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Saturday, June 25, 2011

An All-County soccer team to remember

Of all the high school soccer seasons I have covered in 26 years, no season will ever top that of the 1990 Ocean County girls soccer campaign.

How good was it? The 14 field players who made the All-County first team combined for a mind-numbing 230 goals and 160 assists, an average of 16.4 goals and 11.4 assists per player, including defenders who did not contribute a lot of goals and assists.

The two All-County goalies gave up a combined 24 goals in 34 games for a goals per game average of 0.71 with a total of 301 saves combined and 14 shutouts.

Basically, I could take this group of 16 with me anywhere and they'd kick every other All-County team's behinds. Two years before the actual Dream Team in Barcelona, THIS was the Dream Team.

It just never played together, but imagine the results that would've been recorded.

Oh, I was picking that team straight from numbers? Not at all. Of the 16 girls on the team, only one of them -- Brick Memorial senior center-midfielder Jenni Cranga (7 goals-12 assists-26 points) -- came from a losing team and her Mustangs were 6-7-1 that spring.

THIS was truly and unequivocally the best of the best in girls soccer. To count up those numbers again left me in complete awe of the greatness of this group.

Leading the way on this team were five girls from unbeaten Point Pleasant Boro -- Kim Yankowski (61 goals-34 assists-156 points), Jennifer Shutt (11g-24a-46p), Charisse Hopkins (1g-5a-7p) and sisters Wendi (34g-26a-94p) and Christie (49g-24a-122p) Pearce.

The Panthers dominated a soccer season like no team I had ever seen before or seen since as they went 20-0 and outscored their opponents, 190-5, even though those opponents were far inferior. The Panthers did not give up a goal until the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals, but still had the verocity to win their final three games by the scores of 7-2 over Red Bank Catholic, 8-2 over Manalapan and 4-1 over Wall to claim the SCT title for the second time in four years.

But believe it or not, I knew the Panthers were going to roll, especially with the talent they had back, then adding a superstar in the making in Christie Pearce as a freshman. And that is why when it came to naming a Coach of the Year, many people thought I'd go with Boro's Bob Kulessa.

I'm not like most people making that decision. Again, I knew this team was going to be dominant. Instead, my coach of the year choice was Central Regional mentor Robbie Bechtloff, who in his fourth year with the program had put together an amazing season with a best-ever 16-4 record, winning an SCT opening-round match with Jackson Memorial.

In the past at the Observer, our All-County teams would be mug shots of the players in a nice, little package. But this was back in the day when we had tons of space. By the time the 1990s arrived, that space started to be taken away from us, so starting with the 1989-90 scholastic season, we switched to team pictures.

And it was my duty to designate a site, a time and day to get the pictures done. With Point Boro easily being No. 1 in the county poll, I wanted to take the picture in Point Pleasant, but I didn't feel good about taking the picture in the town of Point Pleasant. The one "cool" option I did have was to go across the bridge and take the picture on the beach.

Point Boro girls like Shutt and Yankowski were pretty receptive of it. And so was Hopkins and Wendi Pearce. Good. Done deal.

Since the picture was not going to be taken until later in the afternoon, it wasn't exactly going to intrude on beach-goers, so I had that path taken care of.

Called up the coaches, got the phone numbers of the players on All-County and called each one of them to let them know it was going to be a 4:30 p.m. picture on Wednesday, June 20, and to meet on the boardwalk next to Jenkinson's Pavilion. Those familiar with Jenkinson's knew where to go.

Those who weren't, this was going to be interesting. To those who were coming via the Parkway, I started sounding like a broken record after a while.

"Take the Parkway north to Exit 91, turn right onto Chambersbridge Road, go to Route 70, make a left turn and at the circle, head east on Route 88 into Point Pleasant Boro. When you get over the bridge, make the first left turn, then follow the weaving road into Point Beach, go across the tracks until you can't go any further. Jenkinson's will be right there in front of you. Just find a parking spot."

I should have had that speech put on tape and played it when they asked for directions.

In the case of Toms River East's trio of Tara Nichols (15g-7a-37p), Maureen Bonner (6g-4a-16p) and Sue Lewis (5 goals against in 15 games with 147 saves and six shutouts), I told Maureen Bonner, who lived down the street from me, to meet me at my parents' house and to simply follow me up. At about 3:30, she drives up with the other two. They're all eating popsicles. (By the time I got back home from the picture, there were three popsicle sticks sitting in the street next to the mailbox. At least I knew who my three slob suspects were.)

"Follow me," I said as I walked to my car, started it up and headed up toward Hooper Avenue and north to Brick, then to the Point Pleasants.

By the time we arrived and parked, I had recognized a few more of the girls there. Cranga was there, as was Toms River North's Lynn Gesser (19 goals against in 19 games with 154 saves and eight shutouts). Brick's Dana Anderson (1g-0a-2p) was there, too, as were the Pearce sisters. Soon after that, East temmate Krista Gerard (4g-5a-13p) got there and with the three East girls, I had over half my team accounted for. There was still plenty of time, almost a half hour before the 4:30 picture.

I had particularly asked the young ladies on this team to represent the school they played for by wearing either a T-shirt or jacket that had the school name on it. So far so good.

Before I had gotten home to wait on the three East girls, I had stopped off at 7-Eleven to pick up a cooler of Diet Cokes. Even though it wasn't exactly a sandwich or pizza, I wanted to thank them for the effort for making it to the picture that day in a busy afteroon. I also remembered to bring a large sheet with me for the girls who were going to be sitting and kneeling on the beach for the shot.

But all was about to not go so well.

The sun was starting to disappear behind the clouds, and there were plenty of clouds for it to disappear behind. So much for the sunny beach shot, but for our photographer, Pete Picknally, it was actually better to have a non-sunny picture with the sun's rays reflecting off the young ladies. So much I was still to learn about photography at that time.

After coach Bechtloff had arrived, I was still seven players short of an All-County shot. I asked Wendi Pearce if she had seen the other three Boro girls. She said she had, but they'd arrive just around the time everyone was to meet.

Just before 4:30, Yankowski and Hopkins, best buddies, arrived together and neither were wearing a Point Boro shirt like the two Pearces were.

I asked Kim what happened and why they were in regular shirts. She responded by telling me that the two of them had something immediately after the picture to go to at the school as part of some senior exercise and couldn't just change on the fly.

I was a bit flummoxed by now. Jen Shutt arrives wearing a hot pink shirt. Must've had something to do after the picture also at the Boro. OK, this is going to look a bit odd to see these three out of character, but Pete is a professional and I know he will make this work.

Now it's after 4:30 and I'm still without four girls as we had already started on the beach, heading for the nearby dock next to Jenkinson's and Pete was starting to put the girls in some sort of three-row order.

Not too far after I asked Gesser where teammate Kelli Rummell (3g-2a-8p) was, guess who shows out of nowhere? Yup, it's Kelli Rummell, a striking blonde wearing a hot yellow-colored North jacket, sticking out like a medium-sized banana on the beach. She was definitely not matching what Gesser was wearing -- a white-blue North soccer sweatshirt.

"Hi there!" she exploded as she saw her buddy Krista Gerard and plopped down on the sheet behind her.

I told everyone to hang out for a bit. I was still waiting on Lacey's Jen Grike (21g-8a-50p) and Central's pair of Nora Higgins (1g-0a-2p) and Tina DellaPietro (16g-9a-41p). I had talked with Higgins two nights before and since she was friends with the other two, they would all go up in her car for the picture.

Bechtloff told me that as far as he knew, they were on their way to Point Pleasant Beach. So 4:30 became 4:40, then 4:50. Now I'm going to the front of Jenkinson's and looking out in the parking lot and there's no car with these three players anywhere in sight. This is starting to become very bad.

The path I wore out between the picture site and the front of Jenkinson's was becoming obvious. Thankfully, nobody had to go anywhere immediately, but you get antsy when you say a picture is a certain time and not everyone shows up for it and since this was the first year we did team photos, it was important everyone showed up at the right time.

