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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.

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