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Sunday, October 30, 2011

The long-traveled road to an SCT field hockey title

Sometimes, the path to a special moment is paved as long as it takes to walk from Key West to Yulee.

The road just never seems to end. You know there's an end, but you just don't know when that end comes.

And so was the path the Point Pleasant Boro High School field hockey team took to get to the Shore Conference Tournament championship game on Friday, October 27, 1989. On the outside, nabbing the fourth seed for the SCT didn't seem so bad.

But they were better off dodging landmines in Baghdad than playing the tournament when they saw what was ahead of them. The opening round was against 13th-seeded and tough Ocean Township, which they dispatched of on their home field.

Next came a visit from unbeaten and No. 5 seed Middletown North. Figured this might be the end of the line. Nope. Boro scored the 1-0 victory and onto the semifinal where a trip to West Long Branch and perennial favorites Shore Regional High -- another unbeaten team and the tournament's top seed -- awaited.

But a goal by Kim Yankowski in the first half stood up and the Panthers won the game, 1-0.

Three tough challengers, two of which were unbeaten, slayed. Just like that.

But don't think for one moment the Panthers were going to have a picnic in the final that night at Southern Regional High School. The opponent was third-seeded and defending champion Wall Township High, led by top players Kristy Hendrickson and Meredith Giese. The Crimson Knights had taken out the team they beat in last year's final, second-seeded Toms River North, in the semifinal round to get to the championship.

The Crimson Knights' record going into the championship -- 12-0-3. Yeah, another unbeaten team standing in the way of Shore Conference supremacy. Worse, the Panther players who were about to take the field at Southern Regional High School had never, ever, ever beaten rival Wall in a field hockey match.

Talk about monumental tasks. Now don't feel sorry for these Panther girls or feel they were an underdog in any way, shape or form. The '89 Panthers went into the final with a 14-1-4 record, the loss coming to Wall earlier in the season.

As I got to Southern's football field for the match, I was relieved I didn't have to cover a high school football game that night. THIS is where I wanted to be, to watch this talented group of Panthers -- who would ultimately have seven of their players earn All-County first-team honors -- make history for themselves and become the first outright SCT winner from the county since North had beaten Shore in the '85 final on penalty strokes.

The only Ocean County team to win an SCT title in regulation up to this point was Pinelands Regional over Wall in the first-ever final in 1984.

I could still see the teams warming up before the final on a cool night in Southern Ocean County. Point Boro was focused and ready to go. I noticed it. Our Observer photographer, Pete Picknally, noticed it. Then Pete asked me if I heard the new parody to the Billy Joel song "We Didn't Start The Fire."

"It's called 'We Really Don't Need Lyrics,'" he said of the mocking "history rap" Billy Joel makes on his future No. 1 song. "It's something like, 'We ladada-da-dah lyrics.'"

I laughed. It's all I could remember.

Yes, this was STILL where I wanted to be that night.

The teams lined up for the faceoff that Point Boro won off the coin toss. Charisse Hopkins, the skilled center-forward, took the ball up the field and fed it to her best buddy Yankowski. From there, Yankowski dodged and weaved through helpless Wall defenders until she found herself at the doorstep of goalkeeper Tracy Sentner.

Just 34 seconds into the match, Yankowski stuffed the ball past Sentner to make it 1-0.

The message was automatically clear ... Point Boro was not going to be intimidated.

With Wendi Pearce, Stacey Bielick and Sue Schoppe leading the way defensively, the Panthers kept the Crimson Knights at bay and as far away from Boro goalie Michelle Visbeck as possible. The aggressive style they employed that night was working.

But I knew the Crimson Knights weren't just going to lay down and die for the Panther ladies. They couldn't. They owned this team the last few meetings. To most casual observers to the game, the Knights were a much better team.

Now, though, it was about to be put to the test. At the 19:03 mark, the Panthers were right on the doorstep again and Hopkins fed Yankowski, who ultimatey put the ball past Sentner to make it 2-0.

The previous fastest goal to start an SCT final was scored by Pinelands' Tammi Grasela in the 1984 final against Wall in just over 22 minutes. Now Yankowski, one of the greatest female athletes I ever covered, was in the record books with the two fastest goals in SCT finals history before 20 minutes had expired.

And the lead stayed 2-0 at halftime. But something happened that I will never forget.

It happened so quickly, too. Yankowski was having problems breathing. Maybe the thick air, maybe asthma. But she wasn't an asthmatic. She was hyperventilating in front of my own eyes. I was actually scared for her and her parents. It was a short moment, but ultimately, she calmed down.

