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Saturday, May 28, 2011

The greatest girls soccer match I saw

To this day, I can still see Bob Kulessa looking away from what was happening behind him. It was too bad.

He missed out on the ending of the greatest high school girls soccer match I ever saw. The funny thing was, he was the coach of one of the teams involved in the game.

On Thursday, June 4, 1987, the Shore Conference Tournament was winding down into the semifinal round with top-seeded and unbeaten Point Pleasant Boro hosting fourth seed and defending champion Manalapan.

And, yes, I was excited. Excited because I would get to see the '86 SCT champs again with most of their team back from the championship squad that rocked Lacey High's world the year before when the Lions went into the SCT title game unbeaten and Manalapan thoroughly picked them apart, 2-0.

The Braves were a dominant team led by sisters Cindy and Jen Krey, Cindy the hero of the championship game the year before with both goals as a freshman, goalie Cindy Gilbridge and all-world sweeper Jamie Roberto, who was not afraid to take on the other team's best offensive threat, still the memory lingering of her evening on this very Point Boro field the year before when she stymied 28-goal scorer Tricia Lattanzi in the victory over Lacey.

The Braves were coached by a man named Bill Ciullo, who had taken over the program in 1984 after Scott Ridley had left to start the Monmouth College women's soccer program. Ciullo was highly opinionated about how great his team was, but respectful, too, of the teams his Braves came across.

All season long, Point Boro had stood up to its competition in compiling a 14-0-2 record, the two scoreless ties ironically against Lacey, which did not have the same kind of offensive bite it had the year before, but was still a good team defensively. Much of this Point Boro team I had watched grow up in the previous two years with forwards Chrissy Glenn and Jennifer Hunter now seniors, as well as stopper and another all-everything defender, Kathleen O'Rourke. But these Panthers also were a great mix of veterans and youth, the younger standout players being sweeper Karen Anderson, a sophomore, sophomore goalkeeper Jen MacIver and two freshmen players who the Boro soccer universe would revolve around the next four years, midfielder Jennifer Shutt and forward Kim Yankowski.

And leading the Panther program was Kulessa, the program's only coach since girls soccer became reality at the Jersey Shore in 1976. The quirky Kulessa had coached through an unbeaten team one time before when his Dawn Kinghorn-led squad of 1977 swept through its schedule to a 15-0 mark, the only unbeaten team in Ocean County history prior to the '87 season.

In some ways, this game pitted a team in its prime, which came into this game with a 13-2 record, against the up-and-coming challenger thirsty for a crown and attention. That was what was keeping my attention, the reason I was excited to show up at the Point Boro soccer/football field for this one.

Back in the day, games were played in 20-minute quarters instead of the 40-minute halves they are now. And it didn't take long for the challenger to flex its muscles on the defending champion. The Panthers picked up a corner kick and O'Rourke's service into the net got to Glenn, who barely tapped the ball into the net behind Gilbride to give the home team a 1-0 lead.

On this dreary, grey day that I can still see in my mind at the Boro, the Panthers were providing the sunshine. As the game slowly went along, many Boro fans and teachers were congregating either in the stands or along the fence. I saw football coach Al Saner hanging along the fence with Point Pleasant Boro's Ed Carleton and Jersey Shore baseball league teams coach Art Rooney.

Meanwhile, Point Boro's defense had held strong behind Anderson, O'Rourke, defenders Dawn Wassmer and Stephanie Novarro and MacIver, protecting the 1-0 lead for three periods.

The best, I found out, was yet to come. And it started with a fundamental mistake between stopper and goalkeeper.

O'Rourke had gained control of the ball and looked to tap it back to MacIver, but the pass was so weak that Manalapan forward Eileen Sheehan jumped on the ball, pounced on MacIver and put the ball in the back of the net to tie it at 1-1 with 14:32 left.

O'Rourke looked flustered. Kulessa was standing beside himself, angry at O'Rourke and his team for letting down for that one little moment. Hey, these were the defending SCT champions after all.

Suddenly, it was a new game with plenty of time left in regulation. Ten minutes after the mistake, O'Rourke atoned when she delivered another perfectly placed corner kick into the box where Glenn was able to have better command of the ball and knock her shot in behind Gilbride to make it 2-1 with only 4:17 left in the fourth quarter.

All was well in Point Pleasant Boro again, right?

Think again, kemosabe.

The Braves took only 32 seconds -- 32 seconds! -- to tie the darned thing up again when Cindy Kray chose her spot to shoot at, then delivered a 25-yard laser past MacIver.

Again, the animated Kulessa appeared flustered. Did he or anyone think that Manalapan was going into the late afternoon/early evening quietly? Seriously!?

The regulation part of the game ended at 2-all. Overtimes were played in 10-minute increments for two overtimes and there was no sudden death. If the match was still tied, it'd go to sudden death overtimes, which were two shorter five-minute sessions. And if the game was still deadlocked, the fate of both teams would be decided by the dreaded and unpopular penalty kicks.

At the 4:54 mark of the first overtime, Manalapan had gained control of the game when Sheehan threaded the needle past Anderson to teammate Kathy Frenkie, who got her foot on the ball before MacIver could make the save on it, a bang-bang play that the Boro goalie lost.

Manalapan 3, Point Boro 2. Maybe it was just not meant to be. And with 10 minutes gone, the teams switched sides going into the second overtime. If the Braves held on, they would be heading to Wall Township High School to defend their SCT championship. On one side of the field, the fans who came down from northwestern Monmouth County were fired up, ready to put a stake in the unbeaten Panthers' heart.

Be gone, Boro!

The Panthers kicked off to begin the second overtime and lost the ball almost immediately as the Braves began to bring the ball back into the Panthers' defensive end.

But then something happened that I swear I could take to my grave remembering that may have been the "spark" of a comeback. Behind me in the Point Boro portion of the stands, I could hear the sound of something going, "pu-POW-pow-pow-pu-POW-POW-pow ... pow-pow-POW."

Some moronic Point Boro student had set off firecrackers in the stands, which were at best a third of the way filled. I hope that student who was stupid enough to light firecrackers at a soccer match is doing much better with his life since his rehab stint. But in a game that was already filled with a little of this and a lot of that, what was a firecracker disturbance anyway?

Standing not too far from me was Saner, who reluctantly headed away from where he was over to the stands where all the "action" had just happened. Not more than two or three seconds after that incident, those watching the game started getting excited.

So my head jerked back to the field. And almost on cue, Yankowski had taken the ball from behind the midfield line and started to blaze a path almost unabated to the Braves' goal. Once past the midfield line, she headed left, toward the center of the field, juking past a pair of defenders until only Roberto met her 25 yards from the net.

What I was about to see was the torch of Shore Conference girls soccer greatness passed from older player to younger. Once Roberto got on her, I believe her plan was to shadow Yankowski and take the ball away from her or make her shoot errantly. But Roberto miscalculated how unbelievably fast this freshman was.

Yankowski zipped past Roberto like she was just standing there. That made Gilbride a standing duck in goal and Yankowski fired a 15-yarder past her just as the goalie made an attempt to go after Yankowski and the ball.

Boro fans erupted like the game was over and their team was going to the final. Boro players, assistant coach Bill Burke and Kulessa reacted as if they just won the Academy Award for best film.

What Yankowski, this amazing freshman, did was just prepare soccer fans for what the next three years would be like. The teams would play out the next 8:09 of the second overtime and two more five-minute sudden death periods to push this semifinal battle into the dreaded penalty kicks.

