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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Lacey's "Miracle of Route 31"

No way in a million years did I think the Lacey High School field hockey team had a chance of beating the almighty program from West Essex High School.

They didn't beat them the year before in the NJSIAA Group III championship game with a more talented group of Lions. And two years before that, a very talented group of young ladies from Toms River South took a younger West Essex team into overtime before West Essex scored to win that final, 2-1.

Just too talented these girls from Wessex were to fail. The Knights had arguably the best player in the state in 69-goal scorer Michelle Vizzuso. She had one of the three goals in the 3-0 win over Lacey the year before and her 69 goals were a state record for one year.

This championship -- same two teams, same Trenton State College field -- should have been the same outcome, right? Ahh, but that's why a famous sports personality once said, "That's why they play the games."

And that's why Sunday, November 20, 1994, was as different a day as any in my career.

The 1993 Lacey team -- powered by a group of senior standout athletes such as forwards Melissa Schreiner, Meghan Kelly and Dana Jurczyk and All-State first-team defender Corey Musselman -- was one of the best units I had ever seen play. The Lions played an amazing Shore Conference Tournament final against powerful Shore Regional, but could not push the ball into the net and settled for a scoreless tie in the end.

The Lions were 22-0-3 and had run through the state tournament to win the South Jersey Group III title and the Group III semifinals, but in front of over a thousand people against a fellow unbeaten in West Essex, they simply did not match up that day.

And so all season long, I made the mistake of measuring the 1994 version of the Lions up with the '93 talent-laden team. No matter how good this group of Lions were, they were not going to be that fantastic '93 team. I figured they had a shot at winning South Jersey Group III again, but against the better teams outside of South Jersey, they just weren't going to hold their own.

Lacey had lost to Toms River North in overtime in the '94 SCT final at Red Bank Regional High School and North was very, very good that year, making it to the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV final after stunning unbeaten Eastern Regional in the SJ IV semifinal round.

But as the state tournament started, my main focus was on what North was going to do in the state tournament. And while North lost its SJ IV title game to pesky nemesis Shawnee, Lacey was running through to the SJ III final to win its second straight title.

This meant a November 15, 1994 date with an unbeaten Notre Dame of Lawrenceville club at a school I had never been to before -- Northern Burlington High School in the little town of Columbus. You literally had to weave your way around country roads to get to this school, which seriously was out in the middle of cornfields and farms.

Central Jersey Group III champ Notre Dame was a tough team and played up to it unbeaten record. But Lacey, which was a modest 16-2-3, got a first-half penalty corner after penetrating inside Notre Dame's defensive box and was fouled. And that was trouble.

Kelly Sauers, whose corner passes were dead-on from the baseline of the box, sent a perfect pass out to senior Jenn Melnyk and Melnyk delivered a blast from the top of the circle past the goalkeeper and into the net.

And the Lacey defense, led by seniors Megan Glancy, Michelle Bacheson and Pam Jacobsen and junior goalie Sara Leta, held the Irish down the rest of the way to record the stunning 1-0 victory that left them elated and Notre Dame's longtime coach with a scowl on her face because of Lacey's physicality on defense that she thought the officials let go instead of calling violations.

Another foe bites the dust. Now the biggest foe was awaiting the Lions in West Essex, who had three straight Group III titles to their credit and had rolled up a national record 86-game unbeaten streak. The last loss the Knights had suffered was to Northern Highlands, another terrific program, in the Group III semifinals on November 13, 1990.

In other words, none of the current group of Knights had lost a game in their careers!

They were on a mission at this point to finish out the amazing careers of the seniors -- including Vizzuso -- with one last win. Again, I was convinced West Essex was strictly there for business purposes and the Knights weren't going to mess around. If they plowed through one of the better teams I had ever covered the year before, 3-0, and most of that team was back this year with an 84-0-2 mark since the start of the '91 season, how bad could this championship be?

For the four off-days Lacey did not play, I simply doubted the team's chances. But in that time, Mike Shern, Lacey's venerable coach of 11 seasons, made me believe this team was different and that everyone had learned from its mistakes the year before.

I still wasn't believing this. Then I had to write the preview story for the Sunday edition of the Observer. It was something out of the realm of "find every song you have mentioning the word 'miracle' in it and play them all. That's what Lacey may need to beat the country's No. 1 team today."

