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Saturday, January 29, 2011

The night the Earth shifted in Ocean County girls swimming

During the 1980s, Ocean County was a hotbed for quite a few high school sports. Football saw a number of teams win state sectional titles thanks to Brick, Lacey, Lakewood and Toms River South. Baseball state titles went to Central Regional and Lakewood. And wrestling was huge, thanks to championships won by Toms River South, Toms River East and Brick Memorial.

Then there was swimming. Yeah, swimming. I know most people don't exactly equate swimming to the aforementioned sports, but during the '80s, the Toms River schools dominated the Shore Conference like nobody's business. On the boys' side, all three Toms River schools won the Shore Conference Tournament at least once with South winning in 1986, North taking the title between 1980-82 and East winning in 1983-85 and again in '87-89.

And except for a two-year run by Middleton South in 1983 and '84, Toms River North won the Shore Conference championship meet from 1980-82 and South was a three-time champion between 1985-87.

The '80s were definitely a great time in swimming in Ocean County. It wasn't a question of who would win the Shore Conference meet, it was more which Toms River school would take the title. There's a phrase about never letting these good times come to an end. But realistically, there's always that thought in the back of your mind screaming that all things don't last forever.

That includes Shore Conference girls swimming domination. The beginning of the end came at the small tiny Ranney School on Thursday, February 11, 1988.

Toms River South was having another great year in the pool and were led by a talented group of seniors. Jane Ellis, Cindy Patton and Kim Ansbro were the top swimmers. They were a part of three conference championship-winning teams. There was no reason to think that the Indians were going to be denied a fourth straight title.

But over the course of January 1988, I started hearing rumblings coming from up in northeastern Monmouth County. There was a team that was not only doing damage in dual meets, but notable damage, too.

And once Toms Rivers East and North were losing big to Rumson, you can sense a seismic shift in the Shore swimming world. These Bulldogs of coach Lynne Guibord had bite to them. They were young, but they were taking their cues from all the instruction they were getting from the local YMCAs in Monmouth County.

There was also no doubt who their leader was. She was talented sophomore stroke and distance specialist Heather Gibbons, the trail blazing star in the making that was about to take Monmouth County back to the top of the sport.

Gibbons was Wayne Gretzky and Rumson was the Edmonton Oilers compared to Ellis, Patton and Ansbro being Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Bobby Nystrom and the Indians being the New York Islanders. One superstar and team on the way up, the others watching what could be the beginning of the end of a great run, though they didn't know it at that time.

Both teams were unbeaten in the dual-meet season at the Shore. That set up the showdown and fateful February 11 at the Ranney School pool in Tinton Falls, Rumson's home pool, a date I had circled on my calendar for about a month. This was to decide if South's string of 43 consecutive Shore Conference dual-meet victories would continue.

As a student at Monmouth College in my final semester, I had classes Mondays through Thursdays with Fridays off, so I didn't mind hanging around at my West Long Branch campus, especially since my last class on Tuesdays and Thursdays ended about 4:30 p.m.

On this very cold night with temperatures at 30 degrees and snow recently fallen making the roads a little icy, I made my way to the school, but since I had never been there, it was a matter of finding Tinton Falls' backroads to get to my destination. After a while, I found it just before the 6 p.m. starting time.

Got to the door of the establishment. Locked. Went to another door. Locked, too. I must have walked around the Ranney School twice for about 20 minutes before finally finding someone who could to tell me what I was looking for was a matter of walking through a passage way, making a couple of turns and then going in.

Followed this person's advice and lo and behold, an unlocked door!

As I opened the door to get into the building, I had that feeling swept over of me of going from cold and dry to extremely muggy and warm. For seven years of covering high school swimming, I never got used to that transition, especially if you wear glasses. It's like walking into a sauna at a health club, the only difference being you don't have hundreds of people screaming their heads off as a race goes on.

And talk about archaic -- the score of the meet was being kept, of all things, on a blackboard which was in the corner area of the pool. After each event, someone designated to erase and write the new number down would go over and update the score big enough for both teams and the fans would see.

South's troubles began with diving, the meet's fifth event. For years, the Indians were always able to give the swimmers a great pushoff in meets thanks to the excellence of their divers. In this case, it was Jeeneine LoRusso, Missy Boland and Tobi Thompson. It was anticipated the Indians would win the event, 13-3, with that trio sweeping the top three spots (six for first, four for second, three for third) and give South an ominous 46-32 lead with six events left.

LoRusso and Boland did what they had to do by finishing first and second, respectively. But Thompson was off and Rumson's Heather Wolff and Hilary Stewart pounced on third and fourth places, respectively. Instead of jumping up from 32-29 to 45-32, the Indians won diving, 11-5, and held a 43-34 lead.