Now it's almost 5 o'clock and from the distance in front of Jenkinson's, I see a car pull up in the parking lot across the street. Three people jump out, one putting a quarter into the machine, the others making sure they look good to make the mad dash to where we were.

"Over here!" I yelled to the three of them.

Once I told them we were waiting on them, they were near embarrassed. And as we were walking to where everyone else was, I asked Higgins, "What happened? Did you get off at the right exit?"

"You told us we were supposed to get off at Exit 91," she said. "There was an Exit 90, so we kept on going."

It proved a point that you give kids any kind of direction and they're going to listen to you. Unfortunately, the exit I wanted them to take was Exit 90, but I told them Exit 91. Exit 91 is actually an exit on the southbound side of the Parkway. And because there wasn't an Exit 91, they kept going north -- all the way to Exit 98, which was the Route 34 Wall Township exit. And though it's about 10 to 12 miles to get to Point Beach from there, you hit an enormous amount of traffic on Route 35.

They still had the smarts to take Route 35 into Point Beach and find Jenkinson's, but now they were late. I wanted to yell at them, but I just couldn't. It was my fault for this.

To Pete's credit, once everyone was there, he had the three of them calmed down enough to make sure everyone was right where they were supposed to be. He snapped the photos and all was well.

Well, I thought it was all well. For a moment, I turned around and looked at the tides coming in and going out of the ocean. Started gazing out there, not paying attention to what was happening with the picture as Pete kept snapping away.

Somewhere along the line as he was finishing up, he wanted to have the girls act "crazy." He then told them to smile and salute their favorite sports writer to the camera.

Eleven of them decided to stick up the "We're No. 1" pose with the middle finger. Kelli Rummell leaned over and onto Krista Gerard's shoulder. Nora Higgins started laughing uncontrollably. Dana Anderson leaned in toward Tara Nichols. Jenn Grike sat in the same pose like a stone. Coach Becthloff remained in a smiling, standing still position.

And I'm not sure what the heck Christie Pearce was doing in this photo, but she's waving her hand and giving this goofy smile. I'm pretty sure if it was after 1993, she'd have given me the finger, too.

I missed it. I missed it as it was happening. I heard Pete saying we were done and as I grabbed the sheet and everyone headed out, I told them I had Diet Cokes for them in the cooler as a thank you for coming. Most grabbed a soda and I can still hear one of the girls saying, "Good thing it wasn't regular Coke."

I guess I did good. Then again, I never could figure out my standing among the student-athletes at any time in my career.

And the picture was done. Of the 16 girls on that All-County team, a number of them went on to play in college. Cranga went to Adelphi and did well there. Nichols went to the University of Connecticut and went to an NCAA Final Four. Gerard took her talents to Trenton State College, where she helped to lead the Lions to an NCAA Division III title. DellaPietro and Grike would both become teammates at Georgian Court in Lakewood and play for all-around good guy Joe Perri. Anderson went on to Ocean County College to help lead a fledgling Vikings program. Rummell and Gesser went on to play field hockey in college.

As for the five Point Boro Panthers -- Shutt went on to play at the University of Virginia. The amazing Yankowski went to North Carolina State and played there for four years. Best buddy Hopkins went with her and tried to play with the Wolfpack women's team, but didn't last long. Wendi Pearce got a scholarship and played four years at Monmouth University.

And not far after Wendi got a scholarship to play, Christie Pearce got scholarship offers after a 51-goal senior season to play at either powerful North Carolina or alongside her sister at Monmouth. Anson Dorrance, North Carolina's venerable coach, said to me in 2008 he really, really wanted her badly to play for him. In the end, family won out and Pearce got to play at Monmouth and had the biggest career of any Monmouth Hawk.

And though Monmouth never went far in the NCAA Tournament, U.S. national coach Tony DeCicco noticed her enough to have her try out for his women's team in 1997. Two years later, she was a reserve on the World Cup championship team.

In 2011, Christie Pearce Rampone is now on her fourth U.S. women's World Cup team at 36 years old.

As a matter of fact, the All-County team was published in the Observer on June 24, 1990 -- Christie's 15th birthday. I joked with her a year or so later that we did that in honor of her.

I'd take a superstar All-County team like the one we had posing on the beach on June 20, 1990 anywhere. That's how great they were as players.

Just as long as they showed up on time. Punctuality is a totally different subject.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day 1989 and an interesting debut into pro sports writing

My best Father's Day memory ever? Easily the day I covered my first professional sporting event.

Was at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium to take in a Mets-Phillies game to close out the series. Wasn't expecting anything unusual on this particular day. But by the seventh inning, the usual got tossed out the window.

It was Sunday, June 18, 1989. Can still see the day as clearly as the water around Bermuda. My paper, the Ocean County Observer, had a press pass for Phillies game each year and it was there for the taking as long as the space for the next day's paper looked good and there was a significance of going.

So I asked my boss if I could go to the Phillies-Mets game since I was one of only two people to work on a Sunday. Got the OK. Now it was Father Day's that Sunday and you're thinking -- why would I abandon my dad on his day to cover a professional event?

Well don't worry about that part ... he was going to the game, too!  It wasn't as if we were all going to sit together, but I did have a standing invitation to sit with my dad, mom and sister that day. My dad was working as the general manager of a hotel in Philly and his company owned a luxury box at the Vet. Now this was about the time when club/luxury boxes started coming into vogue. If you've never been in a luxury box, you get treated like a king (or queen) with people there to serve your needs and tastes.

So the rest of my family got to be treated like royalty in this box, and me, I got to sit in an open press box on a warm day.

And so we all jumped into the family car and took off from Toms River to Philly for the day. We got there about 11:45 that morning. Dad parked the car and he, mom and sis went one way, and I went another, schlepping my stuff with me to the direction of the press box to find where I was going to be that day.

Once I got there and found my designated seat, I just winged it. They were serving lunch, so I had a salad and, if memory serves me, meatloaf was being served. Darn, I wish I hadn't thought about that -- my mouth's watering.

I was in the middle of my lunch when a good-looking man in a blazer came by and asked me if any of the seats were taken. Well since I was the only one rsitting at the table, I said no problem. We made conversation immediately and I told him I was covering my first professional sporting event. Then I took a closer look at the man I was talking to.

It was New York Mets television broadcaster Steve Zabriskie. I had seen him and heard him so many times over the years, I just recognized him via voice and face. I also learned that as a fellow journalist -- even at 22 -- you treat everyone in the business with respect, but not act like a fan in some way. If you've gotten to know someone well enough, and they seem like a genuine human being (pure example of this, Tampa Bay Rays broadcaster and one-day Hall of Famer Dewayne Staats), then you can say you're a huge fan of their work.

We were chatting for at least five to 10 minutes. We didn't talk much about baseball, though. Seems Steve had some sort of a deal going with real estate, something having to do with land or a timeshare. And, genuinely, I wanted to hear his take on what he was doing with the land/timeshare. It sounded quite interesting, but I'll be honest, it was probably about 3 minutes into his take and his purpose for whatever land it was he was a part of that I started letting my mind wander. But I still maintained my friendliness and he kept on talking. Finally, he had to leave to go do his broadcast, but we exchanged handshakes and he was off to his booth and I was near finished with my lunch.

Getting things handed to you is something I've never been used to before, but in the press box, you pretty much have communications people doing everything for you. Your job is to witness what's going on, make notes and go from there.

The Phillies started a pitcher named Ken Howell and the Mets, who had won 10 of their last 16 games, went down in the top of the first. In the bottom of the first, the Phillies were going to make sure that Ron Darling's outing was a short and not-so-sweet one. Tommy Herr singled with one out and moved to second on a wild pitch. Then Darling couldn't find the plate -- he walked Von Hayes, John Kruk and Juan Samuel to make it 1-0.

It reminded me of the time my friend Steve and I went to a Mets-Phillies game in April 1984 at Shea Stadium when the Mets couldn't hold the lead and the Phils rallied as Dick Tidrow threw something like 12 straight balls before he found the strike zone, then got a standing ovation from the Mets fans.

