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Monday, March 21, 2011

Food poisoning 1, Mark 0

Four times a week, I make my way around the local BP gas station in Palatka as part of my 3.4-mile walk.

Three things remind me of why I don't like the place. One, it's where the most expensive price for a gallon of gas is located. That gets my blood boiling. Two, it's BP. Does anyone have any memory of what happened April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico? Those boys at British Petroleum have such a way of passing blame around to everyone but on themselves.

And three, it's where I had my most uncomfortable moment in my time in Palatka.

It was Thursday, March 18, 2004. All that week, I was getting excited with running the paper's March Madness pool. I wasn't having a lot of luck getting people involved, but I was getting my share. I had not been at the place more than just six months, yet I was still able to persuade others to join in.

It was a good week up until Thursday. On that Sunday, my girlfriend of a month and I had gone to the Jacksonville Zoo and had a wonderful time. On Monday evening, I was hungry and really didn't feel like cooking, so I decided to make a stop at the Long John Silvers fish restaurant at the aforementioned BP. I had eaten a couple of times before there, so I was OK with getting food there.

And this was nothing different on that Monday. I ordered a fish sandwich, went home with it, ate it, and then went back to work. All was fine.

On Tuesday, I started to feel discomfort, but nothing that sounded bells and whistles. By Wednesday, the pain began to increase. I wasn't able to go the bathroom, and suspected something wasn't right, but I was willing to gut out the night at work, while trying to get people involved in the March Madness pool that I had to get an OK to run from my publisher.

When I woke up Thursday morning, the main thing I was looking to do was get into work by about 10 o'clock and start working on the pool, work my way to get people involved. But at 9:30 that morning, the pain inside me was relentless. It had gone from just mere discomfort to the feeling of wanting to die.

In seven months in Palatka, I had not once gone to a doctor. I had no need to. Now I was trying to find one that would take me. Before I did, I called up Joyce in our finance department. She was also in charge of getting people on the health plan. When I called her, I got the impression all was all right. I found a doctor to go to near me on Crill Avenue. But halfway to the doctor's office, I get a call.

It was Joyce.

"You're not on the healthcare plan," she said.

"Wait a minute. I thought I was on it after the 90-day probation period," I answered back.

Apparently not. Simple, stupid miscommunication. Nonetheless I had to figure something out while doubled up in pain and not up to having to go all over Palatka to fill out papers and do this, that and the other thing.

At St. Johns Urgent Care, I met Dr. Jerry Jacobson for the first time, a very witty man who made me fill out all these papers. Like I really wanted to do this, having to answer one question after another while feeling like death warmed over and having to be stoic about it.

He gave me a number of tests, and yes, I got prodded and poked in that area where the sun don't shine. He would run some tests and get back to me.

It was off to work I went from there. Even though I wasn't feeling up to getting people to play in a pool, it was still my personal responsibility to get more people invovled, which I did. The last person I got involved was my best friend Ted in Baltimore, who ended up faxing me his bracket at about the time the games began.

All the while, I had to fill out medical forms for Joyce, the same medical forms I thought were being taken care of the previous November. I guess better late than never.

I had no idea what was ailing me. I mean, I don't miss work with colds, but yet, here I was feeling a pain I had never quite felt in my 37 years on this planet. Our daytime press plant boss said he felt the same pain years earlier and found he had a bursting appendix. Thanks guy ... the last thing I needed to hear was my appendix without said insurance.

Well, my new doctor calls me up about a half hour later and wants me to come in. He has me do more tests and then wants me to go over to Putnam Community Medical Center around the corner for X-rays. Now I'm thinking anything.

One thing I have never been good at in my life is calling someone when I needed help. I figured to be a man, you don't need anyone's help, you'll do it by yourself and you'll be fine in the end.

Now I had a girlfriend and she demanded that if something ever happened, I should call her as soon as I could. I really don't tell my own family anything, but she wanted me to call her. Here I am, a degree holder in communications, yet my biggest weakness with everyday people outside my job ... is communicating with others. Go figure.

