in a hop, skip and a jump.

Nonetheless, Friday, Dec. 1, 2000 had arrived. For the nearly four hours I was on the road, doubt crept in my mind. Was this four-hour trip going to be worth watching a region championship, the same way I saw Lacey Township High win back-to-back South Jersey Group III titles in 1988 and '89 or Toms River South beating Woodrow Wilson of Camden, 7-6, in the SJ III title game in 1991 or even Lakewood stunning Bridgeton by the same 7-6 score in 1986?

Four hours is a long time to be on the road.

But Marathon had the manchild in the backfield.

Struyf set the tone of the game by bursting through a hole and outracing Hollywood Christian defenders for an 80-yard score less than four minutes into the game for a 7-0 lead.

Still, Hollywood Christian had not gotten to this game by accident. The Eagles bounced back to take a 14-7 lead before some big runs by Struyf got the Dolphins into scoring position for Jesse Sheppard to kick a field goal before halftime, making it 14-10.

It would be the first possession of the second half that would decide the fate of this game. From his own 22, Struyf took a handoff from Holmes, found a hole small enough to wiggle through, then turned the jets on.

He was gone. Way gone. Seventy-eight yards later, Marathon held a 17-14 lead.

One run did all that. And it wasn't the fact Struyf wiggled through that hole. It was the separation he got between himself and defenders as the yard lines began disappearing in his distance that was the most impressive part.

Marathon's defense put the clamps on the Eagles' offense. And in a game not a lot of people believed it could win, Marathon did, 23-14.

Region 4-1A champions, just like that, the first region championship in the Keys since Key West's legendary 1989 team led by Corey Sawyer turned the trick.

As for Struyf, he made his case for being a first-team All-State player in the smallest classification. Holmes handed off to Struyf 37 times for a whopping 284 yards. Another guy, a stringer from the Sun-Sentinel had Struyf for 286 yards. We stood next to one another in the press box the entire night.

The young lady who was at the game covering it for another weekly paper in the Keys had a different opinion. She had Struyf for 297 yards. Now if you are off by a couple of yards here or there with fellow writers, you know you are doing your job. But 10 or more? Someone's not doing their job that well.

This was all right with an idiot producer who was in charge of looking over filming for the Sunshine Network (now SunSports), who proudly stated the fact Struyf had 297 yards. I had to break the news to him that he didn't quite have that many yards.

This douchebag's reaction? "We're going with the girl from the winning team's area. She's pretty accurate."

Um, excuse me, but I'm the actual "sports" guy from the winning team's area who has done this for 16 years (at that point), not a news writer who's been there for a few months.

I love and respect Joey Struyf a great deal, but he didn't have that many yards rushing. They were still a lot, though, and just added on to his legend of that season.

The next week, though, the ride ended for Struyf, Holmes and Gonzalez against state power Fort Meade. Led by standout quarterback and future University of Florida star Jamielle Cornelius, Fort Meade was up 35-0 at halftime and won 54-0.

Two good things about that game -- it was at home, so there wasn't a long ride back. The other was that Struyf went for 106 yards rushing, most of which came on a 77-yard run, to get over 2,000 yards for the season.

Sadly, that Marathon win over Hollywood Christian would be the last state playoff game a team from my coverage area would ever win. In 2001, Marathon struggled to a 5-5 record and because of constant strife between Jones and his athletic director, Jones was relieved of his duties after just three seasons.

And since 2003, I have worked in Putnam County, Florida, where our county teams have lost eight consecutive playoff games.

That's what makes that night 10 years ago in Hollywood so special. It was a night where one of the "forgotten" Keys teams did something special.

As for Struyf, he got to play at Florida International University after graduating, but knee injuries sidetracked any more dreams of gridiron grandeur. To this day, he's right up there with the Devin Hester, Keith Elias and the late Sean Taylor among the greatest players I've ever seen on a football field

That 2000 season belonged to Joey Struyf.

As did one memorable December night when he and his Marathon Dolphin teammates showed that heart of a champion.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Thanksgiving weekend "Hail Mary"

Nearly two weeks ago, I witnessed in person arguably the best play of the 2010 NFL season when Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard threw a 50-yard "Hail Mary" pass that Houston Texans cornerback Glover Quin batted down, but right into the arms of trailing receiver Mike Thomas.

And for a while I tried to think of any other football game in my career that I remembered on any level that ended in that fashion.

Then I recalled the one other game. I immediately got a sick feeling, probably the same feeling then-Toms River High School East football coach Ken Snyder felt that Sunday afternoon after Thanksgiving on November 26, 1989.

