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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The day the Jaguars made the Colts look human

The 2006 Jacksonville Jaguars season was one of transition.

Yet, with new faces taking over in the lineup and making an impact, the Jaguars were still able to keep it together in Jack Del Rio's fourth season as coach and be 7-5, still remotely in the playoff hunt with four games left in the season.

But the schedule wasn't looking favorably for the Jaguars. The last three games were against the Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs and at 5-7, the Titans were the weakest team of the bunch.

And then there was the game on this Sunday, December 10, 2006 against the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts were 10-2 and looking unstoppable toward yet another AFC South championship behind Peyton Manning's right arm and top receivers Marvin Harrison, Ricky Proehl and Reggie Wayne.

A year before, the Jaguars gave the 12-0 Colts everything they could handle on this same Alltel Stadium field before falling to them, 26-18, in a game played just a week before coach Tony Dungy's son sadly took his own life.

That day, all the buzz was in the Colts' locker room afterward. And as Dungy was being asked questions about the possibility of going unbeaten and who he was going to play and not play and how much those players would play the rest of the season, he trying to escape it in a gentlemanly fashion.

In the middle of all that, I asked him, "How do you deal with all this? How do you stay so calm?" throwing that question out there as a little bit of a diversion toward the monotony of being asked the same question over and over and over and over again in different forms by a media that didn't get it.

The composed Dungy was more than glad to answer my question, telling me and others that he never always had this kind of patience and that he was a bit of a hothead in high school. He actually said "his buddies would be shocked if they saw him now."

It helped to write that column about him the Tuesday after the win and sadly a week before his son died. My question -- and Dungy's answers -- were part of the lead Associated Press writer Jim Litke used when writing his column on Dungy after his personal tragedy. You can Google it. It's still there!

But that was soooooooooooooooo 2005.

This was a new season and the Colts had the same expectations of a great fall and maybe finally getting to a Super Bowl. They weren't unbeaten this time around, but 10-2 was still pretty darned gaudy.

Still, one thing the Colts were lacking at this point was a defensive leader. The guy whow was supposed to lead -- strong safety Bob Sanders -- was out with a knee injury. It was during that season Dungy nicknamed Sanders "The Eraser" because he had a tendancy to "erase" the mistakes the defense made.

On this afternoon, we would soon find out why Dungy's nickname for Sanders was oh, so correct.

The one thing I can absolutely say about Colts fans is they travel very, very well. In my nine years of covering Jaguars football games, I've seen a lot of blue, white and horseshoes as I got out of my car, walked through the parking lot and headed to the stadium. And this beautiful December afternoon in the low 70s was no different.

In retrospect, I believe only Steelers fans travel as well if not better than Colts fans.

Anyway, I got my normal grouping of papers and the day's program getting me prepared for this one, went downstairs to have lunch and saw some colleagues, including my good friend John, who did call-ins for the radio network he was working for at the time. John is good people, a die-hard Florida State guy who lives in Tallahassee and who I truly trust and enjoy his friendship.

So John and I are bantering around outcomes for this afternoon's game. I'm pretty sure neither one of us gave the Jaguars a chance to win this one, and I'm pretty sure his margin of victory was much higher than mine.

Unlike the year before, though, I thought this Colts team didn't look like Super Bowl material. The San Diego Chargers of coach Marty Schottenheimer were in my mind the favorites to go to Miami for that year's game. Phillip Rivers had already developed into a top-of-the-line QB, LaDanian Tomlinson was on his way to an MVP season and the Chargers defense, led by Shawne Merriman, was playing lights out.

Still, you'd thought the Colts should have little problem with the Jaguars.

Then the game began. The Jaguars had the ball on their opening possession, starting at their own 6. Just move the ball a little bit and get out of trouble back there, after all the last thing you want to do is give Peyton Manning good field position to start the game.

Del Rio, dressed in a blue suit and tie for the second time in his career (a trend for the time that was set by then-49ers coach Mike Nolan as a tribute to his father Dick, also a former 49ers coach who dressed in a suit and tie), sent the play in with quarterback David Garrard, who had taken over as the starter when Byron Leftwich was injured once again.

The play Del Rio called for Garrard to run was called "56 blast." On that play, the Jaguars line blocks defenders out to the right side. From there, Garrard hands the ball off to a running back and that back runs into the hole the line creates.

To this day, it is the single greatest running play I've ever witnessed in person.

Garrard handed off to veteran running back Fred Taylor. Taylor saw the hole opened up for him and zipped through it. Before you knew it, Taylor was streaking down the Jaguars sideline heading for a touchdown. As I said in my story, Taylor "could have been equipped with 18 wheels, a license plate and hauling furniture with him when he zipped through the vacancy."

Taylor outraced every Colts defender with the exception of defensive back Jason David, who got Taylor at the Colts 18. Taylor joked about it and said afterward, "It may be the first time in my career that I'll admit to getting caught."

The 76-yard run was the opening chapter to a long book Colts defenders did not want to read on this day. On the very next play, Taylor went out and rookie Maurice Jones-Drew from UCLA came in. He took Garrard's handoff, busted through a hole in the center of the line and ran untouched the last 18 yards for the score.

Two plays, 94 yards. But was this a fluke? Did the Colts offense want the ball back that badly?

Well maybe not that badly, but the Colts did get an Adam Vinatieri field goal on their next drive and took a 10-7 lead when Dominic Rhodes scored on a 1-yard plunge midway through the second quarter.

Looked like the Colts were gaining control of this game. It was only a matter of time.

But the Jaguars were able to run the ball against what was the worst defense against the rush, averaging 160 yards a game on the ground against it. Turns out the Jaguars were just warming up.

The offensive line of Khalil Barnes, Vince Manuwai, Brad Meester, Chris Naeole, Maurice Williams and tight end and veteran Kyle Brady were having a field day against this sieve-like Colts front.

Taylor scored on a 21-yard run three minutes after the Colts took the lead. Then after a three-and-out, the Jaguars busted it open when Jones-Drew dashed 48 yards for a score to make it 21-10. And just before the half, they got into field goal range and Josh Scobee did the rest with a 48-yarder before halftime to make it 24-10.

I looked at John down the way and he looked back at me. This wasn't really happening, was it? I understood the Colts were missing Sanders, but I couldn't imagine the Colts' defense being this baaaaaaad.

"They look defeated," John said of the Colts.

John was absolutely right. Never have I seen a Peyton Manning-led, Tony Dungy-coached Colts team just look beaten. The defense that Dungy prided himself on had no answers in stopping the dynamic duo of Taylor and Jones-Drew. The Jaguars would run 56 plays from scrimmage that day -- and Garrard only had to throw the ball 14 times.

And all this was happening in front of my own eyes from seat No. 87 in the Jaguars' press box. That's when I said to John the magical words that I thought would turn out to be appropriate sometime during the playoffs.

"No way is this team going to the Super Bowl, not the way that defense looks."

It was only going to get worse in the second half for Indy. Jones-Drew took the kickoff and dashed back 93 yards for a touchdown to make it 31-10. The fans who were there to root the Jaguars on were in an absolute frenzy at this point.

The big, bad Colts were beind dropped like a bad habit. Garrard continued to run the ball-control offense behind Jones-Drew and Taylor and it was working to near-perfection.

Interestingly, the Jaguars barely won the time of possession battle (31:37-28:23), but they were coming away with scores. Scobee added a pair of field goals and Alvin Pearman added a fourth-quarter touchdown run to put the final touches on a 44-17 rout.

Yep, none of us saw this one coming. Taylor rushed for 131 yards on nine carries. Pearman had 71 yards rushing in backup duty.

And Jones-Drew put his name on the NFL map for years to come in this one, rushing for 166 yards on 15 carries, while collecting 15 yards on pass catches and 122 yards in returns. His 303 yards broke Jimmy Smith's all-purpose yards mark of 291 he set in a 2000 game against the future Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.

Jones-Drew and Taylor became the first running back pairing to each rush for 100 yards in the same game since Buffalo's Thurman Thomas and Kenneth Davis did so against Atlanta in 1992, three years before the Jaguars came into play. And the 375 yards rushing by the Jaguars were the most for a game since Cincinnati had put 407 up against Denver in 2000.

Needless to say, all was jovial in the press conference afterward. I asked Jones-Drew if he felt as if he were "in the zone" that day.

"It really wasn't a zone," he said. "I didn't have to do much. If you watch the tape, the holes to run through were pretty big. You have to give credit to the offensive line. They did a great job."

And it cemented my point about the Colts' defense. No defense that bad deserved to play in the Super Bowl.

You'd think momentum would be great for the Jaguars to get after that postseason berth with a huge win, right? Think again. As would be a trend under Del Rio with the exception of the 2007 season, the Jaguars folded like a house of cards in December, losing their last three games and watching the playoffs from home.

As for the Colts -- the team I said looked nothing like a Super Bowl hopeful -- all they did was get Sanders back, beat the Chiefs and Ravens, then stop the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. Two weeks later, they beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI in Miami.

Anytime you beat a Peyton Manning-quarterbacked Colts team is special. The Jaguars have done it through the years in dramatic fashion.

But on this particuar December afternoon in 2006, they did it in surprisingly easy fashion.

During a season of transition when it was least expected, no less.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Starting a story over again ... on Chrstimas Day

Christmas Day, 1988. A Sunday. A rare holiday off from work at the Ocean County Observer.

Back in the day, there was no Christmas Day newspaper, so that meant I didn't have to work that Saturday like I normally did. However, to compensate for not working and producing a Sunday paper, management had us instead work on the Friday night before.

We had no Saturday paper at that time, so Fridays were free days for us. Well, we at least had something to cover at the Observer on that December 23, 1988. It was called the WOBM Christmas Classic at Ocean County College. And my game was Pinelands Regional against Toms River North. North was pretty decent. Pinelands was not so good. The final score was 77-23.

As a matter of fact, it was the first round of the event and the difference between the very good teams and the not-so-good teams was pretty radical in all the games that day. It prompted me to write the original lead of my story -- "The WOBM in the WOBM Christmas Classic took on new meaning last night ... We Only Book Mismatches."

