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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.

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