Let me set the scene for you: A share of the Class A South title was on the line that afternoon at East as crosstown rival North was to meet the Raiders in the annual Thanksgiving Day game. The game was supposed to be on Thanksgiving Day, but a freak storm that dumped about eight inches of snow in Ocean County canceled the contest. Three days later and with plenty of remnants of snow bordering Dvorak Field, the two rivals faced off.

But the Mariners of first-year coach Bob Nani made an early statement. They took a 17-0 lead on the Raiders and seemed to have things in control in front of a quieted Raider crowd.

The Raiders -- led by quarterback Vinnie Schiavo, running back Greg Roth and lineman Joe DiGirolamo -- knew what was at stake in this one. They win, they share the A South title with Brick, the first title for East since sharing the A South title with Jackson Memorial and Toms River South in 1985.

Whatever was said at halftime made an impact on the Raider players. Roth scored on a 5-yard run with 6:55 to go in the third quarter, making it 17-6. East held on the next possession, then went 72 yards on seven plays, capping the drive when Schiavo and the Raiders gambled on a fourth and 3 and hit Andy Van Sprang, who out-jumped defender Jim Hempen to score on a 30-yard pass to make it 17-12 wit 11:08 left in the game.

This game was just getting warmed up.

Van Sprang came up with a fumble by North standout running back Joe Clarino on the next Mariner possession and the Raiders were on the go again. Roth scored his second touchdown with 4:04 left on a 1-yard plunge to finish a 5-minute drive. However, East's big problem was kicking since regular kicker Dave Mack was hurt. East once again failed on a two-point conversion, keeping the lead at 18-17.

North took over, and on fourth down inside their own 20 -- THEIR OWN 20-YARD LINE!! -- Nani and North decided to go for it. The Mariners were stopped at their 17. Roth, who finished with 96 yards rushing, went 17 yards on the first play after the change of possession.

Once again, East failed on the 2-point conversion, leaving the Mariners within seven points at 24-17 with 2:51 left.

By now, you can sense the A South share was within East's grasp. East, whose only blemish during the regular season was a tie against Brick, would finish the divisional year at 6-0-1 if they could just stop North one more time.

Behind quarterback Doug Dawkins, the Mariners made a furious rush to the Raider end zone. But at the East 19, they were stopped on downs with 1:35 left in the game.

Strangely at this point, the late Tom "Candy Man" Kellaher came up to the press box where myself and PA announcer Roy Yack were sitting. He announced the winner of his annual trophy for the player of the game.

You'd think it would go to Roth, the Raider workhorse who sparked the comeback with three scores. Or maybe it'd go to Van Sprang, who had a monstrous defensive game.

Nope. Strangely enough, the honor went to Clarino, who had 82 yards rushing on 24 carries and a touchdown. I remember looking at my friend the Candy Man, who was fond of me and vice-versa and saying to him, "You know East is leading? Right?" But he had made his decision. Though he was the county ambassador for all that was good about high school sports with his giving out of candy and sweets at athletic events, he was a bigger supporter of Toms River North athletics.

Then again, maybe that's the cynic in me, too. Or maybe he knew something I didn't know.

We would all soon find out in those last 95 seconds.

The Mariners had one timeout left. All East had to do was get a first down and that was it. North used its timeout on first down, and East ran three plays for negative yardage. Not enough time was left on fourth down and 17 yards to go to run the clock out. Schiavo and his teammates could not run a play for the fear they would still leave time on the clock for one more play close to the end zone.

So Snyder and his coaches had Schiavo do the only sane thing at that particular moment -- Schiavo ran out of the end zone for a safety with 15 seconds left, meaning North would get the ball, but would have to get it further away from the end zone.

But East's lack of a kicker came back to bite the Raiders again. A poor punt from the backup kicker allowed North's John Young to call a fair catch at the East 41.

North had maybe two or three plays left. Problem was the first play took eight seconds as Dawkins scrambled around, only to hit receiver Keith Keenan for what turned out to be a 1-yard gain.

The Mariners called their final shot. They set up receivers Keenan, Rod Orlovsky, who had scored a touchdown earlier in the game on a pass, and tight end Tony Zembruzski to the left side. Across from them were defenders Van Sprang, Tom Loftus and John DaCosta.

This was simply a jump ball.

Dawkins took the snap, dropped back, then fired for the end zone. Somehow, the ball eluded the 10 collective arms and hands of Keenan, Zembruzski, Van Sprang, Loftus and DaCosta.

Behind those arms was Orlovsky, who caught the ball and fell down cradling it in his arms near the snow bank.

Touchdown. Game over. North had stunned the Raiders, 25-24, to finish its first season under Nani at 3-6-1.

