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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.

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