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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Running a tournament for the first time

I look at what has turned into a soup sandwich with the mishandling of the 32nd annual Ocean County Softball Tournament up here at the Jersey Shore and think back to when I first helped run the tournament.

Yes, a schlubby writer ran this same tournament with the help of coaches. Did it for eight years, eight proud years as well.

Let me start by telling you about how I was able to gain control of the OCT. It started with the championship game of the 1991 final between Toms River North and Brick High -- easily the worst championship game in history with 22 errors made between the two teams in a 9-2 Brick triumph. It was somewhere around errors No. 13 and 14 that Dave McKelvey called me from where he was standing below me at Wilbur Thompson Park. My spot as the official scorekeeper and public address announcer was on what was a large makeshift dumpster that Dave turned into a storage room for his Lakewood High team and for fixing the field.

"This is it," he told me. "I'm done running this tournament. I just wanted to let you know that."

The mark of a class individual who to this day I have the utmost respect for. He could have told me this bit of information during the summer or I may have found out like a week before the 1992 softball season started. I made sure to ask him if he was sure this was it and he nodded his head. Said he was tired of it. At first, I thought he was just sick of watching this awful championship.

All through the summer of '91 and at various times that fall and winter, I was in close contact with various coaches over the OCT. At 25 years old, I wanted to take my turn at helping to run it. I couldn't run it fully, though. This is a school operation, an operation that I knew one of my softball coaches would have to be in charge of and I'd be the person putting down the rules and regulations after discussing it with my "partner in crime."

The one person who I really absolutely wanted to run this tournament with was John Natoli, who had turned Point Pleasant Boro's program from a doormat to a Class C championship team in his first year at the helm in 1990. His program won 34 games in his two years at the helm and in 1991, he helped Dave out by hosting the first-round and quarterfinal-round games at Point Boro. However, as the '91 season came to a close, Point Pleasant's Board of Education was getting ready to cut teachers as part of solving a deficit problem. Since John was in his second year with the school, he was on the chopping block. What a travesty this was -- his softball players arrived at the Board of Education meeting to defend their coach, asking to keep him, but those pleas fell on deaf ears. Natoli's final game was in the OCT semifinal, losing to North, 8-3, in a game that felt like a funeral for the man with players walking off that Lakewood High field in tears.

So no John Natoli to help me. The next step was asking his assistant coach, Ric Malta, who was to take over the program in 1992. He had an idea of how John had done things with the field in 1991 and he was ready to roll with the '92 tournament, hosting it.

When we met to set up how we wanted to do this event, the one thing he told me was that he could not host every game in the tournament. OK, so that was out. What we did was have the first-round games played on the higher-seeded team's field. And the winners -- along with the teams that got byes in the first round -- would come to Point Pleasant Boro's High School/Middle School field to play what we dubbed "Quarterfinal Saturday." We set the times up for the games to start at 11 a.m., then go to 2 p.m., 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Memorial Day Saturday, May 23, and the 8 p.m. game would feature the tournament's No. 1 seed against the winner of the No. 8-9 matchup. We did it for three reasons -- one, the tournament top seed was our feature team and we wanted to put them under the lights in prime time on a Saturday. Two, it gave either the No. 8 or 9 seeded team a chance to enjoy a prime-time game and get some kind of a crowd. And three, I knew it might be the quickest game of the night if the No. 1 seed was on its game and had its way. In other words, there was the possibility of a 10-run, mercy-rule inning in 4 1/2 innings.

We set up all the ground rules, got confirmation from Dave, who was still willing to helping us by supplying the old white balls his slow-pitch softball league used for the tournament, and the entry fee -- which was fairly cheap at $65 per team for the tournament.

The next step was to put together all the OCT rules, which I typewrote (yes, I used a regular, old typewriter!!) on 8.5 x 11 paper into folders and hand-deliver these folders to all 15 high school athletic directors or softball coaches, usually the athletic director. Some athletic directors were somewhat excited to see me in their pleasant way. Then there were others who were colder than wet fish, some putting their hands on the folders I gave them like it would self-destruct in five seconds. It would be years later before I figured out the reason why some of these unhappy athletic directors didn't want anything to do with my work was because they didn't want to do any more work. But we had done the work for them.