In a meet like this one, every point was going to count.

I could see the concerned look on South diving coach Jim Dragonetti's face. I could see it also on South head coach Bill Rankin's face, too. The Indians' popular coach since 1981, Rankin was used to seeing things under control with his Indian ladies.

They were about to spiral sideways, backwards, forwards and upside down.

The Bulldogs eliminated that nine-point lead after strong showings in the 100-meter butterfly and 100-meter freestyle (unlike most schools in the area with yard pools, Ranney School had a meter pool)and had the match tied at 55. Patton won the 500, but Rumson finished second, third and fifth to make it an 8-8 event and it was 63-all with three events left.

Who was going to break? We soon found out in the 100-yard backstroke. In setting his lineup, Rankin may have anticipated Gibbons doing the 500, which she would set a meet record at a few weeks later at the Shore Conference championship. Problem was Guibord did not have Gibbons in the event.

So when Rankin had Ellis step to the block to swim in backstroke, imagine Ellis' reaction when Gibbons was right next door to her.

"I thought I was going to die. I couldn't believe it," was what Ellis said after she saw Gibbons on the block next to her.

Both battled it out with the other four swimmers in the event, but Gibbons began to pull away from Ellis in the final 25 meters. Gibbons won, followed by Ellis and South teammate Kelly Screen. Rumson won the vent, 9-7, to take a 72-70 lead.

Ansbro won the breaststroke, but Rumson swimmers finished second, third and fourth and the Bulldogs held an 81-77 lead going to the final event, the 4x100 freestyle relay.

South was in trouble for two reasons. First, to win, the Indians needed to take first and second place (eight points for first, four for second, two for third) in the relays. The second reason for concern -- Guibord had saved her top swimmers, including Gibbons, for the final relay. Rankin had not saved all his best swimmers.

The 400 relay was the final confirmation for the beginning of the end, the shift of power at the Shore in girls swimming. Rumson breezed to the victory and took third with another relay to finish a 10-4 event win and the 91-81 triumph.

The Shore Conference Meet was still nine days away at Ocean County College, but you would have thought Guibord, her assistant coach and girls had just won the championship that particular moment. I stopped counting how many times those girls and Guibord cannonballed into the pool after the final score was posted on that blackboard. They could have partied in the Rumson-Fair Haven area for days and it would have been all right.

When Rankin said to me afterward, "Rumson's a strong team. They have the depth to compete with us," Ellis jumped in to the conversation.

"Compete with us?" she questioned, her piercing blue eyes ready to place daggers in Rankin. "They had to depth to beat us!"

Maybe Rankin was trying to find motivation in the next time the two schools would compete at the Shore Conference Meet. Maybe in his mind he felt he made mistakes in what events he was putting his swimmers in. It was understandable. A few points here, a few points there and a team's fate is sealed in a big meet.

Well if Rankin thought he made mistakes on that 11th of February, he must have been beating himself up endlessly after the Shore Conference Meet nine days later. Not only did Rumson dominate its way to its first Shore Conference championship at the OCC pool, but Bill Wishert's Ocean Township High girls finished second. For the final go-round, senior leaders Ellis, Patton and Ansbro had to settle for third place when so much was expected of their season.

Not only was the end an overwhelming disappointment, but the silence was deafening among the Indian girls afterward as they shared emotions of silence, stunned looks and tears.

It was the end of the 1980s for the county's girls swimming dominance one year early. By 1991, East's second-place finish behind Rumson at the Shore Conference Meet was wildly praised. That's how quickly the Earth shifted in this sport. It was never the same.

At one time, it felt like the party would never end for Ocean County swimming dominance.

But on a cold February night, the eviction notice came in a cruel, telling way.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The best basketball game I ever saw ... and I had something to do with it

For six years in the last decade, the first time from 2000-02, the second time from 2004-08, I got to run the Florida Sports Writers Association's boys basketball polls and put together the All-State teams at the end of the season.

It's something I was always interested in. I love baseball and football, but if there's any sport I have a great working knowledge in, it's basketball. As a fan, I can sit in the stands and from a distance pull apart a team's defensive schemes, see what works against the opponent's offense and see if the matchups are right or wrong. Within the first couple of possessions of a basketball game, I can tell you if a man-to-man defense, a 2-3 zone or a box-in-one is going to be effective, same thing with an uptempo pace or a halfcourt game at the offensive end.

I love the feel of a high school gym, that enthusiastic sound of fans in small bandbox gymnasiums like that of Hawthorne High School here in Florida or Point Pleasant Boro High School in New Jersey or the cavernous arenas such as the Lakeland Center or the Dunn Center in Elizabeth, N.J. I love the gyms where the fans can sit in a section and cheer enthusiastically for their team and jeer the opponents like at Monsignor Donovan High in Toms River, N.J. or at the old Father Lopez High School in Daytona Beach.