So as I head to the hospital, I call her at her place of work in Jacksonville.

"Hi," I said.

"Hey, what's going on?" she answers.

"Oh, nothing. I'm at the hospital," I say.

"What?! Why are you there?" she says back.

"Remember the pain I've been going through? My new doctor thinks it's serious enough to go get X-rays."

"I'll be there! Just stay there. Bye."

Again, this is partly why I don't like communicating with others, even if I love them dearly. It's that over-reaction that maybe I'm closing in on my deathbed and that I need to be seen before the eyes shut for the last time and the coroner toe-tags me.

In other words, I don't like being fussed over. I'll probably take that to my grave with me. I'm sorry. That's just me. But with a girlfriend, I had to begrudgingly compromise that. It's nice to have that attention, but I swear to you, I'll be fine.

Now I'm at the hospital having to wait for the lab technician to come in, take information and then scan me. It's 3 p.m. and one round of March Madness games was well under way. And I'm missing them. Less than an hour later, I walk out of the hospital and who's trying to go in as I walk out a different entrance/exit? My girlfriend.

My doctor was going to get the results. For all I knew, I might have had cancer or maybe my appendix was in the middle of bursting, though I tend to believe if that was happening, I probably would have died there and then. By 4:45 p.m. and back at my apartment with my girlfriend, the phone rings. Doctor wants to see me.

She and I went over to meet the doctor. I told him for a first day, this was way too much time with the guy. Good thing he had a sense of humor. He first tells me my white blood cell count is enormously high. That means nothing to me other than "that is bad." Then he tells me what the real problem was.

Food poisoning. Whatever I ate was causing my digestive system to shut down and not allow me to, umm, how do I put this gently -- do No. 2. I had not eaten a whole lot since Tuesday and I knew what I had eaten was OK.

Then I figured out what it was -- yup, the fish sandwich from the quasi-Long John Silvers in the BP. The doctor gave me a couple of prescriptions and a shot. She and I got the prescriptions and came back to the apartment.

I called my boss up to let him know I wasn't coming in that night. He understood since he knew what kind of a day I was going through. And it was the second official day in my almost 20 years in the business that I took off for being sick -- the first being in the summer of 1986 after I nearly passed out in a phone booth dictating a summer-league basketball game story to the assistant sports editor at the time.

Needless to say, I went to sleep thanks to the shot. I know of one person who was happy to see me go to sleep ... that's because SHE had control of the television. By 8:15, I woke up, taking the first of my prescription hydrocodeine.

On Friday, I had to go into work because my boss had taken that day off. Though he worried about my own health, I told him I would honor his taking the day off. Let's just say it was one of the most uncomfortable days I've ever had to deal with professionally. The drugs I was taking were not working just yet, but I made it through the night nonetheless.

Saturday was still filled with pain, though I was taking the pills I had to take. Then at about 9:45 p.m. that Saturday, it happened. No. 2. And when it did ... wow! I still had to take the pills into Sunday, but I finally had my first piece of solid food in days that night when I ordered a chicken sandwich at the Ocala Hooter's after I had to pick up my Billboard magazine at the bookstore there.

By Tuesday, I was in the clear of the food poisoning. Needless to say I never ate at the quasi-Long John Silvers again and a year later, the restaurant portion of the BP went out of business. I had a number of people tell me I should've sued the restaurant for poisoning me, but I could never truly pinpoint the sandwich as the cause, and worse, I paid for the sandwich with cash. If it were on debit card, I could prove I paid for it when I did, but since I ate the sandwich that Monday night and threw the paper bag and receipt out, it was worthless.

As a matter of fact, I think I ate at a regular Long John Silvers only two more times. Other than the occasional trip to Red Lobster, I don't eat any fish at any restaurants anymore. I'm a lot more aware of what I put in me. If it's fish, I get it fresh at the supermarket and make it myself now.

As for the basketball pool, I was en route to winning it. Then John Lucas Jr. ripped my guts out by nailing the jump shot that sent Oklahoma State to the Final Four and kept St. Joseph's out. That was a different type of sick I felt, but not like I had felt a week and a half earlier.

