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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Playing 'Beat The Clock' on a light-less field

It is Saturday morning, May 12, 2012. A beautiful day at the Jersey Shore.

The Ocean County Softball Tournament continues today with a game at Toms River High School East's complex. East has one of the most unique dimensions for a softball field you will ever see. The team plays down in a little gully while fans can watch from the road above the field or in the stands just below that view. But almost a generation ago, it was a new field that begged to be noticed.

In 1994, East moved its softball field from the drab, bland side of the school to down behind the school in that gully. In 1994, I was a co-director of the county tournament with Point Pleasant Boro High coach Ric Malta. We had held the tournament exclusively at his field the previous two years.

However, Point Boro's field -- for its nice little location -- was pretty darned dangerous. I literally once watched a girl from Monsignor Donovan High tear her leg up and miss part of a season because of a slide into a base. It could be hit or miss whether that field got watered or not. And after hearing random coach after coach say they feared for their kids' lives playing on that field and seeing a final where there were no bleachers for people to watch the game, I knew I needed a change of scenery.

Ric agreed to host the tournament again in 1994, but this would be the last of the four-year run for Boro hosting. Meanwhile, East coach Debbie Schwartz wanted to get her new field some exposure for the tournament. So it was agreed that Boro would still host for the semifinals and championship, but the schools would split the 1994 quarterfinal games. At the seeding meeting, we gave coaches the choice of what field they would like to play on if they won their first-round game.

And somehow, we made it work.

So on Saturday, May 21, 1994, the annual Quarterfinal Saturday -- a day I still consider one of the most exciting days the OCT has ever had and I still wished existed -- had a new twist to it. We started at 10 that morning at Toms River East with East hosting Jackson Memorial, followed by top-seeded Central Regional taking on Pinelands Regional. Once those games were finished with East and Central victories, I gathered all my stuff that I used to run a public address system and headed from East to Point Pleasant Boro for the next two quarterfinals that featured Point Boro against Toms River North (the game that involved an inside-the-park strikeout) and Southern Regional against Lacey.

The day, in my opinion, was a success. And there was a lot of positive feedback from the two games at East. I kept this in mind as 1994 finished and 1995 approached.

By then, Ric had pretty much confirmed he did not want to host any more games at his field. The tournament was now all Debbie's from the quarterfinal round on at Toms River East.

There was one slight problem, though: East, which had been promised lights for the start of the season, still had no lights on it. Once Debbie told me before the '95 tournament that having the lights placed on her field might not take place until the championship -- and to me, that sounded iffy -- we decided to do away with that Quarterfinal Saturday for that year. Holding the tournament earlier than normal (with a May 20 championship) was not making me all that warm and fuzzy, either. I've never been for having the tournament start in late April because most of the better teams don't start getting better until just over one month into the season.

Still, we trudged on. For the quarterfinal round, we'd split the four games into two doubleheaders. We'd play two of the games on East's field on Saturday, May 6 with Toms River North playing Lacey and Manchester taking on surprising Monsignor Donovan with the games starting at noon. They went rather well in spite of Donovan's 26-16 long-winded, three-hour marathon victory over the Hawks.

The tricky part, though, would take place on Tuesday, May 9 when East hosted the other two games. Even in daylight savings time, you only have so much sunlight to play with. And if we started the doubleheader at 3:45 p.m. there was a strong chance that both games would not get in.

To make this work, it took cooperation with the two teams playing the first of those doubleheader games. With the urging I asked of two of the better athletic directors I've ever dealt with in my career -- Southern Regional's Kim DeGraw-Cole and Jackson Memorial's Ralph Carretta -- both teams were able to get out of their schools earlier than normal and make it to East by 2:15 p.m. for a 3 p.m. start. Normally, that starting time is frowned upon during weekdays, but without lights up on the East field, we sort of had an "emergency situation."

Both teams warmed up, the umpires arrived, and the game started at 3 p.m. The plan was to start that game at 3, get it done before 5, then have the East grounds crew work on the field, have Central and East warm up and get off playing at 5:30.

This was literally "Beat The Clock" with Mother Nature. I don't suggest any tournament directors attempt to run a tournament this way, but whatever means you need to get it done, you get it done.

Top-seeded Jackson Memorial and No. 8 seed Southern Regional were fierce Class A South rivals. And neither team was giving in to the other. But the problem was that there'd be sustained and long innings. By about the fifth inning, I started looking at my watch quite a bit more than I should have while doing my normal PA work. Jackson Memorial held on for the 7-6 victory and my watch read 5:10 p.m.

One game down, one to go. But how much daylight were we left with? I watched Central and East warm up and had to answer the question a few people kept hitting me with as daylight faded behind the dark clouds that began forming over the East field -- "What happens if we can't get this game in?" I told people they would finish the game up at another time that week, but honestly, I wasn't sure what was going to happen if Central and East could not get done before the daylight disappeared.

The Central-East matchup -- the two schools' first meeting against one another in the OCT since Central's emotional win over East in the 1992 final -- started at 5:45 p.m. I'll admit at that point it was 50-50 that the game would finish up. But things went quick in the first couple of innings. It was about 6:10 p.m. Someone scratches out a run or two, holds the other team down and we're out of there without incident. But in the third, those plans began to fall apart in a big way. Central scored ... and didn't stop! I sat next to a high school classmate of mine watching this (he was there because he was very good friends with East third baseman Vicki Guarneri from basketball) and I expressed my opinion that I could not believe how quickly this game got out of hand.

Soon, it became 7 p.m. And by the fifth inning, Central was close to winning the game early, via the 10-run mercy rule. When Central scored that last run in the bottom of the fifth (as the host team because it was the higher seed) to finish out an 11-1 victory, my watch read 7:35 p.m. It was not how I wanted to see this game ended, especially some pride as a Toms River East graduate.

Nonetheless, we got both games in before the brightness of the day faded out. Ironically, it was the last time East was mercy-ruled in an OCT game. Yet, we did it -- we doubled-down on these games getting in before the sun went down and won.

On Saturday, May 13, we went back to the noon time start for the two semifinals and Central beat Lacey and Jackson Memorial defeated Donovan to set up the May 20 final at East ... when East finally got lights put up.

I will never forget coming home from seeing my girlfriend at the time in Middletown the night before the final and stopping over at East to see light poles finally holding lights over the field. I remember looking out over the field on that dark night and thinking about how really cool this was going to be -- not just for the next day, but for the future of the East program.

The very next night, the lights went on and the first night game ever held on that field was the OCT final between Jackson Memorial and Central. Jackson, unfortunately, played like a team that never played a night game in its life, committing nine errors as Central cruised to its record sixth OCT title, 11-4.

For the next three years, East hosted the entire tournament from the quarterfinal round on with the lights shining brightly at night. It hosted the greatest OCT final ever when Cheryl Zellman hit the game-winning, inside-the-park home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to give Central its seventh title, 2-1, over Lauren Anderson and Toms River North in 1997. It hosted the greatest OCT game ever a few nights earlier when Central stormed back from a 9-5 deficit in the bottom of the seventh to score five times and win the semifinal game, 10-9, over Jackson Memorial.

And now, East has the premier program in the county. Its complex is a jewel, a sight to be seen. The tournament final is no longer there, but the state tournament finals are on that field, sharing the honor with Toms River North's field.

Things are so much different now compared to 17 years ago when East was getting its field notoriety. It was a good time then to showcase the Raider field.

And for one day, it got very scary. I still can't believe to this day we pulled off two games on that field in one late afternoon.

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