This, apparently, didn't sit well with the Lacey players and those associated with the team. It wasn't that they had short memories from the whooppin' they took the year before. On this day, the had something to prove.

And so like the year before, I got down to the Observer building and waited for Mike, my boss, to show up so I can drive us to Trenton State. But this time around it was different -- I had a "newer" older car in a 1982 Olds Firenza instead of my 1977 Chevy Dodge that died a slow death in the spring/summer of '94. This time around, we had to wait for Laura, our photographer who was going to shoot what I figured would be just another futile effort at a state field hockey title for Lacey.

This time around, the car radio had 660 WFAN on listening to previews of the NFL games going on that afternoon instead of my Sunday staple, "American Top 40," which had been cancelled after 24 years that July. Such a tough adjustment in life I was still getting used to.

"Do we think this time around the game is going to be closer?" I asked the duo.

"I don't know," Mike answered. "It has to be better than last year."

"I hope so," I said. "For a 22-0-3 team, that was getting dominated."

The ride to Trenton State, now The College of New Jersey, was familiar to me since I had done it enough times over the years, especially three previous times for state field hockey championships. In 1987, I saw Toms River North finish out a perfect 21-0-3 season by beating Morristown, 2-1, covering the game from a halfway-decent-at-best press box that was open on a 25-degree night, but closed up behind me so the wind wouldn't whip through me. And in a far better press box, I had seen South and Lacey take their swipes at West Essex before losing.

As the three of us showed our press credentials, we walked on to the football field, me thinking that I might be seeing another execution similar to last year's finale. These Lions, though, were focused, maybe too focused. I remember the 1993 team was all-business, rarely ever cracking a smile. I wondered if following the same path would doom these girls to failure. On the other side, West Essex was smoothly going through their drills like nothing, business as usual.

Vizzuso, a future player for the U.S. national team, was smooth in her approach. Nothing was getting past her.

The only thing I was left with as I headed up to the press box for the first half like I did last year was if the Lions would be OK after the first few minutes, even playing in front of a large contingent of fans who made the trip from Lanoka Harbor and Forked River.

Immediately, I noticed these Lions were not intimidated by the nationally known Knights. They took it right at them. They served notice that they weren't going to be pushed around this time. They were the aggressors. They were aggressive in their approach, but not to a point where if play got stopped by fouls -- or even cards -- they would have to alter things a bit.

Ten minutes elapsed and no quick-strike West Essex goal. Then at the 15-minute mark, the Lions picked up their fourth penalty corner of the game. Giving the Lions three penalty corners was bad enough already.

Now Lacey was about to make West Essex pay for it. Sauers once again grabbed the ball and placed it on the baseline to the left of the goalkeeper cage and served up her pass to the center of the circle like she had hundreds of times before during the season. And as usual, the ball found the stick of Melnyk, who was able to stop it, steady it and fire a rocket.

This time, the ball zipped past goalkeeper Kim Lally and into the net for a score. Lally did not know what hit her. And neither did West Essex. For unlike a year ago, Lacey found the back of the net.

Lacey had the lead and more amazingly, it was Melnyk scoring on a penalty corner shot on an AstroTurf field. She had scored on grass fields and fields posing as grass, but more dirt than any other surface. She had handled passes from Sauers that were bumpier than some rides you and I take because of the field. Some balls would just skip and go another direction, others would take funny hops over her stick. On this turf, though, the passes were coming out to her fast and true. And she had the reflexes to stop them, steady the ball and whack away.

For the rest of the half, West Essex tried to get the equalizer, but were stopped by a Lacey defense that was still getting more physical -- and confident -- as the game went along. I can still see Sara Vizzuso, Michelle's sister, sent flying by a shot administered by Jacobsen, the no-holds-barred enforcer of the defense.

These Knights suddenly realized down 1-0 at halftime these weren't the '93 Lions they were playing.

That was when I realized they may have a better fit for the Trenton State turf on this day than the group assembled a year ago. Though a precarious 1-0 lead, at least they had the lead and dictated the play. It was up to West Essex to adjust and find a way to make something happen.