I never want to feel the way I felt that March 18, 2004 ever again ... even if I have that reminder when I walk around it on my 3.4-mile walk.

I know, I know. Maybe I should choose another route.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

When you least expect a state championship

When you least expect it, you get pleasantly surprised. Sunday, March 10, 1996, was one of those moments.

When the 1995-96 Ocean County high school girls basketball season tipped off, I was expecting a nice season, but nothing quite like what I experienced that winter.

Not only did we have one team win a South Jersey sectional title, but we got two schools to win sectional crowns.

In SJ Group IV, Toms River North, which had graduated its heart and soul when center Dana Simonelli and point guard Sandy Bisogno left for college, were winners, thanks to a group of veteran players who stepped up in seniors Allyson Sieka and Kristen Herzer and junior gunner Melissa Fazio.

And in South Jersey Group II, Point Pleasant Boro had won its sectional title, led by the group of young ladies I called Run-DMC ... swing player Jessica Drennan, center Suzanne Manzi and point guard Jodie Cheasty, the former player a junior, the latter two seniors.

Of the two teams, though, there was no doubt that I felt North, which was playing with amazing momentum and coming off a stunning victory over Ashja Jones-led Piscataway in the Group IV semifinals, was the strongest hope to bring Ocean County its first state girls basketball championship and first basketball state title since St. Joseph's boys in 1981.

Like a lot of people who were around North, the thought was who could stand in the Mariners' way and ruin the parade? Anyone?

The state final was to be played on Saturday, March 9, but a final winter blast on the Thursday night before the final made it nearly impossible for anyone to get anywhere. As a matter of fact, I found it amazing that my father and I were able to get to West Long Branch to watch history on that Friday night as my alma mater, Monmouth, came from behind late to beat Rider to win the Northeast Conference men's basketball championship for the first time ever.

So on Sunday morning with the weather warm enough to thaw the snow and the ice, I made the trip up the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike to Elizabeth's Dunn Center to watch possible history.

Originally, I was there to watch Toms River North make history and Point Boro be just a footnote on this historic day. Yeah, right.

The Mariners were going to go first against the hometown Minutemen of Elizabeth High School. I had seen North's talent all season long and was amazed at how much better this North team was compared to previous Mariner teams. Again, here I was thinking momentum would just sweep them to a state championship.

But this Minutemen team was really, really good. Elizabeth just out-hustled North at both ends of the court, and that was saying a lot for the group of scrappers North had. Quickness is a very big X-factor in basketball games and North didn't have quite the quickness the Minutemen ladies had. Elizabeth forced North into 12 first-half turnovers and led 31-17 at halftime.

The competitive portion of the Group IV state final was over. While Elizabeth's guards had caused enough havoc to ruin North's backcourt, it was the frontline of Ieesha Turnace and Omega Green who frustrated North's bigger trio of 5-9 Sieka, 5-11 Herzer and fellow 5-11 senior Mary Bellezza. The Elizabeth pair had 18 rebounds. Amazingly, the 5-8 Green had eight rebounds. That was more than the North trio had combined.

Guard Naimah Smith led the way with 17 points and Elizabeth ultimately finished off North, 53-38. Afterward, the media had a chance to talk with North coach Ray Cervino. Cervino had been coach of the Mariners since the 1980-81 season and he had seen the really bad with his program. But since the 1992-93 season, the season that turned everything around and gave the Mariners the first of four straight Class A South titles up through the '95-96 season, Cervino's Mariners were at their best.

Cervino took it in stride, proud of how far his girls got. No tears, even for an emotional man like him. Just pride.

The question as to whether Cervino ever getting this far again would come four years later when North finally captured that elusive Group IV state championship and made it to the Tournament of Champions final.

So that was one losing story I had to write. I got my Group IV state story started when I had to prepare for the very next game -- the last one of the day of the four public school group games. This would be Point Boro against North Jersey champion Caldwell.

