Pageviews last month

Saturday, February 26, 2011

How a questionable slam cost Brick Memorial a possible state wrestling title

Never question the power of New Jersey high school wrestling. Like football in the South ... well maybe not to THAT degree ... wrestling in the Garden State is a way of life.

And it is a way in Ocean County every winter. At one point in a 20-year period, most every school had a star wrestler or a dynamic team that competed for a title of some kind. But no team was dominant in Ocean County during that span than Brick Memorial High School.

From the time Brick Memorial became a school in 1980, wrestling was immediately becoming the star attraction due to the work of hard-driving head coach Tony Caravella. Caravella had a power in the county with his Mustangs, even though questions raged in the beginning over how he was able to build that dynamo on the north side of Brick Township.

Brick Memorial and Tony Caravella were like wrestling's New York Yankees ... you either loved them or you hated them. But there's one thing that you never did.

That was overlook them.

For years, Brick Memorial was "chasing the carrot" for county supremacy. Then on a February night in 1985, the Mustangs won in shocking fashion with the bearhug and pin heard round the Shore when Dean Kanabrocki got a hold of sure-shot heavyweight rival Tim Rioux of Toms River East and put him on the mat for six points and the first Shore Conference title in school history.

In 1986, the Mustangs repeated their SCT title and went on to not only win their first state Group III championship, but were named the No. 1 team in the state. Talk about going to the next level in a hurry.

A lot of the key wrestlers on that '86 team, however, graduated -- state champion Bob Martin, Kanabrocki and Dean Albanese. But in '87, the Mustangs were good again.

In the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III tournament, the Mustangs were the third seed. They would have to go to Blackwood and face No. 2 seed Highland Regional, which was far from a slouch itself. The Tartans were a four-time state Group IV champion under legendary coach Ralph Ross. They knew how to win and had ways of winning.

You'll see that later on here.

Everyone that was associated with the gold and green of Brick Memorial wrestling knew this might be the biggest hurdle to jump en route to another state champion.

And so on Wednesday, February 18, 1987, the Mustangs entered unfriendly territory at Highland Regional with the thoughts of a state champion repeat in mind.

Wrestling at most schools is no big deal ... you announce the lineups, the wrestlers come out and shake each other's hands and then it's off to the 101-pound match. No biggie.

Not at Highland Regional in the 1980s. The lights went down and the spotlight was on the two guys in the center of that mat. And though it wasn't as pitch black as, say, legendary Phillipsburg High School, that aura of something big was there. And on this cold February night, the gymnasium at Highland Regional was packed to the rafters.

The "Tony Twosome" got Brick Memorial off to a 9-0 lead as 101-pounder Tony Nash stunned state tournament qualifier Bob Aceto, 8-3, and unbeaten 108-pounder Tony Roselli pinned Jason Rivers in 4:39. Then Vinny Santanello and Stan Lewis went move for move at 115 pounds before the pair ended in a 6-6 tie.

Though it was a tie, it gave the Tartans some much-needed momentum, and they took advantage of it. Rob Sentman beat Dann Pulsifer at 122 pounds, 7-4, then Gino Giumarrello beat Chuck Marotta, 3-0, at 129, to make it 11-8.

The Highland fans were whipped into a frenzy. The Tartans had the advantage in the middleweights and they knew it, and so did the crowd. They continued that dominance with a Ken Johnson win over Jeff Scott, 6-4, at 135 pounds and Chad Cassidy's 3-2 nail-biter over Jon Barger at 141 to make it 14-11 in Highland's favor.

All that early Memorial momentum was gone. Any sign of Memorial cheering was practically drowned out now. But we were yet to get to the upperweights, where Memorial had the slight advantage. If the Mustangs could gain a little momentum near the end of the middleweight run, there's no doubt they could win the match.

It was going to start at 148 pounds with Memorial's Chris Dvorak taking on a very good Jon Reilly. Dvorak was working his moves on Reilly, and built a 6-0 lead going into the final two-minute period.

But wrestling's a funny sport. One minute you're dominating and the next minute, you find yourself on your back just like that. Reilly caught Dvorak and pinned him 30 seconds into the last period.

The wind had been knocked out of Memorial's sails to say the least. Instead of a tie, maybe even a one-point lead, Highland had a 20-11 lead with four bouts left.

Joe McCabe, though, got the Mustangs fans back into it. He worked over Dean Cacciavaliano for nearly two periods before he finally put him on his back in 3:52 to make it 20-17 with three bouts to go.

At 170 pounds stepped Memorial freshman Vinny Dallicardillo, the one Mustang wrestler I would get to know over the years, first as a two-star sport in wrestling and football, then as an assistant coach at Memorial and finally as Brick Memorial High's softball coach through most of the 2000 decade. It was Dallicardillo's Mustangs who pulled off the biggest upset in Ocean County Softball Tournament history in 2003 when as an 11th seed, they stunned No. 1 and unbeaten Manchester in nine innings, 5-4.

But that's another story for another time.

Dallicardillo was having to face a more experienced Rob Franks, one of Highland's top wrestlers, but was coming off a separated shoulder just two weeks earlier that forced him to miss time. Franks was not 100 percent and Dallicardillo, who would take fourth in the state at his weight class as a senior three years later, was laying it on Franks hard.

The two battled down to the final 15 seconds when Franks was able to escape Dallicardillo's hold for a point and 5-4 victory, giving the Tartans a 23-17 lead with two bouts left.

The stage was set for one of the most controversial moments in my 26 years.