As the teams set up to pick who would shoot and what round the shooters would be called upon, there was a sense of uneasiness, especially from Manalapan's side of the field since this was something I sensed it didn't want to do. But because of the quality of players and the experience the Braves had, I, along with those who knew something about the sport, figured they would be the ones advancing on to Wall for the final. After all, Gilbride had played goal for the SCT champions a year ago. She had to have the experience over MacIver, who like all her teammates were a part of their first Shore Conference Tournament.

Manalapan went first and Laura Bidun looked at the net. But her shot was nowhere near the Boro net or MacIver. That brought up Yankowski. In a season in which she scored 20 goals, did you think she was going to miss despite being a freshman?

Uh-uh! Gilbride had no shot as Yankowski blasted her shot in for a 1-0 lead. But on her attempt, Kim DeConie nailed a shot off MacIver's hands and into the net to tie it at 1-all.

Then the jitters took over for both teams. Point Boro's Shutt and Hunter missed, as did Manalapan's Donna Batanjany and Doreen Gilbride.

In her kick, Anderson, a great player who earned four All-County first-team honors as an unheralded sweeper, gave Boro a 2-1 lead with a perfect shot past Gilbride's right side.

Down to her team's final kick, Cindy Krey delivered greatness with a shot that MacIver never moved on. Now it was up to O'Rourke to finish it off and send the Panthers to the SCT championship.

She guessed where goalie Gilbride would go and fired a shot toward the corner of the net. By not much, it missed the target, flying past the right goalpost.

Now the match would be decided on a second set of penalty kicks -- and THIS time, it was sudden death. No best-of-5 anymore. If someone led after the individual round, the match was over.

Up first for Manalapan was Jen Krey, a freshman standout and Cindy's younger sister. Jen Krey made a perfect boot toward the net, but the ball rose and went over the 6-foot MacIver and crossbar. Krey immediately buried her face in her hands.

But it was not over. With the standout players like Yankowski, Shutt, O'Rourke, Hunter and Anderson already used up, was it assumed that Chrissy Glenn was next on Kulessa's penalty kick list?

Imagine my surprise -- and I'm sure a few other people's surprises -- when the unassuming Novarro stepped up to make her kick. Novarro admitted after the game that this round's kick was between her and midfield teammate Kim House, but she wanted to take the kick and Kulessa was convinced enough to let her take it.

Throughout the penalty kicks, Kulessa did not want to see what happened in each individual attempt, so on one knee he knelt almost near the midfield line, facing the unused opposite goal with Burke telling him the results of each kick. And that was the case with this one.

Novarro faced Gilbride, looked up at the goalie, then got the go-ahead from the referee to deliver her kick. Her shot was true, just inside the left goalpost, beating Gilbride.

Panthers players rushed toward Novarro, while Kulessa got the confirmation of the game-winning goal from Burke. Novarro, a chearleader at Point Boro during the fall and winter seasons, got to be lauded instead of being the one lauding others.

And Kulessa survived, as did his girls. Plenty of smiles to go around on both the field and in the stands where the people who did stick around.

But as Boro girls were celebrating, the Manalapan girls had just come to the realization that the season was over and there'd be no repeat of its SCT title. The death march had begun back to the bus hanging out on School Street. And coming off the field almost last was Jen Krey, uncontrollably in tears with her sister and Ciullo both consoling her.

The problem with deciding a game in penalty kicks is that no matter who wins, there's a losing team and there's a player who either had their kick turned away by a save or booted the ball errantly beyond the goal. And whether you liked or disliked Manalapan's girls soccer team, there was a part of you that felt horrible for that young lady and that team. I've always been a big proponent of playing until someone scores a "golden goal."

I grabbed Ciullo as he came off the field and he wasn't too happy to see his season end, especially like this.

"It's unfortunate we have to live with these results," he started. "I don't like to decide the game through penalty kicks, but that's what was decided at the seeding meeting."

As Manalapan's personnel climbed back onto its bus to head back to Monmouth County, the party was still going on over on the Boro field where I approached Kulessa.

"What did I miss?" he joked.

The victory propelled the Panthers to the SCT final, where they beat Wall on the Crimson Knights' home field six days later, 4-1, as Yankowski scored three goals in leading the way, finishing out a 16-0-2 season, the second unbeaten season in Ocean County history.

Yankowski and Shutt were about to have two of the greatest careers in the sport's history in Ocean County, losing only three games their entire careers, culminating with a second SCT championship in 1990 when the Panthers outscored their opponents, 190-5, to finish 20-0.

There's no doubt that win or lose, Point Boro's girls were going to have a great run in them for the next three seasons. And maybe it started earlier than most of us thought.

Oh, don't feel badly for Manalapan. A year later, a still-experienced Manalapan club defeated Toms River North, 2-1, to win its second SCT title in three years after North had stunned Point Boro, 1-0, in the semifinal round.

And maybe the Manalapan-Point Boro game was too good to be a semifinal because it was played in ultimate championship caliber. So much happened on that Thursday afternoon that was memorable, even on a dreary day in Point Pleasant Boro.

Twenty-four years later, it's still the greatest girls soccer match I've ever witnessed.

I saw it all that day ... even if the winning coach didn't.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

17 consecutive strikeouts doesn't always equal a win

Recently, I had the chance to help do public address for another Ocean County Softball Tournament title game, this one at Lacey High School. As I watched a close pitch come in to the plate and the home plate umpire call it a ball, some of the people upstairs with me were questioning how close that pitch was.

Then I made the comment, "If it were Dick Beer behind the plate, that'd be a strike."

The athletic director who once was an umpire and worked with Mr. Beer started to laugh. Then Lacey head softball coach Mike Shern delivered the line of all lines, the highlight of my day upstairs in the press box.

"If Dick Beer were behind the plate of this game, we'd be out of here in about an hour."

We all burst out laughing. If you ever saw Dick Beer do a softball game, you'd understand why. Not that he's a bad man by any means -- personally, I think highly of him -- but his strike zone is usually the size of either the zip code or area code.

And it got me thinking of a day he was in his glory behind the plate. It was Tuesday, May 21, 1991. The site was Brick Township High School in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tournament semifinal between second seed Brick High and third seed Cherokee High.

To tell this story, you have to go back to the 1980s. Not far, mind you. The Green Dragons were bad. I mean baaaaaad. I mean reaaaaaaaaally bad.

"How ... bad ... were ... they?" you must be thinking. So bad that between the 1985-88 seasons, the Green Dragons lost 45 straight games. I don't care how bad you are as a team, even a blind squirrel finds a nut from time to time. Unfortunately, they were that bad.

In 1988, the school's boys bowling coach, Al Grove, one of the truly fantastic human beings I cherish, took on the task of being this program's head coach. He inherited the 40-game losing streak part of the 45-gamer which his team added the other five games on to. Then they broke the streak in amazing fashion -- they beat Howell and did it with a no-hitter thrown by their freshman phenom, Viki Kara.

Kara was an exceptional pitcher, who wasn't afraid to throw it past you. And back in 1988, if you had a fastball ... simply a good, hard fastball ... you could succeed in this game called softball as a pitcher. She helped to turn the team's fortunes around.

By 1991, her senior year, she and her senior-dominated team were ready to challenge the Class A South bigwigs. They split the season series with Toms River North and ended up sharing the Class A South title with the Mariners, a huge feat for a program that was nowhere near smelling the penthouse just three years earlier.