For 24 hours, all I heard about Caldwell was its offensive might. The Chiefs averaged an amazing 72 points a game. There were boys teams that could never get close to that average in a season, yet these young ladies were an offensive dynamo that expected to take home the Group II state title trophy.

Someone forgot to tell the Panthers they were supposed to roll over.

The Panthers and coach Peter Cooke decided to take it down a notch. Thanks to the crafty Cheasty, they refused to get into an offensive, up-and-down, playground battle with the Chiefs. They trailed, 9-6, after the first quarter, but got warmed up when Cheasty kept finding the 6-foot Manzi underneath. She scored eight points in the second quarter and the Panthers turned it around and led 22-17 at halftime.

First thought -- this can't keep going on all game. One year earlier against a very good, offensive squad from Washington Township, I saw Southern Regional slow it down so much that the Rams led the South Jersey Group IV title game, 25-17. Then the Minutemen figured out what the Rams did, turned on their pressure in the second half and pulled away for a seven-point win.

So in that regard, I'd seen this script before.

But these Panthers came out of the locker room at halftime with a confident swagger. To them, it wasn't holding on for 16 more minutes. It was continuing to do what they did well for 16 minutes and knowing they'd have a trophy at the end of the night and history as well.

Caldwell got off to a quick start and had the lead down to three at 28-25 before the Panthers answered with a 6-0 run to put the lead back to nine as the fourth quarter began.

The teams traded baskets to start the quarter.

Then as if the bell sounded, the Chiefs made like Pavlov's dog and started to rally. A nine-point lead was cut to 36-35. Then a loose ball was picked up by Caldwell center Cathy Miller, who drove the paint for the go-ahead basket with 1:36 left to make it 37-36 in Caldwell's favor.

It was good to dream of what might have been at that point. But Cooke had something in mind when he called a timeout.

Patience was going to be the virtue again. Cheasty had the Panthers' half-court offense going. Suddnely, she found her classmate Manzi and fed the ball to her just beyond the reach of the 6-foot Miller. Manzi converted the layup to make it 38-37 with 1:15 left.

Then came the tipping point. The Chiefs found Miller and the center began her move to the basket. She also found Drennan and ran into her. The whistle blew. The referee called an offensive charging foul. It was Miller's fifth of the game.

With 50.7 seconds left, the Panthers had the slim lead AND the Chiefs' main big girl out of the game.

Maybe, just maybe, this was going to be it. The history I was in Elizabeth to see may just actually happen, albeit a couple of hours later.

Manzi was fouled with 30 seconds left and hit both free throws to make it 40-37.

The Chiefs decided on going for the tie and put the ball in guard Kim Richards' hands. But Richards' 3-point attempt clanked off the back rim. Diminuitive Panther guard Amy Clark came up with the rebound and fed to Drennan, who was fouled with 15 seconds left.

Drennan hit one free throw to make it a four-point game, and the Chiefs hurried back down and got the lead back to two points when forward Caroline Gehlen rebounded a Richards missed shot and scored with six seconds left.

All the Panthers had to do was just get those last six seconds off to clinch it. Cheasty hit Drennan, who was fouled with two seconds left. She hit the first free throw to make it a three-point game, but missed the second one. That was valuable time coming off the clock as the ball bounced away.

Caldwell could not get even a decent shot off to tie it.

And Point Boro players stormed the court. Panther fans yelled "Group II champs! Group II champs! Group II champs!"

The Panthers held high-flying Caldwell 33 points under their season average. And they made history as the first Ocean County girls basketball team to win a state championship.

Not North like I thought. Point Boro did it.

In my time I knew Peter Cooke as the Panther coach, he always worked with an edge, meaning if you didn't think his team was up to the challenge, he'd not only find a way for his girls to be up to that challenge, but then he'd let you know about it at the end of the game.

In 1991, he more than let me know it when I wasn't sure his smaller Panthers could handle Sterling in the South Jersey Group II title game and they won, 74-49, behind 25 points and 13 steals by Christie Pearce. And now, he was doing it all over again after big, bad Caldwell was sent home without a trophy.