Just like that, the A South title share was gone for East. After such a fabulous start at 7-0-1, East's season was over, losers of a first-round state tournament game at Brick just a week earlier. East fans were stunned. Raider players openly wept, some slammed their helmets to the ground.

For North, it was the beginning of a fabulous three-year run under Nani. In 1990, the Mariners made the state playoffs for the first time in 11 years. Then in 1991, they went all the way to the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV championship.

And what had been an absolutely abyssmal decade of football at North with five different coaches in the 1980s ended in a dramatically great way.

It took this TRE graduate about a month to get over that loss -- it was only the second time North had beaten East in this rivalry at the time. But for what East lost, this was devestating.

More devestating than a "Hail Mary" loss the Houston Texans suffered two weeks ago.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The team that should've been state champion

Today, November 20, 2010 should have been a happy anniversary for members of the 1988 Toms River High School North field hockey team. Maybe there might have been a get-together somewhere in the Garden State.

Today would have been a perfect time to talk about that moment when they and coaches Becky Miller and Debbie Schwartz were holding that NJSIAA Group IV trophy over their heads and maybe done a victory lap on the The College of New Jersey's AstroTuf field. Oh, the stories they would have been able to tell.

Today, though, is just another day for those once young girls who either just turned 40 or on the verge of doing so.

Because no referee's whistle or error in judgment cost the Lady Mariners their state championship.

Time just wasn't on their side.

Sunday, November 20, 1988 was the NJSIAA Group IV field hockey championship. Many people -- including myself -- believed we were all going back to TCNJ (back then known as Trenton State College) for what would have been the coronation of back-to-back Group IV titles.

In 1987, a TR North field hockey team led by the incomparable Kim Bush and her 35 goals on offense and Mary Bendel leading a solid defense went 21-0-3 and won the Group IV title by beating Morristown, 2-1, in the title game, one goal scored by Bush, the other by a junior dynamo with the world in her hands named Dawn Ostrowski.

And though Bush, Bendel and defenders Sue Gerbino and Krista Saponara were some of the girls getting their diplomas and leaving North, the team was still pegged to thrive in the 1988 season. They had a solid offensive group back in Katie Vignevic, Christie Emmert and Lori Garrabrant. The defense was strong, too, taken over by Marni Henry, Kim Kilpatrick, Marie DeFrancesco and Tracy Barrett.

But it was the last line of defense that made this team special. In goal was Linda Kurtyka, an impenetrable force who was that combination of reflexes and athletic ability.

What they didn't have was a completely healthy Ostrowski, who blew her knee out in a Shore Conference Tournament soccer game against Howell in June of 1988 and who never quite recovered from it as her lateral movement was limited her senior year.

Still, the '88 Mariners picked up where the '87 team left off -- they ran roughshod through the regular-season schedule, although they had finished in ties with crosstown rivals Toms River East and Toms River South. Their unbeaten streak went past 30, then past 40. It got to 43 after knocking off Central Regional in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals.

But on a Friday afternoon, October 28, at Southern Regional High School, the Mariners ran into trouble with Wall High. They took a 1-0 lead on a Vignevic goal. But in the second half, Wall began gaining momentum. Kristy Hendrickson scored twice and the Crimson Knights held on for the 2-1 victory to claim the SCT title and end North's 43-game unbeaten streak.

Now with a new motivation, the Mariners had the South Jersey Group IV tournament. They won their opener. Next up was a semifinal date with fourth-seeded Toms River East. The rival Raiders, like the Mariners, were a senior-dominated team, led by top-notch goal scorer Cristy Iorio and solid midfielders/defenders Jill Bush, Kathy Hawtin and Laura Godlesky. Their goalie, sophomore Shannon DeNise, was an up-and-coming star.

The two teams battled through the raw, cold Election Day weather on North's field. For 60 minutes, zeroes. Then East had a break in the overtime. Jill Bush had a shot at the net, but the ball got kicked away in an instant by Kurtyka. Twenty more minutes of zeroes.

Now came a shootout, foreign territory for either team. To this day, I can still see East coach Gail Halbfoster playfully acting like a needy person, going for her cup of coffee saying, "Need ... more ... coffee ... " It was funny, you had to be there.

The teams battled to a 1-1 tie through the first set of shots. Then came the sudden-death portion. Neither Kurtyka nor DeNise were giving in. Finally, Garrabrant saved the day by scoring on DeNise in the eighth round. Kurtyka made her save on East's last hope and the Mariners survived to play another day.