The Mariners drew the top seed in the SJ IV tournament, the Green Dragons the second seed, so it was easily assumed the two teams would face one another in the SJ IV final. But if anyone knows anything about South Jersey Group IV softball, you can't succeed unless you beat the best that South Jersey has to offer. And even in a so-called "off year," teams like Cherokee, Shawnee, Lenape, Millville and Washington Township still reigned supreme in the sectional group.

So when Cherokee arrived at Brick High -- and to this day I'm still surprised that Cherokee wasn't in shock when it learned it would have to come to something called Brick Township for an important softball game -- I was assuming a great softball battle was on the horizon. I had seen Brick High enough that year to know it had the talent to go far.

What I didn't expect was the pitching duel between Kara and Cherokee left-hander Kathy Hallowell. Then again, I didn't know much about Dick Beer to know his strike zone was wide enough to drive a Hummer through. Anything near the plate was a strike.

Ted Williams would have had fits with Dick Beer behind the plate. His philosophy was pretty simple: if it's close to the plate, you better be swinging. He never wavered from that and for that reason, I admire him. But even some pitches off the plate had to be called balls from time to time. He never called those.

If Beer's strike zone were akin to political afiliation, he'd drive conservatives crazy.

But nothing was thought of as special in the first inning when Cherokee's Carrie Alcott singled to short center field with one out. Then Kara struck out the next two hitters to end the inning.

Hallowell, though, was matching Kara strike for strike. Well, sort of. Brick hitters were hitting the ball. Cherokee's hitters weren't.

Kara struck out the side in the second inning, the third and the fourth, giving her 11 in a row.

And in the bottom of the fourth, the Green Dragons, which squandered a bases-loaded situation in the second inning when Kelly Munro struck out, finally broke through. Danielle Tomaselli doubled into right field. She moved to third on a wild pitch and Sue Fleisher put down a perfect squeeze bunt she beat out for a single.

Trust me when I say this -- the way Kara was throwing, I figured one run was probably enough. Benefitting from a bigger than normal strike zone thanks to Dick Beer, Kara struck out the side for 14 in a row in the fifth, then didn't show signs of slowing down by fanning all three hitters she faced in the sixth.

That would be now 17 consecutive hitters set down by strikes from Viki Kara, who had now struck out 18 through six. And through six innings, Hallowell had 13 strikeouts.

Never in my career had I seen a game quite like this one and only one more time would I see a game like this again, but it was a little different when the great Lauren Anderson struck out 30 Lacey Lions hitters (coached by Shern coincidentally) in 15 innings in a 1-0 Shore Conference Tournament game in 1998.

And yeah, guess who was behind the plate for that one? Did you say Dick Beer? Bingo!

I know it was taking me a while to pick my jaw up from the floor. After all, the Major League record for consecutive strikeouts is 10 by Tom Seaver. Seventeen in my world was unheard of, yet Viki Kara was making it look way too easy ... OK, way too easy with a little help. Still ...

Nonetheless, we reached the top of the seventh with Brick hanging on to a 1-0 lead. The first batter up was Alcott, the only player who made forward contact the entire game up to this point, the only player who kept the other seven fielders behind Kara from snoring.

Alcott made good contact with a Kara fastball and deposited it just past Fleisher at second base for a single, breaking the streak at 17 consecutive strikeouts. Nikki Kekevian came in to run for Alcott and stole second base, putting a Cherokee Chiefs runner in scoring position for the first time all day.

This brought up Hallowell. She went down on strikes, the 19th strikeout victim of the day and the strikeout that broke Jodi Solana's county mark of 18, which she set two years earlier in a Shore Conference Tournament game against Matawan.

One out and it looked like the ship was back on course. Mikki Lum came to the plate. She nailed a shot to left field, right at freshman Melanie Morris, who snared the drive for the second out of the inning. All looked right. One out to go.

But the flyball out turned into something a little more complicated. Shortstop Colleen Spillane had reportedly told Morris, who had come into the game when regular left fielder Niki Schley went down with an injury, to throw the ball into second. So Morris did.

Imagine her surprise ... everyone's surprise ... when there was no Fleisher at second base. The ball zipped past Kekevian and into right field. And with no one backing up the play -- no second baseman, no first baseman, no right fielder -- the ball was allowed to keep rolling toward the right-field foul line and Kekevian didn't stop until she had scored the tying run.

To this day, one word describes that particular moment.

Dumb-founded. How in the heck do you blow a simple throw into the infield? I still maintain that if Morris had looked up, she may have just thrown to Spillane and let her take care of the ball. Instead, the chaos that followed allowed Cherokee's Chiefs, who were just lucky to even put a bat on the ball, to tie the game.

Kara would get her 20th and final strikeout with the next batter to end the inning. But the damage was done. And probably so were psyches for that matter.

Brick would go scoreless in the seventh, sending what was once an obvious victory into extra innings. And in Cherokee's eighth inning, Lauren Pinellas drew the first walk of the game from Kara. Imagine that ... Dick Beer calling four balls on one batter? Unheard of!

It was about to get completely worse. Erin Read put down a bunt. Kara fielded the ball, but her throw was high and bounced off the glove of first baseman Lori Liegl and down the right field line.

The ball seemed to roll down the line forever. Pinellas came around to score the go-ahead run. The Chiefs got no more runs and Kara had her first strikeout-less inning.

And Brick was done. Hallowell, who would finish with 16 strikeouts, had gained steam as the game went along. She retired the Green Dragons in order in the eighth to preserve the 2-1 Cherokee victory.

Cherokee advanced to the South Jersey Group IV finale at Toms River North. Not Brick. I found out that day why good defense and timely hitting can beat anything thrown at them.

Even a fireballer like Viki Kara. Kara received congratulations for her 20-strikeout performance, everything from handshakes to hugs to kisses. But they were empty because there was no advancement for her or her teammates.

"This was absolutely the best pitching performance I've sever seen," Cherokee coach Mike Medrick said afterward. "I still don't know how we won this game. We couldn't hit her or bunt on her. We couldn't even slash hit her. I thank the good Lord. I guess he wanted us to win this game."

Whether divine intervention had anything to do with Cherokee's rally and victory is up for debate 20 years later. I never saw a pitcher strike out 17 consecutive hitters before and I haven't seen one strike out 17 straight hitters since.

Viki Kara deserved better on this day. Much better. And Al Grove was left to be philosophical.

"we played a great game but had no flowers to show for it," he said to me. On the play that led to the tying run, Grove said, "We goofed in judgment. I should've told Melanie to hold the ball. Viki pitched a great game and we goofed."

Cherokee went on to beat North in the SJ IV final, 3-0, but there's no doubt in my mind that if Brick had gotten past Cherokee, it could have won the state Group IV title. I'm not saying "would have," but "could have" is a much stronger and honest statement. The Green Dragons certainly had the pitcher to go far.

But don't feel sad for this team. Two and a half weeks after this tough loss, the Green Dragons rebounded and won their one and only Ocean County Tournament championship by beating North, 9-2. Kara struck out nine Mariners and was named both Most Valuable Pitcher and Most Valuable Player for the tournament.

The Green Dragons finished the year at 22-4, by far the best season the program ever had. Kara won all 22 games and finished her career with 46 victories and ultimately had her No. 13 jersey retired by Grove and by the Green Dragons, a truly amazing honor for a young lady who helped turn a program around in the right direction, even if it was for a short time.

And who put on one of the greatest pitching displays I've ever seen one May afternoon.

Even if the umpire's strike zone was as big as Western Canada.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

What an OCT softball title game and tournament director did for me in 2003

All the friendships I have I cherish in one way or another, whether outwardly or not.

