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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.

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