I left bewildered fellow journalists and slipped down to the field for the second half like I did the year before. I wanted to see this up close for myself. Mike was down on the field and he even said he could hear West Essex players and legendary coach Linda Alimi complaining about Lacey's aggressive style. My mind started to wander a bit -- was this being used as a ploy by the Wessex people just in case they lost on this day?

Better yet, was Lacey's play getting inside the West Essex players' heads? I was thinking the latter. I'm pretty certain during the season, the Knights, for all the talent they had -- and they had an embarassing amount of talent -- had not seen a team quite as physical as this Lacey team was. Then again, I didn't think Lacey was the most aggressive team at the Shore.

The first few minutes of the second half might tell me more and to see it up close, I might have a feel of what was going on.

Sure as anything, the Knights had changed their approach. They became the aggressor and the passes they were missing on during the game were starting to find sticks. They moved precisely up the Lacey side of the field without much problem and picked up a number of penalty corner opportunities. On the second of those chances, Michelle Vizzuso would deliver a shot that Leta, the daughter of Lacey baseball coach and assistant field hockey coach Ernie Leta, would pad-save to keep it 1-0.

You couldn't keep these Knights down, though. Vizzuso sent a pass in to Melissa D'Anton. D'Anton didn't hesitate, firing a shot past Leta at the 5:02 mark to make it 1-1.

Suddenly, the balloon began to deflate ... again, just like last year. One goal and it seemed like the confidence, too, would be deflating on the Lacey sideline. But unlike last year when the first West Essex goal made it 1-0, this one just tied it. It was still even ground and everyone in the stands and on the sidelines knew it.

As if they pressed a button, the Lions of the first half re-emerged, being aggressive and taking the ball down on the Knights' defense. They had their sixth penalty corner of the game shortly after that.

And once again -- three minutes after the West Essex goal -- it was Melnyk Time.

Sauers put the ball out to Melnyk. Defender Nicole Massella was the team's flier, the first out of the net on defensing the penalty corners. She was a thorn in the side of the Lions a year before when they tried to score off the same penalty corners. This year, though, she wanted no part of the Melnyk blasts. Melnyk fired. The ball whizzed past Massella and Lally, too. Her 17th goal of the season made it 2-1.

Now the Lions had to protect the lead with 21:49 left in this battle.

And with the defense tightening up, the Knights were getting very little, if anything, of a threat going. Near the end of the first half, Michelle Vizzuso had to be treated for a bloody knee suffered by being sent to the turf. And D'Anton was being roughed up like a rag doll in the second half.

If the Knights were going to keep complaining about the aggressive Lacey defense, they were going to suffer more of the consequences. The Knights only put a couple of more chances out in the Lacey side of the field, but were turned away each time. Lacey was winning the midfield battle, thanks to Glancy and Bacheson.

Even with under 10 minutes to play, I still had some doubt as to whether the Lions could hold on. Each West Essex threat in Lacey territory had Lacey substitutes standing up from the bench in angst. Shern was "yoo-hoo"-ing his players to find open teammates and get out of danger, while he would slow down the West Essex pace with a number of substitutions, shuttling fresh bodies into the game.

By the way, the "yoo-hoo" call was a longtime staple of Shern's in his 28 years as coach.

With eight minutes left, sophomore defender Karen Kaufman went down. She had been sent into the game just minutes earlier, but now she needed to come out with an injury. Shern sent in fellow sophomore Casey Badach, one of many soccer players who had been taught the game of field hockey by the popular Shern since soccer was played in the spring at the Jersey Shore and in the fall everywhere else.

As the whistle sounded again, Lacey defenders continued to be aggressive with any West Essex player threatening to penetrate the goal area with close coverage or poking the ball away from them.

With over four minutes left in the game, the Lions had another threat. Glancy managed to take the ball into the West Essex box and poked toward the net, trying to stir up some kind of trouble for Lally. But Lally could not get a hold of the ball. Instead, it was Badach of all people who was able to get the ball, and push it past Lally and into the net with 3:57 left to play.

Remember those doubts for five days and on the road trip to Trenton State College? With the score Lacey 3, West Essex 1, they were all gone.

The air was also gone from the West Essex sidelines. Glancy even said after the game that after the third goal, she heard Knights players crying and the game wasn't even over.