Funny, I struck that lead out. Didn't think tournament director Kevin Williams would be all that hot with that lead or the story for that matter. But working that rare Friday and getting a newspaper out was quite a bit different. No work on Saturday, and that meant the last-minute shopping was not going to be interrupted. All was fine that day.

Well, all except one thing. I had put off doing the Ocean's Own feature for that week. I figured I'd get to it in the office Saturday night. Well for some reason, the procrastinator in me just didn't feel like going into work. Beside, the notes in our old One-System computers were pretty secure as long as the printer worked.

Cut to 6 a.m. Christmas Day. I got out of bed, got dressed on a cold morning and headed to the office, the 1977 Dodge Aspen getting me there to the Observer parking lot. From there, it was up the stairs and to the second floor. It was dark and quiet. Much to my liking, the only light was the sun starting to peak through the windows next to where the news reporters normally worked.

I turned on the one light at the sports desk. That was enough for me.

As I turned on my computer, I planned out how I wanted to get through the hour or two I was going to be there, then turn around, head back home and prepare for my Sunday ritual of "American Top 40" on WPLJ-FM, which started at 9 a.m. Sundays and was hosted by Shadoe Stevens, who had taken over the show from Casey Kasem that August. I knew the debuts I was going to hear that morning, starting with the Art of Noise and Tom Jones' version of "Kiss," which debuted at No. 40.

He had already been host of the show for four months and yet, Shadoe Stevens was already irritating my ears. But that's getting off on a tangent.

The computer was on and all I needed to do was look for my notes that read "oceansownnotes goodale." This Monday's story was on standout Jackson Memorial High School wrestler Scott Goodale, who I knew from playing Little League ball and knowing his parents Jim and Karen from their time at Holbrook Little League. Little League was my beat from 1984-99 at the Observer and yes, I pretty much knew just about everyone there.

So I go into whatever queue these old One-Systems had my notes. And I thought maybe I put my notes in a different spot. No notes. Nothing.

It's 7:15 a.m. I really don't want to be at work for more than another hour. I'm there for one purpose -- get this damned feature done! After all, this is the highlight locally of our Monday paper, the weekly feature on high school students at the 15 Ocean County high schools, the junior college (Ocean County College) and four-year university (all-girl Georgian Court) as well as the local everyday people who excelled in athletics.

By this time, I had taken a good amount of Ocean's Own features from Chris Christopher when Chris couldn't do them, and back in that day, it was an honor to do those stories.

And I really was looking forward to banging out this feature story on young Scott Goodale, a junior who was in the beginning of carving out his legacy as a state-caliber wrestler for coach Al Aires at JMHS, then going on to a fabulous college career.

But try writing the story without quotes. I was faced with that daunting task. Maybe I had printed the notes out from my interview with Scott and placed them somewhere in a folder that I normally work with. I tore open the folders I had. Nothing. I'd have recognized the notes on the sheets we used to print out that literally looked like print-out paper from some Stock Market report, the ones with the perforated lines and the holes on the side that you easily tore off.

Oh, those were the days.

Maybe I had misplaced them under some papers near the boss' work station. Nope. I had torn through all the folders and the work stations. Nothing. I had my notes from talking with coach Aires stored, but not from my interview with his wrestler.

It's 7:45 now and AT40 is starting at 9. So I had to bide the little time I had.

First, I grabbed whatever information I had on young Scott -- the factual stuff about his 1986-87 and '87-88 seasons and whatever he opened his 1988-89 season doing. And then I combed through other sports to get whatever he did there.

As I've always said, as long as the factual information is documented and found, half the battle is done. The only part of the job I had left was to re-interview him.

And I was very lucky to have Scott Goodale as my feature story for the week for I knew Jim and I knew Karen. It was just after 8 a.m. Kids are normally sleeping at this hour of the morning, especially on a Sunday ... strike that, Christmas Day Sunday!

I picked up the phone and called the Goodale household. I got Karen. I do believe if it were anyone else, I may have been slighly lectured on calling early. Once I explained what happened -- and sadly with the old One-System computers, that was occasionally -- Karen was understanding. It also didn't hurt that Scott was awake.

"Hi, Scott. It's Mark. How'd you like to do the interview again?" was what I said.

Once he understood what happened, then we went to work again. It was about 15 minutes and I got what I wanted out of him ... again. Those notes got printed up quickly and by 8:45 a.m., the final version was ready to be edited by Dave, my assistant boss, and placed on our sports front that night for Monday's edition.

Closed out the computer, the one light I had on and by the time I got into my car and headed back home, it was bright sunshine. Not a car on the road but mine at that hour and that made it easier to speed down Hooper Avenue at nearly 55 mph to get back, turn on the radio and hear the AT40 intro and that Art of Noise/Tom Jones debut of "Kiss" at No. 40. As a matter of fact, that was a big week for debuts -- Tone Loc's "Wild Thing" debuted at No. 37, Sheena Easton's "The Lover In Me" came in at No. 34 and the very first Top 40 hit for a dancer-turned-actor named Paula Abdul called "Straight Up" came in at No. 35.

I got home in time. I didn't have to see the office again until Monday.

Scott Goodale is now Rutgers University's head wrestling coach. It's been about two or thre years since I last saw Scott in the last 2000s. He has a family of his own and he's doing well.

I'm thankful to have had Scott Goodale as Ocean's Own that Chrstimas weekend.

Actually, I was thankful I had Karen and Jim Goodale as Scott's parents. Most parents would've frowned on that Christmas morning 8 a.m. phone call. But they were very supportive of all the sporting activities their kids did.

It also reminded me to never forget to properly save notes or print them out and keep them in a safe place so I don't have to go through that Christmas Day drama again.

On this Christmas day, I am thankful to remember all the parents who allowed me the time to make their children stars, no matter how big they were, and especially the parents who allowed me to talk to their kids at odd hours like 8 a.m.

I don't make it a habit now. Heck, I'm fast asleep at 8 a.m. normally. But every now and then, there's a late-night phone call to someone.

I'm glad you parents are understanding.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Lacey's "Miracle of Route 31"

No way in a million years did I think the Lacey High School field hockey team had a chance of beating the almighty program from West Essex High School.

They didn't beat them the year before in the NJSIAA Group III championship game with a more talented group of Lions. And two years before that, a very talented group of young ladies from Toms River South took a younger West Essex team into overtime before West Essex scored to win that final, 2-1.

Just too talented these girls from Wessex were to fail. The Knights had arguably the best player in the state in 69-goal scorer Michelle Vizzuso. She had one of the three goals in the 3-0 win over Lacey the year before and her 69 goals were a state record for one year.

This championship -- same two teams, same Trenton State College field -- should have been the same outcome, right? Ahh, but that's why a famous sports personality once said, "That's why they play the games."

And that's why Sunday, November 20, 1994, was as different a day as any in my career.

The 1993 Lacey team -- powered by a group of senior standout athletes such as forwards Melissa Schreiner, Meghan Kelly and Dana Jurczyk and All-State first-team defender Corey Musselman -- was one of the best units I had ever seen play. The Lions played an amazing Shore Conference Tournament final against powerful Shore Regional, but could not push the ball into the net and settled for a scoreless tie in the end.

The Lions were 22-0-3 and had run through the state tournament to win the South Jersey Group III title and the Group III semifinals, but in front of over a thousand people against a fellow unbeaten in West Essex, they simply did not match up that day.

And so all season long, I made the mistake of measuring the 1994 version of the Lions up with the '93 talent-laden team. No matter how good this group of Lions were, they were not going to be that fantastic '93 team. I figured they had a shot at winning South Jersey Group III again, but against the better teams outside of South Jersey, they just weren't going to hold their own.

Lacey had lost to Toms River North in overtime in the '94 SCT final at Red Bank Regional High School and North was very, very good that year, making it to the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV final after stunning unbeaten Eastern Regional in the SJ IV semifinal round.

But as the state tournament started, my main focus was on what North was going to do in the state tournament. And while North lost its SJ IV title game to pesky nemesis Shawnee, Lacey was running through to the SJ III final to win its second straight title.

This meant a November 15, 1994 date with an unbeaten Notre Dame of Lawrenceville club at a school I had never been to before -- Northern Burlington High School in the little town of Columbus. You literally had to weave your way around country roads to get to this school, which seriously was out in the middle of cornfields and farms.

Central Jersey Group III champ Notre Dame was a tough team and played up to it unbeaten record. But Lacey, which was a modest 16-2-3, got a first-half penalty corner after penetrating inside Notre Dame's defensive box and was fouled. And that was trouble.

Kelly Sauers, whose corner passes were dead-on from the baseline of the box, sent a perfect pass out to senior Jenn Melnyk and Melnyk delivered a blast from the top of the circle past the goalkeeper and into the net.

And the Lacey defense, led by seniors Megan Glancy, Michelle Bacheson and Pam Jacobsen and junior goalie Sara Leta, held the Irish down the rest of the way to record the stunning 1-0 victory that left them elated and Notre Dame's longtime coach with a scowl on her face because of Lacey's physicality on defense that she thought the officials let go instead of calling violations.

Another foe bites the dust. Now the biggest foe was awaiting the Lions in West Essex, who had three straight Group III titles to their credit and had rolled up a national record 86-game unbeaten streak. The last loss the Knights had suffered was to Northern Highlands, another terrific program, in the Group III semifinals on November 13, 1990.

In other words, none of the current group of Knights had lost a game in their careers!

They were on a mission at this point to finish out the amazing careers of the seniors -- including Vizzuso -- with one last win. Again, I was convinced West Essex was strictly there for business purposes and the Knights weren't going to mess around. If they plowed through one of the better teams I had ever covered the year before, 3-0, and most of that team was back this year with an 84-0-2 mark since the start of the '91 season, how bad could this championship be?

For the four off-days Lacey did not play, I simply doubted the team's chances. But in that time, Mike Shern, Lacey's venerable coach of 11 seasons, made me believe this team was different and that everyone had learned from its mistakes the year before.

I still wasn't believing this. Then I had to write the preview story for the Sunday edition of the Observer. It was something out of the realm of "find every song you have mentioning the word 'miracle' in it and play them all. That's what Lacey may need to beat the country's No. 1 team today."

This, apparently, didn't sit well with the Lacey players and those associated with the team. It wasn't that they had short memories from the whooppin' they took the year before. On this day, the had something to prove.