That's how intense this game was. The Panthers were up by two goals with 30 minutes to play, but they couldn't let up for one moment. They knew ... everybody knew ... how good coach Nancy Gross' Crimson Knights were. They could just erase a two-goal deficit like it was nothing.

So the Panthers players re-dedicated themselves to keep up that pressure in the second half. And it was working. They had the ball down at the other end of the field for the first 10 minutes of the second half. Hopkins again fed the ball into the circle.

This time around, it wasn't Yankowski waiting for it. It was a freshman forward coach Judy Goldstein thought the world of to put her on the forward line as a starting wing. Christie Pearce had the ball in her sights and swung forward as it hit her stick, going up and into the net behind Sentner for a 3-0 lead.

Ball game all but over. The Panthers could start celebrating this title and overcoming the demons of Wall Township High.

But hold the phone. The official nearest the net disallowed the goal for a high ball. In the sport, the ball needs to be below the waist of the goalie to be counted as a goal. Yeah, field hockey's a very technical sport. And so went the goal.

They still had the two-goal cushion and 20 more minutes to kill, which against Wall seemed like a lifetime. Because here came the Knights back down the field for one push. They brought goalie Visbeck too far out of the net and Giese connected for an easy score to cut the lead to a goal with 12:36 left to play.

The lead was now precarious. And as the night got cooler, were the chances of a title cooling down for Point Boro's Panthers? I remember Mike Eruzione's famous line about the night the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics in which he scored with 10 minutes left, took another shift, came off the ice and swore the clock said 9:59 on it.

That's how the last 10 minutes felt. And when Geise had another chance to tie the game, that "uh-oh" feeling was coming upon me. But Visbeck stood her ground with a kick save. This turned out to be very valuable.

With less than two minutes to play, the timekeeper got up from her desk and started to follow the head official up and down the field, telling her the time since the football scoreboard clock stopped at 2:00 by rule. I was not too far from where she was and she would count down in 15-second intervals.

"One 15. One minute. Forty-five seconds. Thirty seconds," she counted down. "Fifteen seconds. Ten seconds. Nine, eight, seven, six, five, four ... "

Once it became apparent the Knights would not get clean possession of the ball in Point Boro territory anymore, I didn't need to count to zero in my head.

It was over. The Panthers had held on for the 2-1 victory. Lots of hugs all around. The memories were amazing -- a hug between besties Hopkins and Yankowski, the smile on Bielick's face, the joy Visbeck showed. And the moment the trophy was handed to the Panther players, who gave it off to Goldstein, the program's head coach since 1983, was precious.

As I'm talking with coach Goldstein, she's concentrating on answering my questions and talking with Jack Bielick, Stacy's father. They had been making phone calls up to Point Pleasant Boro in the second half to have some sort of a hometown greeting once they hit the town limits and there would be fire trucks waiting to give the team bus a proper procession to the high school where the Panthers football team was playing that night.

Of course, I didn't witness what happened, but I heard it was a moment to remember.

And as things were calming down, I can still hear Visbeck's voice when she said, "None of us had ever beaten Wall. We said we were winning tonight."

They proceeded to leave Manahawkin and head back to Point Boro for a hero's welcome. I was on my way south to nearby Tuckerton for an overnight stay with my Monmouth College friend Irv and his lovely wife. That's where I typed in the game story on the old Tandy computers we used to have at the Observer and send the story through phone wires or cupplers. I was down there overnight because I had a Pinelands Regional High football game the next afternoon.

Meanwhile, to make the story complete, I had asked a young lady named Erica out. Erica was Goldstein's sister and I had known Erica first as a high school softball player that I had covered at Toms River South, then as a player for a short time at Georgian Court. On that Sunday, two days after Point Boro's title, she and I went to Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township for the final day the park was open, also the last day of Octoberfest.

It was a great date to say the least and we went out for over four months. It was time, as I say, well spent.

That was a capper to a weekend I won't ever forget in '89, highlighted by some ladies who took the path longways to a Shore Conference championship ... through three unbeaten teams, no less.

The Point Pleasant Boro High School field hockey team, which would ultimately play for a South Jersey Group II championship a couple of weeks later, losing to Moorestown, showed the Shore its mettle was second to no one that night at Southern.

It was where I wanted to be that night.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The day everything aligned for the Interlachen cross country program

Heading to Whispering Pines Park in Inverness on Thursday, October 23, 2003, I was assured of one thing, maybe two.

The absolute was that Jeremy Criscione was going to qualify for the Region 2-2A cross country meet the following week. I was pretty sure he was going to win the District 3-2A meet.

The almost absolute I expected was that his teammate at Interachen High School, Talisa Bishop, was going to be good enough to qualify in the Top 15 at the same meet on the girls side and also move on to the regional meet the next week at nearby Lecanto High School.

