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Saturday, April 30, 2011

2 Putnam County track state champions in 1 great day

The 2004-05 scholastic sports season in Putnam County was one of the best seasons I ever witnessed in my sportswriting career. In my time here in Palatka, it's been easily the best prep sports season I've ever written about.

Crescent City Junior-Senior High School's football team came out of nowhere to win a district title. Interlachen's football team ended a long drought of winless seasons on the field. Crescent City's volleyball team made the state tournament. The Crescent City boys soccer team won the county's first-ever district tournament championship in the sport. A couple of weeks later and within five miles of each other in the Daytona Beach area, BOTH Palatka High and Crescent City won district basketball tournaments on the same night. Peniel Baptist's volleyball team made the state tournament for the first time, then in the spring the school's baseball team went unbeaten (18-0), capping its season with the Florida Christian Athletic League championship in dramatic fashion. And Palatka's softball team surprised everyone when an underclassmen-dominated team won a district tournament title.

All that happened and not once in that long-winded paragraph did I mention the excellence of Interlachen High School's star distance runner Jeremy Criscione, who crafted one of the greatest stories ever in my career when he won the state 2A cross country championship in 15:02, winning the championship just three months after his head coach and the man who talked him into running cross country as a freshman, Dwayne Cox, had passed away.

So with all that happening in a six- or seven-month scholastic year period, you couldn't think any of that could be added on, like another scoop of ice cream on a huge cone or having another day or two added on to a week-long triple-park pass at Disney World.

Well, we'd all be wrong.

The proof of that came on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon in South Florida. On April 30, 2005, the Florida High School Athletic Association state 2A track championship was taking place at Coral Springs High School in upper Broward County. Now rarely are we allowed far away from our northeastern Florida home area to go cover something.

But this day was to be the culmination of a great career because Criscione had qualified for the finals in the 3,200, where one again, he would be paired up in his battle with Tampa Jesuit rival Andrew Biladeau, who he out-dueled by seven seconds in that state 2A cross country race the previous November.

It was more than him, though. Interlachen had another competitor, Greg Oats, who was a candidate to take home a medal in the long jump. Crescent City had a couple of athletes going to the same meet as well. One was a young sophomore hurdler named Kendrea Washington, a girl with a lot of potential. And Crescent City boys track coach John Thomas had a senior going with him to the meet named Mickey Gilyard.

Ah, yes, Mickey Gilyard, who that previous fall was the starting quarterback for the football team after he had transferred in from Menendez High School, located in the southern part of St. Johns County. Here's what I did know about Mickey Gilyard -- he came in to help the football team as a senior, threw for 9 yards in his opening game of the season, the team lost that opener, and somewhere along the way in the next week or so, he was no longer on the team.

So for all I knew, that was the end of him. That was, until the track season when he showed up on coach Thomas' roster. In Putnam County, the track and field season is not as important as it is in most areas of the state. There was no county championship this particular year, so the real excitement of the track season here doesn't happen until we get to the postseason.

And Gilyard shined in the district and region meets that April. He won the long jump and tied for second in the high jump at districts. Then in the region meet, he won the long jump again and finished second in the high jump to qualify for the state meet.

Throughout the season, Gilyard's rival in both events was Tavares High three-sport star Jermaine Taylor. Taylor was an All-State first-team star in football as a wide receiver and a superstar on the basketball court where he was already signed, sealed and delivered to play for the University of Central Florida the next year.

And all through that winter/spring, Gilyard would beat Taylor in those two events and triple jump and Taylor would get Gilyard in those events as well. A true back-and-forth rivalry for one season.

So three days before the state meet in Coral Springs, I was at Crescent City Jr.-Sr. High for a couple of reasons, one of those being a column on Mr. Gilyard. Where did he come from? Where was he for those months between seasons? It was as if Bigfoot had re-emerged from the wilderness and I had a chance to find out what common people wanted to know.

Turns out he needed to bring his grades up and there was no rift between he and the football coach. So during the winter, he was trying to become a better student (yeah, that is always refreshing to know) and that he would be able to come out for track once his grades improved, which they had. And coach Thomas, as cool and as casual a customer as you will ever come across, was willing to allow his "new" runner to come out and make a name of himself.

Wanna talk about a contrast in styles? Here it was -- the laid-back Thomas and the everything-and-a-bag-of-chips Gilyard, who was not afraid to tell you he was with a Muhammad Ali swagger. I was amazed that it even worked all season, but you have to understand coach Thomas -- as long as you work hard for the man in either track or with the boys soccer team that he coached, he was more than fair. And Gilyard worked his tail off.

Still, it was refreshing to hear Gilyard be boastful about his chances to win a state title. He didn't think anyone could beat him on his best day. That statement was nothing compared to what his "training regimen" was.

"A double cheeseburger at McDonald's, hold the tomatoes and add onions and mayonnaise."

Yeah, the moment I printed THAT in my column I was immediately going to make people sick and, yeah, I knew it. If all 17- and 18-year-olds had that kind of a stomach and energy to eat that.

By 7:15 a.m., I had my car ready to go. Left my apartment to head down State Road-100 into Flagler County, then onto US-1 and onto I-95 where it would be a 232-mile trip to Exit 41. Rides now are enjoyable thanks to my Sirius-XM radio, but I was eight months away from getting mine, so I think I changed radio stations four or five times on this loooooooooooooooong trip. Since coming to the Palatka Daily News in 2003, I had gone south this far only one time when my girlfriend and I went down to Stuart to see my cousin Marcia, her husband Jim and my folks, who were in Florida for a few weeks in November 2004.