To make matters worse for Darling, Curt Ford doubled off the wall to score two more runs and the fourth run of the first inning came when Ricky Jordan's sacrifice fly to Lenny Dykstra scored Samuel.

That last bit of information would serve for the coincidence of the afternoon, though I certainly didn't know it after one inning.

The Mets answered in the top of the second inning when Mookie Wilson and Mackey Sasser, playing catcher on this day with no sign at that particular time of having trouble of throwing balls back to pitchers, delivered back-to-back doubles. The Phillies got the run back when Kruk tripled home Herr. Yeah, that John Kruk, who despite his size still had 34 triples in his career.

The Phillies had gotten to Darling, who lasted all of two innings before Davey Johnson thought it was a good idea to go with someone else. Howell was in cruise control.

And as I read through the sheets that I had in front of me, looking at the Phillies program I obtained when I came in and was keeping score of the game, my mind wandered to how the rest of my family was doing upstairs in their luxury box. I had an open invite, but I couldn't go because I didn't want to do something that would force Phillies management to take away our press pass and I'd be the person to blame for it.

I'm sure they had a good time and I know they did since mom told me they did later on. Oh, well. Such is the life of a working journalist.

A notorious fastball hitter, Howard Johnson was getting nothing but fastballs from Howell. Finally, he got a hold of one and deposited it over the right-field fence for his 16th home run of the season in the third inning. It was 5-2, and it stayed that way until the sixth when Dave Magadan teed off for a solo home run, cutting the lead to two runs.

Now there's some kind of interest here. In the top of the seventh, the Mets made things even more interesting when Mookie and Mackey singled and Darryl Strawberry's forceout scored Wilson to make it 5-4. Then something unsual took place. At the top of the lineup, Barry Lyons was being put into the game to pinch-hit for Dykstra, who was 1-for-3, though he had struck out his previous at-bat. Lyons flied out to end the inning, and I'm thinking, "Why are they pinch-hitting for Dykstra? He offered a much better chance of doing something than Barry Lyons."

I was not yet putting 2 and 2 together. Nothing out of the ordinary. But after the Phillies went out in the bottom of the seventh inning, an announcement came over the PA in the press box from the communications head before the top of the eighth was played.

"The Philadelphia Phillies have traded Steve Bedrosian to the San Francisco Giants for pitchers Terry Mulholland and Dennis Cook and third baseman-outfielder Charlie Hayes."

Uh-oh. So much for a simple debut as a professional sports writer. I had taken out one of our handy-dandy Radio Shack Tandy machines with me to the game and started writing about the trade as part of the game story. This was big news at that particular moment -- the Phillies had sent their 1987 Cy Young Award-winning reliever away to get young and to look toward the future while helping the Giants in their conquest of the National League championship, which they would gain that year.

Mulholland? The only thing I knew about the lefty starter was his blooper moment as a Giants pitcher in 1986 at Shea Stadium when he snagged a Keith Hernandez groundball, couldn't get the darned thing out of his glove, then had to toss the entire glove with ball in it to first baseman Bob Brenley for the out. It's a classic.

Hayes and Cook? Not a clue. This was a move toward making something happen in the 1990s. That was for sure.

The Mets, meanwhile, tied things up in the top of the eighth when reliever Jeff Parrett uncorked a wild pitch to score Johnson. The rally was complete. Now they needed to take the game.

In the top of the ninth, though, Lee Mazzilli, Mookie and Jeff McKnight -- three guys who wouldn't be with the Mets at the start of the 1990 season -- went down in order against Parrett. Leading off for the Phillies would be Von Hayes, who had gotten major hype and coverage just days earlier after signing -- hold on to your seats for this one -- a $2-million-a-year extension for the next two seasons that would kick in starting in 1990!

Hey, kids, a $2 million a year contract was HUGE news back in 1989. In this game, he was struggling, going 0-for-3.

But on a 1-2 slider from Randy Myers, Hayes teed off and deposited it over the fence for the game-winning home run. And moments after the Phillies had finished celebrating at home plate and most of the players had cleared the field, another announcement came over the press box PA.

"Attention media members, the Phillies will be holding a press conference to discuss the trade made earlier."

OK, so we're going downstairs to hear Lee Thomas, the Phillies' general manager, talk about the trade, one that had been anticipated all weekend long, but finally was being pulled off on this Father's Day. Bedrosian was gone, but Phillies officials had gotten quotes from him before he left. It was left for me and the rest of us to quote any Phillies players, Thomas and manager Nick Leyva.

Then the bombshell came moments after us media folks got to the Phillies clubhouse. Thomas was holding court and talked about the trade with the Giants and the particulars. Then this little ditty came:

"We have swung a deal with the Mets and have traded Juan Samuel for outfielder Lenny Dykstra and pitcher Roger McDowell."

Whoa! This stopped being just a fun first pro sports assignemnt and started to become seriously surreal. Two main pieces of the Mets' 1986 championship team were gone, just like that. And now, they were having to pack their things and head over across the way to the other clubhouse.

The Mets, little did we know, were in the middle of dismantling the team that had won two NL East titles and a World Series. Getting Samuel in the deal, I figured, would start them on the right path.

"I gained about 15 games in the standings," Samuel joked. "It's definitely a good move for myself and hopefully, it will be a good move for both sides if it works out."

Turns out, it was only the beginning of a long, winding road of misery for the Mets. Samuel hit .228 with three home runs and 28 RBI in his time in Flushing and was let go after the season.

While the Mets and Samuel were about to traipse down the road to Hell, the Phillies were changing their entire atmosphere, their outlook of losing ball which they were suffering through for the previous two seasons. It started the month earlier when they obtained Kruk from the San Diego Padres and in between, the venerable Mike Schmidt had retired with an emotional press conference on Memorial Day.

With various moves that were taking place, I went to Kruk after the game and congratulated him.

"With all the moves the Phillies are making and Schmidty's retirement, you have seniority on this team now," I joked.

"Yeah, I know," Kruk answered. "It's kinda hard to know who your teammates are."

In gaining Dykstra, the Phillies were getting an ultra-energy guy that they were lacking. You could see it in the makeup of the team. They had good players on their roster like Hayes and Kruk, but they didn't have the get-up-and-go guy until Dykstra came over. And with the trade, the Mets had solved their center field dilemma with Dykstra and Wilson platooning out there for years.

Dykstra had made his way to the Phillies clubhouse and all us media types moved in to get quotes from "Nails," the same guy who three years earlier had blown off interview opportunities days after the World Series title when he was in Asbury Park's Convention Hall to sign autographs for a baseball memorabilia show. Yeah I was one of those blown off by Lenny and his reps.

"I've been here (with the Mets) five years and I never did have the chance to play every day," Dykstra said. "I always had to walk into the clubhouse, look at the lineup and it was frustrating for me. Now I can walk into the clubhouse and do what I have to do and not worry about who was pitching or what the situation is."

He also added, "Every team I've ever been on in my life has won. I don't know what it's like to lose. I'll have to tell (his new teammates) I expect to win."

Needless to say, Dykstra saw enough losing for a few years, and he certainly didn't help himself with a car accident in 1991 that ended that season and a broken thumb the next year against Greg Maddux on Opening Day that sidetracked him again. Then came 1993, and I don't have to tell you what happened that year, especially if you're a proud Phillies fan.

As for McDowell, he was in the clubhouse meeting his new teammates. As a Mets reliever, he already had a reputation for being a prankster, his most notable prank being his setting of hotfoots on his teammates. I watched him shake Kruk's hand.

"You set one hotfoot on me, I will kick your ass!" Kruk said smiling as McDowell started to smile back.

Lost in the emotion and the trades was Hayes' game-winning home run. By the time I reached Von Hayes, he was alone, finishing up getting dressed. You could see he was exhausted. But he was at least smiling and was gracious enough to let me ask him questions.

After signing his extension, Hayes admitted to me that he had very little sleep and was being pulled in different directions by the club and certainly by the media and it was affecting his performance on the field at that particular point.