To show you how thorough we were back in the day, one of my responsibilities for putting together this package was to make calls to all 15 high schools (at the time, there were 15) and ask someone there who had knowledge of the dates of important events when the junior and senior proms were being held. So come the night of the seeding meeting, which was at Toms River High School East, they had a full package of rules, and yes, prom dates. All I asked of the coaches was to show up for the meeting with a copy of their regular-season schedule. If they forgot, I made sure I had a copy of each schedule for the meeting.

The meeting was held on my day off from work, Friday, May 1, 1992, at East. I had made sure to secure East for the seeding meeting and, for the exception of 1994 when we had the meeting at the Best Western Hotel in Lakewood, the seeding meetings were always held at East.

As I was outside the meeting room watching the coaches come in -- and I had brought three pizzas from one of the fine establishments on Fischer Boulevard for the event -- I saw Central coaches Norm Selby and Gloria Garibaldi come in and Norm, the head coach, pulls me over to the side. Now I always listened to Norm, who told it straightforward and didn't mince words.

"Have you seen that Boro field?" he asked. I told him I had not covered a game at Boro's field all season.

"It's in terrible shape. I think you're putting people in danger by playing on that field, especially all the rocks out there," he continued. Now Norm had played on Boro's field just recently, so he knew how rough it was. I couldn't move anything off that field and he knew it, but I told him that I'd make an effort to ask Ric to see what he can do about getting the rocks off that field that might cause danger, as well as watering it. At least there I wouldn't have a problem. The field was rougher than it had been in years and I still guess that Point Boro's budget was such that they eliminated any overtime hours for groundskeepers. It's why when it came to night games, Ric himself had to do all the work.

As for the actual seeding meeting, all the teams involved were there except for Pinelands Regional, whose coach, Pam Boyd, told me she wasn't entering her team that year. I pushed her to try, but I couldn't twist her arm. It was always a rule in my time with the tournament -- we'd love to have all teams in there, but on the other hand, I understand why some teams couldn't go in. So they didn't.

We seeded the 14-team tournament and it was up to the coaches to make their cases for their teams and then after the coaches had their says, they were asked to seed the meeting on paper, No. 1 through 14. Once every coach had given me their sheets, it was my job as the math genius of the bunch to add all the numbers via the seeds. My main rule, and this was mostly to avoid the jockeying for positions by some coaches who threw radical numbers out there, was to cancel out the lowest and highest seeds for the event. That process took about 10 to 15 minutes once I got everyone's sheet. But once everything was confirmed, I was back in the meeting room to announce the seeds.

And I made one cardinal rule error that I never made again by doing this: "The No. 1 seed of the 1992 Ocean County Tournament is Central Regional High School. The Golden Eagles have earned a bye to the quarterfinal round, where they will take on the lucky winner of the game between No. 8 seed Brick Memorial and No. 9 seed Brick."

There was this look of wince from some of the coaches in the room and I can hear Norm saying, "Great, fella. Thanks!" I don't remember if I apologized to Brick Memorial coach Judy DeFrancisci and Brick coach Al Grove, but I do know I should not have gone there. They knew whoever won that game was already going to have this tough task at hand without it being mentioned.

No. 2 seed Toms River East also earned a bye and the Raiders would play the winner of the game between No. 7 Toms River North and No. 10 Toms River South. No. 3 Jackson Memorial hosted No. 14 seed Point Pleasant Beach, No. 4 Southern Regional had No. 13 Lakewood, No. 5 Lacey took on No. 12 Manchester and No. 6 Point Pleasant Boro hosted No. 11 Monsignor Donovan.