After that, though, it was strictly a guess of what good might come out of this afternoon. It had been a week since Criscione dominated the All-Putnam County cross country meet. It was also that same day that Bishop lost a memorable battle with Palatka's Amy Eller for the girls title, the two battling stride for stride before Eller pulled ahead and zoomed to the finish line in 21:40, 18 seconds faster than Bishop.

How much of that was in Bishop's mind, I had no idea. Athletics has a strange way of turning one's physical attributes into a side of psychological spaghetti.

Still, it was a new day and when I arrived mid-afternoon at the park, I knew the drill: the ladies would go first, followed by the guys.

And so the girls took off. The entire Interlachen team was solid, but how good they were against some of the better teams in Citrus and Marion, Alachua and St. Johns counties remained to be seen.

I hung out on the side waiting to see where  Bishop was going to be and from there to see how close behind her teammates were in the battle to pick up points. She passed by me near the first mile and after that came her twin sister Heather, followed by teammates Brandi Newman, Daisy Salinas, Ashley Criscione, Jeremy's sister, and Courtney Spitzner. They were within striking distance of some of the girls on other teams, so maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that the Rams' girls might qualify for the region meet.

Talisa Bishop came across in fifth place in 21:54, so she was going off to the region meet as an individual. But then other runners were crossing the finish line. I started counting the eighth, then ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th runners coming in. Then came No. 15 -- Crystal River's Stephanie Bodden, who got across the line in 22:58.

Eight seconds ... that's all the difference made between Bodden and Heather Bishop crossing the line and qualifying individually, too, for the regional meet. She finished in 17th place. On Heather Bishop's face was both the look of exhaustion and dejection.

It would be another minute before Newman crossed in 28th place, then Salinas came across in 46th in 28:07, Criscione in 49th in 28:46 and Spitzner right behind in 50th in 28:52.

Judging by what schools were being represented crossing the finish line, I knew it was going to be a close one for Interlachen. There were 12 teams at the event and the top six teams points-wise would qualify to go on to the region meet.

Rams coach Dwayne Cox, the inspiration for many of those young ladies and gentlemen running for the school, was doing inventory with his runners, checking his young ladies out to see how they were. Even he had some question as to whether or not they were going to move on. For the moment, the only person he knew he was taking with him to Lecanto High the next Saturday was Talisa Bishop.

Meanwhile, as the boys' race began, I found my way to Heather Bishop. This story was really going to be about her. Sure, her twin was a dynamic runner in every way, but I always felt like Heather was the forgotten one. She certainly didn't have her sister's wheels, but she could hold her own on a cross country course.

I can see the bummed-out look in her eyes.

"So close, too," she said to me.

I was really feeling her pain at that particular moment. Then she got her resolve and smiled. "Guess I can be a cheerleader for my sister next week," she said. Then we talked about the race.

"I had no idea what place I was in," she said. "It was my best race, but it would've been better had I qualified (individually) for the states."

Meanwhile, the boys team was in the similiar situation as the girls team, though the boys were expected to finish in the top six and move on to the regions. Jeremy Criscione was not disappointing through the first mile, even if his best running friend, Keystone Heights' Enoch Nadler, was chasing him throughout the course.

At 16 years old, you could see how effortless running was to Jeremy Criscione, like he had a gift that he was putting to full use. I knew this was the best boys cross country runner I had ever seen and the best was still yet to come.

He won the race in 16:24, eventually putting space between himself and University of Florida recruit Nadler, beating him by 31 seconds.

Now Talisa had someone to go to Lecanto with. The rest was going to be up to the young Interlachen Rams boys runners.

And it also was up to where the points fell in the just-run girls race.

Bryan Meily was the second Interlachen runner, coming in 28th in 19:09, followed by Lamar Green in 43rd in 20:16, three seconds after that by Kyle Pope in 44th. Harley Rollins was the fifth and final Rams boys scorer in 51st place in 21:09.

It appeared Interlachen's boys were also going to be close to the region meet.

So off to the large wooden, gazebo-like structure where the race was being headquartered with the positive-minded Cox. Even he, though, admitted it was going to take some luck and some personal bests for his teams to get to the regions.

We were waiting for the final girls' totals. Seems there was some confusion on some placements. We were being held up. Not just Coach Cox and myself -- the six young ladies clad in blue and white uniforms were being held up, too.

It gave me time to actually have a small conversation with Cox, the program's head coach for nine years. He took pride of his program like coaches up in Ocean County, New Jersey did. In New Jersey, cross country is as important a sport as football, soccer and field hockey is during the fall.