That includes the one I have with current Goetz Middle School vice-principal Al Aires, who I've known as both a head softball and wrestling coach at Jackson Memorial High School since 1987.

That was the year he took over as the Jaguars' coach and it took a few years, but in the early 1990s, he had a softball program that was without doubt on the rise. By the end of the '90s, his Jaguars had been to the Ocean County Tournament championship game five times, winning titles in 1996 and '99, and in that 1999 season, the Jaguars captured the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV championship.

The best part of that friendship is I could talk to the man about anything and we could talk forever if given the opportunity. Of course, that is, if you can get him on the phone. I still say he's one of the most impossible people to reach via phone. That's how busy the man is between his vice-principal duties at school and his duties at home to his lovely wife Phyllis and their three children.

In 2003, I had a lot of free time on my hands. I was at home unemployed for the first time in my life, one year into that unemployment from the journalism industry with lots of nibbles for a professional with 18 years in the business and numerous credentials, but no takers. By the first year of my unemployment, I was literally beyond bored and I actually started looking into other professions that could utilize my other skills -- typing, note taking, reporting. I mean, I DID have a Bachelor's degree from a four-year college in communications.

It had been made clear to me that after I had come back home to New Jersey that I was not wanted by my own company after I basically in so many words tore them a new one for the shoddy treatment of the paper I proudly worked at for 15 years, the Ocean County Observer. I was even told so by a couple of friends, one who was the sports editor at the Observer who would have loved to have had my knowledge and talents, but told not to hire me for even part-time work.

Funny thing was, I wasn't hurt by it. I knew the storyline ... Hell, I basically wrote it myself!! ... and I knew the score. The six months that I worked at the Observer as sports editor in early 1999 were some of the worst times I've ever had in the business. I was in control of my section, but I was having to take orders from people who wanted my section to have this, that and the other thing. Oh, and I had to be done with the section by 10:50 p.m., especially in a county where night games were all the rage by the latter part of the decade/century.

Let's just say I wasn't happy with the situation. Oh, and as a writer, I still have the hard copy of a Central Regional-Middletown South high school field hockey game that was completely re-written by an Asbury Park Press copy editor, like I was some schmuck who just walked out of J-school and was still struggling with the who, what, when, where, why and how of a story. I remember giving a copy of that hard copy later on to Middletown South field hockey/softball coach Tom Erbig.

It's 13 years later, and if that woman who ever re-wrote that story ever crosses my path again, I can't promise I'll have control of whatever is said soon after.

So in April 2003, I was slowly giving up hope that there was still a job for me in journalism. Then came that year's Ocean County Softball Tournament.

I knew Al Aires was now the tournament's director. We had kept in touch from time to time during the years I was working in Key West. Told the man I was completely bored and he said I could be of some value and help. He told me the final was on Saturday, May 17, at his high school. So at least I had something to look forward in the immediate future as a public address announcer.

But there was something else, something missing. For years, I had kept all the scorebooks of every OCT game I had covered and had been to as an OCT co-director myself for eight years. I had so much stuff swimming around in my head on the tournament, too, that I needed to do something constructive.

Henceforth, my introduction to Web site making on the Internet. Thanks to the people of Network Solutions, I was able to purchase and then design my own Web site, which to this day still goes strong ... I am very grateful to have had a lot of info still on me to at least get the site started.

But I had some catching up to do. Once I had posted all the info on what was 22 years of the tournament's history, I had to catch up on the 2003 tournament. So I had newspapers to rifle through. And I had the phone numbers still of coaches I knew I could get in touch with and get information on the games.

Within a matter of days, I was caught up. And it was by the quarterfinal round where I was able to take in three of the four of the games in person -- Toms River East vs. Jackson Memorial, Central Regional vs. Manchester and Toms River North vs. Lacey. The only game I missed out on was Brick Memorial vs. New Egypt, but I had seen Brick Memorial stun Southern Regional in the first round and I had Memorial coach Vinny Dallicardillo's phone number if I needed any information on his team's loss to the up-and-coming Warriors of Western Ocean County.

So imagine my surprise when Brick Memorial stunned New Egypt in that quarterfinal. And imagine my surprise when Brick Memorial would come back later on and stop Toms River North in the semifinals at North. The other semifinal was another great game at Manchester where single runs in the third and fourth inning held up and Nicole Webb did the rest, striking out nine Raiders in a 2-0 triumph over Toms River East.

Now we had a final -- and what I figured to be a foregone conclusion. Top-seeded Manchester was 20-0 and top-heavy with seniors, led by Webb. It also didn't hurt I knew the head coach, Harry Ferone, who not only was the coach of the program since 1997, but was also a high school classmate of mine that I had known for almost 25 years.

Dallicardillo's Mustangs had written this great story as an 11th seed, upsetting their way to the championship game. The 10-7 record they sported for the final was nice, but paled harshly to the 20-0 mark Manchester's Hawks had accumulated.

Manchester had been turned back at the door in the 2002 final against Southern Regional, so its time was coming.

By the Friday night before the championship, I had put together my most comprehensive OCT program ever, a 30-page effort that not only highlighted the '03 tournament, but had spanned the 22 other tournaments that led to this title game. I was also able to write a feature story on the eight seniors of Manchester. It was definitely a good time to write again.

So on the 17th, I showed up at Jackson Memorial High School for the final ... two and a half hours early. Hey, it wasn't as if I had anything better going on in my life at that point. I was just happy to be wanted for something.

When I arrived, the sound system I was going to speak through was set up. I was set up and ready to go ... long before the teams and fans showed up.

By 6:30 p.m., I was ready to go with the final. As I began announcing, I slowly realized that as I opened my mouth to talk -- the first time I had done PA for any event since the 1999 OCT final at Toms River South -- it got quiet. For the first time in a long, long time, I had control of something.

And I won't lie -- it felt pretty freakin' good.

That got buzz-killed moments later when I announced that the winner of this game was going to be a first-time winner in this event and some teenage girl from the Manchester side of the field sarcastically shouted out, "Oh, great!" like I was making fun of both programs or something like that.

Got through both lineups and substitues and the umpires in the game like it was nothing. Played the national anthem over my personal CD-cassette player. Then, I helped to re-introduce a tradition before the title game -- the first pitch. As strange as it sounds, I actually liked the first pitch before a championship game. Numerous people kind of scoff at the idea privately ... and I know who those people are ... but it's paying homage to the tournament's tradition over the years. Those people who scoff at a first-pitch ceremony just have no love of history at all, which I find very sad.

Our first-pitch thrower was a good friend of mine: Jackson Memorial High graduate Erin Leonard, the 1999 OCT MVP when the Jaguars had beaten East in that final at South. She was in the middle of a big weekend, getting ready to graduate on that Sunday from Caldwell College where she continued her softball catching career. So this was just icing on a good seven days for her. Her smile that could light up Jackson Township was all I needed to know she was honored to bring back "the tradition."

As the first pitch from Webb was getting ready to be thrown, I looked around at the enormous amount of people who were at this unique field setting at Jackson Memorial and I must admit, I was overwhelmed. This event -- one that over the years had been threatened to be abandoned, especially when the field for the Shore Conference Tournament had been expanded to include all team with .500 records or better -- still had amazing drawing power.

How many of those people there were on hand to watch this great Manchester team win its first OCT title in that "foregone conclusion" I'm sure was plenty.

And it would be the Hawks drawing first blood in the second inning when Rianna Vanchure and Jess Bongiovanni hit back-to-back doubles to make it 1-0.

