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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.

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