The man ran a very strong cross country program and took pride in it. Long before budgets would slash schedules and how far a team could travel for a meet, Cox would take his team to many meets. They even hosted a Saturday event once a year at the home West Putnam Recreation Center, as well as host the county meet.

"Sometimes it takes some luck," Cox said. "But I said I felt we could finish anywhere between fifth and seventh place with both teams."

Finally, the girls results came in. Cox grabbed a copy of the results before I could get a copy. He looked at them and then he showed me. There it was:

5. Interlachen 136.

"Knew it was going to be close," he said. "But we had girls run personal-bests in the race. Sometimes you need that."

Moments later, Talisa Bishop arrived from the group of other Rams runners who were waiting 75 feet away from the gazebo.

"How did we do, Mr. Cox?" she asked. Then he showed her the final team finish.

A smile came across her face and a walk started turning into a skip, like Bambi playfully romping to her fellow does. From the distance, coach Cox and I watched side by side as Talisa Bishop began telling her teammates they would be running in Lecanto with her next week. A jubilant scream came from the area.

Cox looked at them, then directly asked me, "You know why I love to coach? Watching their reaction says it all."

For some reason, the boys' results were taking time to print out. Moments later, the results were in. Dunnellon and Lecanto were first and second. Menendez was third, followed by Keystone Heights fourth and Inverness Citrus fifth. Then came sixth place.

Interlachen, 138. The Rams beat out Alachua Santa Fe by 55 points to claim the final team spot.

The end result was all that mattered. Talisa Bishop and Criscione were going to regionals as individuals ... and their teammates were going with them as a team.

It would be great to tell you that the next week at Lecanto both teams had great days and qualified for the state meet. But that would simply be embellishing the story a bit. Neither did make it beyond the region meet.

However, Bishop had one of the best days of her career, finishing second to qualify for the state meet. Meanwhile, Criscione finished second to Nadler and also went to the state meet at Radice Park in Tampa, where he would finish sixth overall and Bishop would finish 27th in her final high school race.

And little did I know that November 2003 night in Tampa that I would be seeing Cox coach for the last time. He passed away in August 2004, and before Criscione won the state 2A title a few months later, the end of the road came for the IHS program in terms of how good it was. It never has quite recovered.

But I am always reminded of that late October afternoon in 2003 when the moon, the stars and the sun aligned with one another at a park in Inverness for the IHS cross country programs when it looked like it wouldn't be a completely successful day.

I look forward to another day like that on a cross country field somewhere again.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Allowing for an audience of one

Never in a year and a half of running road races did I want anyone there at the finish line waiting for me or coming or going with me to these races.

I was adamant about it. I had set down this journey of getting in better shape and losing weight alone. No fanfare, no smiles, nothing.

I wanted to do this by myself. So I traveled to a lot of races, only there to run a good time, but mainly to finish. And I was content to say hello to the people who ran the races, especially if they were local in Putnam County like I was.

Afterward, I'd read the posted results of the race, hear a little of the ceremonies knowing I wasn't winning any prizes, and head to my car to go home. Mission accomplished in that regard.

But in early 2008, a woman who I had met a year before via the Internet and someone I grew close to wanted to go to the races I ran. Again, I wasn't all that crazy about having someone there with me. I think it took a while for me to feel comfortable with her going with me to races. I just didn't want to take anyone. That's how stubborn I was.

Shirlene, though, was persistent in that persistent way of saying, "I want to see you run and that's all." If she felt I didn't want her to be cheering or be excited for me running, that was all right to her. It took me a while for me to figure out she just wanted to be with me and do things I did.

And that made me uncomfortable. My previous ex-girlfriends wanted to be part of my world and things I did, and I was glad to let them in, but ultimately, they grew old of doing things I liked to do and ultimately, got tired of being around me.

The stubborn part of me didn't want any woman hanging around me doing things I liked doing ever again because ultimately, they too would tire of all that. Sad, but true. I grew too cautious in the time my ex-fiance walked out of our relationship in October 2006. I was pretty determined to live the rest of my life alone, not necessarily bitter, but more scared of what I'd do to any woman I was around. Even to this day, I have issues with "bringing someone into my world."

But Shirlene was persistent. She wanted to go, see what this was all about. Her work schedule would never jive with when I ran races on select weekends. Still, I'd text her the times and she'd text back telling me how proud she was.

Finally, our schedules did match up. It was June 7, 2008. I ran in the inaugural -- and it turns out the only race -- Neighborhoods of World Golf Village 5K in St. Augustine. We packed up her infant son Nio's little stroller and other things to preoccupy an 8-month old to head to the World Golf Village off of I-95.