But Brick Memorial had shown strong bounce-back power the entire tournament. Why not this night, too? Christina Pickewicz grounded into a force play, the second out of the inning, and Kaitlin Chieco reached on a Vanchure error at second base to put runners on first and second. It brought up the "thunder and lightning" portion of the lineup -- pitcher Kate Streilein and catcher Stacey Ryan.

Streilein was Ms. Clutch throughout the tournament, both on the mound and at the plate. And she delivered again with a base hit off Webb to bring in Pickewicz to tie it at 1-all. Ryan delivered a single to score Chieco to make it 2-1.

Streilein kept the Hawks off-balance for the first three innings. But in the fourth, Vanchure got to her again with a triple to left-center field and scored on a Bongiovanni groundout.

These Mustangs didn't back down. For as great as Vanchure was at the plate, she was not so good in the field. Pickewicz started the top of the fifth by reaching on another Vanchure error and moved to second on a Chieco sacrifice bunt. Once again, Streilein was Ms. Clutch, delivering a double to left-center field to bring in the go-ahead run.

It stayed that way until the sixth. With one out, Hayley Jorgensen blasted a triple to right-center field and that girl again -- Vanchure -- added to her potential cycle with a single to left field to bring in pinch-runner Sabrina Hager, tying it at 3-3.

Through six innings, this championship was already becoming legendary. After all, who saw these 11th-seeded Mustangs standing toe to toe with the top-seeded and unbeaten Hawks? Not many people, though honestly, I felt they could at least make it a close game. Tied after six, though? Not a chance.

With one out in the seventh, Chieco singled to right against Webb, who it was becoming obvious didn't have her best stuff on this night even though she finished with 11 strikeouts. These Mustangs were in the middle of banging out nine hits.

Streilein delivered her third hit of the game and Vanchure's third error of the night on a Ryan pop-up loaded the bases for No. 5 hitter Allison Tauscher. Tauscher hit what appeared to be a single to right field, but right fielder Bongiovanni got to the ball on a hop and fired a strike to first baseman Shawn Casey for a 9-3 putout.

Tauscher was out, but Chieco scored, and though Heather Borman struck out to end the inning, the Mustangs were within three outs of winning their first OCT title in unlikely style.

But for the first time all evening, the Mustang defense had a flaw in it. Autumn Florez's groundball to third baseman Pickewicz was thrown wildly from first baseman Sharon Mangan to allow the runner to reach. Kate Bongiovanni, the older of the two Bongiovanni sisters on the team, put down a perfect sacrifice to Streilein. Webb had a chance to bring the run in herself, but she hit a grounder at shortstop Ashley Melone, who froze Florez at second and fired to first for the out.

The Hawks were down to one out and the the game's outcome was being decided by cleanup hitter Lauren Tardiff, the team's third baseman and a true gamer. Tardiff was due, going 0-for-2 with a walk against Streilein. On a 0-1 pitch, Tardiff lofted a soft liner in second baseman Borman's direction. Borman leaped as high as she could and got her glove on the ball.

She couldn't squeeze it in her glove, though. The ball trickled out and bounded away from Borman. That allowed Florez to come around third and tie the game again at 4-4.

Talk about your matter of inches. Streilein got Casey to fly out to Tauscher in right field to end the inning and for the second time in the 23-year history of the OCT, the title game was going to extra innings.

The first OCT title game to go to extra innings is still the greatest game in that tournament's history -- Central Regional's dramatic 2-1 win over Toms River North on Cheryl Zellman's ninth-inning home run in 1997. Though this game wasn't quite as dramatic as that one, this was still carving out a niche on the greatness level as it went along.

The Hawks put runners on first and second with two outs in the eighth, but Florez hit a grounder at Pickewicz, who fielded the ball and stepped on third for the forecout that ended the inning.

In the top of the ninth, the Mustangs struck again versus Webb. Pickewicz hit a groundball to Webb that should've been an easy comebacker ... except Casey dropped the ball at first for the Hawks' fourth error of the night. That was followed by Chieco's sacrifice bunt being fumbled around by Webb for the fifth Hawks error, putting runners on first and second with no outs.

Streilein didn't get a hit this time up, but she did her job by hitting a groundball to Vanchure, who threw to Casey for the out to put both runners in scoring position. The count got to 2-2 on Ryan when Webb's next pitch went between catcher Corinne Stinemire's legs, allowing Pickewicz to speed home with the go-ahead run, making it 5-4.

Ryan worked out a walk, but Webb got Tauscher to ground out without Chieco scoring and struck out Heather Borman to keep it a one-run game.

Did Manchester have another pale of water to get in an already drying well? The unbeaten season was on the line in the biggest game of the season.

Streilein was up to the task. She got Kate Bongiovanni on a comebacker to start the ninth. Webb flied out to Tauscher. It was left to Tardiff. On a 1-2 pitch, Tardiff slowly grounded the ball to Streilein's left. Streilein grabbed the ball on about the third hop and fired a strike to Mangan before Tardiff got to first.

And just like that, it was over. "We Are The Champions" blared over the sound system for the first-time champions of the tournament, the Brick Memorial Mustangs.

Mustang players jumped all over each other in celebration. I'm sure it took a while for Dallicardillo to come back to Earth, not just because of this win. Earlier in the week, he became a second-time dad. Now THAT'S the definition of a great, all-around week. Assistant coach Eddie Sarluca was left speechless by the performance his young Mustangs put together. And assistant coach Rich Streilein beamed with pride, especially after it was my duty to announce during the awards ceremony that his daughter was the Most Valuable Player of the tournament.

And with the joyous are the ones feeling sorrow. There were not as many tears from Manchester players as you would have thought there'd be. Yes, it hurt to lose the first game of the season in the biggest game of the year up to that point. Manchester would reach the OCT semifinal round only one more time after this tournament, losing to eventual champion Toms River North, 10-0, in 2006.

Ferone and his players knew there were bigger things ahead -- like the SCT where the Hawks would lose their only other game of the season to Red Bank Catholic in the quarterfinal round. And there was the state tourney, where the Hawks would go on to win the NJSIAA Group II title in a dramatic 1-0 victory over Caldwell.

"It hurts man," Ferone told me after the game. "Give (Brick Memorial) credit. They were just better than us."

In the end, the Hawks had their storybook ending in a great 26-2 season.

On this night, the Mustangs wrote the final happy ending.

Another note on this game that will still sorely stick out to this day with those involved with that Memorial softball team -- there was no media coverage of the game. No one from the Observer, no one from the Asbury Park Press, and no one from the Star-Ledger.

And it was up to me to call the other newspapers to report this game. Part of me begrudgingly was doing this. After all, it's their responsibility to send someone to a final, regardless of it being on an early deadline Saturday night. You just roll with it. As I've learned over the years in this business, people do care when you show up to their events to cover it, regardless of how much is written on it.

They are appreciative of your presence. They're not appreciative when you just don't show up to something big like, oh say, the county tournament final.

Called the Star-Ledger first. I knew I would get someone pleasant on the other end. It took five minutes to do that job and he wrote it up, I believe, for Monday's editions.

Then came the call to the Asbury Park Press. A good guy named Bruce took this over the phone. He asked a lot of questions since he wasn't too in tune with the high school softball scene and I was more than happy to answer them. Took longer than the call to the Star-Ledger, but that was OK. I got off the phone, left Jackson Memorial High School sometime after 10:30 to go back home.

All was fine, I figured. Well, apparently not.

In my mail folder arrived this little email the next day:


I am writing to politely tell you to cease and desist with calling in
softball games for coaches.

