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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.