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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.

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