Saturday night you caused us a problem by calling in the result of the Ocean
County Tournament championship game. The information you provided was
inadequate, and we had to call Vinnie Dallicardillo on Sunday to get further
information. Vinnie had to go to some trouble to get it for us, because he
didn't bring his book home with him as a result of you volunteering to call
the game in.

I realize you believe you are being helpful. You are not. We need to speak
to the coaches directly because we need to be able to quote them or get in
touch with their players for quotes. We cannot quote you because you have no
official role with any of these teams, nor will we quote you.

Please do not do this ever again.

What made this worse was the person writing this email was the same woman who re-wrote that field hockey story because it wasn't up to her standards four years ago. The first thought was to write her back and practically rip her a new one for even thinking I was "causing problems." Are you kidding me? I'm causing you problems?! I don't think so!

But my mom and sister -- yes, two women -- had stronger opinions.

"What a f**kin' bitch," was the first thing that came out of my sister's mouth when she read this email. "Who the f**k does she think she is?"

"That's awful," my mom said. "You know you're doing her a favor." Then my very placid, demure mother stunned me.

"I'd tell this bitch off. She has no right to say that."

Sometimes, I have let my emotions get the better of me. I admit that I've dealt with my share of scum in this business and in a number of occasions, I've told them where to go with their actions and opinions. So after I had a chance to collect my thoughts, I wrote her back, telling her I was not trying to cause confusion and I had a job to do as the official scorekeeper for the final. It had nothing to do with "doing other people's jobs," and I didn't tell Dallicardillo to "leave his book home, I've got it taken care of." It was all about reporting a game in. Didn't use any salty language, didn't get as upset as the females of the household did.

I got my reply.

I didn't say you told Vinnie to leave his book at home. Quite frankly, Al
should not have asked you to call in the game. All the coaches know they
are expected to call in their games, period. No one should tell them
otherwise without discussing it with us or any of the papers.

And when you called Saturday night, we were past deadline. Not your fault.
Had I been the one to answer the phone, I would have said, "Thank you, but
we'll get the information from the coach tomorrow," and not wasted your
time. They told us on Friday that we had to be off at 10:30 Saturday night
and we knew then that it was unlikely that the OCT final was going to make
the paper. That's the downside of playing any game on a Saturday night these
days. You might want to urge the softball community to rethink that in the
future so that a game of that caliber can get the attention it deserves.

Sure, I was right on top of that community, ma'am. Again, good thing she has not crossed my path since 2003 for I probably would not be in control of whatever it was I would say to her.

Since that 2003 final, two other finals were played at night -- the 2005 final at Jackson Memorial was on a Sunday night and the 2006 championship was a Thursday night. But the rest of the finals have been played in daylight since. I won't lie -- I miss the nightime championship games for the OCT, but the daytime games have been pretty decent, too.

More importantly after that final, I was able to add on to the Web site with state tournament games and SCT games, ironically the last time a county team won the SCT title, which was Toms River East.

And in the end, the enthusiasm was back. County coaches like Aires, Dallicardillo and East's Debbie Scwhartz had my back, which I was grateful for. And two months after the high school softball season -- one of the best Ocean County has ever witnessed -- I was able to positively use the Web site as a show of my prep sports knowledge when Andy Hall and Rusty Starr hired me as a writer for the Palatka Daily News in northeastern Florida, where I still am today.

Fourteen awards later, including three national awards in small paper categories, I have no doubt that this business I chose in 1984 was the right choice for me personally. I am grateful for them giving me that chance to show what I could do.

But I am also grateful to Al Aires, who to this day is the tournament's director and lets me do my thing to help promote the tournament and let it be the showcase event it deserves to be in that part of the Jersey Shore.

I never truly have thanked him for allowing me to be myself. He allowed me to be an asset again.

And an asset to this business that I so love. Thank you, my friend.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A mom's letter concerned about her daughter's future

Happy Mother's Day to my mother and all my friends who read this blog who either are mothers, have mothers or married to mothers. I think that accounts for everyone.

Today on this special day, I want to share a letter with you.

I keep a lot of letters with me, good or bad, from my almost 27 years in this business. I am appreciative of the time the people put into writing me to tell me I did a wonderful job on a story or any coverage I did or even telling me I could have done better on something. I can't take anything personally if it's negative. After all, not everyone has to agree.

In late June 1993, I got a letter from a mother of a really good soccer player who was an All-County standout at her high school. I will not divulge the name of the mom who wrote this letter nor will I divulge the beautiful daughter she was writing to me about considering that beautiful young lady is a mom herself and is also a Facebook friend. At an appropriate time, I will contact her to let her know this was her mom who wrote this letter 18 years ago to me ... if she doesn't read it first and figure it out.

Let me set this up as best as possible -- I had written a column on this young lady, who was an underclassmen for her soccer team. But she had a problem with her knees and had to wear braces on her knees to play. Immediately, I don't remember what the reason why she had to wear the braces, but she was still one of the best players on her team in spite of those problems.

Her mom wrote me this letter and it really came out of the blue and came from her heart. I know it did. She truly loved her daughter and I imagine 18 years later, she loves her immensely.

The envelope it came in was addressed to me as "personal and confidential," but I think 18 years later all is cool. Here's what this letter read:

Dear Mark,

I wanted to take a few minutes of your time to speak with you regarding my daughter and the nice article you wrote about her in the paper this past month.

It is extremely difficult to write this because I'm very concerned that I state my reasons properly, so as to not have you misinterpret my meaning.

Let me begin by saying that I thought your article was thoughtful, accurate and very touching. I'm extremely pleased that someone noticed my daughter "the soccer player" despite the braces.

She loves soccer; suffice to say she eats, drinks, and sleeps the sport. She is working constantly to improve, and best of all, she is the consummate team player, always thinking "team" not "me." I, as a parent, am most impressed with her attitude toward the sport, her teammates, and life in general.

Having said that I wish to request one thing of you. Please, if possible, in any future articles you may write involving her, do not mention her knees. Please don't take this to mean that I'm in any way upset or disappointed in the article you wrote, on the contrary, it was touching.

The fact of the matter is this year, she will be a junior at her school, and this is the time that colleges will begin looking in earnest for players. I'm afraid that with the volume of girls they want to look at, and the limited amount of time in which to do so, that if they hear of a girl with a knee problem, they, very possibly, won't even take the time to look at her. ("One less to check out.")

All I want is if a coach comes, sees her, likes what he sees, then he can check out if her knees are a problem or not. But she deserves to have that chance. As far as I'm concerned, she has the talent, speed, and aggressiveness to be an asset to any school, but she needs the opportunity to be seen. I'm afraid that if they hear about double knee braces, etc., her name will be crossed off the list before she has a chance.

Mark, I deeply appreciate your interest in her, and yes, she has overcome a lot, but truly, she is back to 100 percent. In fact, I think she's faster than before. I feel that it was a sensitive human interest story, and you did it tastefully and were very complementary regarding her spirit and determination.

Please understand, this is very difficult for me to sit down and type this, but I felt that if I could just take a few minutes to explain this situation, you would understand.

Whether or not she does anything considered noteworthy only time and continued play will decide. If she does, and you feel it warrants a line or two, fantastic! All I ask is that her knees not be mentioned for the above reasons.

I don't want to take up anymore of your time. I know how busy you must be. But thank you for taking a few minutes to read this, and I truly hope I did not offend you in any way for that was not my intent.

Thank you again, for your article, and your time.