But to West Essex it was. And with the roles reversed from the year before, it was Lacey that was all business the final 3:57, running the clock out and then celebrating by piling on one another at midfield at the end. The thunderous roar from the Lacey side of the Trenton State College stands could probably be heard all the way back in Ocean County.

They had just pulled off the Miracle of Route 31.

And suddenly, I -- the man who wrote the team needed a miracle to beat this West Essex juggernaut -- was the target of Lacey players. In the middle of interviewing Shern, I can hear Jacobsen, the head cheerleader and point-prover of the bunch, gather her team around no more than 10 feet from me, looking up at the fans and screaming, "Give me an M! (M!!) Give me an I!! (I!!) Give me an R!! (R!!) ... " spelling out miracle and making her point clear.

But they couldn't believe what they had just accomplished. No, these weren't the 1993 Lacey Lions. And I know they weren't better than that team. Yet, they had the moxie the '93 team didn't have. That team was too stoic, a lot of shy characters who were athletically talented but not outspoken.

This team took a stance early on in '94 that no one was going to give it any credit during the season, but yet, they'd find a way to pull out what would be the biggest upset in Ocean County field hockey history.

Make that, New Jersey field hockey history.

And they wanted to let the world know it at that point. All week long, they got reportedly razzed by Lacey High football players that they had no chance of winning it all. Now whether that was tongue in cheek or for motivational purposes, these Lions players took it personally. Melnyk took swipes at the football players, basically telling the truth that hurt the most.

"They won't ever win a state championship," she said. "We just won Lacey's first state title."

She was right! For as great as Lacey's football team is year in and year out, it would never win a state title because the NJSIAA won't allow teams to play beyond the sectional round. Lacey had back-to-back SJ III titles in 1988 and '89.

This group of Lions had a state championship. They were going home on a bus, but they may as well have gone home riding on a cloud.

Mike, Laura and I were riding back very pleased, too, unlike the year before when there wasn't anything to really talk about with the game. It was non-stop banter about the game and what we had just witnessed for the better part of an hour and a half.

When we got back to Toms River and had a chance to finally focus on the task at hand, I had six pages to fill up that day. SIX! A far cry sadly compared to where three pages is like Christmas at the paper I'm working at now. We decided to dedicate the top of the front sports page with my game story and two great pictures from Laura.

On the sixth page -- a wide-open one -- Mike and I decided to dedicate it to the game. He wrote two more stories. I wrote two more stories on the game, including the sidebar on the Lacey field hockey players' venting against the football players who doubted them. Within a day or two, I had heard that Messiah, err, Lacey football coach Lou Vircillo was not at all happy with us nor with the field hockey players taking pop shots at his players. To this day, I still say, "Oh, well" to that. Melnyk admitted to me she was a bit emotional when she said those things, but I asked her, "Did they really say those negative things before the game that week?" and she said they did.

"Nothing wrong with the emotion as long as you back it up with something great," I told her a week or so later on when we discussed that whole incident. "I'll back you every time."

We had dedicated that entire sixth page of the section to the field hockey triumph that wasn't supposed to be. Even my boss rolled his eyes to the back of his head. I still don't think he believes to this day we had done so much on just one game.

But it was an amazing event. Unfortunately by October 1995, the Shore Conference made the decision to move girls soccer to the fall, and a lot of girls who tried field hockey because it was similar in many ways to soccer, stayed with soccer. Lacey would win another SJ III title in 1995, but lost in the Group III semifinal to Red Bank Regional, which shared the SCT title that fall with Toms River East.

And by 1996 with girls sports divided between field hockey and soccer, Lacey lost a controversial SJ III semifinal matchup with West Deptford. The magic after that would never quite be the same again.

It was a great era to cover field hockey in the 1980s and '90s. It culminated in two state championships, one in each decade.

But none quite like that afternoon in November 1994 at TSC, now TCNJ. Not in a million years did I see one of our field hockey teams beat a national power like West Essex, a team just too talented to fail.

As I found out that day, it's OK to believe in miracles.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

An epic 1988 battle under grey, yucky skies

The morning of Saturday, November 19, 1988 was a grey, yucky one in Lacey Township, as if something bad was going to happen on this day.

But I sensed something totally different. On this day, I sensed something amazing was about to take place.