As Martin County became Palm Beach County, then Broward County, I so remembered why I didn't like South Florida, especially I-95 -- mainly the traffic. The meet was to start at noon, but I didn't get to Coral Springs High until 12:15 p.m. By that point, the long jump was being contested, though it had just started.

Gilyard gave it his best effort, but it would not be enough to win a state title. He finished third with a best jump of 23-foot-1 1/2 to Zephyrhills' Bryan Thomas (23-6) and event winner Terrence Moore of Key West (23-7 1/2).

Ah yes, Key West High School. Goodness, did I mess that track program from the three seasons I was at the Citizen as sports editor. I missed Dave Perkins, one of the best track coaches I've ever come across, a true motivator of young men and women. Though unhappy for Gilyard not winning, I was actually happy that Perkins had a state champion in the long jump.

In that same event, Oats finished sixth to go home with a medal, so I was pleased for the Interlachen High contingent and its ever-affable head coach, C.S. Belton.

The day was already good, but a little on the disappointing side. Why? Because I contended that Gilyard's better event was the long jump, not the high jump. At the region meet, he jumped 6-4, which was great, but six inches -- SIX INCHES -- less than what Taylor had done at that meet.

And with Washington eliminated from reaching the finals in the 100-meter high hurdles, I figured I'd have to wait until nightfall for my main story of the day when Criscione took the track in the 3,200. He, by the way, was nowhere to be found as the hotel the Interlachen team was staying at overnight allowed him to sleep a few hours while the sun beat down hard on the Coral Springs High track.

Speaking of which, the memory I have of being at this school was all the police and fire engine sirens going off every 10 minutes to respond to some sort of incident. You'd thought Coral Springs was the most crime-riddled, accident-prone town in America.

So far, I had a nice story, but not THE story. Nonetheless, I had gone down to the high jump pit with my boss' camera to take pictures of the event. The class of athlete there was pretty strong and very, very tall. Taylor, for instance, is 6-5. And most good high jumpers are over 6-foot tall.

Gilyard, on the other hand, is 5-10, an inch shorter than ME. But you never measure an athlete's ability necessarily by how tall they are, as soon was found out when the taller competitors started going out and Gilyard was leaping 6-2, then 6-4, then 6-6. By the time we had gotten to 6-6, it was Gilyard, Taylor, Tallahassee Godby's Bryant Gant, Brooksville Nature Coast's Mike Kursteiner, who was actually a co-favorite in the event with Taylor, and Andrew Bachelor from nearby Coral Springs Charter High.

The bar was set for 6-8. Already this was a great competition. It was only going to get better once Gant, Bachelor and co-favorite Kursteiner bowed out at that height. Somehow, Gilyard willed his way over the bar, while Taylor made it look rather easy.

It was now the two season-long rivals. And the bar was about to go up to 6-10, an entire foot taller than Gilyard. Both young men had their chances to clear 6-10 three times, but neither could. So it became a jump-off.

The bar came down to 6-9. One shot, one shot only. Neither could get over the bar without knocking it down. So the bar came down another inch.

Gilyard was first. All the while, he had walked around the high jump area like he was about to become a first-time father. If there was another athlete in an individual sport that I saw with that much nervous energy in him or her, I don't remember. That's how hyped up Gilyard was, talking to anyone or anybody within ear shot that would listen to him, even me.

Gilyard approached the bar like he had so many times that late afternoon at Coral Springs High. Took off properly. Leaped at the right spot. And wouldn't you know it -- he came down without hitting the bar.

Now it was up to Taylor, the soon-to-be-bound UCF Knight to play basketball who would one day make it to the NBA with both the Houston Rockets and currently the Sacramento Kings, to match Gilyard's 6-8 jump. Taylor took off and hit his spot, but just as he was able to make it over the bar, his foot clipped it and the bar came off.

The shock set in -- Mickey Gilyard, all 5 foot, 10 inches of him, had just slayed the great 6-foot-5 Jermaine Taylor to win the state high jump championship. And the swagger was on. He jumped up and down, began to pose and he wanted me to get a great pose of him in all-swag mode, which I did ... just one or two steps away from falling over a golf cart that just happened to be behind him that he never saw.

The crowd around him laughed. A lot of athletes would have been red-faced over what had just taken place, but Gilyard simply brushed it off and started to celebrate wildly. He had just won a state title no one thought he could win and he wanted to let the entire complex know it.

I asked Taylor afterward about what happened and why Gilyard was better on this day. His answer: He had gone to Walt Disney World's Grad Night celebration with his classmates the night before and may have been out a little too long celebrating. That was his story and he was sticking to it, even in the classy manner he was telling it in.

So over to Gilyard I walked and I told him what Taylor told me. His response: "Our Grad Night was last night, too. But I had a responsibility to be at my best. I talked to my girlfriend there and she was having a good time. That's all that mattered."

Just when you think you've learned something about a student-athlete, they take it to another surprising level. Here I was wondering what happened to this kid during football season as the team's starting quarterback and now he was ending the year doing the right thing for himself and bringing glory to a school he was at for just one year. In the time I have worked at the Daily News, we've only had one split for Track Athlete of the Year. That was that spring between Gilyard and Criscione.

While Taylor has gone on to a fantastic career at UCF and now to the NBA, I have no idea whatever happened to Mickey Gilyard. I miss seeing his smile, his exuberance, his swagger. I don't miss that "training meal," but I'm sure he's doing OK somewhere in northeastern Florida.