By 8:30 that morning, the temperature was becoming oppressive. By the time the race started at 9, the temperatures were almost in the mid-80s. I suddenly remembered midway through the race why I don't competitively run in the heat of the day. I struggled to the finish line, which was the final loop around the village's lake and came across the finish line in 28:24. That was good for 18th in my age class and 222nd out of 483 runners.

And as I came to the last oval to run what was the final couple tenths of a mile, there was Shirlene behind Nio's stroller looking on. No cheering. I know she was cheering for me inside though.

We made a morning out of it since we went to the Denny's nearby for brunch after that. All was good and she wanted to do it again at another time. I couldn't see why not.

Now it is Saturday, August 2, 2008. For the second year in a row, I was running in the JDR Bridges 5K race in Jacksonville, the rare night race where it's not as super hot as it is during the day. And again, we started heading up to Jacksonville on US-17 through Putnam County and into Clay County. And the weather was looking ominous from the west. It looked as if it might rain before the race.

I had my concerns, but again, Shirlene was there to tell me she and Nio would be fine and find a place for cover in case it did pour during the race. Somehow, she always seemed to have the right things to say to stop me from worrying.

As we found a parking garage to be in that was free, we got everything from the trunk of her car again and I had her hold my cell phone and keys, leaving my wallet in the glove compartment. We locked the car up and walked off to where the race began.

Once there, I started going through my whole routine of preparing for the race, which would mean a small jog up and down the first mile and back. Shirlene had let me go on and do this and put my stuff under Nio's stroller. So I figured all was fine in that regard.

The race started at 7:30 p.m. and my goal was to do a time kind of close to the time I had done the year before, which was 26:25. My times were getting a little slower over the year, hurt the previous December by pulling a calf muscle running three days before a race in Leesburg. It slowed me down somewhat.

The bridges race included having to run down a street, coming back up that street, then making my way up the Main Street Bridge, then down it, then a turn to the right and suddenly going up and down the tougher Acosta Bridge and then back down the same street the race started and to the finish line.

This time, the race was a little more challenging. It never did rain and it was a little warmer than it was the year before. I ultimately finished the race in 28:34, good enough for 27th in my age group and 277th out of 687 runners. Slowed down a bit, but I still couldn't complain.

A few moments later as I checked out my time posted on the board near the truck set up for the race by 1st Place Sports, the main holders of the race, I go back to where Shirlene and Nio were and next to her she was in some kind of conversation with overall winner Jason Arnold's girlfriend, Anna. Obviously I knew Jason since he was in race I ran and he was from Palatka, so I made the formal presentation of the parties. We were in and out of there in a couple of minutes and said our goodbyes for the night.

I knew I wasn't hanging around this time for any post-race ceremonies and Shirlene was hungry, so we took off, heading down I-95 to the same Denny's we had stopped off at in June. I ordered something so sweet -- it had strawberries in it -- that Shirlene started questioning my sanity and if my blood sugar would skyrocket. I couldn't blame her at all since I don't believe this was something I wanted to eat either.

Going into the restaurant, I had taken the wallet out of the car, but for some reason, did not find the keys or my cell phone under Nio's stroller now in the trunk. It became a concern, but we went in to eat nonetheless.

When we came out, it was just around 9:45 p.m. and we decided to check the trunk of her car again. No keys, no phone. Now we have a potential problem. We take a ride back up to Jacksonville to see if we could find someone who may have found the keys or the cell phone.

Thankfully, someone did find a pair of keys and a cell phone, and turned it in to race officials ... but they had already left.

Greaaaaaaaaaaaaaat! Now I'm stuck without a cell phone for communication AND no way of getting into my apartment. I had a spare set of keys for my car and for my apartment, but getting into the apartment was going to be a little bit of a challenge.

Shirlene had her cell phone. We tried to call the 1st Place Sports store number to see if someone stopped by after the race to drop off anything from the race -- and my phone and keys. No answer. I must have tried to call them a dozen times. Nothing. Left a message on their machine to call her cell phone if they had both keys and phone in possession. Nothing.

By about 11 p.m., the realization was setting in that we had a problem of getting back into the apartment. At one point, my irritated lady friend was to the point where she was rationalizing maybe having to drive to her sister's place in Sanford to spend the night there and try again the next day to locate the 1st Place Sports people and maybe my apartment superintendent to get into the apartment.

"That's just too much driving to do," I said, knowing in the back of my mind this may be what we had to do.

So the next step was calling the emergency number at my apartment complex, which I didn't know, and had to call the regular number to pick the emergency number up from my manager's message on the answering machine. I had left the number on his beeper and my super called back within minutes.

I told him the situation and though he wasn't all that happy, he was still able to help. So back home we came and by almost midnight, he had gotten there moments after we got to the apartment to give us a hand in letting us in. I confirmed I had my spare key in the drawer under the microwave oven and all was good.