Onto the mat at 189 pounds stepped junior Todd Narwid, an experienced wrestler, but part of a group of younger Mustangs who were filling the shoes of the graduated state championship team members. Narwid's challenge was Tom Meyers, a lanky young man, but almost white as a sheet the moment the whistle blew.

Before you can blink an eye, Narwid had Meyers down on the mat. And he was able to work him over and put near-fall moves on him that helped accumulate his total.

Narwid led 5-0 after the first period, but near the end of the first period, Narwid got Meyers in the air and brought him down hard ... a "thud" sound followed.

Nothing was called, but Meyers had hurt his neck. You would think at that point with a hurt neck, Meyers might tell his trainer he was not all that good, but since nothing got called against Narwid, the match was still on.

This would prove to be vital toward the ending that was to take place.

Narwid started the second period up with Meyers down on the mat. He worked him again and built the lead up against what seemingly was a defenseless Meyers, who was only now trying to avoid being pinned and sending the heavyweight bout into a winner-take-all scenario.

Meyers did that, but by the end of the second period, it was 11-0. This match was a foregone conclusion to who would win. It was only a matter now of how it would end.

This scenario, though, was not a part of the agenda.

Narwid again started in the up position and tried everything he could to put Meyers in pin placement, but Meyers was somewhere between wiggling and not trying to wrestle, which should have gotten him a warning from the referee, but didn't.

So Narwid decided to force the issue. He picked Meyers up again and this time, put him down on the ground hard. Not as loud as the "thud" the first time, but hard, nonetheless.

Meyers, this time, didn't get up. The referee awarded Meyers a point because of the slam. Out on the mat went Ross, an assistant coach and trainer Tom Storer. Each team is allotted two minutes for injury time per match and Storer attended to Highland's 189-pounder. About 90 seconds in, you could see Meyers start to get up, as if he wanted to finish the match.

But you could also see the coaches telling Meyers to go back down. Storer would tell me later on that Meyers suffered "a mild concussion and strained ligaments" in his neck.

I have no doubt to this day the kid was dazed and probably not at his full wits. However, the kid was almost jumping up, ready to finish this match. That, I will forever question. A concussed person gets up wobbly or doesn't get up at all. Certainly a concussed person never gets straight up or with little help.

And Memorial fans weren't buying this either. As soon as Ross and Storer told the referee their wrestler could not finish, Narwid was disqualified because of the slam ... anything that involves giving a point to an opponent for a slam and not allowing that person to continue is a DQ.

Highland Regional forfeited the heavyweight bout to Reggie Gadson, whose fate was just trivial now, and the Tartans slinked away with a 29-23 win.

I can't remember honestly if the teams shook hands at the end of the match, but I do remember one thing -- Tartans wrestling personnel got into their team room in a hurry. Even happy Highland fans felt ashamed that this was the way an even match was decided -- a questionable DQ call, something that still resonates in my mind 24 years later.

I can still see those referees getting out of Highland's gym in a New York minute. I can see the Blackwood police having to be called into the gym to restore order. I can feel the blood boiling of those Mustangs fans and parents who just saw a potential upset swiped away like that.

With all the talk nowadays of concussions in sports like football and soccer and how much more athletes are protected, it'd be neat to tell you that 24 years later, Tom Storer and Highland Regional were well ahead of that curve.

But I think I'd be lying to you. A young man who was willing to finish out a match was kept down and helped preserve a Highland Regional win.

Needless to say, Narwid wanted the kid to come out of the locker room afterward. Narwid had two losses up to that point -- and both for the same reason. He was DQ'd in a match earlier in the year against a very good Dan Bennette of Point Pleasant Boro when Narwid was winning.

"Their so-called strategy worked," Narwid said afterward. "They won because the kid stayed down and won (his) match."

But if you think Narwid was upset, you should have seen Caravella afterward. A former wrestler himself, Caravella sounded like a man who wanted to take Ross on himself in a winner-take-all bout.

He first dismissed the thought that Ross had nothing to do with pulling Meyers and it was Storer's call. Then he added, "That was atrocious. And they call themselves a wrestling school? To rob a state championship match like that was ludicrous. That wasn't a flagrant move. I'd be embarrassed if I ever had to take a kid out like that."

And as Caravella kept talking, one thing became noticeable -- his anger made his vocal octave range get shriekingly higher. By the time he finished his tirade, he was in tears. Then he went back to the door of his locker room, opened it and slammed it hard enough behind him for even a full gymnasium to hear. To this day, I can't believe the door stayed on its hinges.

On the other side of the door, Caravella was crying, brought to tears by a call that may have sounded all about safety, but was nothing about the gladiator sport wrestling represented. The referee had to do what he had to do, but for a young man to stay down when he was ready to finish the match will always be questionable.

Whether he liked it or not, though, Caravella and his boys were having to leave Blackwood with hopes of a repeat state championship over.

By 1988 and reloaded with most of the wrestlers who were in Blackwood that night, the Mustangs won a second Group III state title.

And who knows what may have happened if not for a questionable slam and the two minutes after that. It may have been a three-peat for Memorial the following year.

To this day, I'm sure Caravella doesn't worry about his program's place in New Jersey high school sports history.

But I'm sure he still gets a little hot about that night in 1987 when safety was even questioned.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

East's divine intervention perhaps

Divine intervention is something yours truly has never been a full-time subscriber to. I've always believed that in the end, it was the talent of one athlete or a team or a better strategy that proved why one side was better than the other.

Sometimes, though, you just have to believe.

On Friday night, February 15, 1985, that just might have been the case.