"Nobody gave us a chance to win this game," he told media members, looking at me for a moment. "So our girls went out and proved it could be done."

Manzi was named the game's Most Valuable Player with 24 points. Drennan finished with eight points and 11 rebounds, but had done an outstanding job of keeping Miller in check. Miller finished with 12 points and nine rebounds. And Cheasty ran a halfcourt offense better than anyone else I had ever seen, especially in the situation her team was in against the run-happy Chiefs.

A state title means a lot to any high school program. But it means more to a small-town high school program. And at Point Boro, a school that has seen its share of great athletes over the years like Christie Pearce, Kim Yankowski and Dawn Kinghorn on the ladies' side, this championship meant everything.

The Panthers would lose to Notre Dame of Lawrenceville in the opening round of the Tournament of Champions four days later at the Dunn Center, but they had left their mark on Ocean County sports forever.

Interestingly, two days after watching North lose and Point Boro win, I get a phone call in the office. It was Kristen Herzer's mother, a delightful lady who was so sweet and wanted to thank me for the coverage. Then in a mockingly sad voice, she read me the headline my boss put on top of the game story I wrote from the North loss to Elizabeth.

"Elizabeth outhustles North, ends Herzer's, Sieka's careers," she read. "It made it sound like you sent them out in the pasture and had them shot."

I knew she wasn't all that upset about the headline the way she said it, but I couldn't help but laugh at that moment. And thinking about it again now made me laugh one more time.

The 1995-96 girls basketball season was a pleasantly surprising and rewarding winter. To have two county teams play for a state title was awesome.

To have one of them win it all was amazing.

To have the one that you didn't expect would win it made it even better.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Patiently waiting to win a championship

The lesson of this Friday afternoon, March 5, 1993, was patience. It was very much needed when the Shore Conference bowling championship rolled off at the HyWay 35 Lanes in Wall.

Bowling, in its own right, is a sport of patience. After all, no one is that talented to pick up a ball and roll a 200 the first time out. You need to be devoted to the sport -- like just about every other sport there is -- and commit yourself to excellence.

And for years, the Brick Memorial High School girls bowling team had done so. I was at Carolier Lanes in North Brunswick for the culmination of that excellence in 1990 when both the Mustang girls and the Brick Township High School boys teams won state championships.

Coach Marie Kobilnyk had another sensational team in the 1992-93 season, led by seniors Kris Kampf and Gina Gioia. The Mustangs had won their divisional title with a senior-laden team. On this day, though, the Mustangs would not have one of their seniors, Gioia, who was out sick.

This wasn't just a senior with experience. She was a two-time All-County bowler. This sounded like a bad loss, but enter backup Diane Jobes. Gioia's loss would not be so bad in the end.

To qualify for the Shore Conference Championship, teams from both Ocean County and Monmouth County had to finish in the top two in the four total divisions, meaning 16 boys and girls teams would compete for the two team championships.

But as bowling got underway for the 3 p.m. event that afternoon, something was missing. There were 15 teams there. One team had not shown up and its non-presence was immediately felt.

Ocean County South Division co-representative Central Regional, a team of free spirits and coached by the affable Arlene Leperi, had not gotten there. Word soon got to the bowling house that the Central Regional bus had been caught in an early afternoon car accident on the Garden State Parkway coming up from Bayville and all on the bus as well as the surrounding traffic had to patiently wait until things got cleaned up.

Fun-loving, free-spirited Central Regional. Yes, the Golden Eagles were. Central Regional had just started the program. And by bowling at their nearby Thunderbowl house off of Route 9, the Golden Eagles became very, very good immediately. Just six days before this Shore Conference event, the Golden Eagles had gone away with the South Jersey championship.

So while teams were bowling their first games, there was one Monmouth County team that was going on without a partner team. The Shore Conference Championship committee was deciding Central's fate. The tournament director for the meet could have easily told Central it was disqualified for not getting to HyWay 35 Lanes on time, but how do you blame the team for showing up late when it left its school on time and found itself part of a traffic accident it didn't have a part of?