Outdoor sports like baseball and softball don't get the juices flowing like that. Football rivals that, but unless there's tens of thousands of people screaming their heads off, it's hard to emulate that dynamic of over a thousand people in an enclosed building yelling and cheering their team on to near-deafening levels.

During the 2001-02 season, our local Key West High School boys team was in the middle of a phenomenal season. Outside of a Thanksgiving tournament championship loss to Haines City, which would go on to win the state 5A championship, the Conchs were perfect. The high-powered, in-your-face-at-both-ends Conchs were slicing and dicing opponents up by hefty margins.

And with all that success, Key West climbed to the very top of the state 3A boys basketball poll. They had a 17-1 record and were battling Nease High of St. Johns County for the state poll top honors for the better part of the season.

But the victories for the Conchs were coming too easy if you know what I mean. Few teams challenged Key West, even District 16 rival Gulliver Prep of south Miami, which had better teams in the past, but just not this one.

So it was Monday, January 14, 2002, as I began to assemble the six state polls that I started to look at other teams in the state that could be a challenge for the Conchs.

In an earlier conversation with Conchs coach Bill Butler, I told him he had a team that was good enough to go to the state 3A Final Four, maybe win it all, but he needed someone other than that Haines City team weeks before to push him. He knew it, too. There was a possibility that the Conchs could go 25-1 and into the state tournament with that gaudy record, but be unprepared for a challenge.

"Have you tried to contact anyone on the mainland?" I asked him.

"No, not really," he said shyly. It was a combination of him not knowing a whole lot of teams up that way and then they had to not have a full schedule AND they also had to have dates lined up to work Key West in.

So on that 14th of January, I assembled the polls which showed Key West again at No. 1 in 3A. Then I started looking at schools that fit the mold of what the Conchs were looking for. I knew Butler didn't have the time to go calling around and I'm not really sure his athletic director felt like doing the same thing. But Butler gave me autonomy to at least try to find someone. I had the Key West schedule in front of me and I had the big purple Florida High School Athletic Association book with all the state schools and phone numbers next to that.

I believe I tried a couple of schools that were booked solid when I got to the state 2A's No. 1 team, Westminster Academy of Fort Lauderdale. On the phone was the school's athletic director, Buddy Pressley, who also was the boys basketball coach. He was a very charismatic man, carried a lot of clout at the school and was beloved within the halls of his school and the Fort Lauderdale area. His son, Josh, as a matter of fact, was drafted by the New York Mets and he spent time in their farm system.

I told Buddy who I was and he knew about the state basketball scene fairly well. Then he told me in the middle of our 10-minute conversation that he was not filled to capacity with his schedule (teams are allowed up to 25 games). He told me what open dates there were and I told him what was open for Key West.

There we found out that Key West had some openings that might work, but I couldn't make the final decision for Butler. So Bill, who had given me the OK to give any coach interested in playing his team his phone numbers, would have to talk to Buddy about the schedule openings.

I gave Buddy the two numbers I had and left it at that. I was hoping there'd be a contact from there, but a couple of days later, Bill reported to me that he and Buddy had made contact and that they were discussing some dates, but none were fitting. And I left it that.

Come January 22, one week later, I get a message from the Key West athletic director. He had an add-on to the schedule -- "Key West will travel to Gulliver Prep on Feb. 1, which was already scheduled, then will go to Westminster Academy the next night."

I immediately called up Butler and asked him what happened. Seems Pressley was persistent about this game since he found the Key West coach to be very engaging and wanting to play them.

Then I got back in touch with Pressley the next day and he told me all the details. The game was going to be at Westminster Academy and was agreed to by both sides simply because a good road test was something Butler wanted. Then I thanked Buddy and told him I would be glad to see him on Feb. 2.

He had an offer for me that he wanted to make, but I wasn't so sure what it was. So the day of the game, I was going to find out.

The night before the game, I got to cover Key West's 74-58 triumph in Gulliver Prep's unique bandbox of a gym to remain unbeaten in the division, then traveled overnight to Fort Lauderdale.

The next day, I drove to the nearby campus where Pressley was busy with various family things that day. But Vicki Garza, the director for tournaments at the school, was nice enough to take me around the campus. My mouth dropped. I saw things there I wish my college had when I was going there. I think it took me about a half hour to pick my jaw up from the ground.

The Key West players, parents and coaches arrived at the school soon after and she gave me and the Key West faithful a look at the west campus, located five miles from the main campus on the other side of Commercial Boulevard. They saw a lake near where a summer camp was held. They walked around a golf putting green and saw the two beautiful baseball fields the school had with the team practicing for the upcoming season. Rich Hoffman was the coach of Westminster Academy, the same Rich Hoffman who led Westminster Christian of Miami, a totally different school, to numerous state titles and whose marquee player was a shortstop named Alex Rodriguez.