Now to be honest with you, I never was or felt offended that she wanted me to stay away from her daughter's knees (writing about them, that is). It was a feature/column and really, I wanted to emphasize in that story that she was battling this problem everytime she stepped out onto a soccer field.

But I was never going to harp on that for the remaining time she was on her high school team. "So-and-so, who plays with braces on her knees, scored two goals and assisted on another ... " That's not how journalists roll. We have a job to do and we have to tell the story in just so many words.

After a while, most people don't even bother to look at the impedements, especially when it comes to someone who does so well working around them.

The bottom line here was that college coaches DID come calling for her a couple of years later and she went on to have a nice four-year career for her team and actually made the All-Region teams her junior and senior seasons.

Today, that beautiful, young lady is nearing her mid-30s and is a mom herself to a little boy. And I know she thinks the world of him ... just like her mom did with her a generation ago.

I have kept this letter in a folder called "stuff" with other letters and cards I got over the years. I have never shared this letter with ANYONE in the last 18 years. The only person I ever shared it with was the woman who wrote the letter even then, I told her a year after she wrote it in not so many words I had her back.

So in my mind, I wanted to go back to understand what a mom will do for her kids to make sure they get the best for them. It's easy to pinpoint material things, but that's just a small part of it. And it's understandable that a mom doing just normal everyday things will inspire their kids to be as good as the woman who raised them.

But to make sure that their child has at least a scholarship opportunity by being protective in a kind way by not mentioning something that would look questionable to recruiters? That's going to another level of motherhood.

And as I stated, it worked out well in the end.

I am glad in some way I may have played a little part in her going on to play soccer in college. And I am glad her mother took the time to write me that thoughtful, kind letter 18 years ago, thinking about her daughter's future in the process.

That's a passionate, loving mom.

May all moms be as passionate and loving as her ... and now her daughter.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The worst high school softball game EVER!

Some games just get you excited to be at the event. For me, that would include most high school softball events since I've been writing about the sport since 1985, and, no offense to my baseball-loving friends on the high school level, the games get done much quicker.

And as a co-director of the Ocean County Tournament from 1992-99, I got to witness almost every single softball game there was played. Most of the time, I knew I was seeing a team playing for just one time (one and out), and in other cases, the team I went to see was going to go far in the tournament.

It also gave me an excuse to go out more and be away from the office. After a while, you hate the sight of that office day in and day out.

On a Monday afternoon, May 10, 1993, I got to get away from the office from where I would have to lay out the section that night. This, I thought, was a good diversion, especially in the good ol' days of the Ocean County Observer when we had a 12:30 a.m. deadline and if we were a few minutes late, no one was going to ram it down our throats.

The trip was to Shelter Cove Park on the east end of Toms River, where I had seen my share of Toms River High School East girls soccer games over the years, and where Monsignor Donovan High had its glory years in softball when sisters Stacy and Kris Witfill helped lead the Griffins to a pair of South Jersey Parochial A championship games, including the title in 1988, and were within one out of its first OCT championship on a warm, sunny June day in '88 at Toms River South.

Again, another story at another time.

This venture on this afternoon, though, featured the eighth and ninth seeds of the event, the eighth seed being the host Griffins and the ninth seed being Point Pleasant Boro, coached by my OCT co-director and conspirator in crime for the tournament, Ric Malta.

Gladly got there in time to grab both teams' lineups, the Point Boro girls going about their business as they warmed up, the Donovan girls as outgoing and affable as their first-year head coach, Jeannette Cameron (now Jeannette Bruno, wife of Brick schools athletic director and all-around good guy Bill Bruno). As Jeannette O'Neill, she played in the tournament in the mid-1980s as Donovan's catcher.

Normally a game featuring eighth and ninth seeds are close. You really can't separate the difference between the two seeds unless home field advantage was going to play a part. And on a sunny day at Donovan without the threat of rain, that was good.

Why, you might ask? Because all you needed to do on that old Donovan field was spit on it and it would flood. I was always in fear that some outfielder would go after a ball deep in the gap, take one step forward, fall into a lake and maybe drown. Sordid, but true ... the field was absolutely awful after even a small rain.

Not this day, though. I was expecting somewhat-near flawless softball.

Flawless. Ha! Not on this day.

Donovan started a freshman named Liz Dougherty, a young lady Cameron had trust in to throw the ball over the plate and make the other team hit it and get outs.

This, however, was how the game began -- Jodie Cheasty walked. Melissa Kiely singled to left. Amy Cushion singled to left to load the bases. Amanda Ely walked to force home a run. Heidi Hough hit a forceout to bring in another run. Abbey Harris walked to load the bases again. Laura Cowen walked to score another run. Then Jessica Failla grounded out to score another run. Jessica Carrow walked to load the bases again. Cheasty walked to force in the fifth run of the inning. Finally, Kiely struck out looking to end the frame.

That was just part of the appetizer of this game. Wait, there's a lot more to this nightmare in the making.

In the bottom of the first, Shannon Mann walked against first-year pitcher Harris, who had the tough task to replace a career 48-game winner in Michelle Meaney, who graduated in 1992. When she was on, Harris was as good as any pitcher around. But when she wasn't ... well, you kinda sorta get the idea of what was going to happen.

A wild pitch moved Mann to second and a Melissa Sarraf walked. No. 3 hitter Heather Coyle hit a flyball toward right fielder Kiely, who dropped it for an error to load the bases. Kate Corby flied out to Kiely, but no one tagged up. That's OK, they were saving it up for Lisa Tinney, whose groundball to Cheasty was botched for an error to score Mann and Sarraf and move Coyle to third.

Then Heather Clyne unloaded with a triple over left fielder Cowan's head to make it 5-4 ... just like that. After Vicki Ulrich walked and swiped second, Andrea Smith grounded out to first baseman Ely to bring in Clyne to tie it up. Jen Jordan's flyball to center fielder Failla was botched badly for an error, allowing Ulrich to score and make it 6-5. Mann came back up and bunted for a single and when catcher Haugh threw it away for an error, the runners moved up to second and third. Sarraf walked again, but Coyle flied out to an already-tested Kiely in right to end the inning.

The first inning alone was enough of a story. Donovan led 6-5. But as they say on late-night television, "Wait ... there's more!"

Haugh knocked in Cushion with a sacrifice fly and Harris' fielder's choice grounder knocked in Ely to give the Panthers a 7-6 lead after an inning and a half.

Donovan, though, sent 12 more batters to the plate in the second to score SEVEN MORE RUNS, highlighted by five more Harris walks that finally prompted Malta to take her out and bring in Kiely. Coyle continued the merry-go-round against Kiely with a walk to force in a run, then Corby got a hold of a pitch she liked and knocked it into right field to bring in two runs. A wild pitch brought in Coyle and a third strike passed ball allowed Tinney to keep the inning going temporarily before Clyne struck out and Haugh held on for the third out.

Already the score was 13-7 and I was starting to hate this game. Worse, I had to write it up afterward. What positive do you start with when writing a game story of a game this bad, after all?

Daugherty and Donovan "held" the Panthers to a single run in the third. Success at last!! But could Kiely do the same with the Griffins and restore some order at this point in her half of the third?

Sort of. Jordan singled home Ulrich and an error by Kiely, the seventh of the game for the Panthers already, brought in Jordan to make it 15-8 after three.

Then I saw something in the top of the fourth I would see one time and one time only that afternoon -- a three-up, three-down inning as Dougherty got Cowen and Failla to fly out and Carrow to ground out.

Alas, Donovan had control of this game. And if the Griffins could get three more runs in the bottom of the fourth and hold the Panthers down in the fifth, this already horrendous excuse for softball would be finally over.

