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 ... www.octsoftball.com. 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 www.octsoftball.com 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 www.octsoftball.com 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.