And so like the year before, I got down to the Observer building and waited for Mike, my boss, to show up so I can drive us to Trenton State. But this time around it was different -- I had a "newer" older car in a 1982 Olds Firenza instead of my 1977 Chevy Dodge that died a slow death in the spring/summer of '94. This time around, we had to wait for Laura, our photographer who was going to shoot what I figured would be just another futile effort at a state field hockey title for Lacey.

This time around, the car radio had 660 WFAN on listening to previews of the NFL games going on that afternoon instead of my Sunday staple, "American Top 40," which had been cancelled after 24 years that July. Such a tough adjustment in life I was still getting used to.

"Do we think this time around the game is going to be closer?" I asked the duo.

"I don't know," Mike answered. "It has to be better than last year."

"I hope so," I said. "For a 22-0-3 team, that was getting dominated."

The ride to Trenton State, now The College of New Jersey, was familiar to me since I had done it enough times over the years, especially three previous times for state field hockey championships. In 1987, I saw Toms River North finish out a perfect 21-0-3 season by beating Morristown, 2-1, covering the game from a halfway-decent-at-best press box that was open on a 25-degree night, but closed up behind me so the wind wouldn't whip through me. And in a far better press box, I had seen South and Lacey take their swipes at West Essex before losing.

As the three of us showed our press credentials, we walked on to the football field, me thinking that I might be seeing another execution similar to last year's finale. These Lions, though, were focused, maybe too focused. I remember the 1993 team was all-business, rarely ever cracking a smile. I wondered if following the same path would doom these girls to failure. On the other side, West Essex was smoothly going through their drills like nothing, business as usual.

Vizzuso, a future player for the U.S. national team, was smooth in her approach. Nothing was getting past her.

The only thing I was left with as I headed up to the press box for the first half like I did last year was if the Lions would be OK after the first few minutes, even playing in front of a large contingent of fans who made the trip from Lanoka Harbor and Forked River.

Immediately, I noticed these Lions were not intimidated by the nationally known Knights. They took it right at them. They served notice that they weren't going to be pushed around this time. They were the aggressors. They were aggressive in their approach, but not to a point where if play got stopped by fouls -- or even cards -- they would have to alter things a bit.

Ten minutes elapsed and no quick-strike West Essex goal. Then at the 15-minute mark, the Lions picked up their fourth penalty corner of the game. Giving the Lions three penalty corners was bad enough already.

Now Lacey was about to make West Essex pay for it. Sauers once again grabbed the ball and placed it on the baseline to the left of the goalkeeper cage and served up her pass to the center of the circle like she had hundreds of times before during the season. And as usual, the ball found the stick of Melnyk, who was able to stop it, steady it and fire a rocket.

This time, the ball zipped past goalkeeper Kim Lally and into the net for a score. Lally did not know what hit her. And neither did West Essex. For unlike a year ago, Lacey found the back of the net.

Lacey had the lead and more amazingly, it was Melnyk scoring on a penalty corner shot on an AstroTurf field. She had scored on grass fields and fields posing as grass, but more dirt than any other surface. She had handled passes from Sauers that were bumpier than some rides you and I take because of the field. Some balls would just skip and go another direction, others would take funny hops over her stick. On this turf, though, the passes were coming out to her fast and true. And she had the reflexes to stop them, steady the ball and whack away.

For the rest of the half, West Essex tried to get the equalizer, but were stopped by a Lacey defense that was still getting more physical -- and confident -- as the game went along. I can still see Sara Vizzuso, Michelle's sister, sent flying by a shot administered by Jacobsen, the no-holds-barred enforcer of the defense.

These Knights suddenly realized down 1-0 at halftime these weren't the '93 Lions they were playing.

That was when I realized they may have a better fit for the Trenton State turf on this day than the group assembled a year ago. Though a precarious 1-0 lead, at least they had the lead and dictated the play. It was up to West Essex to adjust and find a way to make something happen.

I left bewildered fellow journalists and slipped down to the field for the second half like I did the year before. I wanted to see this up close for myself. Mike was down on the field and he even said he could hear West Essex players and legendary coach Linda Alimi complaining about Lacey's aggressive style. My mind started to wander a bit -- was this being used as a ploy by the Wessex people just in case they lost on this day?

Better yet, was Lacey's play getting inside the West Essex players' heads? I was thinking the latter. I'm pretty certain during the season, the Knights, for all the talent they had -- and they had an embarassing amount of talent -- had not seen a team quite as physical as this Lacey team was. Then again, I didn't think Lacey was the most aggressive team at the Shore.

The first few minutes of the second half might tell me more and to see it up close, I might have a feel of what was going on.

Sure as anything, the Knights had changed their approach. They became the aggressor and the passes they were missing on during the game were starting to find sticks. They moved precisely up the Lacey side of the field without much problem and picked up a number of penalty corner opportunities. On the second of those chances, Michelle Vizzuso would deliver a shot that Leta, the daughter of Lacey baseball coach and assistant field hockey coach Ernie Leta, would pad-save to keep it 1-0.

You couldn't keep these Knights down, though. Vizzuso sent a pass in to Melissa D'Anton. D'Anton didn't hesitate, firing a shot past Leta at the 5:02 mark to make it 1-1.

Suddenly, the balloon began to deflate ... again, just like last year. One goal and it seemed like the confidence, too, would be deflating on the Lacey sideline. But unlike last year when the first West Essex goal made it 1-0, this one just tied it. It was still even ground and everyone in the stands and on the sidelines knew it.

As if they pressed a button, the Lions of the first half re-emerged, being aggressive and taking the ball down on the Knights' defense. They had their sixth penalty corner of the game shortly after that.

And once again -- three minutes after the West Essex goal -- it was Melnyk Time.

Sauers put the ball out to Melnyk. Defender Nicole Massella was the team's flier, the first out of the net on defensing the penalty corners. She was a thorn in the side of the Lions a year before when they tried to score off the same penalty corners. This year, though, she wanted no part of the Melnyk blasts. Melnyk fired. The ball whizzed past Massella and Lally, too. Her 17th goal of the season made it 2-1.

Now the Lions had to protect the lead with 21:49 left in this battle.

And with the defense tightening up, the Knights were getting very little, if anything, of a threat going. Near the end of the first half, Michelle Vizzuso had to be treated for a bloody knee suffered by being sent to the turf. And D'Anton was being roughed up like a rag doll in the second half.

If the Knights were going to keep complaining about the aggressive Lacey defense, they were going to suffer more of the consequences. The Knights only put a couple of more chances out in the Lacey side of the field, but were turned away each time. Lacey was winning the midfield battle, thanks to Glancy and Bacheson.

Even with under 10 minutes to play, I still had some doubt as to whether the Lions could hold on. Each West Essex threat in Lacey territory had Lacey substitutes standing up from the bench in angst. Shern was "yoo-hoo"-ing his players to find open teammates and get out of danger, while he would slow down the West Essex pace with a number of substitutions, shuttling fresh bodies into the game.

By the way, the "yoo-hoo" call was a longtime staple of Shern's in his 28 years as coach.

With eight minutes left, sophomore defender Karen Kaufman went down. She had been sent into the game just minutes earlier, but now she needed to come out with an injury. Shern sent in fellow sophomore Casey Badach, one of many soccer players who had been taught the game of field hockey by the popular Shern since soccer was played in the spring at the Jersey Shore and in the fall everywhere else.

As the whistle sounded again, Lacey defenders continued to be aggressive with any West Essex player threatening to penetrate the goal area with close coverage or poking the ball away from them.

With over four minutes left in the game, the Lions had another threat. Glancy managed to take the ball into the West Essex box and poked toward the net, trying to stir up some kind of trouble for Lally. But Lally could not get a hold of the ball. Instead, it was Badach of all people who was able to get the ball, and push it past Lally and into the net with 3:57 left to play.

Remember those doubts for five days and on the road trip to Trenton State College? With the score Lacey 3, West Essex 1, they were all gone.

The air was also gone from the West Essex sidelines. Glancy even said after the game that after the third goal, she heard Knights players crying and the game wasn't even over.

But to West Essex it was. And with the roles reversed from the year before, it was Lacey that was all business the final 3:57, running the clock out and then celebrating by piling on one another at midfield at the end. The thunderous roar from the Lacey side of the Trenton State College stands could probably be heard all the way back in Ocean County.

They had just pulled off the Miracle of Route 31.

And suddenly, I -- the man who wrote the team needed a miracle to beat this West Essex juggernaut -- was the target of Lacey players. In the middle of interviewing Shern, I can hear Jacobsen, the head cheerleader and point-prover of the bunch, gather her team around no more than 10 feet from me, looking up at the fans and screaming, "Give me an M! (M!!) Give me an I!! (I!!) Give me an R!! (R!!) ... " spelling out miracle and making her point clear.

But they couldn't believe what they had just accomplished. No, these weren't the 1993 Lacey Lions. And I know they weren't better than that team. Yet, they had the moxie the '93 team didn't have. That team was too stoic, a lot of shy characters who were athletically talented but not outspoken.

This team took a stance early on in '94 that no one was going to give it any credit during the season, but yet, they'd find a way to pull out what would be the biggest upset in Ocean County field hockey history.

Make that, New Jersey field hockey history.

And they wanted to let the world know it at that point. All week long, they got reportedly razzed by Lacey High football players that they had no chance of winning it all. Now whether that was tongue in cheek or for motivational purposes, these Lions players took it personally. Melnyk took swipes at the football players, basically telling the truth that hurt the most.

"They won't ever win a state championship," she said. "We just won Lacey's first state title."

She was right! For as great as Lacey's football team is year in and year out, it would never win a state title because the NJSIAA won't allow teams to play beyond the sectional round. Lacey had back-to-back SJ III titles in 1988 and '89.

This group of Lions had a state championship. They were going home on a bus, but they may as well have gone home riding on a cloud.

Mike, Laura and I were riding back very pleased, too, unlike the year before when there wasn't anything to really talk about with the game. It was non-stop banter about the game and what we had just witnessed for the better part of an hour and a half.

When we got back to Toms River and had a chance to finally focus on the task at hand, I had six pages to fill up that day. SIX! A far cry sadly compared to where three pages is like Christmas at the paper I'm working at now. We decided to dedicate the top of the front sports page with my game story and two great pictures from Laura.