Toms River High School East's boys swimming team was the two-time defending Shore Conference Tournament champion, but was having to go in for the first time in this meet without its greatest swimmer, Chris Marshall, who had graduated the year before, and cross-town rival Toms River South was loaded.

Like, ridiculously loaded. They were the area's swimming version of Murderer's Row -- stroke specialists Kevin Ansbro and Keith DeWitt complementing freestyle mavens Terence Donnelly and John Morrison, who less than a month later would bring home swimming gold in the 50-yard freestyle at Princeton University.

During the duel-meet regular season at the Toms River YMCA, South's home pool, South dominated in beating East, 98.5-73.5, so it was a foregone conclusion the Indians were going to claim their first Shore Conference meet title since the very first meet held in 1978. In between, North won the title four straight years from 1979-82 with East winning the next two titles.

The architect of the four North titles as coach was now South's mentor and one of swimming's positive forces, Bill Sorrentino. He knew he had the talent to win it all -- he's the first coach I ever heard in my career tell me, "You're only as good a coach as your talent."

The only way the overwhelming favorite Indians were not going to win it all was an unbelievable team effort by someone else. The only team in the field that could stand up to South was East, which now was guided by the senior leadership of veterans like Rich Siegler and Bill Rickert and with a ton of depth that could claim points here and there in a meet of this magnitude.

As had been proven in December, there was little chance that East could beat South if it was a straight-up dual meet. South's top swimmers were better than East's top swimmers, so Raider coach Mike Conlon's strategy was to get his guys in the right spots and gain points in events that South could not dominate in or better swimmers from other schools could get in and beat South's swimmers, limiting the amount of points the Indians could score.

All the teams of the Shore at the time competing in the meet -- the three Toms River schools, Middletowns North and South, Ocean Township, Shore Regional, Red Bank Regional, Rumson, Neptune and Long Branch -- converged on Ocean County College, the home pool for Toms Rivers East and North and the annual site for the Shore Conference Meet.

Days before the meet, I had done a ton of research on this one meet since this was my first year of covering swimming and gotten a lot of recollections from the coaches who were there watching their kids lead the way to victory -- Sorrentino, Conlon and South's coach in 1978 when the Indians won that title, Vince Heckel, who was now the meet announcer, working with former South girls coach Paul Lenzo, who was the coach of the first girls Shore Conference title team with the Indians in 1978. The affable and knowledgeable Lenzo was now the meet director.

I had an open seat next to Henkel at the table for the meet, thanks to Lenzo, who was bouncing around from place to place on the pool deck trying to make sure there were no hitches during the meet. The best part about having a seat next to Heckel was that I could pick his brain about strategies and what approximate times could win an event. Those three hours next to him were as worthy a three hours I have ever had in my career and I could never thank him enough. It was like getting a free education in the sport.

Meanwhile, East had wiped out the lead South had gained the night before in diving in the opening medley relay. While East's team of Craig Fenwick, Chris Anderson, Doug DeVincens and Scott McShaffery was swimming to a victory in the event, one of South's swimmers had gone into the pool before his teammate had touched the wall. That disqualified South, which finished third in the event and cost them 22 points.

This would be huge at the end of the meet.

Morrison won the 200-yard freestyle, but East's depth was already coming into play. At one point, East held a 31-point lead. When Siegler won the 500, East had a commanding 22-point lead with three events left, which seemed overwhelming for anyone, including South, to overcome.

But South's talent kicked in. The Indian studs weren't going to just roll over and sink in the OCC pool. The beginning of their comeback started with the 100-yard backstroke where Ansbro, a top junior, came from an outside lane to win the event and pick up 16 first-place points, helping cut East's lead to 13 points.

And Morrison still had the 100-yard breaststroke to swim. He swam his way to victory and suddenly, East was up by one single point -- 225-224 -- going into the last relay.

For the second straight year, East was going to have to be at its best in the 400-yard freestyle relay. This time, though, East was going to have to beat South's relay team, unlike the year before when East just needed to finish third to win the meet.

But the South relay team of Eric Grove, DeWitt, Ansbro and Donnelly was about five seconds faster than East's relay team of Joe Aromando, Andy Kraus, Rickert and Siegler during the regular season.

Moments, though, before that last relay, I looked at the corner of East's side of the pool. Conlon was giving a fired-up pep talk. The four swimmers broke the huddle to go to the starting block. And who do I see in the background behind Conlon? None other than Chris Marshall.

Arguably the best swimmer in East history, Marshall had time away from Lehigh University's swim team to make the meet. And with everything that was happening in his almost 19-year-old life at that point, starting with the tragic murder of his mother Maria off a Garden State Parkway rest stop the previous September and the whirlwind coverage of his father being arrested for the planning of her murder in December, the pool was his getaway, where he was still a part of the team even though he was no longer an official member.

Whether it was his inspiration of being there on that OCC deck or not, East had over-achieved a good amount of the night -- and had taken advantage of that DQ in the medley realy -- to hold this one-point lead going to the final event of the night.

South was the top seed of the event, East was No. 3, but both would swim right next to one another, South in lane four, East in lane three, so it was easy to follow both teams in eye level.

As the official announced, "On your marks ... set ... " then hit the buzzer to begin the event, the fans up behind our table were immediately on their feet. They were about to see an end like no other.

It didn't look good for East at the start. Grove and DeWitt had given South a good lead. But into the pool stepped Rickert. He trailed Ansbro, who had just jumped into the pool before him. But Rickert -- East's 6-foot-2 gentle giant -- began to make up the deficit in his 100 yards. By the time he reached the wall, he made the deficit up for Siegler.