For the first time in its short history as a program, the Lacey Township High School football team was going after a state sectional championship, hosting the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III championship game. The Lions were a team loaded with talent, from wide receiver Mike Lehtinen to kicker-receiver Carl Tarricone to sophomore quarterback Garrett Gardi to all-everything junior running back Keith Elias.

Elias was the focal point of the Lion attack. Everything seemed to be pegged around this talented and smart young man with the affinity for heavy metal. Never in my life had I met an athlete that had Ivy League smarts and headbanger attitude.

But to win that first SJ III title, the Lions were going to have to beat Woodrow Wilson of Camden, a squad with an overly rich amount of athleticism led by quarterback Norman Frisbey and wide receiver-running back Marvin Goodwin. Their coach was a former pro player with the New England Patriots of the NFL and Toronto Argonauts of the CFL, Darrell Wilson.

And it was a battle of diversity -- Lacey, an all-white, football talent-laden group against Wilson, an all-African American squad with athleticism up the wazoo and some football smarts.

Two teams evenly matched. Someone was leaving that field exuberant, the other completely disappointed.

To get to my normal spot in the press box was nothing at Lacey High. Tom Hamilton, who I knew from covering girls soccer as coach Paul Groben's assistant, was on the public address system.

But it was a bit crowded on this day. Upstairs with Tom, myself, the timekeeper and the scoreboard operator were the boys from Clear Channel 8 -- the venerable Ken Turp along with his analysts and former area high school coaches, George Jeck at Toms River East and Bob Strangia at Red Bank Regional. Now Jeck was an OK guy, though he just completely turned me off my first Friday night of covering high school football with the Ocean County Observer four years earlier with such a taciturn attitude toward me after his Raiders beat Brick Memorial, 3-0. Little did I know at that time this was the beginning of his final year with the program.

Strangia, though, was a different bird. A heavy-set, jovial man who knew his football, Strangia was head coach of a Central Jersey Group III championship Red Bank Regional team in 1975 when his Bucs won a wild contest with Hightstown, 46-44. And his main assistant on that team was Lacey High's current head coach, Lou Vircillo. There's a famous story that goes along with that '75 championship that the morning of the title game, Strangia and Vircillo got together and drove to nearby Middletown to go to the cemetery and visit the grave site of the great Vince Lombardi, "talk" to him before the game to get inspiration and pray. Somehow, this translated into what was a great day for the Bucs.

Now fast-forward 13 years later. And unlike most high school football games now, the place was packed. Well over 1,000 spectators for this title game. There was no doubt these were the two best teams in the SJ III classification. Then again, they were the only two teams in the classification that qualified. Usually, it's a four-team classification, but based on the power point rankings and overall records, they were the only two schools to meet the requirements of playing in this game.

It was literally winner-take-all.

Problem was, someone forgot to tell Wilson players that. Lacey was able to shut down the vaunted Wilson version of the run-and-shoot offense after the Tigers scored on the first drive. Frisbey could not get anything going with Lacey defenders turning them back at all stops.

On offense, the Lions were able to move the ball against a somewhat porous Tigers defense. And where the Lions' offensive line was able to make holes, Elias was able to slash through them for big chunks of yards. Gardi had delivered one touchdown run of 6 yards in the first half and Elias had scored on touchdown runs of 9 and 49 yards to give the Lions a 21-8 halftime lead.

The Lions didn't stop there. They drove the ball deep into Tigers territory midway through the third quarter and when Elias darted in for a 9-yard score with 2:28 left and Tarricone added the extra point to make it 28-8, I, like most other people, figured game over.

If the Lions got through the last 14:28 unscathed, they were going to have a big party on their field with the fans and all that were there.

But Woodrow Wilson didn't get to this game by lucking out most of the year. They were about to make what was a mundane, uneventful title matchup into something anyone at the school that afternoon would never forget.

And it started as innocently as a kickoff return, which Allen Littles brought back 48 yards to the Lions' 45. Frisbey had taken the Tigers down the field once all day -- an opening-drive touchdown pass to Terrill Bullock of 4 yards. He suddenly found his groove again, but it had a price tag attached to it.

As Frisbey, who would chuck the pigskin 23 times on the day, dropped back to pass, he had pressure on him, like he did most of the afternoon. He spotted his receiver, but as he got the ball off, he was hit with the near force of a freight train by lineman Chris Luberto.

