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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.

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