Once the team finished the mid-afternoon tour of the place, they came back to where they started -- and waiting for all of us was a feast to make anyone feel like family. There was pizza, sandwiches, chicken wings and soda. A day or so later, I had one friend accuse the Westminster Academy people of loading the Key West players up with food and drink and that affected their play that night, but I said that was hogwash. I also heard him say that Westminster Academy was trying to recruit, the same way a Key West pitcher named Dane Artman went from the Southernmost City to that particular school, but that was never found to be true either.

It was off from there to the local Kinko's where I typed a column about all the events of this particular Super Bowl Saturday afternoon I took part of and witnessed at the friendly Jesuit school. I called up my just-turned 23-year-old assistant Jennifer, who did a tremendous job in keeping the paper together while I was up on the mainland. She confirmed she had everything from me and it was all under control.

I arrived back at the main campus at about 5:30 for the 7:30 game and was just floored by what I saw. The gym and court looked like a college setup with a scoreboard hanging overhead and high bleachers coming out in long rows on both sides of the court in this mammoth-looking facility.

Yeah, this is where I wanted to be. Fans began to file in on this night. Normally, Pressley told me, there's a pep band playing at the home games, but because the game had been scheduled late, they wouldn't be there. By 6:15 p.m., Pressley called me into his office.

Here's where I was about to find out why he wanted to have me interview with him. He explained that he was looking to do expansion with the athletic department in the promotional department. He knew I could handle the job as a sports editor of a newspaper. Now I was intrigued. He told me what was entailed and everything he said sounded like he was taking the school's athletic departments to the next level. I'd get to work for him, for Hoffman, for all the coaches at the school.

Yes, sports information head, something I was always intrigued about. This sounded exciting.

Then he mentions how much it would pay a year.

"I can only start you out at $50,000," he said.

Again, my jaw dropped. Not because it was too little ... because it was way more than I was making at that particular point in the Florida Keys.

"Umm," I started, "I have no problem with that. When would you like me to start?"

The problem was he needed to talk to his higher-ups about the position. Expansion on the school was under way, but ultimately, they told him no to the position and sometime after that, he left the school for the same positions at another Fort Lauderdale-area school. I doubt it was over my not getting the job, but it makes for a great reason in my mind.

By the time the interview was done, it was back to the gym where it was getting filled to the rafters -- but not necessarily with all Westminster fans. A crowd of about 550 came up from the Southernmost City and vicinity to watch this game between two No. 1 teams, 21-1 Key West in 3A, Westminster Academy in 2A, holding a strong 22-2 record, the only losses coming to Lexington (Ky.) Catholic, a national power, in two different tournaments.

As the lineups were announced and the national anthem was played, I felt a sense of pride ... after all, I was the one who helped put this game together. I got the ball rolling.

And in this game were four players who eventually gained All-State first-team status -- twin brothers Dametrius and Dominique Coleman from Key West and Nick Lamberti and Taurean Green ... yeah that Taurean Green who went on to star on the University of Florida's back-to-back national championship club and is the son of former NBA player Sidney Green ... for Westminster Academy.

From the start, the Conchs looked flat, like they were walking in concrete shoes. By midway through the third quarter, it was 50-37 in favor of the Lions. But as was the case all season, you couldn't hold these Conchs down.

They slowly crept back into it. But they had to do it with a price -- Dametrius Coleman, arguably one of the two or three best point guards I've ever seen play at the high school level, was called for his fifth foul with 1:18 left in the third quarter.

Coleman was whistled for three fouls that seemed like a mystery to me. He was not getting the calls off his quick stabs at the ball, stabs that weren't getting any arms or body parts, yet the Lions were benefitting from the home-area referees, doing the same thing, but getting away with it. As the game battled on, the Key West fans were getting infuriated with the Broward County officials. Down a few seats from me at the table on press row, WKWF-AM radio voices Rick Lopez and Todd Swofford were getting enraged with the calls against the Conchs, up to raised-voice levels, even through the wildly loud crowd.

Still, the Conchs soldiered on. They went on a run and took the lead at 71-68. But Green responded with a 3-point bucket with 1:19 left to tie it. The Conchs brought the ball back up, but Lamberti stole it and had the Lions in line to win the game. But Lamberti made a bad pass and Lamar Moore stole it with five seconds left.

Key West called a timeout and all of a sudden, I'm thinking that this is going to be a victory talked about for generations to come in the Keys ... the night the Conchs showed their mettle and rallied from 13 down and without a starting point guard to beat the mighty No. 1 Lions of Westminster Academy.