After the meeting, I had the coaches who had to play against one another team up to at least look at each other's schedules and prom dates to see what day they could work out to play their first-round games in the tournament. In 1992, this was more a coaches' event. That's why it was more fun to run this tournament in the 1990s than it would have been had I run it today if I were still involved in that capacity. Once the coaches came up with dates they felt were right, they put them past me to put down as tentative dates and then starting Monday, they would confirm having those dates with their ADs.

The coaches' and athletic directors' mission back in the day -- to play one single game in less than three weeks. Honestly, how difficult a task was that?

Starting with the May 7 first-round game between Manchester and Lacey, won by Lacey, 7-4, all six first-round games got done between then and May 20. We were set for our first Quarterfinal Saturday on May 23. My next objective was to put a program together that was representative of the tournament and the eight teams remaining. Never putting one of these together, it was very taxing. And one thing I wanted to do was write a feature story on what was the greatest final in OCT history up to that point, the 1988 finale between Donovan and Central that I covered. Got that done, but getting pictures was a task. Yes, I had collected pictures that our Ocean County Observer photographers had taken throughout the sports season to use for the program. And I managed to find file photos of others. One mug shot I did not have for the program was of Southern coach Dick Manzo. I asked my favorite AD, Kim DeGraw-Cole, if she could have one ready.

"Do you want one of him with a mustache or without? she asked. I told her without since he had shaved that thing off his face in 1989. I drove down to Manahawkin to Southern to pick up the picture in an envelope. I spent the better part of two days putting this together in between my regular work hours. It was not a lot of fun. I can still remember nearing the end of this thing at 6 a.m. Saturday when I did not have Donovan coach Tom Westen's college of graduation. I knew he had the first game of the day against Jackson Memorial, so I figured at 6:30 a.m., it was a perfect time to call him. I got him and he was wide awake. Once he gave me the last bit of information, I now had to go upstairs to the fourth floor and work on making copies of the program. I wasn't going to Staples to spend money on this project and heck, I could get them done on our copiers.

The problem was knowing how to do multiple copies. To me, it was like brain surgery for the first time. It was so bad and I was falling behind and I called my mother to come down to the Observer to help me with making photocopies. Not only did we have to get the photocopies finished, but we also had to staple the programs. And back in 1992, I was naive about this. I printed up 75 copies. For this 2012 tournament, which will now be sold on the Internet since the tournament final took place after I left to show you how poorly run it was this particular year, I only made 32 copies. Then again, it was just a final unlike the eight teams that were showing up 20 years ago.

It was almost 8:30 when my mom got to the building and it was 10 a.m. when I made the decision to get out of the office and head to Point Boro for the first game on the docket. What we did was she took the copies and, probably with my sister, put the programs together and stapled them all at my house, while I got to Boro at about 10:45 a.m. and rushed getting my personal public address system together for this game. Somehow, we made it work and the Donovan-Jackson Memorial game was off and running.

By almost 12:45 p.m., the programs finally were finished as my mother got to Point Boro and dropped them off with me to be sold. Ultimately, I got a copy of the program to Tom Westen, whose team was eliminated. We sold those programs for $1.50 back in the day and not only did the program feature the profile pages of all eight teams and the recap of the first-round games, but we also had that 1988 championship feature story along with all the tournaments from 1981-91 including the lines of all the finals. Trust me, it was well worth the $1.50 we sold it for ... maybe more.

It was a very warm afternoon for the first two games, the second being Toms River East's 10-run rule victory over Toms River North, 13-3. The beating sun was finally going down by the time we got to the two games in the other bracket. Southern knocked off Lacey and in the "prime-time" game under the lights, Central Regional had little trouble with 10-run ruling Brick Memorial.

And the day/night adventure was over. And I finally got sleep. A lot of sleep. And everyone could enjoy the rest of their Memorial Day off. The best part of all that -- no one complained.