"Since the day I signed, I've been doing physicals and drawing blood and playing games until 1:30 and 2 o'clock in the morning," he said. "I was just struggling the last few days to get any kind of bat speed. I felt weak. But I had a good night's sleep (the night before) and I came into today's game with a better feeling."

Whether he was just venting or BSing me, I took it all down, letting those read our paper decide for themselves whether he was just making excuses for his play after signing such a high-money deal. I found Von Hayes to be a very casual and friendly gentleman. He had injuries he had to deal with the next three years before he finally retired at 34 in 1992.

I don't know what Von Hayes is doing with his life these days, but I thank him for being gracious to a 22-year-old covering his first pro event.

Meanwhile, I had one phone call to make. It was back upstairs to the press box and a pay phone in the back of it (yeah, it was again THAT time period). I called up Dave, the assistant sports editor and the person I worked for on Sunday night to tell him what was going on. I knew that I had too much for one huge story -- the game, the trade, the interviews after that -- and needed to do two stories. Thankfully, we had the room for two.

And thankfully, my parents and sister had been waiting patiently for me downstairs. They knew this was a working day, but they had heard about the trades as well, so they knew I was going to be in the clubhouses for a little while.

We got back into the car, drove back into Jersey and I went from my house to the Observer where I uploaded the part of the trade story that I had started on that handy-dandy Tandy, then wrote the rest of that story along with the game story.

Since that afternoon, I have been fortunate enough to cover two more Phillies games that summer, a couple of more the next year and go on to cover pro and college sports events, including the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at the Vet in 1996 and Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville in 2005.

But I'm pretty sure there aren't too many professionals in my business who can say their first day as a pro sports writer came when two franchises decided to wheel and deal and change the face of their sport for the next few years.

And on Father's Day, too. Not a bad package deal.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

All that and more in an amazing state softball final

I am about to make a very bold statement to start this blog today.

The greatest and most important hit, out and game ever pitched on an Ocean County, New Jersey softball field by a county softball team all took place in the same game.

The hit was not a tape-measure home run. It was not a blistering double to the gap that plated three runs. Instead, the greatest hit ever delivered was a simple little bloop single to left field.

The greatest out ever recorded was simply off a base hit to left field in which the left fielder thought she had caught the ball, but continued the play to an amazing finish at the end of it.

As for the greatest game ever pitched? It was not one where a perfect game or no-hitter were thrown. The pitcher didn't even strike out a double-digit amount of hitters. She just had to be accurate when she was called on in a pinch.

Yeah, all that in one game. On Saturday, June 8, 1996, those three efforts were necessary when Ocean County made high school softball history in the greatest softball game I have ever witnessed.

At 10:30 a.m. on that day at Toms River High School North, the NJSIAA Group III championship was on the line. Representing North Jersey was Paramus, a program propelled by a number of senior players, but led by a burly, crafty freshman right-hander named Michelle Walker. No one inside the Shore area borders knew how good she was, but she had to be better than good if she were a freshman starting for a team playing for a state title.

On the other side of the field was Central Regional, Ocean County's storied softball program, first under Marshall Davenport in the 1970s, then under Norm Selby in the 1980s and early '90s, and now under its third mentor, the laid-back, down-to-earth Joe Winkelried. The program had won close to 400 games since evolving in 1976, capturing six Ocean County Tournament crowns, a Shore Conference Tournament title in Selby's last game in 1994, and nine divisional championships. They also had won South Jersey Group III titles in 1986 and '88 and now, this one in '96.

But in its previous game, the Group III semifinal at Lakewood's Wilbur Thompson Field against Central Jersey Group III champion Ocean Township, things looked doomed for Central down 4-3 with one out left to go in the bottom of the eighth inning when Cheryl Zellman rocked a pitch to left field and circled the bases for an inside-the-park home run, then back-to-back doubles, the last by pitcher Kristy Tice, brought Candy Bland home with the winning run to give the Golden Eagles an amazing 5-4 comeback.

Now Central was on North's field preparing for its shot at making history with Ocean County's first state softball title. It had been 10 years and one day earlier that I sat at Trenton State College watching Central Regional get tied up in knots in the Group III final against Parsippany, 7-0. For as great a program as Central had, it showed how difficult it was for any program to get to a state title.

Yet, here was this underclassmen-dominated team of two senior, four junior and three sophomore starters one victory away from a championship. Believe it or not, that was more experience than Central Regional's 1986 team had when the Golden Eagles had no senior starters.

The morning was filled with much anticipation. Our "press box" setup was a table inside the Central Regional batter's box area behind the fence next to the dugout. Steve Falk, who mostly did baseball, and myself were there to represent our paper, the Observer. We had no idea what to expect. I figured after what Central had gone through in the semifinal against a very good Ocean Township team, the Golden Eagles were destined to win it all.

Paramus won the coin toss and chose to hit last. It meant Central -- and all of us -- got to see Walker in action first.

We saw Walker throw. She threw a little harder than any of us may have anticipated. Then again, if you're 13-1 during the season, you had to have something to build up that kind of a record.

After Zellman led off with a groundout, Dana Cook, one of the two senior starters and the undeniable leader of this Golden Eagles team, then singled to center field to break the ice.

Or so we thought that was what Cook was doing. Up stepped No. 3 hitter Tice. The first pitch to her was about to change the entire direction of this late morning.

Walker threw a riseball up and coming in at Tice, who was able to fight the ball off by fouling it. But the foul ball's direction went straight up into Tice's mouth, an unusual thing that I had never seen before.

Tice hit the ground hard. Really hard. She was dazed and, worse, she was bleeding profusely from her mouth. Zellman came out of the dugout to see what happened and probably wished she hadn't. The blood was badly trickling from her mouth.

The riseball she fouled off literally split her lip, causing the excessive bleeding. The game was halted for almost 10 minutes. Zellman went back to the dugout shaken and sobbing. Her teammates stood in shock, some in tears.

This is not how they wanted to remember their state tournament championship game experience, watching their main starting pitcher on the ground with a puddle of blood forming around home plate and their All-State center fielder having to be consoled by what she's just seen.

Paramedics arrived at North in less than 10 minutes and it became obvious that 20-game winner Kristy Tice would not be throwing a pitch on the most important day of her young career and life. Worse, the at-bat had to continue and Winkelried sent utility player Dawn Wilson to the plate to hit for Tice. She eventually struck out, as did cleanup hitter Toni Penniman, to end the first inning.

Before his girls went on the field, Winkelried needed to speak to them. He had to deliver the speech and be the voice of reason to a team that went from calm at the start of the game to startled and saddened by the loss of their starting pitcher, who was now on her way to nearby Community Medical Center to get her face and lip looked at.

"I talked to our team and to their credit, they were so disciplined," Winkelried told me in 2003 when reliving that game. "We had to acknowledge that it happened and it was over and done with."

Without Tice, Winkelried was left with one option -- a junior right-hander named Robin Pepper, a first-year Golden Eagles player who had been at Monsignor Donovan High the previous two years. Pepper was hardly a stranger to pitching in pressure situations -- she had pitched Donovan to the 1995 OCT semifinals when the Griffins were a 13th seed.

But Pepper had pitched just two innings that '96 season in a mop-up role during a 16-0 rout of Donovan. She was the backup pitcher, yes, but Tice was the workhorse, so Pepper spent her junior season splitting time with Tricia Friedman in right field.

No, this was not the opportune moment to find out what Pepper had beyond her two innings, but it was obvious Winkelried had no choice. And so after the home plate umpire gave Pepper as many warmup tosses as she wanted ... and after catcher Kelly Honecker got the umpire to clean the batter's box of the last remnants of Tice's blood ... Paramus stepped up to the plate, looking like vultures ready to pick at Central's collective carcasses now that the main pitcher was gone.

Center fielder Linda DeRoberto approached the plate. Pepper got to 3-2, then threw a riser that DeRoberto could not reach. Strike three.

One out. Nerves gone.