I believe the play set up by Butler was to go to Dominique Coleman, the Conchs' leading scorer. But the Lions had him well-defended. The ball went into forward Latron Hickson. I believe for a couple of seconds, he tried desperately to find Coleman or another teammate because he never looked comfortable taking the shot. He took a desperation last attempt and it bounced off the front of the rim.

After 32 minutes of the most exciting basketball I've seen at that level, the teams were now going to battle it out in overtime.

Swing guard Casey Wohlleb put Westminster up first with a jumper, but a foul against Westminster led to two Dominique Coleman free throws that tied it at 73. Westminster's Rokas Bartasius, a European exchange student, buried a jumper, but Moore tied it with a 19-footer at 75.

Green was fouled and hit one of two free throws to give the Lions a lead, but Moore, who led Key West with 19 points, buried a 3-pointer to give Key West a 78-76 lead with 2:10 left in the extra session. Then after a turnover, Moore followed up a Coleman miss to make it 80-76 with just 1:28 left to go.

Seemed like things were in control. But that's why the Lions were as good as they were -- they didn't panic. Bartasius hit a layup to make it 80-78. Center Eric Brown missed at the other end for Key West and Lamberti, who led all scorers with 22 points, pulled down the rebound. The Lions worked the ball down the other end until finding Wohlleb, the long-distance specialist.

With Brown practically coming at him and in his face, Wohlleb, who finished with 18 points off the bench, released his trey attempt. It found nothing but net. Westminster 81, Key West 80, 42 seconds left.

Key West had gone to the well so many times on the night and responded. In the end, the Conchs had nothing left when they went down that well again. They got it down low to Brown, but he missed his short shot. Green, who had 21 points and eight rebounds, got the board and was fouled. He hit a free throw to make it a two-point game.

On the next Key West possession, Hickson tried a jumper that missed the mark. Westminster rebounded and with four seconds left, Lamberti delivered the knockout punch with a layup that sealed the 84-80 victory.

Key West put five players in double figures, Westminster four. In the end, though, Key West's 18-game winning streak was over.

Pressley put it best when he said, "It's a shame they (Key West) had to lose, especially with the basketball that was played tonight."

The two-hour drama and interviews afterward left me at a few minutes before 10 with an 11 p.m. deadline ahead of me. Oh, joy!

Off to Kinko's I went again to do the story in downtown Fort Lauderdale where the location of the place was so slimy that ladies of the night were coming in just to use the phone. But I digress.

I managed to get the story to Jen at deadline, somehow trying to keep the emotion of the game and the train of thought together.

Both teams went on to play in state championships a month later -- Westminster Academy beating another state power, Florida Air Academy of Melbourne, in the 2A final and Key West losing that long-awaited battle in 3A with Chet Stachitas-led Nease.

Nine years later, it is still the greatest high school basketball game I've ever witnessed, mainly for the passion, for the excitement and for the talent that was on that court that night ... all the things I love about basketball at that level.

And to think, I had something to do with that particular night even happening.

Yeah, I still smile to this day.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow ... as long as I don't work that day

When I was 11 years old, I, like most people who grew up at the Jersey Shore, suffered through the worst blizzard in our lives when 26 inches of snow fell for over two days, canceling school for eight days and leaving neighborhoods in white-flaked messes until the middle of the next week.

Ask any of my friends or people who grew up there and they can tell you exactly what they were doing or how crazy their lives were that early-to-mid February 1978.

At 11 years old, all you care about is going outside and enjoying the snow. Your responsibilities don't involve having to go to work and earn a living.

Nearly 18 years later when I wasn't 11 years old anymore and having to make a living, a blizzard wasn't so enjoyable anymore.

At the Observer the night of Saturday, January 6, 1996, we moved at our usual normal pace to get the newspaper out on time. We knew there was a really bad storm coming, but we had no clue of how bad it was going to be.

I went to bed around 2 that morning and wound up waking up at 6:15. My father normally got the area newspapers -- the New York Times, the Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer -- in the morning at the local newspaper store in Silverton. George normally opened his store at 6 on a Sunday and would have the papers on hold for my dad -- or sometimes myself -- to pick up.

When I looked out the window on this upper-20 degree morning, there was an eerie feeling. It was quiet. Too quiet. I decided at that point to get dressed, get into my car and go to the store to pick up the papers. When I stepped outside, it was unusually humid and moist. No precipitation yet, but instincts said I better get this task done.

As I arrived at the store, there looked like a bum-rush in and out of it. Since I knew George and his family for years, he saw me, got the papers, put them on the counter, I handed him three dollars and left. In and out.

As I headed back on Hooper Avenue home, the snow began to fall. And it was starting to get intense. By the time I got in, there was almost an inch on the ground. I went back to sleep, just like that.

