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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.

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