So now, I have a story! Yaaaaay! And the terrible part is it may have made whatever Criscione did that night into nothing more than an afterthought. Imagine that -- another state championship as an "afterthought."

But as daylight came and went and nighttime started to fall on Coral Springs High, the finals were to take place in all the track events. And for Criscione, who had arrived in the late afternoon right after Gilyard's heroics, it was time to run the 3,200. The heat was gone and this was to be a battle royale involving him, Biladeau, Miami Gulliver Prep's Bryan Sharkey and Fort Pierce Lincoln Park's Matt Hensley.

And just like the state cross country meet almost six months earlier in Tampa, the other so-called "main competition" fell back in the pack of the 3,200 -- eight laps around the track. For the last three or four laps, it was Criscione and Biladeau battling for position, another amazing race among two respected rivals. And like six months earlier, Criscione found another gear to pull away and win the 3,200 in 9:14.75, a couple of seconds ahead of the 9:16.17 done by Biladeau, who probably had a lot taken out of him in winning the 1,600 earlier that night.

Just like that, one of the greatest prep sports careers had come to an end at Coral Springs High with a second state championship in the same year. And Belton, a longtime coach at Interlachen High, put it all in perspective.

"You can win a state championship, even in a one-(traffic) light town like ours," he said. If you've never been through Interlachen, Fla., you'd understand. Since 2005, the town has added a "second" traffic light, not far from the first one on State Road-20.

For myself, the long day was over. But it wasn't really over just yet. I grabbed myself a sub at a nearby restaurant owned by a man who originally grew up in Lakewood, N.J., but don't press me on the name since it's been six years when I was there last.

I ended up going afterward to a 24-hour Kinko's to write the story since it was all fresh in my mind still. The Daily News does not print on Sundays or Mondays, so I had a couple days to write it up.

But when you have an exciting day like I experienced, you always want to make sure you have all the details right and don't want to make your brain have to remember things again that are currently present. So it took over an hour, but I got the job done. For the $12 I spent for being on a Kinko's computer typing the story up, it was more than worth it.

It was just past midnight by the time I was able to leave Coral Springs and head home, but the lack of sleep made me pull off the road once to get some rest. By the time I got back home and had visited Wal-mart to get some stuff and then shower and hit the bed, it was close to 8:30 that morning.

I had been up practically 26 hours straight. The reward was worth it, though.

Then again, almost anything done the entire 2004-05 Putnam County prep sports season was worth it. And two state track championships in one day was the icing on the cake.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Inside-the-park strikeout? Yeah, I've seen that before!

Recently, I was witness to something I had never seen before.

Sorta. I'll explain more in a moment.

In the bottom of the first inning of the District 4-4A softball tournament between visiting St. Augustine High School and Palatka High, No. 2 batter Kori Osteen struck out. However, Kiersten O'Niel could not hold on to the softball and it rolled to the backstop. O'Niel got the ball and fired down to first base, but threw nowhere near first baseman Sam Baker.

But what made it worse was second baseman Lauren Avolos and right fielder Linzy Hayes were nowhere in line with the throw and the ball just kept rolling to the right-field fence. Golfers are impressed with tee shots on a par-3, landing their shot so close to the hole.

This, though, was not the kind of accuracy O'Niel had in mind. By the time Hayes got the ball and fired it in, Osteen had circled the bases for an inside-the-park strikeout.

No, it's nothing to be proud of, but it set the tone for the rest of the night as St. Augustine committed three errors in the second inning to triple Palatka's lead and ultimately lead to an 8-2 Panther win.

And, yes, the highlight was the inside-the-park strikeout, which scored the game's first run.

But as strange as that was, believe it or not, it was not the first time I had witnessed an inside-the-park strikeout. And this bases-rounding whiff was a lot more bizarre than the unfortunate circumstances that led to the Palatka run.

It was Saturday, May 21, 1994, and it took place in the third of four quarterfinal-round games in the Ocean County Tournament, which that year was held on two different fields.

The morning started with my usual running the public address system and keeping the official scorebook at Toms River High School East, watching East take out Jackson Memorial, 4-0, and top-seeded and unbeaten Central Regional mercy-rule Pinelands Regional, 10-0, in the second game at East.

The games were spread out with East hosting battles at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. and Point Pleasant Boro hosting games at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., which because of a mercy-rule in the Central-Pinelands game, allowed me plenty of time to get from East to Point Boro that day.

So after I set up my personal PA for the two games at Point Boro, I collected lineups from both the host Panthers and the defending champions, Toms River North. North was the third seed in the '94 tournament, Point Boro was sixth, so even though the game was at Point Boro, the Panthers were the visiting team on the scoreboard.

And for 4 1/2 innings, neither side budged. North had a scoring threat in the second inning, but third baseman Meg Churchill fielded Carrie Brown's groundball, caught runner Melissa Fazio off the base and threw to catcher Jessie Carrow at the plate for the out.

On the other side, North senior Anna Solosky retired the first 14 batters she faced. Then with two outs in the fifth, Sabrina Grato and Harris delivered back-to-back singles before Solosky struck out Kelly Pearce looking to end the threat.

North finally broke the ice in the bottom of the fifth inning when Brown singled, stole second, moved to third on a groundout and scored when Kari Fix's groundball was mishandled by first baseman Grato.

That was it. That was the run Solosky needed to finish business.

Or so we thought.

On the first pitch of the sixth inning, Megan Shank unloaded to left-center field, the deepest part of Point Boro's park, and ended up on third with a triple.