Shirlene and I didn't go very far the rest of the weekend as she headed back to her home near Cocoa the next night. Before Nio was born, she'd stay until Monday, but now with her son (she was 17 weeks pregnant when I first met her) in tow, she needed to be home at night.

I really didn't need the cell phone until I could get up that way, which I did by Tuesday, August 5. I got to 1st Place Sports on Baymeadows Road, identified both the keys and the phone and all was well again.

As for Shirlene, we decided a month later to make it official and be boyfriend and girlfriend and she would go to a couple more races of mine -- one in Crescent City on a dreary, yucky December morning in 2008 and the Gate River Run in March 2009. Unfortunately, being two hours apart from each other and strained for money was wearing the relationship thin until finally, she, too, decided it wasn't working anymore.

She and I remained friends, though not as close as we once were. We decided to go on with our lives separately and not be a burden to the other, though we would be there for the other if we needed to be. That's how I looked at it at least. The last time I saw Shirlene was in November 2010 after I played a round of golf near where she lived and took both she and Nio out for dinner. It was a wonderful time.

I always thought Shirlene would be there if and when I needed her. That's a good friend.

Sadly, Shirlene suffered a stroke and passed away 17 days later on June 30, 2011. There isn't a day that goes by where I don't see a picture of her in my apartment or I'm thinking of her, how things were good at the best of times.

And as I prepare to run my first race in over a year on November 12, 2011 in Destin at the Hog's Breath 5K, a race I haven't competed in since 2007, I am reminded that there is at least one person who will be watching me in spirit.

It's the first race I've done since Shirlene's passing. And I know I won't be anywhere near the 28-minute mark to start. I'm back to the concept of "just wanting to finish." But that's fine.

I'm a little more open now to letting those who want to go see me come to my races. I don't mind the friendly face at all either. They can even cheer me on if they wanted to now.

One of the many things I will always be reminded of and thakful to have had Shirlene in my life.

I miss you.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

When you least expect an upset ...

There are quite a few things on this planet to motivate me to cover an event before noon.

One of those is not high school football. I'm sorry. I know it sucks to hear, but I just don't have it in me to go to a high school game for a 10 a.m. start, but yet, while I was at the Ocean County Observer, I had to go cover 10 a.m. games on occasion.

And where, praytell, would be a school as wacky as a Pop Warner organization to host a morning football game?

Freehold Boro High School in western Monmouth County. Yep, Freehold Boro -- or Bruce Springsteen High as I call it.

I know I've driven by the house Springsteen grew up as a kid. If you've ever been to Freehold Boro, it is a completely different world from Freehold Township High School, which is in a far, more widespread area. Freehold Boro is the hub of the area, where the main downtown businesses are located.

If you go past Freehold Boro's downtown area and drive a little bit north on Route 79, you get to the high school.

Which makes it tricky to get to the high school because after you burn rubber on Route 9 heading north, you have to veer off onto Route 79 and make it through one residential area before going through the vaunted downtown area, then go north again on Route 79. If you get stuck in any kind of traffic jam, you're there for a while.

But as of Saturday, October 11, 1986, I had not been to this particular high school to cover anything before. So imagine having to figure out this high school's location thanks to an atlas that specifically places the locations of high school. Trust me, back in the day, it was a lot of trial and error.

On this particular morning, though, I was the chosen one to see Freehold Boro host one of our county football teams, Manchester, a team that had finished strong under then first-year coach Bob Hunt the year before with a memorable Thanksgiving Eve night win against Monsignor Donovan and had a lot of top talent returning, like quarterback Tony Lubischer and running back Dan Hourigan.

The problem was Manchester did not get off to a good start, losing to smaller schools Keyport and Holmdel to start the season at 0-2. And Freehold Boro, which had been a state tournament team the year before with the now-graduated Joe "The Jet" Henderson, was 2-0 and being led by Temple University recruit Anthony Richardson, a dynamite two-way quarterback who can run the ball as effectively as he could throw it.

The Colonials of coach Earl Ownes picked up where they left off the year before, off to a 2-0 start. On paper, this game was a mismatch.

But they don't play games on paper, though at 19 years old, I had no concept of this. I automatically assumed by the early afternoon I would be looking at the winning team being 3-0 and the losing team being 0-3.

So up Route 9 I went at about 8:45 in the morning, groggy and irritated I had to cover this game. I really didn't feel like going, especially after covering a game the night before. But an assignment is an assignment and money is money, no matter how you cut, dice and slice it.

