The idea of an All-Star field hockey event was long overdue at the New Jersey Shore. At least that was my opinion.
I had seen so many great field hockey players come and go in Ocean County for the 10 years I covered the sport. Kim Bush. Mary Bendel. Cristy Iorio. Jen Dutton. Lynn Gesser. Melissa Schreiner. Dana Jurczyk. Sue Schoppe. Linda Kurtyka. Charisse Hopkins. Kim Yankowski. And the best field hockey player I ever covered in 14 seasons at the Ocean County Observer, Christie Pearce.
Yes, THAT Christie Pearce, now Christie Rampone of the U.S. women's soccer team.
But they all shared the same thing in common -- they were great Ocean County players who never got to play against Monmouth County's best players in an All-Star game.
It took the passing of a Monmouth County coach to bring an All-Star Game in the sport to fruition, though.
In the fall 1994, popular and longtime Monmouth Regional High School mentor Sue Grant had lost her battle with cancer, a blow to those who knew her and what positive energy she brought to the sport. And so it was decided later on that school year that a Shore area field hockey battle between Monmouth County and Ocean County would be played in her honor with the proceeds going to a scholarship fund in her name.
Though Monmouth County had the name schools with the fantastic reputations like Shore Regional, Wall Township, Manasquan and Red Bank Regional, Ocean County had the star players. And in the 1994 season, Ocean County had a star-studded group of players.
Toms River East was represented by standout scorer Kat Arnold. Toms River North, which won the Shore Conference Tournament that fall, had sisters Connie and Tracy Sadowski. Pinelands Regional had Maureen Lawless. Southern Regional had Jodie Davis and Courtney Shearer. Jackson Memorial had Vicky Wagner. And Lacey had an amazing amount of players from its NJSIAA Group III title championship team, led by Jen Melnyk, a first-team All-State player, Megan Glancy and Pam Jacobson.
Coaching Ocean County's club was Madeline Dutton, Central Regional's coach since 1976. Helping her were Lacey's state-championship mentor, Mike Shern, and another longtime county coach, Barbara Hughes of Toms River South.
The Wednesday I came out to Central Regional for practice, you could see that even though these young ladies had never played with one another, they were jelling rather well. I can still see Davis threading a perfect pass to Arnold, who put the ball in behind Manchester goalie Amanda Curchin. And Melnyk was drilling her patented penalty corner shot from the top of the circle past Curchin and Lakewood goalie Karina Ballesteros.
But I also saw something that bothered me a bit. There was South's Shannon Keelan practicing with the team. Nothing wrong with playing with others, except Keelan still had a senior year ahead of her at South. I asked Dutton what she was doing out there. She said she would look into it.
Only a couple of hours after practice had been over, Keelan was no longer a member of the Ocean County squad. If Keelan had played in this game, she would have forfeited her right to play in any all-star games the next year ... and if I remember right, forfeited the right to play in South's regular season.
Hughes told me later that she completely forgot that Keelan was not a senior on the team. I was hoping she would have told me that she had no concept that only seniors could play in these games because I still found it hard to believe that she would not have known her top all-around player was coming back for her senior year that fall.
But Hughes thanked me for the oversight and I told her she was welcome.
Even without the talented Keelan, I still had a lot of hope that this team would be very, very good come game time.
The player I was excited to see play was Ballesteros. This young lady was one of the smartest student-athletes in the county, but between the two sports she played at Lakewood High School -- field hockey and softball -- she never saw the winning side. Seriously. In two years, Ballesteros' Piners never won a single game in either sport. So if there was a rooting interest in the game, that would've been the Piner goalie who got the nod to start the game.
Leading up to it, temperatures were rising each day. It had been in the low 90s. But by the Friday before the game, temperatures reached 102 degrees at the Shore.
We love summer at the Jersey Shore. We don't like it that hot, though. And as I heard the weather report for the next day -- hot with temperatures reaching over 100 degreres -- I started to get concerned for those involved in the game. I had never covered an event that warm before and my first phone call the morning of the game -- Saturday, July 15, 1995 -- was to Sue Gallo, the woman who had taken over as Monmouth Regional's coach the fall before.