Solosky had to bear down and keep the tying run from scoring. Jodie Cheasty hit a line drive at third baseman Kelly Gorga. One out. Amy Clark tried a safety squeeze bunt, but popped the ball up in foul territory where Gorga got it and Shank scampered back to third before she could get doubled up.

With two outs, this brought up Meg Churchill, the Panthers' No. 3 hitter in the lineup. The count got to 2-2. Solosky decided to throw a drop ball. Churchill swung and missed and Fix got the ball as the third strike was announced. North players came off the field relieved that they had just gotten out of the jam.

Or so they thought.

Though home plate umpire Lou Gaspari, one of the most respected umpires I've ever seen, had signalled strike three, he never called Churchill out or said the inning was over. That was the hint Point Boro head coach Ric Malta, also the tournament's co-director along with me, needed to yell at Churchill to go to first.

So Churchill did. Shank came home easily to tie it.

Still no North reaction. Churchill kept running. By the time Churchill reached third base, North finally became interested in the situation. But it was too late for them to do anything. Churchill scored and suddenly, North was in the dugout and trailing Point Boro, 2-1.

And the inning wasn't officially over. What Gaspari ruled was the same exact thing that I saw from my vantage point right behind the backstop where I was situated. Though Fix -- who had become North's catcher when regular backstop Bonnie Shapiro decided not to come back for her senior year -- had gotten the ball for the third strike, she trapped it. She never caught it before it hit the ground and that still made it a live ball.

So if you think the Mariner fans were stunned by what had happened, imagine being North coach Becky Miller, who came from behind the fence smiling at Gaspari wanting an explanation from him, then getting it and arguing for five minutes -- FIVE MINUTES!! -- that her catcher didn't trap the ball and had caught it before it hit the ground.

Needless to say, North had to go back onto the field to finish the inning, which it would two batters later when Carrow grounded out to Gorga after Amy Cushion singled.

Now North was off the field, but trailing 2-1 because of this bizarre inside-the-park, two-run strikeout.

And to North's credit, it responded. With Lesley Gertner and Gorga on base, Fazio, a freshman who hit six home runs that year for North, belted a shot over Shank's head in left field for a triple to bring in both runners, then scored on the hit when Shank's throw back in went astray for an error.

North was back ahead 4-2 and the memory of the inside-the-park strikeout that gave Point Boro the momentary lead was almost all gone. All the Mariners had to do was get three outs and they were moving back into the semifinals and to a date with Toms River East on the same Point Boro field.

But Grato singled against Solosky. Then shortstop Gertner made an error on Harris' groundball, but center fielder Kristin Smith got to the ball quickly and fired a strike to Gorga to nail Grato at third for the first out. Pearce grounded out to move Harris to third.

Down to their last out, Shank came through again with a single to score Harris, making it 4-3. Then Cheasty beat out an infield hit to put the tying run on second and the go-ahead run on first.

But Solosky got ahead of Clark and on an 0-2 pitch, induced her into a groundball to seoond bsaeman Megan Russell, who stepped on the base for the forceout to finally end it.

North survived, 4-3, but the victory was a lot closer for comfort than even the Mariners wanted it to be. North eventually lost in the bottom of the seventh to East, 5-4, as the Raiders would beat surprising Lacey for the OCT title that year.

Still, no play highlighted that year's tournament more than North's infamous third-strike faux pas that turned into a trip around the bases for two Point Pleasant Boro runners in a crucial, late-game moment.

So what St. Augustine did against Palatka was not original by any means.

It was amusing to say the least ... just like it was 17 years earlier in another state, in another tournament game and on another field.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The day Central Regional's softball swagger came back

In the third year of the 1990s, Central Regional High School's well-respected softball program was threatening to be an also-ran.

It had been four years since coach Norm Selby's program had gone 27-3 and won an NJSIAA South Jersey Group III championship and its fourth Ocean County Tournament title in dramatic fashion over fellow South Jersey sectional champion Monsignor Donovan High School.

In 1989, a talented group of Golden Eagles had to press forward after star-in-the-making third baseman Michelle Carlson's family moved to Toms River and they won 16 games, but were eliminated in the OCT quarterfinals by Southern Regional. In 1990, the Golden Eagles were OK, winning a state tournament game in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion against Bridgeton, but were eliminated by rising Point Pleasant Boro in the OCT quarterfinals.

And the 1991 team was really, really young, winning only 13 games that season and also eliminated in the OCT quarters by Toms River South, 1-0.

Not to say that Selby, the highly regarded Golden Eagles coach, was in any trouble of keeping his job by his school's board of education in any way. His work in the 1980s spoke volumes -- two South Jersey Group III championships, one state Group III title appearance, a South Jersey Group IV title game appearance in his first year with the team in 1981 and four OCT championships.

This was one of those times that any program, any school goes through -- transition. It's a fact of high school life and it happens to the very best around.

The 1992 Golden Eagles were the key, though, to turning fortunes for this amazing program. They had that delicate mix of senior veteran leadership -- center fielder Lauren Wagner being the best athlete in the county, while catcher Amy McGowan and left fielder and coach's daughter Lorrin Selby, the younger sisters of two previous players who had been part of the program's recent glory (Kelly McGowan and Shannon Selby), provided quiet leadership.

But the true overall talent of this team was on the sophomore level. There was pitcher Tara Menschner, who survived the struggles of a freshman season to win 10 games, back on the mound, a year better and a year wiser. Third baseman Erika Applegate took over at third base to have a great breakout season. There was second baseman Jill Hirshblond, coach Selby's niece, as part of that transition. Then add two key freshmen to the lineup: shortstop Dana Kennett and right fielder April Rose, who played above their young status.