On the sixth page -- a wide-open one -- Mike and I decided to dedicate it to the game. He wrote two more stories. I wrote two more stories on the game, including the sidebar on the Lacey field hockey players' venting against the football players who doubted them. Within a day or two, I had heard that Messiah, err, Lacey football coach Lou Vircillo was not at all happy with us nor with the field hockey players taking pop shots at his players. To this day, I still say, "Oh, well" to that. Melnyk admitted to me she was a bit emotional when she said those things, but I asked her, "Did they really say those negative things before the game that week?" and she said they did.

"Nothing wrong with the emotion as long as you back it up with something great," I told her a week or so later on when we discussed that whole incident. "I'll back you every time."

We had dedicated that entire sixth page of the section to the field hockey triumph that wasn't supposed to be. Even my boss rolled his eyes to the back of his head. I still don't think he believes to this day we had done so much on just one game.

But it was an amazing event. Unfortunately by October 1995, the Shore Conference made the decision to move girls soccer to the fall, and a lot of girls who tried field hockey because it was similar in many ways to soccer, stayed with soccer. Lacey would win another SJ III title in 1995, but lost in the Group III semifinal to Red Bank Regional, which shared the SCT title that fall with Toms River East.

And by 1996 with girls sports divided between field hockey and soccer, Lacey lost a controversial SJ III semifinal matchup with West Deptford. The magic after that would never quite be the same again.

It was a great era to cover field hockey in the 1980s and '90s. It culminated in two state championships, one in each decade.

But none quite like that afternoon in November 1994 at TSC, now TCNJ. Not in a million years did I see one of our field hockey teams beat a national power like West Essex, a team just too talented to fail.

As I found out that day, it's OK to believe in miracles.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

An epic 1988 battle under grey, yucky skies

The morning of Saturday, November 19, 1988 was a grey, yucky one in Lacey Township, as if something bad was going to happen on this day.

But I sensed something totally different. On this day, I sensed something amazing was about to take place.

For the first time in its short history as a program, the Lacey Township High School football team was going after a state sectional championship, hosting the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III championship game. The Lions were a team loaded with talent, from wide receiver Mike Lehtinen to kicker-receiver Carl Tarricone to sophomore quarterback Garrett Gardi to all-everything junior running back Keith Elias.

Elias was the focal point of the Lion attack. Everything seemed to be pegged around this talented and smart young man with the affinity for heavy metal. Never in my life had I met an athlete that had Ivy League smarts and headbanger attitude.

But to win that first SJ III title, the Lions were going to have to beat Woodrow Wilson of Camden, a squad with an overly rich amount of athleticism led by quarterback Norman Frisbey and wide receiver-running back Marvin Goodwin. Their coach was a former pro player with the New England Patriots of the NFL and Toronto Argonauts of the CFL, Darrell Wilson.

And it was a battle of diversity -- Lacey, an all-white, football talent-laden group against Wilson, an all-African American squad with athleticism up the wazoo and some football smarts.

Two teams evenly matched. Someone was leaving that field exuberant, the other completely disappointed.

To get to my normal spot in the press box was nothing at Lacey High. Tom Hamilton, who I knew from covering girls soccer as coach Paul Groben's assistant, was on the public address system.

But it was a bit crowded on this day. Upstairs with Tom, myself, the timekeeper and the scoreboard operator were the boys from Clear Channel 8 -- the venerable Ken Turp along with his analysts and former area high school coaches, George Jeck at Toms River East and Bob Strangia at Red Bank Regional. Now Jeck was an OK guy, though he just completely turned me off my first Friday night of covering high school football with the Ocean County Observer four years earlier with such a taciturn attitude toward me after his Raiders beat Brick Memorial, 3-0. Little did I know at that time this was the beginning of his final year with the program.

Strangia, though, was a different bird. A heavy-set, jovial man who knew his football, Strangia was head coach of a Central Jersey Group III championship Red Bank Regional team in 1975 when his Bucs won a wild contest with Hightstown, 46-44. And his main assistant on that team was Lacey High's current head coach, Lou Vircillo. There's a famous story that goes along with that '75 championship that the morning of the title game, Strangia and Vircillo got together and drove to nearby Middletown to go to the cemetery and visit the grave site of the great Vince Lombardi, "talk" to him before the game to get inspiration and pray. Somehow, this translated into what was a great day for the Bucs.

Now fast-forward 13 years later. And unlike most high school football games now, the place was packed. Well over 1,000 spectators for this title game. There was no doubt these were the two best teams in the SJ III classification. Then again, they were the only two teams in the classification that qualified. Usually, it's a four-team classification, but based on the power point rankings and overall records, they were the only two schools to meet the requirements of playing in this game.

It was literally winner-take-all.

Problem was, someone forgot to tell Wilson players that. Lacey was able to shut down the vaunted Wilson version of the run-and-shoot offense after the Tigers scored on the first drive. Frisbey could not get anything going with Lacey defenders turning them back at all stops.

On offense, the Lions were able to move the ball against a somewhat porous Tigers defense. And where the Lions' offensive line was able to make holes, Elias was able to slash through them for big chunks of yards. Gardi had delivered one touchdown run of 6 yards in the first half and Elias had scored on touchdown runs of 9 and 49 yards to give the Lions a 21-8 halftime lead.

The Lions didn't stop there. They drove the ball deep into Tigers territory midway through the third quarter and when Elias darted in for a 9-yard score with 2:28 left and Tarricone added the extra point to make it 28-8, I, like most other people, figured game over.

If the Lions got through the last 14:28 unscathed, they were going to have a big party on their field with the fans and all that were there.

But Woodrow Wilson didn't get to this game by lucking out most of the year. They were about to make what was a mundane, uneventful title matchup into something anyone at the school that afternoon would never forget.

And it started as innocently as a kickoff return, which Allen Littles brought back 48 yards to the Lions' 45. Frisbey had taken the Tigers down the field once all day -- an opening-drive touchdown pass to Terrill Bullock of 4 yards. He suddenly found his groove again, but it had a price tag attached to it.

As Frisbey, who would chuck the pigskin 23 times on the day, dropped back to pass, he had pressure on him, like he did most of the afternoon. He spotted his receiver, but as he got the ball off, he was hit with the near force of a freight train by lineman Chris Luberto.

The pass was lofted in the direction of wide receiver John McCain -- no not that John McCain. I'm positive he's never met Sarah Palin in his life. McCain out-jumped a Lacey defender for the ball, came down with it, then juked another Lacey secondary guy to get to the end zone to finish out the 45-yard score to make it 28-16 as Frisbey ran in the 2-point conversion.

So it was a big play, but it still signified nothing. It was how the Lions were going to recover from that quick-strike touchdown that was going to tell me if the rest of the afternoon was a cakewalk or not. And the Lions were not disappointing, driving the ball late in the third quarter and into the final period into the Wilson red zone. The drive, though, stalled when Elias was stripped inside the 10 and Donnie Hill recovered at the 8 with 11:11 remaining.

Still no concern or any idea of how exciting this was about to become yet. The Tigers had the ball, though, and Frisbey was executing coach Wilson's offensive game plan with simplicity against a Lions defense that was tiring from chasing all the Wilson receivers and backs around the field. A dink here, a dunk there. The Tiger offense was playing ball control and not relying on the big play.

Wilson had the ball inside the 5 and capped the 12-play, 92-yard drive when Frisbey tossed to McCain for a 4-yard score. McCain had picked on the Lions' defense for 174 yards receiving on seven catches because Lacey was trying hard to stop Goodwin. The Tigers really had no kicking game and down 28-22, they decided on another 2-point conversion.

At this point, I could almost see the wheels turning in Vircillo's head down below. He sensed his guys were getting tired, so he turned to someone he could rely on to make something happen defensively.

And suddenly, a guy wearing No. 20 ran in from the Lacey sidelines. It was Elias, who Vircillo strictly made an offensive player this particular season. Sure as anything, the Tigers were going to find out what Elias was like coming off the bench and having to play defense. Frisbey dropped back, then rolled out toward the sideline. He saw Goodwin in his sights and threw to him. Out of nowhere, though, came Elias to get a hand on the ball and knock it away.

Elias saved the moment, but the Lions were in a precarious situation ahead 28-22 with 6:03 left in the game. They needed a sustained drive, just to keep the ball away from the Tigers offense that was running on all cylinders and seemed unstoppable. After Lacey picked up a first down, the Tigers had the Lions on third down and sacked Gardi for a 4-yard loss at the Lacey 37.

There was no fooling around. Vircillo got Tarricone to punt the ball away. He got a 33-yarder off and the Tigers were starting at their 30 with 3:02 left. The Lions needed to make one more stop defensively and victory was all theirs.

But as if he never missed a beat from the 92-yard drive, Frisbey went back to work. An 8-yarder to Littles. A 7-yarder to Bullock. A first down. Then an incompletion, making it second and 10 at the Tiger 45.

On the next play, Frisbey dropped back again and fired down the field. Once again, McCain was at the receiving end to make an amazing catch. He was brought down at the Lacey 1, setting up first and goal after the 54-yard play.

The Tigers were in great shape to get the tying score and weren't in any hurry. Then again, the Tigers were out of timeouts, yet at the 1, they could take their time. Vircillo was in no hurry either. He had two timeouts to call. He did not call one as the clock ticked under 1:30 in the game.

But the Tigers lost perception of the play clock and got called for delay of game, putting the ball back at the 6. They tried a run with Goodwin, who got to the 2. Still no timeout. Then came incomplete passes on second and third downs.

Now it was fourth down. The game was on the line. The Lacey fans stood up in unison, cheering the Lions on for one more stop. Frisbey took the snap and rolled out to his right, trying to find his receiver with Lion defenders pursuing. As they got closer to him, he spotted Goodwin, who had been kept in check all day. A quick flick of the wrist and less than a second later, Goodwin had the ball in the back of the end zone for the tying touchdown with 11 seconds to play.

Now coach Wilson had to figure out how he would win the game, either a run or a pass. Figured someone would have to make one more play defensively for Lacey to keep it tied at 28.