Donnelly, a sophomore at the time, jumped in ahead of the East senior. Both 6-foot swimmers were churning through the water at maniacally fast paces. As the two hit the 50-yard mark, they were even. At that point, Lenzo saw my peaked interest in this event and said to me, "You can come to the side of the pool to watch."

It was the only time in my seven years of covering the sport that I ever did so. What I saw in those last 24 seconds, those final 100 yards, will stay with me until the day I no longer exist, the two battling it out stroke for stroke, one next to the other, the crowd literally drowning out the excited teammates cheering on the swimmers going after a Shore Conference title.

With 25 yards left, they were still even. Then something happened. Maybe for years it has been explained that Rich Siegler put it into another gear, just like I reported on the meet. Maybe again, it was Maria Marshall making it a little easier for her son's former teammate to get that little boost of help.

Divine intervention perhaps.

In those last 25 yards, Siegler pulled away. He got to the wall before Donnelly, still on his tail.

The East quartet had swum the 4x100 in a Shore Conference meet record 3:28.21, 10 seconds faster than its best time of the year. South's 3:28.97 would have won every other meet 4x100.

Just not this one.

One year later with Morrison and DeWitt as senior leaders, the Indians would dominate the Shore Conference Meet to win that elusive championship before East would surprise South again in the '87 meet for the first of four straight title, giving the Raiders seven championships in an eight-year period.

And in the end on this February night in 1985, Siegler splashed around furiously in the OCC pool in joy. He had just given East its third straight SC Meet title ... and its most unlikely title. East finished with 257 points to South's 250.

South swimmers and Sorrentino left the OCC pool deck like they were leaving a funeral. Their title had just been snagged away from them by an East team that took advantage of its talents and of the medley relay break it got nearly three hours earlier.

The East swimmers dedicated the victory to the hard work they put in that night. They also dedicated that title to the memory of Maria Marshall, a supportive swimming mom who had an effect on each of the East swimmers on that pool deck that night.

"Tonight we got a special lift from two of the most inspirational people I have known," said Conlon afterward. "We got a special lift in having Chris here with us and another inspirational lift from his mother. Everything she did for the team for four years really paid off tonight. Chris' mom was here helping us along in spirit."

Maria Marshall's spirit was felt that night. Where it was reported that Rich Siegler dug deep to pull away from Terence Donnelly in those last 25 yards to win that last relay for East, maybe he was getting some help.

Divine intervention, perhaps, if you believe.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The night Consuelo Lezcano dominated like no one else ever did

Recently, I came up with a list of my all-time best high school girls basketball team. It was not as easy as you would think, but I believe I came up with an elite list.

My guards would be rather easy, even if there were a ton of them to pick from -- Carol Walters of Lakewood (Class of 1987) and Kris Witfill of Monsignor Donovan (Class of 1989) would be my No. 1 and 2 guards, respectively. My swing player, the No. 3 spot, would be Lucie Fontanella of Toms River East (Class of '90). My power forward at No. 4 would be 1,800-point career scorer Candice McCallum of Southern Regional (Class of '97).

My center? That would be a no-brainer. Even if you never saw her play more than one game, the one game you needed to see Consuelo Lezcano play was on Thursday night, February 14, 2002.

It's the game legends are made and talked about for a lifetime.

Here's the setup going into that night at the Marathon High School gymnasium off of Mile Marker 50 in the Florida Keys -- the Dolphins had stunned a very good Westminster Christian team from Miami in the District 16-2A championship on February 9. Lezcano, the Dolphins' agile 6-foot-3 center with a large wingspan for arms, had 23 points and 13 rebounds in that game, while teammate and guard Veronica Doughman added 17.

It was a joyous time for the school, the young ladies who wore the Marathon High uniform and head coach Teresa Konrath, who had coached that program for a few years before finally winning a district title.

With that victory, Marathon got to host a first-round game in the state tournament that Valentine's Day against the District 15-2A runners-up. In this case, it was Miami's Archbishop Curley High School.

It also meant that I got to get away from my Key West Citizen office on a Thursday night and travel the 54 miles, including the famous Seven-Mile Bridge, into Marathon to see the young ladies host a state tournament game, the first time a state girls basketball game was hosted in the Keys in a while.

But all that week, my car, a Ford Thunderbird LX, was having trouble. It started to overheat and by the Thursday of the game, I couldn't drive it. I wound up having to take a rental at my Ford dealership on US-1 for $25 that night to get me up the Keys. They didn't have a regular car available, so I wound up having to take a pickup truck, which I was hardly familiar with since I've never driven anything that had a hatchback in my life.

Then again, I wasn't driving the car backwards to Marathon, either. And it had a CD player, so I was more than good to go.

A couple of days earlier, I had done the preview for our paper. Three years earlier, Marathon and Curley had played in the state tournament in Miami and the result wasn't even close -- Curley 73, Marathon 24. Coach Konrath didn't have to tell me what kind of a beatdown it was. And she didn't have to tell me the final score padding was unnecessary, either.

If there ever was a time when a sports team was out for blood, it was these young ladies from the Middle Keys, even if most of them didn't play in that game three years earlier.

The one thing I did know about this Curley team going in was they were athletic. Oh, another thing I knew about the Curley girls -- they were very small. Their tallest player was 5-foot-7, a mere eight inches shorter than Lezcano.

If the athleticism -- and the lack of putting the ball in the basket -- was not going to be a factor, figure that both Lezcano was going to have a huge night and that the Dolphins were going to win big.

When I got into the Marathon gym that night for the opening round of the Region 4-2A tournament, the place was starting to get packed. Apparently word got out to every corner of the town and surrounding Keys because the joint was jammed and jumpin'. Marathon athletic director Bill Sympson looked somewhere between overwhelmed and stunned.