As far as she knew, the game was still on at the Tinton Falls-based school at 6 p.m. And she knew the temperatures weren't going to be as hot as they were during the day.
During the day, temperatures had hit 105 degrees, tied for the hottest day I ever experienced in my 28-plus years on this planet. Sure, I remember 100-degree days before. I remember being at a Mayor's Trophy Senior League game at Toms River Little League the Saturday before I graduated high school in 1984, getting in the car going home from the game with my dad because it was just so freakin' hot and the lady on WOBM-FM starting her newscast with, "It is 105 degrees at 3 o'clock ... "
I suddenly had this flashback as I headed north on the Garden State Parkway at 4:30 p.m. for the 6 p.m. start.
Monmouth Regional High was a school I had never been at before in my 11 years in the business. Never had to cover a football game there or any sport for that matter, but I knew about where it was located since I recognized the playing fields along the Parkway past Exit 105. I found the school with surprising ease, but as I got out of my car and headed toward the field, I realized the temperature had not dropped much.
It was still a solid 101 degrees as I showed my press pass and headed toward the field hockey field at the school. Both teams were going through their workouts, the Ocean side still moving about with the relatively surprising ease as it did three days earlier. Monmouth's girls looked as if they were still trying to figure each other out and trying to get on the same page.
Still, it's the Monmouth County club with players from standout teams like Wall and Shore Regional and Red Bank Regional and a fantastic goalie in net in Meg DeJong of Monmouth Regional. This should have been a good, close match for the first-ever All-Shore all-star event, right?
The Ocean squad had other ideas.
Just 3:50 into the match, Davis led a break like she was still playing point guard for Southern's girls basketball team that came within a victory of a South Jersey Group IV championship the previous winter. She dodged and weaved past defenders, then found Arnold like they were teammates for four years instead of rivals. Arnold swept her shot into the goal behind Holmdel goalie Noreen Flanagan to make it 1-0.
During the match, Davis was playing the center point of the attack, rotating with Melnyk. And at 20:45, Melnyk and Arnold pulled off the same play with Arnold sweeping it in past DeJong to make it 2-0.
In the final moments of the first half, the dominant Ocean performance was given its exclamation point when Arnold served a beautiful pass to Connie Sadowski, whose one-touch shot beat DeJong to make it 3-0 at the break.
Many in the crowd by halftime were in utter shock. Even the Ocean squad had to take a step back and admire what it had done to the Monmouth club and to the all-everything goalie DeJong. A 3-0 lead was far from expected.
Dutton was now freely substituting for the final 30 minutes of the game, which had been cut to 15-minute quarters for the day due to the heat. With 11:53 left, Ocean pressured again and DeJong was called for trapping the ball underneath her. That constituted a penalty stroke and Dutton looked on the field to who would take the penalty stroke.
She handed the task off to Davis, who admitted after the game she had not made a penalty stroke since her junior year. But calm, cool, collected and likeable Jodie Davis did not fail. She beat DeJong to her right side to make it 4-0.
All that was left was the shutout, but it didn't take long for that party to be ruined. Wall's Kelly Simon fed beautifully to Middletown South's Keri Stein, who beat backup Curchin with the Monmouth side's only goal with 10:12 left in the game.
Ocean won the game, 4-1, and even more amazingly, no one on either side suffered from heat stroke in the oppressive temperatures.
And the money they raised helped for a nice-sized scholarship that day.
More importantly, those who played on the Ocean side went out a winner. That included Ballesteros, who took the win probably like she had taken every loss ... with the same demeanor. But at least with a smile on her face this time.
"It felt great. There's no other way to describe it," she said to me after the match. "I'm glad I can leave high school saying I won my final game."
In all fairness, Ballesteros never had a team quite like the one in front of her, pumping in goal after goal. What the Ocean side did was send a message that day about whose players were better in the sport.
I didn't think anything could be hotter than the conditions the teams played in on that July day in '95.
I was very wrong.