These Golden Eagles flew right out of the box posting wins in their first seven games and started the Class B South season with a 4-0 mark. But on Tuesday, April 21, 1992, and during their Easter vacation break, they were to get the biggest test of their young season when they traveled to Wall High School to face the Crimson Knights.

That would be the two-time defending Shore Conference Tournament champion Crimson Knights. Coach Tony Vodola, now in his sixth year as the team's mentor, had another super team, this unit led by sisters Robin and Shannon Stohrer. Wall was 7-2 going in and, like Central, had a 4-0 record in B South.

First place was on the line. And the two teams played like it was a state championship.

Through the first seven innings, both Robin Stohrer and Menschner were on top of their games, neither allowing the other to get the upper hand. Impressively, Central Regional had beaten Brick High and a pitcher who was far slower than Robin Stohrer. Stohrer was bringing it and Central had a hard time adjusting to her.

But the one staple of Norm Selby and assistant Gloria Garibaldi-coached teams was defense. If you could play defense for Central Regional, you most likely would be in the starting lineup. And a young team like this Central team had to stand up to a proven power like Wall by playing defense on this day. Menschner by no means was blowing Wall batters away with speed.

Robin Stohrer, though, was the complete opposite. Her hard stuff was challenging Central's hitters. Though she struggled with control (six walks), she managed to strike out 11 Golden Eagles.

So with the game still scoreless, the teams forged on in extra innings. The eighth inning came without incident. As did the ninth.

Then in the 10th, the Golden Eagles broke through. Free-spirited Applegate began the two-out rally with a walk. McGowan lofted a flyball to short right field. Second baseman Jolin Eckman ventured out. Right fielder Joanne Vacchiano came in.

You knew what was going to happen next.

Crash! The two laid motionless on the Wall High turf as Applegate, who was going on the hit to right, stormed home and McGowan cruised into third with a triple. Both players eventually got up and finished out the inning, but that lack of communication gave Central first blood.

However, with young teams, you never know how they will handle having a lead late in a big game. And Wall Township to the Golden Eagles could not be any bigger in that regard.

So Menschner took to the mound looking to get the final three outs, knowing how good these Crimson Knights were. Menschner got two outs and had Donna Turpack up. Turpack hit a popup toward second base that Hirshblond had in her sights and was ready to squeeze the glove to end it.

She dropped the ball. For one of the very rare moments of this late morning/early afternoon, Central Regional let its defensive guard down. And while it was easy for her teammates to tell Hirsblond to stay up and that they'd get the next out, this was still Shore power Wall Township.

And the Knights made Hirshblond pay for the mistake. Menschner got two strikes on Eckman. On the next pitch, Eckman launched a flyball that went out of the reach of Wagner and to the wall. Turpack scored and Eckman had a double to tie it up again at 1-1.

Menschner got out of the jam, but you could see the dejected looks on the Central players and the fans who did show up for this late-morning tussle. After fighting so hard for 10 innings and having the victory in its grasp, Central would have to go back up to the plate in the 11th and start all over again.

And for two more innings, neither side budged. Then, Wall cracked.

Steady junior first baseman Amber Dafeldecker started the 13th inning with another Stohrer walk. Hirshblond then bunted, but catcher Keri Newlon threw the ball down the right-field line for an error to send Dafeldecker to third.

Robin Stohrer got Wagner to pop out, leaving her 0-for-6 in this battle. That brought up Lorrin Selby in an obvious bunt situation. Selby fouled the bunt off.

Now Wall had anticipated Selby bunting. But right before the next pitch, Shannon Stohrer had inexplicably backed up instead of staying in for the bunt. I can still see Selby's eyes light up like a Christmas tree when she took a glance down that way.

Guess what Selby did next? Yep. She put her bunt down the first-base line where it seemingly took a minute for Shannon Stohrer to come get the ball. Dafeldecker easily crossed the plate, and to make matters worse, Stohrer threw the ball away to move Hirshblond up to third and Selby to second.

Whether she was told to move back or she simply forgot, it is one of the greatest softball brain-farts I've ever come across. Only at two strikes does a first baseman or a third baseman move back to their normal positions in obvious bunt situations. If a batter lays a bunt down with two strikes and keeps it in fair territory, congratulations for being gutsy.

Shannon Stohrer simply blew it by backing up with one strike in an obvious bunt attempt.

Central had a 2-1 lead, but as was seen three innings before, no lead with Wall was safe. The Golden Eagles needed more.

Menschner walked against her opposite number to load the bases. Rose came up and hit a grounder to Turpack at second baseman, a late-inning move to that position. The Crimson Knights conceded Hirshblond's run, but Turpack turned a simple, routine out into a nightmare when her throw was low and bounced away from Shannon Stohrer. Selby came around third to score to make it 4-1.

Kennett then grounded out to bring in Menschner with the final run of the frame.

A one- or two-run lead was dicey for Central against Wall. But ahead four runs with three outs to go -- we would find out for the next three seasons -- was money in the bank for Menschner. Though she gave up a leadoff hit to Turpack, she settled down getting the next three batters. When Newlon hit a line drive at shortstop Kennett, the three-and-a-half hour marathon was over just afte 2:30 p.m.

Ninety-nine batters came to the plate. There were 351 pitches thrown -- an amazing 208 of them by Stohrer, who deserved a far-better fate.

