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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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this story Mark. I currently coach the CR Middle School team and I'm always looking to teach them the history of the program they are a part of. A big reason to my history lessons are because my squad wears the uniforms of the 1996 Group 3 state championship team. They don't care for the retro vibe of the uniform, but I continually tell them to wear it with CR pride to honor the women who wore it before them!