The pass was lofted in the direction of wide receiver John McCain -- no not that John McCain. I'm positive he's never met Sarah Palin in his life. McCain out-jumped a Lacey defender for the ball, came down with it, then juked another Lacey secondary guy to get to the end zone to finish out the 45-yard score to make it 28-16 as Frisbey ran in the 2-point conversion.

So it was a big play, but it still signified nothing. It was how the Lions were going to recover from that quick-strike touchdown that was going to tell me if the rest of the afternoon was a cakewalk or not. And the Lions were not disappointing, driving the ball late in the third quarter and into the final period into the Wilson red zone. The drive, though, stalled when Elias was stripped inside the 10 and Donnie Hill recovered at the 8 with 11:11 remaining.

Still no concern or any idea of how exciting this was about to become yet. The Tigers had the ball, though, and Frisbey was executing coach Wilson's offensive game plan with simplicity against a Lions defense that was tiring from chasing all the Wilson receivers and backs around the field. A dink here, a dunk there. The Tiger offense was playing ball control and not relying on the big play.

Wilson had the ball inside the 5 and capped the 12-play, 92-yard drive when Frisbey tossed to McCain for a 4-yard score. McCain had picked on the Lions' defense for 174 yards receiving on seven catches because Lacey was trying hard to stop Goodwin. The Tigers really had no kicking game and down 28-22, they decided on another 2-point conversion.

At this point, I could almost see the wheels turning in Vircillo's head down below. He sensed his guys were getting tired, so he turned to someone he could rely on to make something happen defensively.

And suddenly, a guy wearing No. 20 ran in from the Lacey sidelines. It was Elias, who Vircillo strictly made an offensive player this particular season. Sure as anything, the Tigers were going to find out what Elias was like coming off the bench and having to play defense. Frisbey dropped back, then rolled out toward the sideline. He saw Goodwin in his sights and threw to him. Out of nowhere, though, came Elias to get a hand on the ball and knock it away.

Elias saved the moment, but the Lions were in a precarious situation ahead 28-22 with 6:03 left in the game. They needed a sustained drive, just to keep the ball away from the Tigers offense that was running on all cylinders and seemed unstoppable. After Lacey picked up a first down, the Tigers had the Lions on third down and sacked Gardi for a 4-yard loss at the Lacey 37.

There was no fooling around. Vircillo got Tarricone to punt the ball away. He got a 33-yarder off and the Tigers were starting at their 30 with 3:02 left. The Lions needed to make one more stop defensively and victory was all theirs.

But as if he never missed a beat from the 92-yard drive, Frisbey went back to work. An 8-yarder to Littles. A 7-yarder to Bullock. A first down. Then an incompletion, making it second and 10 at the Tiger 45.

On the next play, Frisbey dropped back again and fired down the field. Once again, McCain was at the receiving end to make an amazing catch. He was brought down at the Lacey 1, setting up first and goal after the 54-yard play.

The Tigers were in great shape to get the tying score and weren't in any hurry. Then again, the Tigers were out of timeouts, yet at the 1, they could take their time. Vircillo was in no hurry either. He had two timeouts to call. He did not call one as the clock ticked under 1:30 in the game.

But the Tigers lost perception of the play clock and got called for delay of game, putting the ball back at the 6. They tried a run with Goodwin, who got to the 2. Still no timeout. Then came incomplete passes on second and third downs.

Now it was fourth down. The game was on the line. The Lacey fans stood up in unison, cheering the Lions on for one more stop. Frisbey took the snap and rolled out to his right, trying to find his receiver with Lion defenders pursuing. As they got closer to him, he spotted Goodwin, who had been kept in check all day. A quick flick of the wrist and less than a second later, Goodwin had the ball in the back of the end zone for the tying touchdown with 11 seconds to play.

Now coach Wilson had to figure out how he would win the game, either a run or a pass. Figured someone would have to make one more play defensively for Lacey to keep it tied at 28.

So imagine my surprise -- and probably everyone on the Lacey side of the field's surprise -- when Wilson trotted Brian McNair out to kick an extra point. Really? Now!? The kid's been sitting on the sideline and I'm sure his leg was a tad bit cold other than on kickoffs.