Cut to just before 2 p.m. Sunday. My mom whispers, "Mark. Mark. Get up."

"Huh?" I said in a muffled, confused tone.

"Phone. It's Bobbi at the newspaper. She says it's important. ... And look outside."

Before I could say hello, I did. I couldn't even describe what I saw other than what a white cardboard box looked like if you pressed it up to your eyes and nose.

The entire neighborhood had been belted by what was now 20 inches and climbing in snow. Dejected because I knew what this might just be about, I grabbed the phone.

"Hello."

"Hello Bloomer ... it's Bobbi."

"Hey, what's going on?"

"Sorry to wake you, but I need you to come in immediately. We have a 6 o'clock deadline."

"Are you serious?! You must be kidding."

"No. Get in as soon as you can."

Even the biggest idiot on the planet knew there was no way in Hades that even if we got the paper out on time, Gov. Whitman was not going to allow our news carriers to be out on the road at that time.

Still, I trudged to the shower, got my bearings about me and left by 3, knowing we had to be out by 6. What normally would be a 10-minute trip from house to downtown took almost a half hour. Without acting as furious as I should be that I was there -- Sunday was my normal day to work anyway -- I found out our sports section was cut from four pages to two that day. And believe me, I wasn't complaining about that.

Got the early playoff game in the paper -- the Dallas Cowboys' whoopin' of the Philadelphia Eagles, but the second game, Indianapolis at Kansas City, was still going on when we got done early. Thankfully, the Ocean's Own athlete feature I had worked on for that day was ready to go for its normal Monday reading.

We got done just about 6 p.m., give or take a few minutes. Then Bob, our publisher, walked in to tell the newsroom just what I had suspected four hours earlier but he was too slow to understand -- there was no paper that night. The roads were too dangerous for the carriers to drive on and Gov. Whitman had called a state of emergency. But he was in charge of getting people out of the building and home safely instead of them trying to get home on their own, which I thought was a very nice gesture. I passed figuring it would be maybe a half hour to get home and it wouldn't be so bad.

My anger was kept under wraps. I don't know how I did a good job, but one of our newer paste-up people, he wasn't too happy. He literally berated our publisher for this decision he made, in which our publisher yelled back at him. I don't think he lasted long after that, but the message was sure sent.

I bit my tongue and for doing so, Bob would forever be grateful for anything I did to be a team player. He may not have been the most popular guy there, but I liked him quite a bit. He was there until 1998 when Gannett bought the paper out.

What was decided that night was whatever we did at that point would be the paper for Tuesday if Gov. Whitman had lifted the state of emergency by that Monday. She did, I returned to work to "improve" on the section I had put out the day before with the other playoff game, so in the end with an early Monday night deadline, all was fine in the world.

But I still had to get home Sunday night. I had parked on the first floor of the downtown parking garage. Trudging through the snow was challenge enough as it was still falling that evening. Got in, turned over my '82 Firenza and started out, but as I got to the exit, I had a snow drift in front of me. Trying to plow through, I got stuck. I managed to back the car up and walk back to the Observer, where there were two snow shovels.

There would be one by morning.

Taking that other shovel, I managed to shovel out the snow drift and anything else in the way. Ten minutes later, I was able to get out. But there had to be a good 6 inches of snow on the road. And God only knew how iced up it was underneath. If you've never driven on snow, don't let that pretty white stuff fool you. Underneath lies the danger.

I managed to get out on Water Street, then onto Route 166 heading to Washington Street, going very slowly and knowing our governor wanted all citizens of her state indoors. How fast could I possibly go to get home?

Onto Hooper Avenue heading north. All was still OK, though going 15 mph was not exactly my idea of fun. But as I got toward Route 37, I looked at the gas needle. It was practically on "E." As much as I didn't want to do it, I headed on Route 37 east to find an open gas station. Somebody had to be open at this hour.

Luckily, one station was open at that hour in this crazy weather -- the Shell station on the corner of Washington and 37, whose workers probably were as stunned as I was that someone was on the road on this treacherous night. They gladly put $10 in for me and I was back on my way on Route 37 toward Hooper again. I strictly took the main roads because I didn't know how bad the neighborhood back roads were.

Hooper was not in bad shape for the emergency vehicles ... and me, of course. Yeah, I belonged as much out here as they did. When I found my jughandle turnoff to Indian Hill Road, I took the turn slowly, knowing they probably didn't put a snow shovel on it. As I went to turn onto Indian Hill Road ... you got it ... I was stuck again. No matter how many times I backed the car up, it wasn't going through the drift. Out I went. Went to the trunk, pulled out the shovel and began digging away. And digging for about 10 minutes. After three different shovelling sessions, I was able to get the car through and slowly home.