Then I got to look at both teams warming up beforehand. Lezcano stood out like a sore thumb going through the layup drills for her team. Then I looked at the other end at the Lilliputians from Archbishop Curley warming up.

I just hoped Curley had this really awesome strategy to handle the big girl.

Well, needless to say, Lezcano didn't even have to leap far off the ground to win the opening jump ball, get it to teammate Stacey Poole, who got it to Doughman for the game's first basket.

Now it was the Knights' turn to do something. A long jump shot. No good. Lezcano comes down with the rebound. Marathon works the ball to Lezcano, who put it up and in to make it 4-0.

Next trip down, Lezcano alters a shot. Marathon rebounds. Doughman scores. Now it's 6-0. Timeout, Curley.

I find it hard to believe that Archbishop Curley's head coach and assistants had no gameplan going into this. It was totally amazing. I started wondering in that first couple of minutes of this potential blowout if Curley's plan was to just run around like chickens with loose heads and make the offense up as it went along.

I find it harder to believe they didn't know about this 6-3 giant in the middle.

But I find it easy to believe that coach Konrath was telling her Dolphins to keep doing what they're doing because it looked like the Knight players had already soiled themselves.

Then somewhere in that timeout, the Curley coach told her players to go to the basket. Seems normal -- get the big girl in foul trouble and get her out of the game.

They soon found out that if they weren't taller than 5-7 and didn't have an up-and-under move or something that would draw contact on the arm or body, they were in huge trouble.

The first girl took her shot at the basket after beating the guards off the dribble. Up went the shot. Back the shot went toward the Marathon guards. Same thing on the next possession -- down the lane went the Curley guard, putting up her shot, only to get it swatted by Lezcano.

This trend went on for the rest of the half. Actually, it went on for the rest of the game, either that first description or they would have their shot altered by Lezcano putting it up, not have it blocked, but have Lezcano come down with an easy rebound. And in a couple of possessions, Knights players even put shots up that not only did Lezcano block, but also caught in mid-air.

And in one instance -- one that goes down on the all-time list of greatest memories -- one Knights player put a shot up that not only Lezcano stuffed her with, but took the ball out of her hands for the steal! It took me a while to pick my jaw back up from off the floor.

By the third quarter, my line for marking rebounds was already filled up next to Lezcano's number. And soon after that, the second line I had to make up to put more X's (defensive boards) and O's (offensive boards) was filling up.

The Knights were overmatched. Not by an entire team, but by one player.

Marathon went on to the easy 66-31 victory over Curley, which I still to this day find amazing that this team even scored 31 points. A third of those points, though, came after Konrath had taken Lezcano out in the fourth quarter for good.

The final line for the 6-3 Marathon High junior is the kind of line you have to read at least four or five times before it sinks in -- 26 points, 14 blocked shots, 35 rebounds.

Yes, you did read that right -- 35 rebounds, a number only Russell and Chamberlain easily attained back in the NBA day when they dominated their center positions. And she could have easily had 40 or more rebounds had she stayed in until the end.

I am left with that memory of the most dominant one-person performance in my 26-plus years in the business in any sport and having to explain what it was like to see it that night. There's sadly no videotape I know of to see that performance again, unless coach Konrath has something from it to show.

Realistically, the game was against kids not her own size. Yes, I get that. But if she wasn't getting college coaches' attentions before, she sure did after that.

Marathon's season would end with a loss at Westminster Academy in Fort Lauderdale in the next round, but Lezcano had already cemented her place as our Keys girls basketball player of the year at the Citizen for the third straight year.

And she cemented her place as one of the state's best, earning second-team all-state honors in 2A.

Unfortunately, I was not able to help her push her way to first-team all-state in the class in the 2002-03 season. The higher-ups at the Citizen felt the need to no longer want me two months later and the people they hired to take over were clueless -- and worse, they had no relationship with any of the people who ran the Florida Sports Writers Association.

Lezcano had another dominant season as a senior in 2002-03 and would have easily been put onto first team in 2A had those people who replaced me even taken one damn minute to pay attention to what was going on beyond Key West. They simply dropped the ball for this young lady getting any honors. And I'm not totally sure Konrath ever forgave the Citizen sports staff for that. If I were her, I sure as hell wouldn't have.

She was completely snubbed. Thankfully, UCLA thought enough of Lezcano to give her a full ride in 2003.

Unemployed the next winter, I decided to take a road trip to Florida where I actually had a job interview at a paper set up on the left side of the state. I got to the Keys and stayed with my good friend Penni and her kids at my old apartment complex on Duck Avenue. I could never thank Penni enough for the three days I was there.

I got to take her youngest daughter with me in my new car -- yes, the Thunderbird that I had trouble with soon died after finding out there were cracked blocks -- on the Thursday night I was there. The two of us headed back up the Keys to Marathon where I told her about how amazing Lezcano was.

The Dolphins had won another district title and this time, they were hosting a different District 15-2A runnnerup in Florida Christian of Miami. The smallish Patriots, unlike the Knights the year before, at least had a plan to combat Lezcano. What they did was to take their two best defenders and shadow her everywhere she went that night.

Great idea in hindsight, but bad execution, especially when Marathon's remaining four -- which included Doughman and Poole -- were tons better than the three defenders left to guard them. But it was amusing, almost hilarious to watch these two young ladies chase Lezcano all over the court when the Dolphins had the ball. I told Penni's daughter that the next step might be for the big girl to go out into the hallway of the gymnasium and take the two girls with her. She could have probably ordered something from the snack stand and the two girls would have been there to defend her from getting that snack.