So imagine my surprise -- and probably everyone on the Lacey side of the field's surprise -- when Wilson trotted Brian McNair out to kick an extra point. Really? Now!? The kid's been sitting on the sideline and I'm sure his leg was a tad bit cold other than on kickoffs.

The result was obvious -- he missed his kick wide left and the game remained tied at 28. The decision to kick the extra-point was not as questionable with the game still tied at 28. But what was about to happen next was completely inexplicable, even with 11 seconds to play.

McNair squib-kicked instead of trying to blast it as far as he could. Even if the ball goes through the end zone for a touchback, going 80 yards in 11 seconds is near impossible for a high school team. But the pooch was fair-caught by Steve Wells at the Lacey 44.

Most everyone now was expecting a run to Elias, see if he could make something happen and if he didn't, maybe Vircillo lets the clock click to zero and start again in overtime. Heck, I thought that as well. I wouldn't have blamed Vircillo or his coaches for making that decision to give his kids a chance to catch their breath.

That, though, is why I don't make football-related calls. Vircillo would tell me after the game he wasn't thinking about overtime, though if they had gone to overtime, he assured me his players were going to be ready.

On the first play after the pooch kick, Gardi pitched back to Elias. A run ... just as I thought.

But Elias stopped. My jaw dropped. He cocked his right arm back and fired down the field. There was Lehtinen, who was practically wide open. All the pass needed to be was on the mark. It was.

Lehtinen had to wait a little bit for the ball to get to him, but once he did, he was off to the races. He was taken down by a pair of Wilson defenders at the Wilson 13 after the 43-yard halfback pass and Gardi called timeout as fast as they could.

The clock read 0:02. Vircillo brought the kick team in and Tarricone was summoned to bring Lacey its first state sectional title. After the game, Tarricone admitted that three years earlier as a freshman, he had a chance to put the final touches on a perfect season with a last-second field goal against Central Regional, which he did.

Now, he was back in this situation again. Gardi set up at the Wilson 21. Tarricone counted off his paces back to where he would start his ascent to the football. The snap was true, Gardi caught the ball perfectly and placed it down on the turf for Tarricone. The senior was perfect in his steps to the ball. His kick eluded Tiger defenders' hands who were trying to make a block.

It split the uprights. Bedlam on the Lacey side. Players jumped up and down uncontrollably. Even the stoic Vircillo was excited by the outcome. Teammates mobbed Tarricone and took him to the turf.

And from the left corner of the press box I can hear Strangia sounding like he was somewhere between excited and having a heart attack as the ball split the uprights, trying to explain what had just happened through his excitement. As a note: For years after that game, Clear Cable-8, which would become Adelphia-8, would use Strangia's near-breathless reaction to the game-winning field goal as it's highlight to promote its football coverage.

It was that amazing of a finish. And now I had to try to put what I had witnessed into English. Vircillo was back to being Lou Vircillo -- dry, near-monotone, questioning whatever it was I asked him, and just being downright tough. But he was proud of the kids. Tarricone needed a pin to prick him from the sky since he was floating on a cloud.

And Keith Elias -- yeah, he was Keith Elias as always. He had finished the game with 206 yards rushing on 26 carries and was exhausted. But he always had enough to tell it like it was, his outgoing, opinionated persona showing through, saying things I could never put in print. But that's part of the reason why Keith Elias, who would have a stellar career at Princeton University and play for the New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts, is one of the best people I've ever covered in my career.

Putting a game story like this into 25 inches of perspective -- or less -- is far from a piece of cake, yet I managed to compartmentalize as best as I could. The game had four parts to it -- the early 28-8 Lacey lead, the Wilson comeback, the exciting end and the elation afterward.

At the end of 1989, our paper did a Best of the 1980s. That Lacey victory was named the biggest game of the decade. Lacey had 407 yards of offense that afternoon, Wilson piled up 374. A year after that epic battle, the two teams would meet again on Lacey's field for the SJ III title. I was expecting 52-50 this time. Wishful thinking since both teams had almost all their stars from the '88 game back, but still as exciting. Elias went for 182 yards rushing on 36 carries and led Lacey to its second straight SJ III crown, 28-24.

I got to cover that one, too, and yes, it was a great and exciting game again.

But it could not match the fireworks -- nor the ending -- of that '88 title game, still the greatest high school football game I ever covered.

And the only bad thing about that day was it was grey and yucky. For the football that was played under those clouds, it was worth it.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The long-traveled road to an SCT field hockey title

Sometimes, the path to a special moment is paved as long as it takes to walk from Key West to Yulee.

The road just never seems to end. You know there's an end, but you just don't know when that end comes.

And so was the path the Point Pleasant Boro High School field hockey team took to get to the Shore Conference Tournament championship game on Friday, October 27, 1989. On the outside, nabbing the fourth seed for the SCT didn't seem so bad.

But they were better off dodging landmines in Baghdad than playing the tournament when they saw what was ahead of them. The opening round was against 13th-seeded and tough Ocean Township, which they dispatched of on their home field.

Next came a visit from unbeaten and No. 5 seed Middletown North. Figured this might be the end of the line. Nope. Boro scored the 1-0 victory and onto the semifinal where a trip to West Long Branch and perennial favorites Shore Regional High -- another unbeaten team and the tournament's top seed -- awaited.

But a goal by Kim Yankowski in the first half stood up and the Panthers won the game, 1-0.

Three tough challengers, two of which were unbeaten, slayed. Just like that.

But don't think for one moment the Panthers were going to have a picnic in the final that night at Southern Regional High School. The opponent was third-seeded and defending champion Wall Township High, led by top players Kristy Hendrickson and Meredith Giese. The Crimson Knights had taken out the team they beat in last year's final, second-seeded Toms River North, in the semifinal round to get to the championship.

The Crimson Knights' record going into the championship -- 12-0-3. Yeah, another unbeaten team standing in the way of Shore Conference supremacy. Worse, the Panther players who were about to take the field at Southern Regional High School had never, ever, ever beaten rival Wall in a field hockey match.

Talk about monumental tasks. Now don't feel sorry for these Panther girls or feel they were an underdog in any way, shape or form. The '89 Panthers went into the final with a 14-1-4 record, the loss coming to Wall earlier in the season.

As I got to Southern's football field for the match, I was relieved I didn't have to cover a high school football game that night. THIS is where I wanted to be, to watch this talented group of Panthers -- who would ultimately have seven of their players earn All-County first-team honors -- make history for themselves and become the first outright SCT winner from the county since North had beaten Shore in the '85 final on penalty strokes.

The only Ocean County team to win an SCT title in regulation up to this point was Pinelands Regional over Wall in the first-ever final in 1984.

I could still see the teams warming up before the final on a cool night in Southern Ocean County. Point Boro was focused and ready to go. I noticed it. Our Observer photographer, Pete Picknally, noticed it. Then Pete asked me if I heard the new parody to the Billy Joel song "We Didn't Start The Fire."

"It's called 'We Really Don't Need Lyrics,'" he said of the mocking "history rap" Billy Joel makes on his future No. 1 song. "It's something like, 'We ladada-da-dah lyrics.'"

I laughed. It's all I could remember.

Yes, this was STILL where I wanted to be that night.

The teams lined up for the faceoff that Point Boro won off the coin toss. Charisse Hopkins, the skilled center-forward, took the ball up the field and fed it to her best buddy Yankowski. From there, Yankowski dodged and weaved through helpless Wall defenders until she found herself at the doorstep of goalkeeper Tracy Sentner.

Just 34 seconds into the match, Yankowski stuffed the ball past Sentner to make it 1-0.

The message was automatically clear ... Point Boro was not going to be intimidated.

With Wendi Pearce, Stacey Bielick and Sue Schoppe leading the way defensively, the Panthers kept the Crimson Knights at bay and as far away from Boro goalie Michelle Visbeck as possible. The aggressive style they employed that night was working.

But I knew the Crimson Knights weren't just going to lay down and die for the Panther ladies. They couldn't. They owned this team the last few meetings. To most casual observers to the game, the Knights were a much better team.

Now, though, it was about to be put to the test. At the 19:03 mark, the Panthers were right on the doorstep again and Hopkins fed Yankowski, who ultimatey put the ball past Sentner to make it 2-0.

The previous fastest goal to start an SCT final was scored by Pinelands' Tammi Grasela in the 1984 final against Wall in just over 22 minutes. Now Yankowski, one of the greatest female athletes I ever covered, was in the record books with the two fastest goals in SCT finals history before 20 minutes had expired.

And the lead stayed 2-0 at halftime. But something happened that I will never forget.

It happened so quickly, too. Yankowski was having problems breathing. Maybe the thick air, maybe asthma. But she wasn't an asthmatic. She was hyperventilating in front of my own eyes. I was actually scared for her and her parents. It was a short moment, but ultimately, she calmed down.

That's how intense this game was. The Panthers were up by two goals with 30 minutes to play, but they couldn't let up for one moment. They knew ... everybody knew ... how good coach Nancy Gross' Crimson Knights were. They could just erase a two-goal deficit like it was nothing.

So the Panthers players re-dedicated themselves to keep up that pressure in the second half. And it was working. They had the ball down at the other end of the field for the first 10 minutes of the second half. Hopkins again fed the ball into the circle.

This time around, it wasn't Yankowski waiting for it. It was a freshman forward coach Judy Goldstein thought the world of to put her on the forward line as a starting wing. Christie Pearce had the ball in her sights and swung forward as it hit her stick, going up and into the net behind Sentner for a 3-0 lead.

Ball game all but over. The Panthers could start celebrating this title and overcoming the demons of Wall Township High.

But hold the phone. The official nearest the net disallowed the goal for a high ball. In the sport, the ball needs to be below the waist of the goalie to be counted as a goal. Yeah, field hockey's a very technical sport. And so went the goal.

They still had the two-goal cushion and 20 more minutes to kill, which against Wall seemed like a lifetime. Because here came the Knights back down the field for one push. They brought goalie Visbeck too far out of the net and Giese connected for an easy score to cut the lead to a goal with 12:36 left to play.

The lead was now precarious. And as the night got cooler, were the chances of a title cooling down for Point Boro's Panthers? I remember Mike Eruzione's famous line about the night the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics in which he scored with 10 minutes left, took another shift, came off the ice and swore the clock said 9:59 on it.