The result was obvious -- he missed his kick wide left and the game remained tied at 28. The decision to kick the extra-point was not as questionable with the game still tied at 28. But what was about to happen next was completely inexplicable, even with 11 seconds to play.

McNair squib-kicked instead of trying to blast it as far as he could. Even if the ball goes through the end zone for a touchback, going 80 yards in 11 seconds is near impossible for a high school team. But the pooch was fair-caught by Steve Wells at the Lacey 44.

Most everyone now was expecting a run to Elias, see if he could make something happen and if he didn't, maybe Vircillo lets the clock click to zero and start again in overtime. Heck, I thought that as well. I wouldn't have blamed Vircillo or his coaches for making that decision to give his kids a chance to catch their breath.

That, though, is why I don't make football-related calls. Vircillo would tell me after the game he wasn't thinking about overtime, though if they had gone to overtime, he assured me his players were going to be ready.

On the first play after the pooch kick, Gardi pitched back to Elias. A run ... just as I thought.

But Elias stopped. My jaw dropped. He cocked his right arm back and fired down the field. There was Lehtinen, who was practically wide open. All the pass needed to be was on the mark. It was.

Lehtinen had to wait a little bit for the ball to get to him, but once he did, he was off to the races. He was taken down by a pair of Wilson defenders at the Wilson 13 after the 43-yard halfback pass and Gardi called timeout as fast as they could.

The clock read 0:02. Vircillo brought the kick team in and Tarricone was summoned to bring Lacey its first state sectional title. After the game, Tarricone admitted that three years earlier as a freshman, he had a chance to put the final touches on a perfect season with a last-second field goal against Central Regional, which he did.

Now, he was back in this situation again. Gardi set up at the Wilson 21. Tarricone counted off his paces back to where he would start his ascent to the football. The snap was true, Gardi caught the ball perfectly and placed it down on the turf for Tarricone. The senior was perfect in his steps to the ball. His kick eluded Tiger defenders' hands who were trying to make a block.

It split the uprights. Bedlam on the Lacey side. Players jumped up and down uncontrollably. Even the stoic Vircillo was excited by the outcome. Teammates mobbed Tarricone and took him to the turf.

And from the left corner of the press box I can hear Strangia sounding like he was somewhere between excited and having a heart attack as the ball split the uprights, trying to explain what had just happened through his excitement. As a note: For years after that game, Clear Cable-8, which would become Adelphia-8, would use Strangia's near-breathless reaction to the game-winning field goal as it's highlight to promote its football coverage.

It was that amazing of a finish. And now I had to try to put what I had witnessed into English. Vircillo was back to being Lou Vircillo -- dry, near-monotone, questioning whatever it was I asked him, and just being downright tough. But he was proud of the kids. Tarricone needed a pin to prick him from the sky since he was floating on a cloud.

And Keith Elias -- yeah, he was Keith Elias as always. He had finished the game with 206 yards rushing on 26 carries and was exhausted. But he always had enough to tell it like it was, his outgoing, opinionated persona showing through, saying things I could never put in print. But that's part of the reason why Keith Elias, who would have a stellar career at Princeton University and play for the New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts, is one of the best people I've ever covered in my career.

Putting a game story like this into 25 inches of perspective -- or less -- is far from a piece of cake, yet I managed to compartmentalize as best as I could. The game had four parts to it -- the early 28-8 Lacey lead, the Wilson comeback, the exciting end and the elation afterward.

At the end of 1989, our paper did a Best of the 1980s. That Lacey victory was named the biggest game of the decade. Lacey had 407 yards of offense that afternoon, Wilson piled up 374. A year after that epic battle, the two teams would meet again on Lacey's field for the SJ III title. I was expecting 52-50 this time. Wishful thinking since both teams had almost all their stars from the '88 game back, but still as exciting. Elias went for 182 yards rushing on 36 carries and led Lacey to its second straight SJ III crown, 28-24.

I got to cover that one, too, and yes, it was a great and exciting game again.

But it could not match the fireworks -- nor the ending -- of that '88 title game, still the greatest high school football game I ever covered.

And the only bad thing about that day was it was grey and yucky. For the football that was played under those clouds, it was worth it.