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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,, 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."


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.

1 comment:

  1. Wow -- what a flashback! Thanks for the memories. Would love to see the video of that (even if we did lose)!