Next batter was second baseman Amie Collins. On a 2-2 pitch, Collins went after a delivery outside the strike zone and fanned. Two up, two down, two strikeouts. Just like that.

No. 3 batter and designated hitter Cheryl Macri flied out to end the inning.

Though she worked the count to three balls twice, Pepper got out of trouble each time. As Honecker told me in 2003, she said the difference between Tice, who she was used to catching, and Pepper, was all in motion. While Tice would throw from one particular spot, you would never know where the ball would be coming from with Pepper throwing.

"If you put your glove to the outside, Kristy would throw it to the outside," Honecker said. "With Robin, she had so much herky-jerky motion. She also had a variety of pitches -- a drop, a decent drop curve. She had more of a variety. It was a lot more fun to call pitches with Robin, but you had to concentrate on location and think more about what pitches were working and what weren't."

Central got Desiree Vassallo, the other senior starter, to second after a walk and a stolen base, but she was left there when Honecker struck out to end the the second inning.

With one out in the bottom of the second, Jill Casey walked. But Pepper managed to get out of the inning with a strikeout of Susan Halpern and a groundout by Jesse Mahaffey to shortstop Penniman.

So far, so good on that "backup" plan.

Zellman got things rolling for Central with one out when she hit a one-out double to left field. But Cook lined out to Collins and Pepper struck out to end the third.

Meanwhile, Pepper was continuing to surprisingly have her way with Paramus' free swingers. Third baseman Ann Marie Macchione and Eri Asai both popped out to first baseman Jill Homage and DeRoberto fouled out to Honecker to end the inning.

"Paramus, not seeing us before, probably cranked up the pitching machine in getting ready to face our pitching," Honecker told me seven years after this game. "While I'm sitting in the catcher's (box), I can hear them talking on the bench and some of the girls were saying, 'We should be hitting (Pepper).' They were swinging at pitches at crazy times. I think they had a hard time adjusting to Robin because she's not as fast as the pitchers they faced during the season."

Both Walker and Pepper were settling into grooves as the game moved along into the bottom of the fifth still scoreless, still anyone's game.

Up stepped Casey, who worked a walk out against Pepper, the first leadoff hitter in the game to reach base on either side. Pepper settled down to strike out Halpern and got Mahaffey to pop out to Penniman for the second out.

Now Macchione stepped up. On the first pitch, pinch-runner Nicole Cleenput stole second on Pepper and Honecker, putting a Spartans runner in scoring position for the first time all morning. Two pitches later, Macchione hit a sinking line drive into left field. Becky Barrett raced in and came up with a shoestring catch.

She believed she had made the catch, but the left-side field umpire saw the ball short-hop into her glove and ruled no catch. It was the first hit of the game for Paramus, but there was no time to wallow in the sadness of a no-hitter disappearing -- Cleenput was comin' around third and headin' home.

If adjustment had an award to it, Barrett won the honor hands down. She took the ball out of her glove and threw a one-hop strike to the plate all in the same motion. Honecker knew she was going to have a little bit of a collision at the plate.

Oh, was it a little more than that. She held the ball up to the home plate umpire who emphatically called Cleenput out.

To this day, it is the most important out I have ever witnessed. Barrett could have gotten down and even argued with the umpire over the catch she should have made, but instead, had the presence of mind to get the ball released and to Honecker, who did the rest as an experienced two-year varsity starting backstop.

After Pepper had her fielders' backs for 4 2/3 innings, they had hers in the most important moment of the game.

If that play, I thought, didn't give these young ladies from Berkeley Township any momentum, nothing would.

Already, this story was writing itself with unpredictable verve. The starting pitcher gets hurt on a freak pitch and foul ball and can't play and the backup pitcher has given up no runs on one hit with five strikeouts thus far. And this amazing play at the plate keeps the game scoreless.

I couldn't make this stuff up, even if I wanted to.

And everyone from Central -- Ocean County even -- was now standing up and cheering loudly behind where we were sitting for that amazing play. I turned to Steve and told him I couldn't believe this. "This isn't supposed to happen," I said. "They just might win this game."

Zellman started the sixth inning by hitting what seemed like a harmless grounder to shortstop Asai, but her throw to first baseman Casey was hurried and over her head for an error, allowing Zellman to get to second.

Central tried to get Zellman to third, but Cook struck out on three pitches after failing in her attempt to sacrifice and Pepper popped out to Casey for the second out.

The Golden Eagles could not allow this golden opportunity to go away. It was now up to Penniman, the sophomore and second-year starter. Penniman became the first and only freshman in OCT finals history to hit a home run as she helped Central secure title No. 6 against Jackson Memorial, 11-4, the year before.

This moment, though, was much bigger, bigger than any average sophomore might take. And Walker got the best of her by jumping out to an 0-2 count against Penniman.

But Penniman was able to fight back on the next delivery, a beautifully placed inside pitch that Penniman barely got her bat on. It took every ounce of strength from Penniman, but the ball found short left field. Asai kept backing up and backing up, but she barely missed the ball by inches.

Winkelried was sending Zellman around third to score the first run of the game. Penniman had delivered the biggest hit in Ocean County softball history to that point.

Now it was up to Pepper and Central to do the rest. But before Central took the field for the bottom of the sixth, the players, Winkelried and assistant coach Lynn Fisher got a surprise guest in their dugout.

It was Tice, who was back from her trip to the hospital. She was still holding lots of gauze bandages to her mouth as she was told that a plastic surgeon would have to take care of her lip and lower part of her face, but she didn't want to miss what was going on.

Pepper was stealing the show from Tice, but at this point, Tice didn't mind. She was around friends she had been close to since she was small, softball teammates for nearly 10 years on all levels. When you're this close to a state championship, you want to be there to see it with the people you play with and care about.

Asai started the bottom of the sixth with a single to center. It was obvious the Spartans were playing for the tie as DeRoberto squared to bunt. Pepper fielded the ball, but Vassallo, who was covering first, never had her foot on the bag and the error put runners on first and second with no outs.

Uh-oh, looks like the angry dog may have just woken up. That was my thought at the time. Pepper had not been in this kind of trouble in the game. The single and out at the plate in the fifth inning was with two outs, so she had a little breathing room. Now Pepper was going with first and second and no outs.

Collins came up and she, too, went for a bunt to move both runners into scoring position. She popped the ball up toward the first-base line in no man's land. Out of nowhere came Honecker, throwing her mask aside, to dive full length and make the catch along the first-base line to hold the runners on first and second.

Our photographer, Pete Picknally, nailed that catch on film and it was right there in our paper the next day. To this day, it is still the single greatest action shot of a high school event I have ever seen snapped.

If that didn't take a little more air out of the Paramus tires, this next at-bat would -- Macri hit a short flyball to left field that Barrett ran in, dove for and made the catch. Right fielder Korinne Darata flied out to Zellman and suddenly, this Cinderella story was a simple glass-slipper fitting away from being true to life.

By this point, Gerry Golembeski, the school's long-time athletic director had come over to the fence near where I was sitting. He was retiring after the school year was over, so this game would be the last one he would have on his watch as athletic director.

"What a way to go out," I told him.

"Everything's coming along nicely," he said back nervously. He looked out at the field as if he were coaching these Central girls this morning.

Central players were so pumped by now that they couldn't wait to get back onto the field for the bottom of the seventh. So they practically obliged Walker with a foulout and two strikeouts. Walker threw 101 pitches, an amazing 76 of which were for strikes. She finished with three hits allowed, one walk and 11 strikeouts. On most days, that would have won a state title for Paramus High.

But it was Pepper telling the story. And to start the seventh, Pepper got to 3-2 on Casey when she decided to go with one more rise ball. It should have been ball four. Casey swung freely at air.

One out. To this day, how Honecker kept from cracking up behind the plate by what the free-swinging Spartans hitters did in chasing Pepper's pitches was amazing.

Pinch-hitter Candace Vespoli came up and got to 2-2 against Pepper when the Central righty went for an outside pitch.

Swing and a miss. Strike three. Strikeout No. 7. Two outs.

One out left to get.

