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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.

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