Well, Donovan was doing me a great favor. The Griffins sent 11 batters to the plate to score seven runs, highlighted by RBI singles from Tinney and Mann, then a two-run single from Coyle and a two-run triple by Corby, which now put her a home run away from being the first player in OCT history to hit for the cycle.

At 22-8 and only three outs left, I felt pretty good that this long afternoon would finally come to an end with a 10-run mercy rule victory for the Griffins, especially with Dougherty throwing so well in the fourth.

If only she had been able to preserve that fourth-inning form.

Cheasty walked to lead off. Kiely beat out an infield hit and Cushion singled. On Cushion's single, Tinney flubbed it for an error to score Cheasty and Kiely and another error by shortstop Corby put Cushion on at third for cleanup hitter Ely. This wasn't looking good immediately, especially after a Keystone Kops moment like that one.

Ely got a hold of a big, fat one down the middle on the first pitch to her. The ping of the bat hitting ball was all you needed to hear. The next thing you saw was the back of left fielder Coyle's pinstriped uniform as she chased after it.

Ely and Cushion circled the bases for a home run, but the score was still 22-12 and still in mercy-rule territory. All Dougherty had to was get three outs without another run scoring and it would be over.

This was Monsignor Donovan's softball team, though. NEVER did the Griffin gals ever make anything easy.

Dougherty got a groundout from Haugh. One out. Eileen Picton, who came in for Harris, then walked, but Ulrich threw a strike to Clyne at first base to pick her off.

Two outs. Almost over!

Cowen, though, kept the inning going by singling. That's still OK. One out to get to end this thing. Next up was Failla, who was 0-for-3 in the game at this point. What kind of a threat could she pose?

Apparently a big one. On a 2-2 hanger, Failla belted a shot to the right-center field gap to bring home Cowen. And as I watched Tinney and Smith chase after that pesky softball, the first thought going through my mind was, "When the hell does this end?" After all, the sun doesn't stay up in the sky all day long and these two teams were on a pace to embarass the sport by having the sinking sun beat them and they'd have to continue this game at another time since Shelter Cove's field had no lights on it.

Oh, did I mention on that triple Failla hit that Tinney threw the ball errantly back in to allow Failla to score? Sorry, I missed another bad detail in a game strewn with bad details.

The pain wasn't ending either. Carrow singled, moved to second on Daugherty's second wild pitch of the game and scored on a Cheasty single to right field. Kiely popped out and the inning was over, but the Panthers had avoided being mercy-ruled for the moment.

Donovan could just flip the switch again in the fifth ahead at 22-15, get three runs and this thing would be over, right?

Wouldn't you know it, Kiely figured it out in the fifth! Though she allowed a couple of runners to reach base, she got Jordan on a groundout to first and struck out Mann looking to send the game into the sixth inning.

I've never admitted this, but this was the closest I've come to screaming so hard and loud at the top of my lungs at any event I've ever covered. The professional in me had to hold it in. I had already annointed this game the worst softball game I've ever been at when, as Corby grabbed her glove to head back to her position, she looked up at me, gave me that Kate Corby smile I was so used to and a wave of her hand at me as if to say, "Hope you're enjoying this mess we've created. I'll be back when we get out of whatever trouble we'll get into next."

OK, it allowed for the one moment of levity that was needed to joke about this entire afternoon. I figured I'd seen my ration of softball errors, walks and runs for at least two weeks in this game.

But it lasted only a few moments. There was still a sixth inning and suddenly, Boro's Panthers were feeling frisky. Tinney dropped Cushion's flyball to center field for her fifth error of the game. Ely walked and after a Haugh strikeout, Harris walked to load the bases.

Cowan hit a groundball to Corby, whose wave to me was really signifying, "I've got another error left in me to prolong this agony." Corby flubbed the grounder to allow Cushion to score. Then Failla hit a grounder that caromed off Dougherty to Corby, who tossed to Mann at second for the second out as Ely scored.

But Jessica Carrow -- 0-for-2 with two walks in this one -- got a hold of an 0-1 Dougherty offering and belted it to left-center field to score two more runs to make it 22-19. Though Cheasty walked, Kiely struck out and suddenly, what was once a mercy rule in the making was a close game.

Maybe six more outs wasn't so bad after all.

However, as soon as Sarraf led the inning off with her SIXTH walk of the game, that "Oh no mama, here comes that man-feeling again" stomach pain came. I swore with how long this agony was going, childbirth had to be shorter than this.

Coyle walked. Then Corby popped out for the first out of the inning. Tinney walked and so did Clyne to force home Sarraf to make it 23-19. When Ulrich struck out for the second out of the inning, I figured Kiely had steered the ship back in its rightful direction again.

Oh how wrong I was about to be again!

Smith walked to force in Coyle. Then No. 9 hitter Jordan singled to bring in both Tinney and Clyne to make it 26-19. Then after a wild pitch moved Smith and Jordan up a base, Mann walked to load the bases. Sarraf then walked for her OCT-record SEVENTH TIME in the game to force in Smith to make it 27-19.

For the record, Sarraf's linescore read like this: 0 5 0 2. She never had an official at-bat for the game.

Now up eight, all it would take is a two-run single by Coyle ... or maybe a game-winning hit from Ms. "Hope you're enjoying this mess we've created" ... to end this aberration. Something positive at this point. ANYYYYYYYYTHIIIIIIIING!!!

On a 1-1 pitch, someone upstairs finally took me off hold after 2 1/2 hours. Coyle got a hold of a pitch and pummeled it to right-center field. Jordan and Mann scored the runs that would have ended the game via the 10-run mercy rule, but the hit was still being played out. Sarraf scored, as did Coyle, whose grand slam ended the ultimate root canal of high school softball and gave her an OCT-record tying seven RBI for the day.

Donovan won, 31-19, the most runs ever scored in an OCT softball game even to this day. Donovan had 31 runs on just 11 hits, Point Boro scratched out 19 runs on 10 hits. There were 17 errors made in this one, which believe it or not, is NOT an OCT record (that's unproudly held by Toms River North and Brick of 22 errors in the 1991 OCT FINAL!!!). Worse than anything else, there were 39 walks given out in this one -- 39 WALKS!!! And yet, I still don't know what kept me from going "Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

After mercifully getting out of there and back to the office, I had the duty of calling Norm Selby, Central Regional High School's legendary coach. It was up to me to tell him who he was playing as the top seed of the tournament in the quarterfinal round less than two weeks later at Point Boro's field.

In a straight tone, I said, "You will play Donovan, which just got past Point Boro today by the score of 31-19."

The five-second pregnant pause at the other end of the phone spoke volumes, which after that, Selby responded by saying, "Yeah."

When Norm Selby spoke in one-word answers, he's already figured out the circus-like atmosphere that must have taken place and how horrible it must have looked. Soon after, he said, "We'll be there and ready. I won't even ask what happened."

Well, Selby's Golden Eagles were ready as promised. But to Donovan's credit, the team whose horrendous play permeated that Shelter Cove Park field 12 days earlier was nowhere to be found. Central won the game, 5-2, to advance to the semifinal round, but it was a total turnaround from that Monday afternoon for Donovan.

The scorebook is still in my possession. The two pages look like mini-checkerboards if you ignored the names on the left and the final totals on the right.

Now it's just a memory of an afternoon of softball that I would just as soon forget I ever witnessed.

And that's the problem. Sometimes, you remember the really bad ones.

This topped them all in awful.

That's how incredibly memorable it was.