Mahaffey was the last hope for Paramus to get something started. Honecker called for a rise ball to begin the at-bat. Pepper delivered. Mahaffey swung at a pitch chest high.

I've always wondered aloud that if I made the movie of this game that this particular moment would be seen from the ball's point of view. I could see that ball climbing as high as it possibly can, then it start falling in the direction of third baseman Cook, the Golden Eagle with the most seniority on the team as a four-year varsity player and three-year starter.

And I can see the camera focused on the ball coming into Cook's glove as she got under it and squeezed it for the final out.

The dogpile was on between home plate and the pitcher's mound at 12:04 p.m. Pepper and Honecker hugged, then a whole slew of Golden Eagles players, including Tice, jumped in. Winkelried was excited and relieved, as was Fisher. And the applause and cheering -- and tears -- on the Central side lasted close to five minutes.

The program was state championship-less no more. Moments later, the confirmation came when Gloria Garibaldi, Selby's former assistant coach with the program who was now working with the NJSIAA, handed Winkelried the trophy.

With everything that had taken place that morning and the unlikely way this team won a state championship, I knew I was leaving Toms River North realizing this was the greatest high school sports event I had ever witnessed at this point of my nearly 12-year career.

Central players left on the bus singing "We Are The Champions." And as I left, I can still hear Becky Miller, Toms River North's longtime softball coach and the site official/coordinator for the three state title games that would take place that day telling me, "We still have two more games going on." I had to politely pass -- I did not want to lose a moment that was stuck immediately in my head from this game.

Great games come from great events you couldn't just make up.

Kristy Tice's freak injury. Cheryl Zellman's dash around third to score the game's only run. Toni Penniman with the biggest hit in Ocean County softball history to drive Zellman in. Kelly Honecker's unbelievable dive from out of the crouching catcher's position on a bunt popup. Becky Barrett's quick adjustment to make a perfect throw to Honecker at home plate to preserve a scoreless tie.

And Robin Pepper's unflappable domination of a team that was licking its chops because it saw her as just an average backup pitcher and couldn't wait to lace into her in the "greatest game ever thrown."

It all happened ... in one game.

How lucky can one get to see all that?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A coach everyone loved

We were in the middle of doing our All-County teams for the 2005 spring season at the Palatka Daily News. And in June -- and after the seniors had already been given their diplomas -- we had one more honor to give out.

That was for boys weightlifter of the year. So on a June afternoon, it fell on me to head down to Crescent City Junior-Senior High School to take pictures on my dinky little digital camera of the young man who earned the honor, Shontae Hill, who had just graduated.

I knew Shontae very well from seeing most of Crescent City's football games that fall. He was a fullback and linebacker on the team that won its district championship in surprising fashion and went on to the state playoffs, where the Raiders lost to Cross City Dixie County, 33-12, at home after the game was tied at 12 at halftime.

There were very few people at Crescent City this day, and so I walked into the weight room where Shantae was waiting to do some lifting and get his picture taken, while his head coach, Al Wisnoski, was there to supervise and make sure things were right.

Not only was Wisnoski Hill's weightlifting coach that spring, but he had been an assistant coach with the football team the previous three years he was with the team. I came to learn that if Al Wisnoski thought the world of you, he could throw zingers at you and you could take them.

"Show him the form you fooled people with to get to state," Wisnoski joked when we first started.

"You know you've got him lifting a weight he's not good at lifting," he jokingly zinged Hill with while telling me.

This went on during the pictures. Poor Shontae. I still don't know how he made it through without cracking up. Even after the pictures had been taken, he was still getting massacred by Wisnoski, who had just been named the new head coach of the football program that fall.

"We're going to do all right this year," Wisnoski began. Then directing his comments at Hill, he said, "Of course, a big step in that is we don't have to carry this guy around anymore."

All Hill could do was smile. After being showered with accolades by his weightlifting coach, he could handle being playfully hammered (if there is such a term) by the same man.

That's because Al Wisnoski would shower him with more accolades on his season and his time with him later on that night with me.

The truth of the matter was that Al Wisnoski loved all the kids that worked hard in his programs, whether it was weightlifting, baseball, basketball or football. And the ones who didn't work as hard as they should have were prodded by the man to go the little extra.

And here's something that may surprise you unless you were a student, student-athlete, teacher, administrator anyone close to Crescent City Junior-Senior High School -- everyone loved Al Wisnoski.

In 2005, Wisnoski took over the football program from a man who was one and done. Brad Waggoner, a Georgia guy who had come down to coach the Raiders and lead them to that district championship, had seen an opportunity to coach at a bigger school in Alabama and bolted almost immediately after the season had ended. All the while, I remember asking Waggoner if he was going to stay at Crescent City and he kept telling me he would be back, literally telling me of the things he couldn't wait to do with the returnees for that next fall.

But being closer to home was the one caveat, and when he saw the chance to get closer to home, Waggoner took it. And it meant Wisnoski got the opportunity to be the head coach of a program he had been with on and off since 1976. That's loyalty when you have been with a program that long and never the head guy and have coached under at least half a dozen men.

The 2005 season had the same vibe as the 2004 season, but the Raiders did not win a district title. The Villages, a new school, beat the Raiders and took the district title away. But, still, in his first year with the Raiders, Wisnoski got the team to the state tournament before losing at Riley Cooper-led Clearwater Central Catholic, 35-7.

To show you the kind of determination the Raiders had that season -- and how they quickly fit into the Wisnoski mold -- the offensive line averaged from one end to another about 190 pounds each, and that, I think, was being generious. What football team do YOU know has a center that's 140 pounds? That was the size of senior Patrich Buenaventura, whose heart will always be bigger than the body he lives in.

The hardest times as a reporter to deal with Al Wisnoski -- with any coach really -- was when they were losing. And the year after they went to the state for the first time under Wisnoski, they suffered badly. Their offense wasn't very good and they were losing games they had chances to win if they had even a remote hint of offense. Al and I did not get off on the best of terms that year when he approached me and thought it was wrong when under "What Will Crescent City miss?" I put down running back D.J. Johnson, a 1,000-yard rusher and two-year veteran of the team who was having grades problems.

He berated me for that, telling me that these were still high school kids and that we shouldn't be treating them like they were bigger than that. And he had a small bit of a point -- he, too, was a sports writer for quite some time for the local newspaper in southern Putnam County, the Courier Journal. But I simply told him his absence was going to affect what the Raiders did offensively and it turns out, it REALLY hurt without having Johnson in the backfield that year as the team went 3-7.

But even after all that -- and the season was over -- I had to do a follow-up story on the future of the program. And almost two weeks after the season was over, Wisnoski was downright elated. He was quite excited about the next year. Why?

"Our JV team went unbeaten and we have a good amount of talent that will return next year," he said.

Again, keen insight by the man was straight forward. The 2007 Raiders went 10-0, the first time a Crescent City team went the regular season unbeaten in 39 years. They had an amazing amount of talent, including three young men who would go on to play college football at the Division I level -- Toshmon Stevens at Florida State, Tyree Glover at Duke and Andre Addison at Jacksonville. All three would earn Putnam County Player of the Year honors between 2007-09.

The 2007 and '09 teams went to the state playoffs, the '07 team as district champion, the '09 team as a district runnerup in a year where most so-called experts had the Raiders picked last in the district. The Raiders lost first-round games to Clearwater Central Catholic (this time at home) in '07 and at Jacksonville Trinity Christian in '09, but had established themselves as a solid program under Wisnoski.

However, even as they were having a stellar '09 season, I could see the trembling the man suffered via Parkinson's -- I had seen this 15 years earlier with my own uncle -- was increasing. And soon, his diabetes was taking a toll. He would become confined to a wheelchair, but he was the same wonderfully nice man that I first got to know in 2005 when he took over the program and even after he stepped down at the end of the '09 season, he would be there in his wheelchair watching the game intently from the stands with his lovely wife, Vicki, by his side.