And Central Regional had prevailed, 5-1. The Golden Eagles had taken down the two-time defending SCT champions and looked exhausted afterward. For the first in a few times over the next three years, Menschner openly weeped after the emotional victory.

Menschner was the quiet port in the storm for Central, allowing only six hits in her 13 innings, while walking no batters and striking out four.

More importantly, it was the victory that officialy brought Central Regional's swagger back as "that" program in Ocean County softball. These Golden Eagles would go on to win 20 games that season and beat Toms River East and former teammate Erin Tulko in the OCT final, 5-0.

It was also Norm Selby's last year as head coach. Or so we thought it was as he was taking home that OCT championship trophy that June night at Point Pleasant Boro. Selby was planning to leave the program after 12 years when his daughter graduated. That summer, though, he had a change of plans, mainly because of his niece being on the team and because he knew he had a boatload of talent the next two years.

Those next two Central teams won 23 and 27 games, respectively, Menschner left Central as the winningest pitcher in Ocean County for the next 14 years with 77 victories and Selby officially went into the sunset with five OCT championships, two South Jersey Group III crowns and the Shore Conference Tournament title in his final game in '94 against Allentown.

And after Joe Winkelried, the junior varsity coach, took over in 1995, the program didn't miss a beat for his first six years, winning three OCT titles and two more SJ III crowns, highlighted by a dramatic state Group III championship win over Paramus in 1996.

Central ended the 1990s as the softball program of the decade in the county, just like it was in the 1980s.

But maybe none of those accomplishments in the '90s would have been possible if not for that late morning-early Tuesday afternoon during Easter week in 1992 when a young group of Golden Eagles stared down a two-time defending conference champion and took them down.

And got their swagger back.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The day Point Boro's girls soccer team forged ahead

Losing five kids to Easter vacation should sound an alarm to any high school sports coach that maybe, just maybe, you shouldn't schedule anything that week. Perhaps not the bestest of ideas to send a varsity team with five junior varsity members out onto a field to play, no matter the sport.

Especially in the second full week of the season. Kind of dicey if you ask me.

But Bob Kulessa forged ahead, even though he lost five of his Point Pleasant Boro High School girls soccer players to vacation, including senior starting goalie Kristen Estelle, who would be unavailable for the week even if Kulessa picked up a telephone to get her back in an emergency.

She was overseas.

And so on Wednesday, April 10, 1985, the Panthers took to their soccer field to face Monsignor Donovan High School in a Shore Conference Class B South matchup sans the five starters.

Donovan, though, was no ordinary soccer assemblage. The ladies from the county's lone parochial school were one of the Shore's best teams. Coached by one of my favorites, Bill Slocum, the Griffins were a combination of veterans who had been through the wars for three previous years like midfielder Barbara Callaghan, defender Barbara Indiero, goalie Mauree McShea and star forward Stephanie Harmon, and freshman phenoms Liz Rehak, a forward, Jilene DeFilippis, a steady midfielder and a defender named Kim Brickner, who by the end of that 1985 season would move up to the forward line and establish herself as Ocean County's top career scorer when she graduated three years later.

The 1984 Griffins went unbeaten during the regular season, but in their biggest game of the season on a hot, steamy June night at Toms River North were overwhelmed by Toms River East in the Ocean County Tournament championship, the last OCT ever held in the sport.

When they walked onto Boro's field on this day, the Griffins had won 19 of their last 20 games and started the '85 campaign at 3-0.

I'm not sure if I was going to this game to actually see a competitive game or watch the Donovan dynamo that I had heard and read about do its thing. But outside of any Toms River East games I saw when I was a student there, this was the first girls soccer match I would ever cover.

Kulessa had warned me the week prior and had subtly told me before the game he was going to be short-handed, almost saying without saying it completely that this might not be a good day to take in a Boro soccer match. He put his future varsity players from the JV on the field and without any seniors because of a trip, was giving it his "let's do the best job we can" pre-game speech.

Just 66 seconds into the opening quarter, it was pretty obvious these Panthers might not have been ready. Rehak had gotten the ball and nailed a 15-yarder over the hands of interim goaltender Beth Atkinson and into the net for a 1-0 lead.

I was in for a long morning and afternoon at Point Boro. Atkinson was a defender in her junior season with Boro and had played goalkeeper only one other time. But in fairness to the young lady, the shot Rehak beat her with could have beaten most any goalie.

Down 1-0, all the Panthers could do was just hold the fort down and seize an opportunity to score. Purposely, I covered most of the game from Point Boro's side of the field because I wanted to see and hear the interaction between Kulessa, assistant coach Bill Burke and his young players.

Though this Donovan team showed its talent, it was suddenly becoming neutralized by these fiesty Panthers, most notably Atkinson and junior center-midfielder Barbra Ohlott, a special talent with flaming red hair who was easily this team's leader. Ohlott and her midfield teammates -- a couple of players who got called up for this week -- were able to keep things in check there. Atkinson became more acclimated to her surroundings and was able to challenge Donovan players near the net.

Still, Donovan's defense, led by McShea, Indiero and sophomore sweeper sensation Colleen Hanhart was not allowing many, if any, Boro offensive threats. It would take maybe one opportunity to give the Panther players hope.

It came in the 20-minute third quarter -- games used to be played in quarters, now they are played in 40-minute halves. Boro mounted a rally and collected a direct kick. Lisa Wright delivered a pass to sophomore forward Jennifer Hunter, one of the team's top offensive threats. She spun around a defender and nailed a shot past McShea to tie it at 1-1.