That's how the last 10 minutes felt. And when Geise had another chance to tie the game, that "uh-oh" feeling was coming upon me. But Visbeck stood her ground with a kick save. This turned out to be very valuable.

With less than two minutes to play, the timekeeper got up from her desk and started to follow the head official up and down the field, telling her the time since the football scoreboard clock stopped at 2:00 by rule. I was not too far from where she was and she would count down in 15-second intervals.

"One 15. One minute. Forty-five seconds. Thirty seconds," she counted down. "Fifteen seconds. Ten seconds. Nine, eight, seven, six, five, four ... "

Once it became apparent the Knights would not get clean possession of the ball in Point Boro territory anymore, I didn't need to count to zero in my head.

It was over. The Panthers had held on for the 2-1 victory. Lots of hugs all around. The memories were amazing -- a hug between besties Hopkins and Yankowski, the smile on Bielick's face, the joy Visbeck showed. And the moment the trophy was handed to the Panther players, who gave it off to Goldstein, the program's head coach since 1983, was precious.

As I'm talking with coach Goldstein, she's concentrating on answering my questions and talking with Jack Bielick, Stacy's father. They had been making phone calls up to Point Pleasant Boro in the second half to have some sort of a hometown greeting once they hit the town limits and there would be fire trucks waiting to give the team bus a proper procession to the high school where the Panthers football team was playing that night.

Of course, I didn't witness what happened, but I heard it was a moment to remember.

And as things were calming down, I can still hear Visbeck's voice when she said, "None of us had ever beaten Wall. We said we were winning tonight."

They proceeded to leave Manahawkin and head back to Point Boro for a hero's welcome. I was on my way south to nearby Tuckerton for an overnight stay with my Monmouth College friend Irv and his lovely wife. That's where I typed in the game story on the old Tandy computers we used to have at the Observer and send the story through phone wires or cupplers. I was down there overnight because I had a Pinelands Regional High football game the next afternoon.

Meanwhile, to make the story complete, I had asked a young lady named Erica out. Erica was Goldstein's sister and I had known Erica first as a high school softball player that I had covered at Toms River South, then as a player for a short time at Georgian Court. On that Sunday, two days after Point Boro's title, she and I went to Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township for the final day the park was open, also the last day of Octoberfest.

It was a great date to say the least and we went out for over four months. It was time, as I say, well spent.

That was a capper to a weekend I won't ever forget in '89, highlighted by some ladies who took the path longways to a Shore Conference championship ... through three unbeaten teams, no less.

The Point Pleasant Boro High School field hockey team, which would ultimately play for a South Jersey Group II championship a couple of weeks later, losing to Moorestown, showed the Shore its mettle was second to no one that night at Southern.

It was where I wanted to be that night.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The day everything aligned for the Interlachen cross country program

Heading to Whispering Pines Park in Inverness on Thursday, October 23, 2003, I was assured of one thing, maybe two.

The absolute was that Jeremy Criscione was going to qualify for the Region 2-2A cross country meet the following week. I was pretty sure he was going to win the District 3-2A meet.

The almost absolute I expected was that his teammate at Interachen High School, Talisa Bishop, was going to be good enough to qualify in the Top 15 at the same meet on the girls side and also move on to the regional meet the next week at nearby Lecanto High School.

After that, though, it was strictly a guess of what good might come out of this afternoon. It had been a week since Criscione dominated the All-Putnam County cross country meet. It was also that same day that Bishop lost a memorable battle with Palatka's Amy Eller for the girls title, the two battling stride for stride before Eller pulled ahead and zoomed to the finish line in 21:40, 18 seconds faster than Bishop.

How much of that was in Bishop's mind, I had no idea. Athletics has a strange way of turning one's physical attributes into a side of psychological spaghetti.

Still, it was a new day and when I arrived mid-afternoon at the park, I knew the drill: the ladies would go first, followed by the guys.

And so the girls took off. The entire Interlachen team was solid, but how good they were against some of the better teams in Citrus and Marion, Alachua and St. Johns counties remained to be seen.

I hung out on the side waiting to see where  Bishop was going to be and from there to see how close behind her teammates were in the battle to pick up points. She passed by me near the first mile and after that came her twin sister Heather, followed by teammates Brandi Newman, Daisy Salinas, Ashley Criscione, Jeremy's sister, and Courtney Spitzner. They were within striking distance of some of the girls on other teams, so maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that the Rams' girls might qualify for the region meet.

Talisa Bishop came across in fifth place in 21:54, so she was going off to the region meet as an individual. But then other runners were crossing the finish line. I started counting the eighth, then ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th runners coming in. Then came No. 15 -- Crystal River's Stephanie Bodden, who got across the line in 22:58.

Eight seconds ... that's all the difference made between Bodden and Heather Bishop crossing the line and qualifying individually, too, for the regional meet. She finished in 17th place. On Heather Bishop's face was both the look of exhaustion and dejection.

It would be another minute before Newman crossed in 28th place, then Salinas came across in 46th in 28:07, Criscione in 49th in 28:46 and Spitzner right behind in 50th in 28:52.

Judging by what schools were being represented crossing the finish line, I knew it was going to be a close one for Interlachen. There were 12 teams at the event and the top six teams points-wise would qualify to go on to the region meet.

Rams coach Dwayne Cox, the inspiration for many of those young ladies and gentlemen running for the school, was doing inventory with his runners, checking his young ladies out to see how they were. Even he had some question as to whether or not they were going to move on. For the moment, the only person he knew he was taking with him to Lecanto High the next Saturday was Talisa Bishop.

Meanwhile, as the boys' race began, I found my way to Heather Bishop. This story was really going to be about her. Sure, her twin was a dynamic runner in every way, but I always felt like Heather was the forgotten one. She certainly didn't have her sister's wheels, but she could hold her own on a cross country course.

I can see the bummed-out look in her eyes.

"So close, too," she said to me.

I was really feeling her pain at that particular moment. Then she got her resolve and smiled. "Guess I can be a cheerleader for my sister next week," she said. Then we talked about the race.

"I had no idea what place I was in," she said. "It was my best race, but it would've been better had I qualified (individually) for the states."

Meanwhile, the boys team was in the similiar situation as the girls team, though the boys were expected to finish in the top six and move on to the regions. Jeremy Criscione was not disappointing through the first mile, even if his best running friend, Keystone Heights' Enoch Nadler, was chasing him throughout the course.

At 16 years old, you could see how effortless running was to Jeremy Criscione, like he had a gift that he was putting to full use. I knew this was the best boys cross country runner I had ever seen and the best was still yet to come.

He won the race in 16:24, eventually putting space between himself and University of Florida recruit Nadler, beating him by 31 seconds.

Now Talisa had someone to go to Lecanto with. The rest was going to be up to the young Interlachen Rams boys runners.

And it also was up to where the points fell in the just-run girls race.

Bryan Meily was the second Interlachen runner, coming in 28th in 19:09, followed by Lamar Green in 43rd in 20:16, three seconds after that by Kyle Pope in 44th. Harley Rollins was the fifth and final Rams boys scorer in 51st place in 21:09.

It appeared Interlachen's boys were also going to be close to the region meet.

So off to the large wooden, gazebo-like structure where the race was being headquartered with the positive-minded Cox. Even he, though, admitted it was going to take some luck and some personal bests for his teams to get to the regions.

We were waiting for the final girls' totals. Seems there was some confusion on some placements. We were being held up. Not just Coach Cox and myself -- the six young ladies clad in blue and white uniforms were being held up, too.

It gave me time to actually have a small conversation with Cox, the program's head coach for nine years. He took pride of his program like coaches up in Ocean County, New Jersey did. In New Jersey, cross country is as important a sport as football, soccer and field hockey is during the fall.

The man ran a very strong cross country program and took pride in it. Long before budgets would slash schedules and how far a team could travel for a meet, Cox would take his team to many meets. They even hosted a Saturday event once a year at the home West Putnam Recreation Center, as well as host the county meet.

"Sometimes it takes some luck," Cox said. "But I said I felt we could finish anywhere between fifth and seventh place with both teams."

Finally, the girls results came in. Cox grabbed a copy of the results before I could get a copy. He looked at them and then he showed me. There it was:

5. Interlachen 136.

"Knew it was going to be close," he said. "But we had girls run personal-bests in the race. Sometimes you need that."

Moments later, Talisa Bishop arrived from the group of other Rams runners who were waiting 75 feet away from the gazebo.

"How did we do, Mr. Cox?" she asked. Then he showed her the final team finish.

A smile came across her face and a walk started turning into a skip, like Bambi playfully romping to her fellow does. From the distance, coach Cox and I watched side by side as Talisa Bishop began telling her teammates they would be running in Lecanto with her next week. A jubilant scream came from the area.

Cox looked at them, then directly asked me, "You know why I love to coach? Watching their reaction says it all."

For some reason, the boys' results were taking time to print out. Moments later, the results were in. Dunnellon and Lecanto were first and second. Menendez was third, followed by Keystone Heights fourth and Inverness Citrus fifth. Then came sixth place.

Interlachen, 138. The Rams beat out Alachua Santa Fe by 55 points to claim the final team spot.

The end result was all that mattered. Talisa Bishop and Criscione were going to regionals as individuals ... and their teammates were going with them as a team.

It would be great to tell you that the next week at Lecanto both teams had great days and qualified for the state meet. But that would simply be embellishing the story a bit. Neither did make it beyond the region meet.

However, Bishop had one of the best days of her career, finishing second to qualify for the state meet. Meanwhile, Criscione finished second to Nadler and also went to the state meet at Radice Park in Tampa, where he would finish sixth overall and Bishop would finish 27th in her final high school race.

And little did I know that November 2003 night in Tampa that I would be seeing Cox coach for the last time. He passed away in August 2004, and before Criscione won the state 2A title a few months later, the end of the road came for the IHS program in terms of how good it was. It never has quite recovered.

But I am always reminded of that late October afternoon in 2003 when the moon, the stars and the sun aligned with one another at a park in Inverness for the IHS cross country programs when it looked like it wouldn't be a completely successful day.

I look forward to another day like that on a cross country field somewhere again.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Allowing for an audience of one

Never in a year and a half of running road races did I want anyone there at the finish line waiting for me or coming or going with me to these races.

