Saturday, November 20, 2010
The team that should've been state champion
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.
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.