This time, it would be the rematch with Shawnee -- not just state-power Shawnee, but nationally known Shawnee. Bobbie Schultz is one of the best to ever coach the sport and this group of Shawnee players were looking for revenge. It was nearly one year earlier -- Saturday, November 14, 1987 -- that they battled to a 2-2 tie in regulation play against North in the SJ IV title game. Then with one rocket launch shot by Bush from just inside the circle, the Mariners had won their first SJ IV title in seven years.

Now on this Friday afternoon, November 11, another SJ IV title was on the line. And with the power being what it was in Group IV that year, this by all effects, WAS the state Group IV title match. Whoever won this match was more than likely going all the way to a crown.

North didn't waste time in making themselves known to Shawnee. Just over 10 minutes into the match, Emmert fired a shot that found the back of the net, giving the Mariners a 1-0 lead. And the Mariners made it stand up through the first half and into halftime.

The second half continued with North dominating play. But midway through the last half, you could tell the tide was shifting. The Renegades were taking more chances at North's defense. They tried to beat Kurtyka, but the lefty in net wasn't having anything get past her. Hey, even the Soviet Union's hockey team was relentless after Mike Eruzione scored the go-ahead goal with 10 minutes left in the "Miracle On Ice" game in Lake Placid, N.Y. in 1980.

With two minutes left, North was holding on. Shawnee was finding holes in the Mariner defense and beginning to exploit them. Nothing though. Then with one minute left and the game clock off, they put the ball into play one more time at North's end. Shawnee's right forward, Jamie Rofrano, was able to get control of the ball and push it ahead toward Kurtyka. All season long, Kurtyka -- even with all that bulky equipment on -- was still winning those 50-50 balls.

Not this time. Rofrano got control of the ball, got Kurtyka out of position and poked it into the net to tie it at 1.

I asked the clock referee going back to the table how much time was left when that goal got put in.

"Eighteen seconds," she said.

Eighteen seconds. Eighteen precious ticks of the clock left. That was what separated the Lady Mariners from another SJ IV trophy and two more wins from another state title.

Now the Mariners had to play another overtime matchup with the Renegades. No Bush to nail a shot so hard that the rattling of the cage could be heard throughout the complex this time. And for 20 more minutes, neither side was giving.

This time, advancement and an SJ IV crown was left to the one-on-one shootouts that most coaches hate. And after Kurtyka had been amazing in net in the East victory just three days earlier, most everyone there at North figured this would be again no problem.

But Schultz had a plan that still to this day was genius. Nothing in the rules said she had to stay with the same goalkeeper that played the 80 minutes for the shootout. So Schultz substituted goalies. In went a rested Barbie Partlow.

Little did Partlow know she was going to have the greatest few minutes of her athletic career. Whoever the Mariners sent to shoot at Partlow got sent back like a Bill Russell rejection. Shawnee, meanwhile, had its first two shooters put moves on the tough Kurtyka and leave her lying on the ground as they had free shots at the net to take a 2-0 lead.

Kurtyka made the next stop, but DeFrancesco, the fourth Mariner shooter, found the same result as the other three teammates who tried to beat Partlow: Her shot was stopped, too.

Just like that, it was over. Shawnee had a 2-0 shootout victory. Unlike '87 when the season came to a sad end, the Renegade players sprinted in Partlow's directon and practically buried her into the ground in celebration. A few of the players lifted Partlow on their shoulders and carried her off the field, just like in a movie.

Meanwhile, all the Mariners players could do was wait until the celebration was over so they could shake the hands of their conquerors. DeFrancesco turned her head away in tears. Kilpatrick was uncontrolable crying.

Most amazing was the least likely of Mariner players who was in tears afterward.

Linda Kurtyka.

In four years of covering one of the greatest female athletes of my 26 years in this business, the one thing I never saw her do was cry. Now she, too, was being consoled by one of the referees, who no doubt had to keep telling her how great a performance she put on that afternoon.

This was going to be Kurtyka's time to shine. She had a date -- like her teammates -- to play for the state Group IV title at TSC. Her date was a little different from the rest of her teammates for November 20, 1988 was her 18th birthday.

And it all got taken away from her and the Mariners. Just 18 seconds more and they no doubt would have been on their way to another state title.

Shawnee wound up winning the Group IV championship as expected.

In 1993, I did the five-year anniversary column/story of that game. For some of the Mariners players, it still hurt deeply, as did it hurt Miller, one of the most decorated coaches in the sport's history.

I still bet in 2010, it hurts like hell. It still hurts with me because that was the perfect example of a prize being taken away from someone who was reaching out to claim what was rightfully theirs.

My heart still hurts for those Mariner ladies in '88, most of which are moms now and have carved out a life of their own.

But every now and then, even they must wonder "What if." What if those 18 seconds had just gone a little faster.

No doubt, it still hurts to this day.