It almost took 50 minutes from the time I left that parking garage to get home. Toms River, N.J. was a flippin' mess. I remember calling my girlfriend at the time to tell her I made it through the snow and her snapping back at me that "I could make it to work, but I could not come over to her place," which was further away in Toms River.

Geez, love. Thanks for your kindness and concern. Where are those razor blades? (PS: That relationship didn't make it out of 1996.)

The area took a good week to start melting out. The 26-inch blizzard did not end until Monday morning, January 8. Remnants of that snow lingered for weeks because after the snow had almost melted, we were greeted by temperatures in the teens and lower for most of the rest of that winter. And that was capped off on Easter Sunday in April, when we were hit by a freak 6-inch snowstorm.

And I realized that being a kid and watching the snow fall and being a responsible adult and making it to work and back in that snow were two totally different things. When you live in Florida like I do, you miss seasons. And yes, when it's winter, I miss snow.

But I don't miss snow that much. Trust me.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Covering basketball on New Year's Eve night ... and liking it a lot!

Most New Year's Eves you remember where you were, what you were doing, and more importantly, who you were with. Some years are fuzzier than others and you will confuse years here and there, but you have a fairly decent memory of what it is you did.

All my New Year's Eves had been spent out at bars, hoping maybe at midnight I got lucky, especially in my 20s and 30s. These days, though, New Year's Eves are spent quietly at home, trying to avoid the amateurs who simply make partying a downer if you know what I mean.

Never has it meant having to work on the final day of the calendar year.

That is, never until 2009. And believe me when I say this ... I couldn't have been happier to be out on the road covering an event.

So the final day of the 2000 decade was spent first at work, trying to help my boss put together a three-page sports section. With a 6 p.m. early deadline, we got what we could onto those pages and out to print. Part of the reason for the deadline was to not put our paper carriers in harm's way of the drunks at 2 and 3 a.m. in the morning as they were getting out of bars.

Apparently, this area has a LOT of amateurs partying on New Year's Eve.

This, though, was good because it got me out of the office and on the road to Baker County High School in Glen St. Mary. Now if you aren't sure where Baker County is located, it's like driving from Toms River down the Garden State Parkway to Cape May Courthouse in Jersey Shore equivalency. It's 72 miles one way, but again remember, Florida is a big ol' state.

So you're reading this and saying, "Mark, you're crazy, especially New Year's Eve night? Why?"

The big reason why was because I wasn't getting out of the office with the same frequency as I did before. Here's the story as to why -- in late November, our managing editor took a job at another newspaper, which all of us were bummed out about because of how great it was to work for the man. When Rusty, our publisher, approached me about helping out for a little more money, I jumped at it, but I was hesitant as to how.

Our page designer was having to fill the role as editor for the time being until one was brought in or he was given the job. So in the interim -- and since I work nights -- I was asked to help design news pages. I was hesitant about that, to be honest, and what eventually happened was I got to design a couple of inside pages a night, which were fairly easy and took me 90 minutes to two hours to accomplish to begin my night before I jumped over to help my sports boss.

For years, I've always heard people say in this business that working for news and working for sports were two different animals, but I could never comment on that until I actually did that. Let me tell you something -- whoever first said that was very, very right. I realized 25 years into the business that I wasn't a news guy, and though I did get extra to help, I never felt comfortable laying out news pages at all. But for the month and a half I did it, I got that appreciation for the job and my publisher was very thankful I was there to help him.

Basically, I'd do anything for Rusty. He gave me my dignity in this business back when in the early part of the 2000s, I had none after a bad 2 1/2 years in Key West. That's another story at another time and people better be ducking under tables when I start shooting off on that one.

Because I had to start my night with doing news pages, covering winter sports in person was out of the question for the seven weeks I had to work both desks. I've always felt more comfortable as a storyteller, not putting other people's stories in a newspaper, but for those seven weeks, I was OK with doing what I was doing.

Still, I felt lost without seeing our local basketball teams, including the incredible start our Palatka High boys team had gotten off to. And Crescent City boys basketball has always been a great staple of our winters, including this tournament at Baker County High.

Normally, the tournament would end on Dec. 30, but for some reason, they decided to start this tournament on a Tuesday instead of Monday, meaning Crescent City would have to play on Dec. 29, Dec. 30 and Dec. 31. Crescent City had won its quarterfinal and semifinal games, setting up a championship showdown with Bradford High of Starke, not only a top team, but a district divisional foe for the Raiders, who would eventually play the Tornadoes four times!

So after the pages had been put to bed, I jumped into my car and headed out to Baker County High for an 8 p.m. start.