Marathon won, 67-41, and Lezcano still put up 22 points, 26 rebounds and 11 blocked shots -- even with the double team a good amount of the night. And she, like the year before, was taken out of the game for good well when the game was in hand.

She never had the career anyone could wish for her in college, but I'm also sure she was happy to get out of the Keys. One thing this bright, bi-lingual young lady told me about was how she couldn't wait to see what was out there after leaving. I lost touch with her by early 2004, but her memory will always be there.

Especially with the memory of the most dominating performance I've ever witnessed, that would be a no-brainer.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

An amazing Super Bowl experience

One of my favorite sayings of all-time is "even a blind squirrel finds a nut on occasion."

For the greatest professional sports moment in my career, I consider myself that lucky.

In August 2003, I had taken the job as a sports writer and associate editor at the Palatka Daily News in northeastern Florida sight unseen. I had been out of a job for 16 months and, hey, they liked me enough after two phone interviews to come down and take the job.

One of the nice perks about the job was that we had press passes to cover the Jacksonville Jaguars' home game. The first fall I was there, I got to cover at least four games, including the Jaguars' exciting 28-23 victory over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

The next fall, though, was interesting. I got to see the Jaguars play six home games. At that point, I would split my time at Alltel Stadium with my boss, who got to do most of the home games of the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

But the 2004 season was the one that culminated with the Super Bowl being held at Alltel, so we were paying very close attention to who was going to be in the big game. When it was official on January 23, 2005 that the New England Patriots would be looking for the first Super Bowl repeat since the Denver Broncos in 1999, I thought that was great.

Then I saw the opponent ... the Philadelphia Eagles. After three miserable NFC Championship game failures against the St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers, in that order, they had finally made it to the Super Bowl for the first time in 24 years, slaying Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons.

Two teams of interest that I knew of growing up in New Jersey -- the Patriots and the Eagles. A northeastern Super Bowl down on the First Coast.

But I was going to be watching the game from a sports bar or at least the comfort of my apartment if my girlfriend at the time had it her way. More on that later.

It was agreed upon that my boss would cover the Super Bowl. Though I had covered 10 Jaguars games over the last two years, he would do the game. Believe it or not, I was all right with that because he was there when Jacksonville was given the big game years earlier, so he had something to look forward to.

He made the arrangements for himself and for Allison, our backup photographer who now works in advertising, to cover the game.

But as the week leading up to Super Bowl Media Hype Week wore on, I started sensing my boss not feeling well. His coughing got louder. It got longer and became more often. He was definitely coming down with something, but he wasn't going to complain about being sick.

The weekend before the Super Bowl, I was in touch with Richard, my best buddy in Florida. Richard and I had seen Super Bowl XXXVIII, played in Houston the year before, at his local Hooters right off of I-75 in Ocala. We had a great time that night, but truth be told, I went out to the nearby Publix supermarket to get something at halftime and missed Janet Jackson's infamous peep show.

So Richard and I bantered about what we should do for this year's game. We really had no plan, but staying as far away from Jacksonville was definitely part of that plan.

A year before, I was living by myself for that Super Bowl. Two weeks after that Super Bowl, I met my girlfriend and four months later, we moved in together next door to the apartment I was living in. So one of the new rules about living with someone is to not be selfish and to take your significant other's advice on occasion.

"You're not going out on Super Bowl Sunday with all the drunks and amateurs partying that night," was her decree. "If you want to have Richard come over, I'll buy all the stuff and you guys can hang out."

I got lock-jawed at that moment. Hey, at least she cared enough to keep me in one piece.

Anyway, Media Hype Week was under way. And on the Tuesday before the big game, it is the day where the players and coaches meet the media. Naturally, my boss went, but got there late because he had an issue with his truck. He got what he needed that day, and came back to do his column on the event.

And he was still coughing long, loud and even more often through Wednesday.

At just before 11 a.m. Thursday, I get a phone call. It's Allison.

"Can you get down to the paper?" she said.

"Yeah I can. What's up?" I said, thinking something horrible must have happened to one of our employees.

Turns out my boss was demanded by his doctor to stay far away from work until he got better with his diagnosed pneumonia. My first thought was how horrible the timing for him to have this happen. I knew he was really looking forward to doing Jacksonville's first Super Bowl, so I felt bad for him.

Now Allison and I were having to go up to Jacksonville that afternoon to pick up my press credentials. But before I headed to the paper, I had to make one phone call.

"Hey hon, how are you doing? How's work?"

"All's good, how about you?"

"I'm doing good, hon. By the way, just to let you know, I'm not going to be home Sunday night. I'm going to Jacksonville to cover the Super Bowl."

"What?! What happened?"

Then I explained to her my boss' illness and that I would be taking his spot. She was excited and on that Sunday we'd probably be two ships passing in the night at best at home.

Once Allison got me at work, we headed up US-17 to Jacksonville's Prime Osborne Convention Center to go through the motions of having to get press credentials and explain to media coordinators that I was taking my boss' place. There was no backup plan, I find out there, and for the next 5-10 minutes, the two of us had to explain that he wasn't coming and I was taking his place. Media coordinators of big events aren't very thrilled when you replace someone with someone else at the last second. They like everything scripted, like when Bill Walsh put those first 15 plays down on his offensive sheet for a game.

Nonetheless, I had to take pictures and fill out forms and finally, I had my press credential. For the next hour, I got to walk around the convention center while all the media bigwigs were either conversing with other stars of football and sports, or, right next to me, Jim Rome is doing his daily afternoon radio show.

