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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.

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