That was the opportunity the Panthers needed because for the rest of regulation play, they had maybe one errant shot at the net. But Atkinson was still coming up with big save after big save. By the end of this early Easter vacation day, Atkinson would pick up 18 saves.

The match would move to overtime where surely, the Griffins would be able to crack the busy Panther defense and Atkinson. After all, shouldn't a team that brought up five JV players to fill in for the seniors while they were away just fold like a house of cards?

Ahh, but that's why you can never judge talent by heart. The teams would remain tied at 1-1 through the first 10-minute overtime period. If they stayed tied after the next 10 minutes, that's how this match would end.

Once again, Atkinson and the Panthers held the fort down defensively, waiting for the one opportunity they needed to score.

Hunter moved the ball down the field in one last charge with three minutes remaining. She put a pass from her wing toward teammate Kathy Bowers in the middle. McShea reacted and went after Bowers.

But Bowers whiffed on her attempt. This was actually a good thing for standing behind both Bowers and McShea was sophomore teammate and forward Chrissy Glenn. Glenn gathered the ball and put a short shot in past McShea, who dove late back into the play, to make it 2-1 with 2:35 left in the second extra session.

Donovan players were flattened mentally. They never could put a strong rally and when the final whistle blew, Boro players celebrated like they just won the Shore Conference Tournament with the 2-1 victory.

Kulessa would say afterward that his girls "played the game of their lives." Yeah, that was an understatement. Atkinson was able to do what she did because she said she had the trust of her teammates in front of her, even if some of them were in unfamiliar roles.

The two teams would meet again at Donovan and the Griffins would win the rematch against Boro's seniors on the field. Donovan, who came off the Boro field that day looking like they had just attended a funeral, would go on to the first-ever SCT semifinal round where once again, Toms River East would spoil the party on East's Shelter Cove Park field, 3-2, en route to winning the first-ever SCT.

The Panthers would not make the postseason that year or the next, but when a strong freshmen crew led by Kim Yankowski and Jennifer Shutt arrived in 1987, they teamed with Glenn, Hunter and all-everything midfielder Kathleen O'Rourke to bring Kulessa and the Panthers the SCT championship in an unbeaten and memorable 16-0-2 season.

That championship, though, was rooted in a memorable Easter vacation Wednesday morning/afternoon two years earlier when they weren't supposed to even compete with the Monsignor Donovan High juggernaut.

But sometimes good things happen when you forge ahead knowing the circumstances.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The out that wasn't that turned into the home run that wasn't

For eight years, I have had the honor of doing the public address for the St. Johns River Community College, now State College, softball team.

And I'd like to say that no one at that institution has seen more losing in eight years at the school with that program than I have. I've watched the Viking ladies lose games in just about every conceivable way you can imagine -- blowouts, close one-run heartbreaks, in extra innings, in the top of the seventh inning, etc. If there's a way to drop a softball game, the Vikings have done it over the years.

In all eight years I've been at SJRCC/SJRSC, the Vikings have never had a winning season. But to make the state softball tournament for junior colleges, all the Vikings have to do is finish in the top five in the Mid-Florida Conference, arguably the toughest conference in the entire country because it includes the three "big bullies" -- Seminole State, Florida State College-Jacksonville and Santa Fe -- three of the best programs around.

The Vikings have rarely had success with any of those teams, but then again, they haven't had much success against the so-called bottom feeders of the conference either. So come the middle of April, the season would end without a trip to the state tournament.

But for one shining moment, things were different. That was the 2007 season, easily the most enjoyable season I've had doing PA for the Vikings. There were some really good afternoons that spring. And the one that topped all of them came on a Thursday afternoon, April 5, 2007, at home against Central Florida Community College of Ocala.

Both teams were fighting for the fifth and final state playoff spot in the Mid-Florida Conference with the known that Santa Fe, FCC-J, Seminole and Daytona Beach were gobbling up the first four spots easily.

SJRCC came in with a Mid-Florida Conference record of 5-9, Central Florida at 4-10. A doubleheader sweep would give the Vikings some momentum considering they had doubleheaders with Santa Fe, FCC-J, Daytona Beach and state playoff hopeful Lake City left.

Someone, though, forgot to tell the SJRCC girls they had this important doubleheader in front of them, though, in the first game. Central Florida led 7-0 by the fourth inning. But the Vikings fought back on the back of Tater -- Katie Shannon, who belted a solo home run and a three-run shot to make it 8-4.

Central Florida added a run in the seventh to make it a five-run lead. Instead of going away and making the second game a more important thought, the Vikings decided to make it interesting in the the bottom of the seventh.

This was bad for Central Florida, most notably center fielder Lisa Stevenson. Catcher Rachel Torres crushed a pitch that cleared the center field fence, but Stevenson did not know where the fence was and crashed into it full force. When Stevenson crashed, she fractured her leg in two places. It took 40 minutes for paramedics to get to the college, which by the way, is right around the corner from Putnam Community Medical Center, get her on a stretcher and get her transported.

When the game ended, the Vikings lost 9-6, but had the good feeling of fighting back in the end. With a 40-minute delay to get a player off the field, though, you almost forgot there was the rest of a first game and an entire second game left to play.

But that's when the fun really began.

Once again, the Vikings forgot that wakeup call. Central Florida struck for three runs in the top of the first for a 3-0 lead. I'm thinking the state playoff spot they were fighting for is slowly flushing itself down the toilet.

It stayed that way until the fourth when they got two runs, Stefanie Hunt singling in Torres and Allison Posey bringing in Hunt with a single.