It suddenly hit me at that moment ... I was covering the biggest sporting event in America for 2005.

But reality was about to hit. Without my boss doing layout at work, I was handling the job of putting a paper out all by myself, which is far from a fun task when you have to take phone calls from coaches on their high school and college games that night. The next night, a district championship soccer match I would normally be at 37 miles away from the office in Pierson was something I couldn't go to because of the volume of work.

Call it a combination of elation and frustration.

But our trips to Jacksonville were not over yet. Allison and I had to go back up on Friday morning to pick up some more credentials and information for the game. In the interim, the two of us got to go to the Florida Theater where a press conference was being held for the remake of the movie The Longest Yard. On stage were Adam Sandler, Michael Irvin, Sean Salisbury, Bill Romanowski and Burt Reynolds, the star of the original version in 1974.

I asked Burt what the biggest difference between making the original Longest Yard and this version was.

"About a million dollars," he dead-panned. Classic Burt Reynolds response.

At the luncheon after the press conference, we were given goody bags that included a T-shirt for the upcoming movie, which I gave to my girlfriend. Even to this day, I can almost jokingly hear her say, "The Super Bowl came to Jacksonville, and all I got from the experience was this T-shirt."

I ran into some of the Philly media that was there, including my longtime buddy Tripp from Toms River, who was working the coverage of the game for the Philly station he was working at. We had not seen each other in almost six years, but since that day, we have kept in touch and he remains a good friend and Facebook pal.

By the time Allison and I left, it was about 3:30 and I had to go through the same motions of getting in from a long day at Jacksonville and laying out the four-page section by my lonesome again, which included a Saturday column on the 39 greatest moments in Super Bowl history and a 59-inch feature story I did on the incomparable Steve Sabol of NFL Films, who was coming to Jacksonville for the big game. Even though he was pressed for time, he gave me a great half-hour interview.

Got through that Friday night at work and stayed at home Saturday knowing Sunday was a big day.

On the day of the game, Sunday, February 6, 2005, I did not leave until just before 1 p.m. When going to a Jaguars game, you come off of I-95 and you are almost immediately met by traffic at the bridge leading to Bay Street and to the stadium. That lasts about 10 minutes, but you ultimately park and walk to the stadium from there.

On this day, I had to drive to that convention center again just off of I-95 where I would be met by a media bus picking us up at 2:45 p.m. And when I got on the bus, I started calling people I know to tell them where I was going.

One was my longtime best friend of nearly 30 years, Ted, who my girlfriend and I had just seen a month and a half earlier outside of Washington, D.C. I had not talked to him much since then. Ever since we were journalists/editors in high school in the early-to-mid 1980s and then at OCC between 1984-86, we always had this goal of covering something big in our lifetimes. He never got that opportunity to do so and ultimately switched professions.

He notices my cell phone number and answers, "Hey buddy, what's up?"

"Not much."

"You at the game?"

"Yeah ... we made it. I'm here."

"Well that's wonderful! I'm glad. Hope you have a great time there."

Moments later, we got off the bus to this mass of hysteria there for the game. But to get to the stadium, you have to go through not one, but two checkpoints. The world was a much difference place after 9/11, and understandably so on the biggest sports stage. Then I staked out the sights and hear the sounds. Walking in front of me was this tall dude, walking his stuff into the stadium on luggage rollers. It was ESPN's Steven A. Smith. And as I was going into the stadium, I looked to the right and saw a band playing in the parking lot.

The song being played was "Point Of Know Return." Then I looked closer. This wasn't a cover band ... this was really Kansas. I spotted Rich Williams and his eye patch from a distance, so I knew it was Kansas.

As I was taking the stairs up, I realized we would not be in our usual weather-protected indoor press box like at Jaguars games. They had the media keep climbing and climbing up to the upper deck and to a covered area that we were going to watch the game from. I swore that if we climbed any higher that either A) I was going to get a nose bleed or B) God was going to be talking to me personally. Good thing the weather had warmed up to 67 degrees by game time.

They left us a goody bag for the media and inside were various trinkets, including a small Sirius digital radio (For FM listening purposes, I still to this day don't understand why a satellite radio network would sponsor this. They could have been nice and given us an XM-like Inno to walk around neighborhoods with.)

But there was a list of stations in the Jacksonville area that would be covering the Super Bowl on the radio. One station had the Eagles' broadcast with Merrill Reese and Mike Quick. Another had the Patriots' broadcast with Gil Santos and Geno Cappelletti. And there was the Westwood One broadcast with Marv Albert and Boomer Esiason that I was listening to on and off during the game.

As I walked out to go to the bathroom before the opening kickoff, all I had to do was take in the sounds to know who the major rooting interest was. I heard so much "Go Eagles" and cussing, I swore I thought I was back in South Philly. The opposition had become the "hated Patriots."

The only person sitting around me covering the game that I recognized from covering the Jaguars all season was my friend Ron, who worked for a Georgia-based paper. We sat next to each other in awe at what was going on around us. If I looked down a few seats away from press row, I can see ESPN's Shelly Smith and Sal Paolantonio in seats watching the game.

With a very good game tied at 7 at halftime, the rest of the media and I settled in for what was to be an entertaining halftime show with Sir Paul McCartney, who was brought in as a more popular and "safer" choice after the so-called "younger acts" over the previous years had ruined the show, Jackson's "Nipplegate" episode being the last straw. The best concert I have ever seen was McCartney at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia in 1990. This time, the show was four songs long, but ended in a rousing performance of "Hey Jude" that had everyone singing at the end.