You read right ... 8 p.m. start on New Year's Eve. That means Crescent City would not only be done by 10 p.m. and on the road, but they would literally still be driving back on the bus to Crescent City as 2009 became 2010. Talk about being in the world of the bizarre. I've seen a lot of things in 26 years, but NEVER this!

For me, it had been a while since I was up in Baker County. I made the trip to see Crescent City play in this event a couple of times, including the year before. On Friday, Dec. 30, 2005, my Toyota Corolla went over 100,000 miles on my way up to Baker County for the Christmas-time tournament final that Crescent City played in. The little things you remember.

Even though I had been to Baker County High before, it's not exactly a ride I make everyday. And so as US-17 north became I-295 onto I-10 going west, I'm still trying to remember exactly what exit it was I was supposed to get off at. I found my exit and on US-90, I'm looking for signs for the town. I found them, but remembered the school is not off of the main highway.

Thankfully, the nice people at the Walgreen's in town knew where the school was. A right turn and another right turn, and I was there. And on that second right turn, you are having to drive all the way around the school to the side where the gym was. Found it with 10 minutes to spare.

As for the game, this was going to be a glimpse into the Crescent City-Bradford rivalry for this particular season. The teams split the four games during the season, but Crescent City's wins were the regular-season battles at home and at Starke. Bradford won the two games that counted that year -- the divisional tournament final that allowed them to advance to the state tournament and this tournament final, 59-49.

In this game, Crescent City turned the ball over 27 times, Bradford 25 times. Sloppy to say the least. But what got the Raiders was Bradford's height. Bradford outrebounded Crescent City, 30-20, but the Raiders fought hard. They were down 32-18 at one point in the game and battled back to cut the lead to two points, 45-43, with 3:53 left in the game.

But Marcus Adley hit a short jumper and Tramaine Harris nailed a 3-point field goal and it was 50-43 again. But the crushing blow came after when tournament Most Valuable Player Yakeem Griner slammed home a missed shot by teammate Darius Corbitt with 2:43 left to make it a nine-point lead that the Raiders could not overcome.

And normally after it's all done, I wait outside the door leading to the lockerroom to talk to the coaches or players afterward. I never feel comfortable listening to a coach tell his players either what a great job they did or rip into them for the things they did wrong. That's their time. I simply wait. With early deadline come and gone, I had a lot of time to wait.

And wait. And wait. And wait some more. Finally I go inside to find out the team had left. Gone! How, you might wonder? The side door next to the lockerroom. Crescent City coaches and players just left out the door and headed to the bus without notice.

Wonderful! I have to find this out 30 minutes after the game after I was wondering what was taking so long in the first place. Well it was a good thing I had coach Al Carter's cell-phone number and called him. To my shock, he actually answered.

I asked him what the hell happened and where did he go after the game. Then he explained the side door thing. I wasn't pleased. He apologized. Then I interviewed him about the loss, which took me five minutes to do, then another five minutes just to simply talk basketball with the man. Al Carter is a basketball junkie, the best kind actually. And since basketball is a sport I absolutley love watching and dissecting, we could talk strategies and defenses and what other teams' strengths and weaknesses were all day long.

But we weren't going to spend all night doing that. He had kids on a bus he was taking out to eat first, then home by about 12:30 in the morning on New Year's Day.

I had the same scenario, but at 10:15 p.m., I was still not on the road and still in the parking lot at Baker County High. Back on US-90, then to I-10 east, then to I-295 south to Blanding Boulevard (State Road-21) where I stopped at Taco Bell to pick up my first actual food all day. It was about 11 p.m. by then.

It was on the lonely stretch of road called US-17 between Green Cove Springs and Palatka when 2009 became 2010, when I called my then-girlfriend at her Brevard County home where she was playing Scrabble with friends and family to tell her "Happy New Year." She told me to be safe. I was considering at that particular moment, no one was on this lonesome part of the highway with me.

I was back in the Daily News office by 12:30 in the morning to write the game story and get my Page 2B for Saturday's edition set up and write my Saturday column which corresponded to our sports department's selection of the greatest high school sports moment of the decade gone by. That November 6, 2004 moment is another story to be told at another time.

By the time the night was over for me and I left the building, it was 4 a.m. All was quiet in Palatka, Fla. at that hour. No cars on the road, nothing to get in the way of my 2-mile trip back from the office to the apartment.

And that's how I spent my first ever "working" New Year's Eve. I got out of the office to cover a sports event and absolutely liked it.

Oh, one other thing -- we ultimately found a new editor less than three weeks after covering that game. On that Monday morning, January 18, Rusty introduced the new boss to us ... the old boss. He didn't like the new gig and Rusty was good enough to say, "Welcome back!" Joy was back in the newsroom at that point.

Yeah, this gig isn't so bad, really.