It was 3-2 going into the sixth inning where SJRCC needed to make some sort of move to show those in attendance it was really serious about making the state tournament for the first time in its fastpitch history (yeah, I still to this day have a hard time trying to explain to my northern friends that "fastpitch" softball became the "in" thing in the mid 1990s).

The inning began with a Chelsie Garner single. Garner was replaced on the basepaths by pinch-runner Jessica Jordan. Keep that move in mind. That's where this whole story takes a turn for the bizarre later on.

Posey would lay down a beautiful bunt to move Jordan to second and a passed ball got Jordan, the tying run, to third. Kim Turvey then walked and took second on fielder's indifference. With a 1-2 count, local Palatka High product Megan Harris delivered a single to right field to bring in both runs to give SJRCC a 4-3 lead going into the seventh.

Marian McCall, a Keystone Heights High standout and in her freshman year with the Vikings, had come into the game when starter Kerrie Alexander had trouble in the first inning and held the Patriots scoreless. Now she needed three outs to get the split and keep the Vikings ahead of Central Florida in the conference standings.

The leadoff hitter was Leslie Todisco. Todisco hit a harmless groundball to second baseman Posey, who threw to Garner at first for the opening out of the inning.

Or so we thought. From the third-base coaching box came head coach Kris Cox. The home plate umpire's job is to record who comes in and out of the game and if you have ever witnessed a softball game, you know it becomes an endless game of substitutions with pinch-runners, pinch-hitters, flex position moves and pitching changes.

College softball game moves make Little League-level game moves look downright normal. Recently, I had an umpire before an SJRSC game tell me the whole concept of that "flex" position, which I still am fuzzy with to this day, and he tried hard, but it still didn't penetrate my brain the way I hoped it would.

But I digress. In this particular game, Vikings head coach Toni Willis never alerted home plate umpire Carl Willis (no relation) that Garner had come back into the game at first base for Jordan, who had pinch-run. So by rule, without announcing the change, Jordan was still in the game.

Cox knew that. And when Carl Willis came back over to Toni Willis and assistant coach Becky Bennett to tell them they never reported the switch back to Garner, Garner was considered an illegal player. And because she touched the ball, Todisco was, by rule, allowed to hit again.

Hit again. Bill Murray waking up at 6:30 in the morning to "I Got You Babe" had nothing on this moment. One out suddenly became none out.

But wait, this gets better.

On the third pitch of the second at-bat, Todisco hit a popup behind first base and in foul ground. Garner and Posey went out for the ball, but Posey dropped the ball for an error, allowing Todisco to stay at the plate.

On a 2-2 pitch, Todisco hit another popup, this time behind the plate. Torres threw off the mask and located the ball. But as she lined up to make the catch, it landed just behind her and fell harmlessly foul. She had misjudged where the ball was, and to the delight of Central Florida and Todisco, the seemingly infinite at-bat continued.

What else could possibly go wrong at this point?

Well, on the next pitch, everything. Todisco laced into McCall's delivery and tattooed it over the center field fence for a home run to tie the game at 4-4.

Todisco had taken advantage of her second, third AND fourth chances to knot the game and as her teammates waited happily for her at home plate, that sense of "oh no, here we go again" was creeping back in the cruelest and most unusual way.

Yeah, I had read this script so many times. I had been around this block before. Throw in every negative cliche you can imagine, I've done it in the three-plus years I had done PA, watching above the softball diamond at almost every single faux pas possible to mankind and womankind.

All I was thinking was McCall gets the next three batters and the Vikings continue whatever momentum they had in the sixth inning to win it in the seventh.

But Rachel Torres was watching the festivities in front of her at the plate. She also watched Todisco coming into home plate. And as soon as the Patriots players mobbed Todisco, Torres noticed something very unusual.

Todisco never touched home plate. Seriously! In a single at-bat that already was bizarre, you couldn't make this stuff up. So she quietly called to coaches Willis and Bennett, who called McCall to toss her the ball before the next batter came to the plate.

Apparently, Torres wasn't the only one watching what was taking place at home plate. As soon as the next batter dug in at the plate. Torres stood up and took a simple appeal toss from McCall and stepped on the plate.

Carl Willis put his fist up and called Todisco out.

Cox went ballistic. She was somewhere between shocked and wronged. But it is the umpire's job to watch the play to the very end, including home runs. She wanted an explanation from Carl Willis and I still believe four years later, she still hasn't gotten a reasonable answer from the man even though he did give her one.

But whether she accepted it or not, instead of 4-4 and none out, it was 4-3 again with one out. McCall struck out the next two batters to give the Vikings the 4-3 win and a much-needed split.

The 2007 season was a very special season at SJRCC for the softball program. They were able to get splits with Daytona Beach, Lake City and FCC-J, the latter coming on a dramatic, two-out, bottom-of-the-seventh inning, two-run home run by Shannon in the second game.

SJRCC finished the conference year tied for the fifth spot with Lake City at 9-15. The Vikings would play a one-game playoff on April 24, 2007 at Santa Fe in Gainesville, and got a two-run single by Shannon in a 3-0 shutout of Lake City to claim their first state playoff berth in fastpitch history.

There were other victories along the way that season, including the rare doubleheader sweep at home of Seminole and splits with Daytona and FCC-J.

But the highlight of that amazing 26-30 season was that second-game victory at home against Central Florida Community College and the out that wasn't, then the home run that turned into an out.

Easily the best and most bizarre moment behind the mic in my eight years of SJRCC/SC softball.