The last time I saw Al Wisnoski was in March. He and Vicki were in Publix in Palatka doing some shopping. He was going through the aisles when he caught me and said hello. He was in a motorized mini-buggy and we were just talking about various things. I asked how he was doing, especially having a couple of surgeries not that long ago, and he was in good spirits.

He then asked me to grab something from the top shelf, which I did and it suddenly occured to me -- even as I did the favor for him with a smile and said, "You're welcome" to him after he thanked me -- that we may not have him here much longer. I felt his helplessness of a simple task that would have been done without problem a year or so ago.

I always made it my business this spring to ask how he was feeling when I did get him on the phone and he never once complained about his condition, even if it sounded like he was struggling. I can admit now that after all the phones calls I made, mainly to talk to Vicki, who was the school's girls tennis coach until she stepped down at the end of this season, I really did not want to see this kind, gentle man suffer anymore.

And so it was on Tuesday, May 31, when I needed to talk to his wife about All-County tennis -- an All-County team that all seven positions belonged to Crescent City -- she called back late from the Gainesville hospital where he was staying to tell my boss (because I went out to grab something to eat) that her husband of 34 years had passed that evening at the age of 58.

I knew the ending was expected. I just didn't know it would come that quickly.

They are having a memorial service/celebration on Friday, June 10, at Crescent City's football field to honor this kind man. I'm sure that many people will be there to tell stories of the 35 years this New York state transplant served in Crescent City as a teacher, dean, guidance counselor, coach and leader of young people.

And I'm sure if Patrich Buenaventura were there, he would remember how this man believed in his abilities to play center at such a small size for a district runnerup.

I'm also sure if Shontae Hill were there, he'd be lovingly talking about his football and weightlifting mentor and all the good times he had with him.

But he'd really miss those zingers from the man.

Poor Shontae.

And everyone who loved Al Wisnoski.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A great championship game that I had a rooting interest in

Except for the first five Ocean County Softball Tournaments and the ones between 2000-02 I missed because I was in Key West, I have been witness to every championship final. That's 23 out of 31 finals, and I'm pretty sure that no one has seen as many championship games than I have.

Most of the ones I went to were while I working as a reporter and as co-director for the event between 1992-99. The rest have come as the proud owner of my Web site, www.octsoftball.com, and as the person who puts the tournament championship game program together by his lonesome.

For 22 of the 23 title games, I've come to the game with an open mind as an impartial follower, someone who is there not to take sides. Whoever wins the game, I'll be happy for them. And though, admittedly, some parents on some teams I've dealt with are noise-making, opinionated buffoons who grate on you like nails on a blackboard (I know they still exist out there to this day), I try not to make that the reason to root against their team.

But there was one time and one time only that I had a rooting interest in a final. It had to do with recent history.

It was Wednesday, June 8, 1988, and this was to be the most unique OCT championship game to date.

On one side was top-seeded and 25-3 Central Regional, which had just come off winning the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III championship and losing in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinal round to Manasquan the day before. On the other side was Monsignor Donovan, the second seed of the event and winners of the South Jersey Parochial A championship and losers in the overall Parochial A title to Queen of Peace High, 2-1, just a week and a half earlier.

Never before -- and never since -- has an OCT final pitted two South Jersey championship teams in the same year. Sadly and unfortunately now, the athletic directors want to get the county tournament out of the way before the Shore Conference and state tournaments get warmed up. That's a shame because to this day, this 1988 final arguably was the most unique title game in the tournament's history.

But now I will admit, nearly 23 years to the day of this game, I had a rooting interest in Central Regional to win the title. And I will go through the reasons:

A) Norm Selby was always good about any information I needed for a game he coached at Central.

B) Overall, the Golden Eagles, top to bottom, were a terrific team that year and were the model of consistency in Ocean County.

C) Most importantly was what happened on May 24, 1988, 15 days earlier. Here's that story:

I could not cover Donovan's SJ Parochial A championship game, which was to be played at Bishop Eustace High School in the Camden area. I had made a commitment to go with my mother up to Ridgewood in northern New Jersey to visit my aunt, who was moving to Florida and it would be the last time I would go see her at her place. That was an all-afternoon visit, so we had a correspondent named Paul scheduled to go see Donovan play that day.

I remember my mom and I came home in the early evening and me going to the phone to call the office to ask how the game went. All my good-feeling optimism went to the wayside the moment Chris Christopher, our main writer, picked up the phone to give me the news of what happened.

"Donovan f**ked us," he said. "They moved the game and poor Paul shows up to an empty field. Nice job of them to tell us the game had moved."

If there was a message from anyone from that school to let us know the game had been moved, things may have been different. But in an era in which there were no cell phones and texting and where at 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. no one was sitting in the sports department taking phone calls, it was hit or miss literally.

So I had to call up the head coach to find out how her team did. They won, 2-1, to claim the title. They had moved the game down to Gloucester Catholic High School, but I asked her why she never told us. She claimed her school had called, but I told her we never got the message, nothing on paper to alert us of the change. And in an era in which there were no cell phones or texting to get the message faster, you could easily become a villain if you don't communicate with us properly.

After berating her a bit -- I don't like missing a big game, especially a South Jersey championship -- I begrudgingly took the result of the game. That night, I had to do a preview of Central's game against Mainland Regional, which I was scheduled to go to that Friday. It was to be a 3 p.m. start on the day of Central's senior prom. I told Selby about what happened and he was horrified. He knew we were better than that to just miss a sectional championship in any sport.

Cut to two days later, I get a phone call at home from Mark James, one of our solid news editors. He called me to tell me that Central's softball game scheduled for the next day was moved to 1 p.m. instead of 3 p.m. I'm guessing to this day that Selby did that to be thorough and make sure we were there for that game and to show those at Donovan what being responsible was all about.

To this day, Norm Selby is my favorite coach that I have ever dealt with ... and not because of that reason alone. So getting there at 1 p.m. the next day at Hammonton High School, I watched Central win its SJ III title against unbeaten Mainland, 2-0.

Cut back to June 8, a sunny and beautiful Wednesday at Toms River High School South. I got my lineups like I normally did. With Central, it was smiling and joking. With Donovan, it was little conversation, take the lineup on the flimsy piece of paper, copy the names down and wish them well ... even if I was lying through my teeth.

I stood on the first base side of the field where Central's fans were situated. I had done a position-by-position look at each player in the paper that morning, which I normally did, in the paper and then made my prediction: Central 2, Monsignor Donovan 1, saying that Central would find a way to get to hard-throwing Stacy Witfill if given the opportunity.

But for six innings, Central was not getting to Witfill. The Golden Eagles had stranded five runners on base in the first three innings and Witfill set the Golden Eagles down in order in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. To say the least, it was awfully quiet on the Central side.

On the other side, though, Donovan scratched a run off starter Angel Slack in the third inning when Michelle Marfori tripled and Witfill singled her home.

In the sixth, the Griffins added a second run that seemed insurmountable with Witfill on the mound when she walked, moved to second on a wild pitch and scored on a Jodi Bisogno single.

For 1988 standards, Stacy Witfill threw very, very hard -- almost as hard as a good amount of the young ladies who pitch today. In Florida, for example, "fastpitch" came into being in 1994. But it had been in fashion in Jersey for many years. Though there weren't many hard-throwing pitchers back in that time period, Witfill was the dominating hard-thrower.

But in what would be her last high school game on the mound, Witfill was throwing smart ball. Central had prepared to face a hard-thrower like it had with Mainland's Shannon Devlin in the SJ III final and Witfill knew that if she threw bebes, she'd get hit. So she fouled up Central players' timing by mixing her pitches effectively.

Except one Central batter who was 2-for-3. More on her in a moment.

And as Central's players came off the field for one last time after the top of the seventh inning, those rooting for Donovan along the third-base line were getting excited to see the Griffins close to the championship.

Norm Selby said he could hear them standing in the third-base coaching box and could sense the idea of beating big, bad Central Regional was the biggest accomplishment ever for the Donovan program ... and this was after winning an SJ Parochial A title and coming up a run short in the overall Parochial A championship!