He hadn't lost it in 15 years and still is great today.

Going into the final quarter, it was 14-all. Then the Patriots put a drive together and capped it with a Corey Dillon scoring run of 2 yards to make it 21-14. After the Eagles had to punt the ball away, the Patriots drove down the field with Tom Brady hitting eventual Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch with a 19-yard strike for a first down. A roughing-the-passer call on Corey Simon led to another first down and ultimately, Adam Vinatieri nailed a 22-yard field goal to make it 24-14 with 8:43 left.

Figured that was plenty of time for Donovan McNabb to do something. He started bringing the Eagles methodically down the field, but linebacker Tedy Bruschi intercepted him to end the threat. The Patriots had to punt it back, though, with 5:40 left in the game. And though they would pick up first downs, the clock kept running to the delight of Patriots fans and the disgust of the Eagles faithful.

It started dawning on me this wasn't looking or feeling right. I turned to Ron and asked him, "Does it feel like McNabb's taking forever to go down the field? There seems to be no urgency."

"It sure does," he answered back, mentioning the lack of a no-huddle offense.

The end of the drive came when McNabb hit Greg Lewis with a 30-yard post pattern to the back of the end zone with 1:55 to go to make it 24-21.

The Eagles went for the onside kick and failed to get it back, but stopped the Patriots on three runs, burning the remainder of their timeouts.

Then came a new hero -- punter Josh Miller, one of many people who could have been considered an MVP for the game. His punt was downed at the 4-yard line with 46 seconds to go. McNabb was going to need some breaks along the way for a David Akers field goal attempt to tie it.

But Rodney Harrison ended those thoughts by collecting his second interception of the game on the third play of the drive with 9 seconds left, sealing the Patriots' third Super Bowl in four years.

After the game, we didn't go into an immediate locker room. The coaches and players from both sides were set up at stations in chairs talking about the game. Terrell Owens, who caught eight passes and played the game despite fracturing his fibula a month earlier against the Dallas Cowboys, was answering questions, happy to have played in the game, but disappointed by the outcome ... and probably stewing over McNabb's clock management.

Eagles coach Andy Reid was having to answer questions afterward. But I got to ask questions to Patriots lineman Joe Andruzzi and Branch, basking in the afterglow of the win. I found Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who was coaching his final game for Bill Belichick before moving on to take the Notre Dame coaching job. Weis was jovial and couldn't stop smiling. By the end of his session of questions, it was just me, him and ESPN's John Clayton doing Q&A.

A walk outside the tent where those interviews took place led to going back inside the stadium and to the Patriots locker room, where I had the chance to talk with the soon-to-be-retired Ted Johnson, Bruschi, Willie McGinnest, Harrison and Mike Vrabel, a linebacker who had the honor of catching a Brady touchdown pass.

In the midst of all these interviews, I ran into none other than Patriots owner Bob Kraft, a diehard Patriots fan who got the opportunity to own his favorite team and now bask in the glory of a third Super Bowl title.

"Nice to meet you Mr. Kraft."

"Nice to meet you," he answered back. Then he looked at my press credential. "Palatka? That's where the (Georgia-Pacific) plant is, right?"

"Yes, sir. About 45 minutes away from here."

I was very impressed. The man knows his business quite well.

I walked around the locker room and a swarm of reporters were around Brady. As I happen upon him, he's talking with President George W. Bush, smiling and joking with the man. Apparently that phone call never got old with Brady.

Not too far from Brady in the visiting locker room at Alltel (now EverBank Field) was Vinatieri, who was the hero of the two previous Super Bowl wins with game-winning kicks against the Rams and Panthers. Unlike the previous Super Bowls, he was alone, getting dressed to head out and celebrate the night with the team.

"Got a moment, Adam?"

"Sure," he said. Then he asks me, "Why don't you sit down?"

Journalists never get to sit in chairs to talk to athletes or coaches. We stand or kneel depending on the athlete standing or sitting at that point.

So I sat on the cubicle stand where Vinatieri was located just asking him questions. He was still happy to be a hero thanks to the field goal that made for the difference in the game. You could not ask for a much better gentleman than Vinatieri.

By the time all the hoopla and interviews were done, it was 11:50 p.m. It was a long night and it was just getting longer.

Back to the Prime Osborn Center to pick up some Super Bowl memorabilia, including weekend editions of the Boston Herald and Philadelphia Inquirer. I tore off a little bit of a banner that had the Super Bowl logo on it with the Roman numeral of the game and the bridge at the top that symbolized the city of Jacksonville. By the time I left Jacksonville, it was a quarter to 1 in the morning.

I called up my girlfriend to tell her about the whole experience. She said she was happy I got to go. She also told me she was working a 12-hour shift at her other job after finishing up her shift at her overnight job. I wouldn't see her until Tuesday.

I went home, jumped on the computer and typed out four stories on the game, doing two stories when I got home and two more when I woke up that late morning. Allison, who had some trouble getting her spot on photography row because of a press credential problem, ultimately did get in and snapped a shot that became our major front page art that night.

My boss, by the way, recovered from his illness later that week, and though understandably dejected over not doing the Super Bowl, he got to go to Arizona in 2007 and again to Miami in 2009 to cover the Florida Gators' two national championship football victories over Ohio State and Oklahoma, respectively.

Even though the Super Bowl fell into my lap just three days before the game and a lot of running around was required then, it was an experience I will never forget. I hope Jacksonville is lucky again to have another Super Bowl. They were great hosts.

And I hope I'm lucky to cover another Super Bowl sometime somewhere in the future.

Even if I play the role of that lucky, blind squirrel again.