I was adamant about it. I had set down this journey of getting in better shape and losing weight alone. No fanfare, no smiles, nothing.

I wanted to do this by myself. So I traveled to a lot of races, only there to run a good time, but mainly to finish. And I was content to say hello to the people who ran the races, especially if they were local in Putnam County like I was.

Afterward, I'd read the posted results of the race, hear a little of the ceremonies knowing I wasn't winning any prizes, and head to my car to go home. Mission accomplished in that regard.

But in early 2008, a woman who I had met a year before via the Internet and someone I grew close to wanted to go to the races I ran. Again, I wasn't all that crazy about having someone there with me. I think it took a while for me to feel comfortable with her going with me to races. I just didn't want to take anyone. That's how stubborn I was.

Shirlene, though, was persistent in that persistent way of saying, "I want to see you run and that's all." If she felt I didn't want her to be cheering or be excited for me running, that was all right to her. It took me a while for me to figure out she just wanted to be with me and do things I did.

And that made me uncomfortable. My previous ex-girlfriends wanted to be part of my world and things I did, and I was glad to let them in, but ultimately, they grew old of doing things I liked to do and ultimately, got tired of being around me.

The stubborn part of me didn't want any woman hanging around me doing things I liked doing ever again because ultimately, they too would tire of all that. Sad, but true. I grew too cautious in the time my ex-fiance walked out of our relationship in October 2006. I was pretty determined to live the rest of my life alone, not necessarily bitter, but more scared of what I'd do to any woman I was around. Even to this day, I have issues with "bringing someone into my world."

But Shirlene was persistent. She wanted to go, see what this was all about. Her work schedule would never jive with when I ran races on select weekends. Still, I'd text her the times and she'd text back telling me how proud she was.

Finally, our schedules did match up. It was June 7, 2008. I ran in the inaugural -- and it turns out the only race -- Neighborhoods of World Golf Village 5K in St. Augustine. We packed up her infant son Nio's little stroller and other things to preoccupy an 8-month old to head to the World Golf Village off of I-95.

By 8:30 that morning, the temperature was becoming oppressive. By the time the race started at 9, the temperatures were almost in the mid-80s. I suddenly remembered midway through the race why I don't competitively run in the heat of the day. I struggled to the finish line, which was the final loop around the village's lake and came across the finish line in 28:24. That was good for 18th in my age class and 222nd out of 483 runners.

And as I came to the last oval to run what was the final couple tenths of a mile, there was Shirlene behind Nio's stroller looking on. No cheering. I know she was cheering for me inside though.

We made a morning out of it since we went to the Denny's nearby for brunch after that. All was good and she wanted to do it again at another time. I couldn't see why not.

Now it is Saturday, August 2, 2008. For the second year in a row, I was running in the JDR Bridges 5K race in Jacksonville, the rare night race where it's not as super hot as it is during the day. And again, we started heading up to Jacksonville on US-17 through Putnam County and into Clay County. And the weather was looking ominous from the west. It looked as if it might rain before the race.

I had my concerns, but again, Shirlene was there to tell me she and Nio would be fine and find a place for cover in case it did pour during the race. Somehow, she always seemed to have the right things to say to stop me from worrying.

As we found a parking garage to be in that was free, we got everything from the trunk of her car again and I had her hold my cell phone and keys, leaving my wallet in the glove compartment. We locked the car up and walked off to where the race began.

Once there, I started going through my whole routine of preparing for the race, which would mean a small jog up and down the first mile and back. Shirlene had let me go on and do this and put my stuff under Nio's stroller. So I figured all was fine in that regard.

The race started at 7:30 p.m. and my goal was to do a time kind of close to the time I had done the year before, which was 26:25. My times were getting a little slower over the year, hurt the previous December by pulling a calf muscle running three days before a race in Leesburg. It slowed me down somewhat.

The bridges race included having to run down a street, coming back up that street, then making my way up the Main Street Bridge, then down it, then a turn to the right and suddenly going up and down the tougher Acosta Bridge and then back down the same street the race started and to the finish line.

This time, the race was a little more challenging. It never did rain and it was a little warmer than it was the year before. I ultimately finished the race in 28:34, good enough for 27th in my age group and 277th out of 687 runners. Slowed down a bit, but I still couldn't complain.

A few moments later as I checked out my time posted on the board near the truck set up for the race by 1st Place Sports, the main holders of the race, I go back to where Shirlene and Nio were and next to her she was in some kind of conversation with overall winner Jason Arnold's girlfriend, Anna. Obviously I knew Jason since he was in race I ran and he was from Palatka, so I made the formal presentation of the parties. We were in and out of there in a couple of minutes and said our goodbyes for the night.

I knew I wasn't hanging around this time for any post-race ceremonies and Shirlene was hungry, so we took off, heading down I-95 to the same Denny's we had stopped off at in June. I ordered something so sweet -- it had strawberries in it -- that Shirlene started questioning my sanity and if my blood sugar would skyrocket. I couldn't blame her at all since I don't believe this was something I wanted to eat either.

Going into the restaurant, I had taken the wallet out of the car, but for some reason, did not find the keys or my cell phone under Nio's stroller now in the trunk. It became a concern, but we went in to eat nonetheless.

When we came out, it was just around 9:45 p.m. and we decided to check the trunk of her car again. No keys, no phone. Now we have a potential problem. We take a ride back up to Jacksonville to see if we could find someone who may have found the keys or the cell phone.

Thankfully, someone did find a pair of keys and a cell phone, and turned it in to race officials ... but they had already left.

Greaaaaaaaaaaaaaat! Now I'm stuck without a cell phone for communication AND no way of getting into my apartment. I had a spare set of keys for my car and for my apartment, but getting into the apartment was going to be a little bit of a challenge.

Shirlene had her cell phone. We tried to call the 1st Place Sports store number to see if someone stopped by after the race to drop off anything from the race -- and my phone and keys. No answer. I must have tried to call them a dozen times. Nothing. Left a message on their machine to call her cell phone if they had both keys and phone in possession. Nothing.

By about 11 p.m., the realization was setting in that we had a problem of getting back into the apartment. At one point, my irritated lady friend was to the point where she was rationalizing maybe having to drive to her sister's place in Sanford to spend the night there and try again the next day to locate the 1st Place Sports people and maybe my apartment superintendent to get into the apartment.

"That's just too much driving to do," I said, knowing in the back of my mind this may be what we had to do.

So the next step was calling the emergency number at my apartment complex, which I didn't know, and had to call the regular number to pick the emergency number up from my manager's message on the answering machine. I had left the number on his beeper and my super called back within minutes.

I told him the situation and though he wasn't all that happy, he was still able to help. So back home we came and by almost midnight, he had gotten there moments after we got to the apartment to give us a hand in letting us in. I confirmed I had my spare key in the drawer under the microwave oven and all was good.

Shirlene and I didn't go very far the rest of the weekend as she headed back to her home near Cocoa the next night. Before Nio was born, she'd stay until Monday, but now with her son (she was 17 weeks pregnant when I first met her) in tow, she needed to be home at night.

I really didn't need the cell phone until I could get up that way, which I did by Tuesday, August 5. I got to 1st Place Sports on Baymeadows Road, identified both the keys and the phone and all was well again.

As for Shirlene, we decided a month later to make it official and be boyfriend and girlfriend and she would go to a couple more races of mine -- one in Crescent City on a dreary, yucky December morning in 2008 and the Gate River Run in March 2009. Unfortunately, being two hours apart from each other and strained for money was wearing the relationship thin until finally, she, too, decided it wasn't working anymore.

She and I remained friends, though not as close as we once were. We decided to go on with our lives separately and not be a burden to the other, though we would be there for the other if we needed to be. That's how I looked at it at least. The last time I saw Shirlene was in November 2010 after I played a round of golf near where she lived and took both she and Nio out for dinner. It was a wonderful time.

I always thought Shirlene would be there if and when I needed her. That's a good friend.

Sadly, Shirlene suffered a stroke and passed away 17 days later on June 30, 2011. There isn't a day that goes by where I don't see a picture of her in my apartment or I'm thinking of her, how things were good at the best of times.

And as I prepare to run my first race in over a year on November 12, 2011 in Destin at the Hog's Breath 5K, a race I haven't competed in since 2007, I am reminded that there is at least one person who will be watching me in spirit.

It's the first race I've done since Shirlene's passing. And I know I won't be anywhere near the 28-minute mark to start. I'm back to the concept of "just wanting to finish." But that's fine.

I'm a little more open now to letting those who want to go see me come to my races. I don't mind the friendly face at all either. They can even cheer me on if they wanted to now.

One of the many things I will always be reminded of and thakful to have had Shirlene in my life.

I miss you.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

When you least expect an upset ...

There are quite a few things on this planet to motivate me to cover an event before noon.

One of those is not high school football. I'm sorry. I know it sucks to hear, but I just don't have it in me to go to a high school game for a 10 a.m. start, but yet, while I was at the Ocean County Observer, I had to go cover 10 a.m. games on occasion.

And where, praytell, would be a school as wacky as a Pop Warner organization to host a morning football game?

Freehold Boro High School in western Monmouth County. Yep, Freehold Boro -- or Bruce Springsteen High as I call it.

I know I've driven by the house Springsteen grew up as a kid. If you've ever been to Freehold Boro, it is a completely different world from Freehold Township High School, which is in a far, more widespread area. Freehold Boro is the hub of the area, where the main downtown businesses are located.

If you go past Freehold Boro's downtown area and drive a little bit north on Route 79, you get to the high school.

Which makes it tricky to get to the high school because after you burn rubber on Route 9 heading north, you have to veer off onto Route 79 and make it through one residential area before going through the vaunted downtown area, then go north again on Route 79. If you get stuck in any kind of traffic jam, you're there for a while.

But as of Saturday, October 11, 1986, I had not been to this particular high school to cover anything before. So imagine having to figure out this high school's location thanks to an atlas that specifically places the locations of high school. Trust me, back in the day, it was a lot of trial and error.

On this particular morning, though, I was the chosen one to see Freehold Boro host one of our county football teams, Manchester, a team that had finished strong under then first-year coach Bob Hunt the year before with a memorable Thanksgiving Eve night win against Monsignor Donovan and had a lot of top talent returning, like quarterback Tony Lubischer and running back Dan Hourigan.

