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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.

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