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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.

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