The problem was Manchester did not get off to a good start, losing to smaller schools Keyport and Holmdel to start the season at 0-2. And Freehold Boro, which had been a state tournament team the year before with the now-graduated Joe "The Jet" Henderson, was 2-0 and being led by Temple University recruit Anthony Richardson, a dynamite two-way quarterback who can run the ball as effectively as he could throw it.

The Colonials of coach Earl Ownes picked up where they left off the year before, off to a 2-0 start. On paper, this game was a mismatch.

But they don't play games on paper, though at 19 years old, I had no concept of this. I automatically assumed by the early afternoon I would be looking at the winning team being 3-0 and the losing team being 0-3.

So up Route 9 I went at about 8:45 in the morning, groggy and irritated I had to cover this game. I really didn't feel like going, especially after covering a game the night before. But an assignment is an assignment and money is money, no matter how you cut, dice and slice it.

I knew getting to Freehold Township was not a problem ... done that a few dozen times by now. Getting into Freehod Boro was the tricky part. Somehow, I weaved my way up Route 79 into the downtown section, then had to be patient as I waited through traffic lights and early Saturday morning traffic. By the time I had found the northern pass onto Route 79, I was elated to get out of the downtown area.

So I kept driving ... and driving ... and driving.

Nothing. I knew there was a school here somewhere among the pretty houses in the suburbs of the borough. Turns out I had gone just a bit far. Freehold Boro High is tucked away on the left side of the highway heading north on 79, looking like an average big building that could be in any neighborhood.

OK, found that. Now to the parking lot, which was not an easy task to find because you have to drive to it like it was a maze, turn here, go there, but make the wrong turn, it was a dead end. Knowing I was playing with the time and it was running out on me to get there for the game, I parked on some side road where other cars were, so I knew I was pretty good.

Once I found the entrance to the field, I got to my normal spot in the press box. It was fairly crowded, but there was something there that stood out more than anything else in there -- a hole.

Yes, a hole that if you stepped wrong, you were on your way to the ground below. I've been in press boxes in which you've had to climb a ladder to get up or had no room for you to do your job comfortably or had to stand the entire time and it was awfully painful. I don't wish any of that on any reporter wanting to cover a high school football game from above ground level.

But a hole? I spent the entire time consciously remembering not to make a false turn. You know if maybe the school had remembered to cover the darn thing up before the start of football season and maybe work on it in the off-time, things might be a tad different.

The hole was more in the back of the press box, so I spent my time as close to the action in the front as possible.

And all I wanted was for Manchester to be competitive on this sunny, cool morning. No one likes to go cover blowouts. The only positive is that you get out of there quickly after getting a word or two from the coach.

But the Hawks stopped Richardson and the Colonials on the first possession of the game and forced them to punt. Richardson sent a punt off to Hourigan at the other end of the field. The Hawks senior grabbed the ball and headed down the sideline. Maybe the Colonials defender in front of Hourigan thought he was not strong enough to withstand a forearm, but he decided to find out.

Hourigan cut away from the attempted arm tackle, found a wall of blockers and continued his 60-yard jaunt up the sidelines to the end zone for a touchdown.

John Kern's extra-point kick made it 7-0, just like that.

The Hawks' defense was stifling Richardson and his team and they stopped them on a couple more possessions. And near the end of the first quarter, they had their first offensive touchdown. Lubischer went for a 4-yard run on the first play, then stunned the Freehold defense with a 32-yard bomb to wide receiver Tony Merrill.

The Colonials must have really been stunned. For on the next play, Lubischer handed to burly running back James Brown, a junior who did a lot of things for the Hawks. The Hawks' offensive line opened a hole on the right side wide enough to send an SUV through. Brown dashed through that hole and no Colonial defender was in sight when he went 34 yards for the score to make it 14-0.

OK, maybe this is just a fluke and like myself, Freehold Boro was having a hard time trying to get awake.

But they were still having trouble offensively and had to punt again. Richardson received the snap and was ready to get the ball off when Lubischer -- the team's jack-of-all-trades, master of none, came running through the middle, kamikaze style, and threw his body on Richardson's kick.

The double hit of the ball -- the first being Richardson kicking the ball, the second Lubischer blocking the booted punt -- resonnated throughout the field. Not far behind Lubischer was Brown, who scooped the ball up and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-0.

Manchester 21, Freehold Boro 0. The same Freehold Boro which a year earlier had a 25-7 lead in the Central Jersey Group II championship game on this same field against Somervile, only to lose it 27-25. Big, bad Freehold Boro. THAT Freehold Boro.

And Manchester was winning without generating a whole lot of offense. Two special teams touchdowns and one three-play drive. Just like that -- 21 points.

Still, I had a hard time believing there was an upset in the making. One year ago, Freehold Boro destroyed an up-and-coming Manchester team, 49-6, as Henderson ran roughshod all over the Hawks defense.

For the first time since he graduated, the Colonials realized they didn't have this -- or any -- special, game-changing running back.

That job was squarely on the shoulders of Richardson. And somewhere after the Hawks had rolled up to 21 points, that alarm clock must have gone off on the Colonials' sideline.

They weren't going to allow this fellow Shore Conference Class C team that was winless to just show up and embarrass them on their own fied. No freakin' way!

And so before halftime, Richardson took the Colonials on a drive that he culminated by handing off to Chris Blacknall and the running back did the rest for a 10-yard score. Blacknall finished with 101 yards on 17 carries, but still, he was not the game-changing running back Henderson was.

Richardson scored on a 2-point conversion run and the Colonials cut the deficit to 21-8. Still within reach. They didn't play all that well, yet they were within striking range with a strong second half.

The fear was that no matter how hard the Hawks played, they were going to wind up on the short end of the effort. The 50-something-old Hunt, a large man in size, but a bigger man in kindness, had spent the better part of a year trying to mold these young men and convince them they were better than most people gave them credit for. I had covered this Hawks team in 1984 for a few games and they simply had no direction.

Hunt was at least sending this team in the right direction, even though he would coach the Hawks for just three seasons.

Whatever motivation, though, the Colonials got from scoring late in the first half, they carried into the second half. The only problem was Manchester's defense stiffened and was not allowing Richardson to break out and get anything going.

And the Hawks stayed on top 21-8 going into the final quarter. Finally, it dawned on me that with 12 minutes to go, maybe these Hawks were serious about winning this game. Maybe this could happen.

But the Colonials weren't going down without the proverbial fight. Richardson finally got the Colonials going and ended a drive by hitting wide receiver Ryan Conover with a 13-yard strike with 7:18 left to play to cut the lead again.

In a sign, though, that maybe this was Manchester's day, Hourigan came around the end to block Richardson's extra-point kick, keeping it 21-14.

Once again, Manchester's offense, which mustered just 115 yards and four first downs the entire morning/early afternoon, could not generate anything and the Colonials had the ball back quickly with under six minutes to go.

A penalty pushed the Colonials back to their 23, but no problem for Richardson. He dropped back and hit wide receiver Joe Diorio with a lateral pass. Obviously, Manchester's defense did not see this coming as Diorio threw a strike down the field to Conover, who took the ball to the Manchester 10 to cap a 67-yard pass.

One play later, Rodney Keyes scored on a run to make it 21-20 with five minutes left to play. The inevitable was happening and when Richardson hit tight end Scott Yucht with the 2-point conversion to give the Boro a 22-21 lead, that should have been the death knell for the Hawks, who struggled to move the ball against the Colonial defense.

But just as you thought momentum had shifted the Colonials' way, a yellow piece of cloth was laying on the ground.

Illegal procedure. Offense.

Wipe the 2-pointer away. Now Freehold had to run another play. Richardson rolled out on the play and had Diorio within his sights. He threw the ball at him.

For a moment, the ball looked like it was in the receiver's hands. But the pigskin came out, dropping harmlessly to the turf.

The wilting Hawks had dodged a bullet. They still had a 21-20 lead.

Manchester had the ball, but while the Hawks could run the ball and make the Colonials burn whatever timeouts they had left, they never really got anywhere after making a first down and so they were forced to punt.

With 2:43 left, the Colonials had the ball on their own 23 and Richardson went to work. He picked up a pair of first downs and Freehold was suddenly in Manchester territory at the 42. Then a run went for a 4-yard loss. That meant Richardson had to go back to the air.

Richardson dropped back, pursued doggedly on the play -- and all day -- by the Manchester defense, which had to be beyond tired at this point. He had Diorio within his sights and fired for him.

That's when Scott Halford, another of the veteran Hawks players, stepped in front to pick off the pass with 42 seconds left.

On the Freehold Boro side of the field, there was nothing but silence. All the cheering and yelling was coming from the other side of the field as fans gave each other high fives and players jumped on each other as soon as Halford went down with the ball.

A pair of Lubischer kneel-downs and it was over.

Manchester had just picked up its biggest win in a while ... maybe in its 11-year existence as a school at the time.

The only people who thought the Hawks could beat the talented Colonials were the Hawks players themselves. And they reveled in the victory like they had won a state championship. In 1985, they had started back on the road to respectability.

They had gained Freehold Boro's respect by the end of the afternoon.

When it was all over, I still had to write a story on the game, but it was still a bit early to head back to the Observer building, so I got to hang out that afternoon with my grandmother in Freehold Township at her place. When I became a working person, I saw less and less of her. I think she understood, so if I told her I was in the area and she was home, I could stop by.

I called her, she was home so I stopped by. In between whatever conversation we had and me writing a story, she had food that I could nibble on. And she allowed me to watch the third game of the National League Championship Series between the Mets and Astros at Shea Stadium on TV.

Didn't look good for the Mets down in the bottom of the ninth and with Astros closer Dave Smith on to finish it out, the Mets were looking at a 2-1 deficit in the series. That is, until Lenny Dykstra came up and nailed that game-winning home run.

Exactly three weeks later, I saw Dykstra in Asbury Park signing autographs at a card show -- and acting like an ass, almost like he didn't want to be there. Go figure.

Saw a high school football upset involving the team I covered, then saw my Mets win a dramatic playoff game in the bottom of the ninth.

Not a bad day, especially before 3 o'clock and once I got my bearings.