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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?

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