I knew getting to Freehold Township was not a problem ... done that a few dozen times by now. Getting into Freehod Boro was the tricky part. Somehow, I weaved my way up Route 79 into the downtown section, then had to be patient as I waited through traffic lights and early Saturday morning traffic. By the time I had found the northern pass onto Route 79, I was elated to get out of the downtown area.

So I kept driving ... and driving ... and driving.

Nothing. I knew there was a school here somewhere among the pretty houses in the suburbs of the borough. Turns out I had gone just a bit far. Freehold Boro High is tucked away on the left side of the highway heading north on 79, looking like an average big building that could be in any neighborhood.

OK, found that. Now to the parking lot, which was not an easy task to find because you have to drive to it like it was a maze, turn here, go there, but make the wrong turn, it was a dead end. Knowing I was playing with the time and it was running out on me to get there for the game, I parked on some side road where other cars were, so I knew I was pretty good.

Once I found the entrance to the field, I got to my normal spot in the press box. It was fairly crowded, but there was something there that stood out more than anything else in there -- a hole.

Yes, a hole that if you stepped wrong, you were on your way to the ground below. I've been in press boxes in which you've had to climb a ladder to get up or had no room for you to do your job comfortably or had to stand the entire time and it was awfully painful. I don't wish any of that on any reporter wanting to cover a high school football game from above ground level.

But a hole? I spent the entire time consciously remembering not to make a false turn. You know if maybe the school had remembered to cover the darn thing up before the start of football season and maybe work on it in the off-time, things might be a tad different.

The hole was more in the back of the press box, so I spent my time as close to the action in the front as possible.

And all I wanted was for Manchester to be competitive on this sunny, cool morning. No one likes to go cover blowouts. The only positive is that you get out of there quickly after getting a word or two from the coach.

But the Hawks stopped Richardson and the Colonials on the first possession of the game and forced them to punt. Richardson sent a punt off to Hourigan at the other end of the field. The Hawks senior grabbed the ball and headed down the sideline. Maybe the Colonials defender in front of Hourigan thought he was not strong enough to withstand a forearm, but he decided to find out.

Hourigan cut away from the attempted arm tackle, found a wall of blockers and continued his 60-yard jaunt up the sidelines to the end zone for a touchdown.

John Kern's extra-point kick made it 7-0, just like that.

The Hawks' defense was stifling Richardson and his team and they stopped them on a couple more possessions. And near the end of the first quarter, they had their first offensive touchdown. Lubischer went for a 4-yard run on the first play, then stunned the Freehold defense with a 32-yard bomb to wide receiver Tony Merrill.

The Colonials must have really been stunned. For on the next play, Lubischer handed to burly running back James Brown, a junior who did a lot of things for the Hawks. The Hawks' offensive line opened a hole on the right side wide enough to send an SUV through. Brown dashed through that hole and no Colonial defender was in sight when he went 34 yards for the score to make it 14-0.

OK, maybe this is just a fluke and like myself, Freehold Boro was having a hard time trying to get awake.

But they were still having trouble offensively and had to punt again. Richardson received the snap and was ready to get the ball off when Lubischer -- the team's jack-of-all-trades, master of none, came running through the middle, kamikaze style, and threw his body on Richardson's kick.

The double hit of the ball -- the first being Richardson kicking the ball, the second Lubischer blocking the booted punt -- resonnated throughout the field. Not far behind Lubischer was Brown, who scooped the ball up and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-0.

Manchester 21, Freehold Boro 0. The same Freehold Boro which a year earlier had a 25-7 lead in the Central Jersey Group II championship game on this same field against Somervile, only to lose it 27-25. Big, bad Freehold Boro. THAT Freehold Boro.

And Manchester was winning without generating a whole lot of offense. Two special teams touchdowns and one three-play drive. Just like that -- 21 points.

Still, I had a hard time believing there was an upset in the making. One year ago, Freehold Boro destroyed an up-and-coming Manchester team, 49-6, as Henderson ran roughshod all over the Hawks defense.

For the first time since he graduated, the Colonials realized they didn't have this -- or any -- special, game-changing running back.

That job was squarely on the shoulders of Richardson. And somewhere after the Hawks had rolled up to 21 points, that alarm clock must have gone off on the Colonials' sideline.

They weren't going to allow this fellow Shore Conference Class C team that was winless to just show up and embarrass them on their own fied. No freakin' way!

And so before halftime, Richardson took the Colonials on a drive that he culminated by handing off to Chris Blacknall and the running back did the rest for a 10-yard score. Blacknall finished with 101 yards on 17 carries, but still, he was not the game-changing running back Henderson was.

Richardson scored on a 2-point conversion run and the Colonials cut the deficit to 21-8. Still within reach. They didn't play all that well, yet they were within striking range with a strong second half.