His team had been dormant for three innings and though he, like everyone else, knows you need 21 outs to claim a victory, it was an uphill battle all afternoon against hard-throwing Stacy Witfill -- who was doing little hard throwing.

The Donovan fans who were there would never admit to it then, but you could tell they really disliked Central's program and everything it stood for at that time. After all, Central was that model of what a softball program was all about in the 1980s -- three OCT titles up to that point, two SJ III championships and 20-win seasons in 1981, 1986 and '88 with the 1984 team winning 19 games.

More importantly -- the thing that always bristled on Norm Selby's nerves -- was the fact that Central won its championships by playing team defense and getting consistent pitching. He always told me -- and he will still tell me to this day -- that it doesn't matter how hard you throw the ball, as long as you play defense behind the pitcher and can come up with hits to put runs together. He had no love for teams who won with a dominant pitcher and her only, which was why he wasn't a fan of Monsignor Donovan's team.

And I'm sure Donovan's fans weren't a fan of Norm Selby and Central, either.

All parties knew this. It wasn't a well-kept secret by any means. Both teams wanted to beat the other badly.

Neither team was going to have that happen on this day, so now the consolation prize was to just win the championship.

And at this point, I was pretty resolved to the fact that Donovan was going to win this game by its main weapon throwing arguably one of the smartest games ever. After she struck out an OCT-record 13 batters in the semifinal against Toms River North, Witfill had just three strikeouts, only one after the first inning. Slack, actually, had more strikeouts in the final (five) than Witfill did.

Slack began the inning with a popup over toward the second-base side of the bag. Second baseman Kris Suskevich had the ball in her view, but from out of nowhere came Kris Witfill, Stacy's sister and Donovan's left-handed shortstop to get over to near where Suskevich was to make the catch and first out.

That may have foreshadowed what the next few minutes were going to be about.

Sue Faella hit a slow grounder to the left side of the field that she slid into first base to beat out for a single. Dawn Boertmann, the Golden Eagles' No. 8 hitter, grounded out to Kris Witfill, moving Faella to second base and bringing up second baseman Melinda Boudah. This pint-sized sophomore was the last hope of keeping the game going for Central Regional.

Boudah hit a groundball toward Kris Witfill, who got the ball and had some time to throw out the runner to end the game. But her throw was low and first baseman Liesl Breickner could not scoop it out of the ground. Boudah, like Faella before, slid into first base safely. First base coach and assistant Gloria Garibaldi let out a cheer and gave her runner a high-five.

Runners on first and third with two outs and Donovan's celebration was itching to start. Now this error was about to prolong what would be a not-so-happy ending.

Up stepped leadoff hitter and third baseman Michelle Carlson, a superstar in the making who had also given up 10 walks on the mound the day before against Manasquan because of a bad thumb that nearly sidelined her for this game! I can still remember Selby telling me how Carlson's father told him that he didn't think she'd go that day at South because her thumb was so bad, and Selby seriously had to think of a new alignment going into the final.

I am sure the best high school softball player I ever saw will send me a message and clear the matter up on this next piece of info: I believe it was Selby who asked her if she felt up to playing and she said she could play. I don't believe it was her begging Selby to play.

Nonetheless, it was now up to the super sophomore to continue her great day against Witfill -- she was the Central player who was 2-for-3 at this point. Well, like a seasoned senior -- or college player, for that matter -- Carlson found her pitch and belted it into left-center field for a base hit to score Faella and move Boudah to second.

The tying run was at second and the winning run was at first base, still two outs, still Donovan's celebration on hold.

And the fate of the 1988 OCT was now on No. 2 hitter Alison Duffy. Duffy and shortstop Kelly McGowan were three-year varsity players who played on Central's 1986 OCT and SJ III title teams as freshmen. Now it was up to the left fielder to keep things going.

First pitch -- fastball, strike one. Then came the second pitch -- a bunt attempt foul for strike two.

I'm sure almost every single person on Central's side was asking what the heck was going on -- a two-out bunt in the bottom of the seventh inning down a run? But if it was to be done as an element of surprise, it failed badly.

The Golden Eagles were down to their final strike. Duffy readied herself at the plate. Witfill fired away.

The ball bounced into the ground and behind senior catcher Carolyn Cuccolo to the backstop, moving Boudah to third and Carlson to second. Now as if a gift had been handed to them, the Golden Eagles had the tying and winning runs in scoring position. All that was needed was for Duffy to put the ball in play.

On the 1-2 pitch, Duffy connected for a groundball to the right side of the field. Suskevich ran from her second base position as far as she could ... practically to right near first baseman Breickner. To this day, and I still have the video, I am amazed at how Breickner never, ever moved for that groundball that was hit maybe two or three steps to her right. She literally stood there like a stone.

The ball had found the outfield. Boudah scored easily and Selby kept his left arm wind-milled at Carlson, one of the team's fastest runners. Right fielder Colleen Halley got to the ball and fired to home plate, except the throw was up the third-base line and as Cuccolo raced up the line to get the ball, Carlson had darted past her and slid into home plate safely.

Selby admitted after the game that he totally forgot that Carlson, his runner at second, was the winning run. So as Central players jumped all over Carlson and started celebrating, Selby suddenly figured it out -- Central won the game, 3-2.

And no offense to my dear friend Norm Selby, him celebrating something joyously doesn't quite have the gusto of most celebratory moments coaches have. He could barley jump up and down, like the only thing he could clear with his jumps were a couple of pieces of 8-x-11 paper stacked on top of each other. It's something Ron Signorino, the great former head football coach at Toms River South and assistant at Brick High, pointed out in his column that appeared that Friday in our newspaper.

As for me, I was relieved my prediction was right -- as Kelly McGowan's mother, Diane, bear-hugged me in celebration of the victory.

And as I watched Donovan pack its things quietly and leave a high school softball field for the final time that year, I couldn't help but wonder what the future of the program was going to be like, especially with Stacy Witfill moving on to Valparaiso in Indiana to continue her studies and career. To this day, Donovan has not reached an OCT championship again, though it did make semifinals in 1995 and 2008.

It was all about Central Regional ... and the greatest comeback in OCT finals history to this day. Only one other team has come back from trailing in the seventh inning to pull out an OCT championship, Toms River East doing it against New Egypt to win the 2005 title.

This one, though, was far more dramatic. Central was down two runs with one out left in the game and it had won in unlikely fashion.

And usually placid Central Regional couldn't wait to state its feelings afterward.

Said Duffy of Witfill, "It wasn't like she was fast. We've seen faster pitching this year. I think she got too much publicity."

Ouch.

Said Selby, "After we went through the first two at-bats, I asked my girls, 'Hey, is anyone here impressed by (Witfill).' I'm sick and tired of hearing things about these other teams and how well they hit the ball against us. We played some of the top teams in the state. We've won the Pemberton Tournament, South Jersey Group III, a share of the Class B South title and now the Ocean County Tournament."

Then in the midst of all the hooopla and happiness, someone suggested, though I still to this day don't remember who it was, that it would be a fitting gesture to take the bus after the game and do a victory lap -- around nearby Monsignor Donovan High School. And so the Golden Eagles reportedly got on the bus after all the interviews were over and drove off to Donovan, just to do that victory lap.

Probably not the bestest of ideas in the world, but after enduring the things they did throughout the better part of the last couple of weeks, this was release to them. Maybe they were doing it for me, for what happened two weeks earlier when they failed to let us know that a South Jersey championship game had been moved at the last moment. I never asked and nor did I want to hear the reason.

Three days later, Central beat Manasquan in the final Class B South game of the season to claim the division title outright, ending an amazing 27-3 season and one of the greatest softball team seasons I ever witnessed.

Yes, it was wrong of me to root for one team over another and I have vowed since then to just be an impartial witness to whatever history is made on that particular day, especially when two county teams face one another.

But don't mess with me when you forget to do your responsibiity, like letting me and my paper know when a big softball game gets its site changed.

The karma police may be out and about when you least expect it.

I smiled saying that and remembering that June day in 1988.