Midway through the first game of the three-game set for all teams, the Golden Eagles arrived at HyWay 35 Lanes, practically sorry for being involved in an accident they didn't start. Leperi immediately had her girls set up and roll once they established where they could warm up.

By the time Leperi arrived, the committee had established that the Golden Eagles would hook up with the team they would roll against in the second game, but by the time the third and final game would finish, the Golden Eagles would roll their third game by themselves.

And if Central Regional was in striking distance of a title, guess where all the noise would be coming from at that particular moment?

Underclassman-dominated thanks to Toni Glowgower, Michelle Weinert and Stephanie Acker, the Golden Eagles were about to become a storyline ... even if it was just by themselves.

The meet was back to normal for the second game. Even without proper warmup, Central Regional destroyed the team it went against first. Then in the third game -- Central Regional's second -- the intensity rose. The lane assignments had both Brick Memorial AND Central Regional going against one another.

If ever you wanted to see two polar opposites team-wise, it was these two squads. While Central Regional had some outspoken free spirits who liked to have fun, Brick Memorial was a focused team whose fun was dictated by how it did on the alleys. Though there was respect between the teams, the two together were literally mixing oil and water. You could see it in their sign language. You could hear it in some of the comments quietly made.

Not surprisingly, both teams were on top of their games. Central Regional rolled an 834 in the first game and followed it up with an 858. Not bad, thus far.

But Brick Memorial stood up to the challenge and then some. Strikes were being made. Open frames were practically non-existence. When the game was over, the Mustangs had rolled a day-best 907 series -- an average of 181 per player. Turns out the star of that third game was Jobes, Gioia's substitute, who rolled a 214.

Memorial was well ahead in first place at 2,545, but now the Mustangs had to wait because Central Regional was capable of beating that score. The Golden Eagles had beaten the field six days earlier in the South Jersey championship and now they had a number that seemed easy enough to topple to snag this championship, too.

The Golden Eagles needed an 854 -- an average of almost 170 per bowler -- to win it. But now the Golden Eagles were going to have to do it in a far-away alley since bowling was back to normal for the regular customers. So stuck on lanes 3 and 4, Central Regional's quintet of bowlers got to decide the championship's fate by its lonesome. Anyone who understands competitive bowling knows that bowlers feed off not just one another, but their competition. And without competition, this was going to be just as hard.

I can still hear some Brick Memorial people quietly complaining that this would not be fair if Central took this title because it showed up late and had to go by the rules differently than everyone else there. Actually, if Central would come back and win this championship, it should have been praised for doing so. No competition, no one to drive the Golden Eagles and yet if they still logged an 854 or better, they'd win.

That would have been impressive.

The Golden Eagles got off to a fast start and looked on target to match that number ... 854. Each strike was followed by a loud cheer. And Memorial girls knew this wasn't good, Kampf saying, "I can't watch. I don't want to hear them cheering."

But by the middle of the final game, the Golden Eagle gals started to crack, doing the one thing they couldn't do to be successful ... leave open frames. No strikes, no spares. Suddnely 854 felt like 8,854 to them.

Still, they steadied the ship by the eighth frame. Going into the final frame, they had a chance to take the title that Mustang bowlers had their fingerprints on practically. Right off the bat, though, Glogower and Weinert rolled opens to start the 10th. Still, they had a chance with anchor Acker. But she needed a strike to get things off to a fast start.

She nailed nine pins. Memorial had its title.

Central would finish with 2,532 pins for the day, rolling an 840 in the final game, coming up 13 pins short.

And as Acker's ball hit all but that one pin, Mustangs bowlers finally broke out in the loud joyous cheer they had waited 45 minutes to do. They had the title in their grasp. Kobilnyk, Memorial's coach for over a decade, was relieved the day was over.

Central bowlers were disappointed afterward. With everything that happened that afternoon, from the accident that kept them from getting to their destination to the last frame of the day, the Golden Eagle girls nearly had a championship.

A different level of patience for them.

On this day, though, Brick Memorial exhibited that patience ... and was richly rewarded for it.