The fear was that no matter how hard the Hawks played, they were going to wind up on the short end of the effort. The 50-something-old Hunt, a large man in size, but a bigger man in kindness, had spent the better part of a year trying to mold these young men and convince them they were better than most people gave them credit for. I had covered this Hawks team in 1984 for a few games and they simply had no direction.

Hunt was at least sending this team in the right direction, even though he would coach the Hawks for just three seasons.

Whatever motivation, though, the Colonials got from scoring late in the first half, they carried into the second half. The only problem was Manchester's defense stiffened and was not allowing Richardson to break out and get anything going.

And the Hawks stayed on top 21-8 going into the final quarter. Finally, it dawned on me that with 12 minutes to go, maybe these Hawks were serious about winning this game. Maybe this could happen.

But the Colonials weren't going down without the proverbial fight. Richardson finally got the Colonials going and ended a drive by hitting wide receiver Ryan Conover with a 13-yard strike with 7:18 left to play to cut the lead again.

In a sign, though, that maybe this was Manchester's day, Hourigan came around the end to block Richardson's extra-point kick, keeping it 21-14.

Once again, Manchester's offense, which mustered just 115 yards and four first downs the entire morning/early afternoon, could not generate anything and the Colonials had the ball back quickly with under six minutes to go.

A penalty pushed the Colonials back to their 23, but no problem for Richardson. He dropped back and hit wide receiver Joe Diorio with a lateral pass. Obviously, Manchester's defense did not see this coming as Diorio threw a strike down the field to Conover, who took the ball to the Manchester 10 to cap a 67-yard pass.

One play later, Rodney Keyes scored on a run to make it 21-20 with five minutes left to play. The inevitable was happening and when Richardson hit tight end Scott Yucht with the 2-point conversion to give the Boro a 22-21 lead, that should have been the death knell for the Hawks, who struggled to move the ball against the Colonial defense.

But just as you thought momentum had shifted the Colonials' way, a yellow piece of cloth was laying on the ground.

Illegal procedure. Offense.

Wipe the 2-pointer away. Now Freehold had to run another play. Richardson rolled out on the play and had Diorio within his sights. He threw the ball at him.

For a moment, the ball looked like it was in the receiver's hands. But the pigskin came out, dropping harmlessly to the turf.

The wilting Hawks had dodged a bullet. They still had a 21-20 lead.

Manchester had the ball, but while the Hawks could run the ball and make the Colonials burn whatever timeouts they had left, they never really got anywhere after making a first down and so they were forced to punt.

With 2:43 left, the Colonials had the ball on their own 23 and Richardson went to work. He picked up a pair of first downs and Freehold was suddenly in Manchester territory at the 42. Then a run went for a 4-yard loss. That meant Richardson had to go back to the air.

Richardson dropped back, pursued doggedly on the play -- and all day -- by the Manchester defense, which had to be beyond tired at this point. He had Diorio within his sights and fired for him.

That's when Scott Halford, another of the veteran Hawks players, stepped in front to pick off the pass with 42 seconds left.

On the Freehold Boro side of the field, there was nothing but silence. All the cheering and yelling was coming from the other side of the field as fans gave each other high fives and players jumped on each other as soon as Halford went down with the ball.

A pair of Lubischer kneel-downs and it was over.

Manchester had just picked up its biggest win in a while ... maybe in its 11-year existence as a school at the time.

The only people who thought the Hawks could beat the talented Colonials were the Hawks players themselves. And they reveled in the victory like they had won a state championship. In 1985, they had started back on the road to respectability.

They had gained Freehold Boro's respect by the end of the afternoon.

When it was all over, I still had to write a story on the game, but it was still a bit early to head back to the Observer building, so I got to hang out that afternoon with my grandmother in Freehold Township at her place. When I became a working person, I saw less and less of her. I think she understood, so if I told her I was in the area and she was home, I could stop by.

I called her, she was home so I stopped by. In between whatever conversation we had and me writing a story, she had food that I could nibble on. And she allowed me to watch the third game of the National League Championship Series between the Mets and Astros at Shea Stadium on TV.

Didn't look good for the Mets down in the bottom of the ninth and with Astros closer Dave Smith on to finish it out, the Mets were looking at a 2-1 deficit in the series. That is, until Lenny Dykstra came up and nailed that game-winning home run.

Exactly three weeks later, I saw Dykstra in Asbury Park signing autographs at a card show -- and acting like an ass, almost like he didn't want to be there. Go figure.

Saw a high school football upset involving the team I covered, then saw my Mets win a dramatic playoff game in the bottom of the ninth.

Not a bad day, especially before 3 o'clock and once I got my bearings.