Now we didn't have the semifinals set until Monday, June 1 at Point Boro. So we were doing just fine. And back at Boro I went for the first semifinal, slated for 5 p.m. between Southern and Central. Southern took an early lead, but by the third inning, I could see the storm clouds come in. The heavens opened up and let loose with a pounding rainstorm that not only didn't stop, but practically flooded the infield at Boro. Kiddingly, it probably was the softest the infield was all year.

It was decided that the game was cancelled and started over again the next day. I was a soaked rat because I had no umbrella. If not for the fantastic father of former Brick High standout center fielder Nicki Schley handing me an umbrella he had handy, it could have been worse. Needless to say, the field was in terrible condition to even get ready for a second game. Both East and Jackson Memorial had gotten to the field and immediately, Ric and I had to tell both coaches Debbie Schwartz and Al Aires, respectively, that they had to turn around and go home. The next step was having to tell the umpires for the second game they had to go home, too, after arriving.

The worst part, though, was that out of the money for the tournament, which, if you remember, was $875 for 14 teams at $65 a pop, Ric had to pay the two umpires for starting the first game, then pay the two umpires who arrived at Point Boro for the game that never started between Jackson and East as well. That was $192 of inactivity gone away.

So another $192 was invested to get the umpires back for the makeup, which we had stated on the rules sheets would be played the next night, Tuesday, June 2, an absolutely beautiful evening and night at Boro, almost as if there was never any rain there to begin with. Manzo and Southern assistant coach Bill McLennan left Boro's field upset they had to cancel the first game since their team was leading Central. Starting over again, Central jumped out to an early lead, then held off a Southern rally to win, 10-8, and advance to the final. Then the second game between Jackson Memorial and East, two fierce Class A South rivals, was one for the OCT ages. It was a back-and-forth battle that saw East take a lead into the seventh, but Jackson Memorial tied it in the top of the seventh to send it to extra innings where East won the game, 8-7, in bottom of the seventh when Angela Velardi singled with the bases loaded to bring home Vicki Guarneri.

The night was over and I went over to East's side to congratulate Debbie and assistant coach Dawn Dziedzic. It was almost at that point that I was intercepted by Vito Guarneri, Vicki's father, and actually a friend of my family since my sister and his oldest daughter, Dawn, who I graduated high school with at East, were best friends. He started talking as if I wanted Jackson to win. I thought the guy was going to either punch me or fight me! He started putting his index finger into my chest as if I was the bad guy and he was going to make a big deal about it. I have a little more integrity than that. He finally left me alone. I don't know to this day what got into him, but let's just say he was a passionate sports fan and what he did for his daughter. And other than that, he treated me with kindness and respect. It was just one of those moments.

Ric and I got through the semifinals nonetheless. Two games were still left. It was decided at the seeding meeting there'd be a third-place game along with the final on Thursday, June 4. As I got to Point Pleasant Boro again, I was met over there by Ric, who was doing some raking of the infield getting it ready for the two games at about 3:45 p.m. No more than 15 minutes later, Dave arrived with the trophies he had taken care of. He had the first-place, second-place, third-place and Most Valuable Player trophies with him. He dropped them off along with Most Valuable Pitcher, Top Hitter and Top Fielder trophies that the top kids got as well as smaller trophies the top two teams got for playing in the final. He handed Ric and I the bill.

It was $240. With five umpires to be paid $240 for the two games, we suddenly found ourselves in trouble.

"I got news for you there," Ric started. "We're in the red." He wasn't kidding. Because of the rainouts, we went from being ahead of the game to being very behind it. We started thinking about what the heck to do. Then the idea came to Ric.

"I've still got tickets and for both games, we can run a 50-50." Since I didn't have any brilliant ideas immediately, it was the thing to do. So the third-place game went off at 5 p.m. and Ric went around with the tickets selling 50-50s in the final. Glenda Calabro, Al Aires' able assistant at Jackson, looked at me as I announced the 50-50 tickets were on sale, and said, "You must be making up for lost money." Smart woman who had been around sports a long, long time.

By the end of the night, we were still behind and ultimately, I gave Ric some of my sales money from the programs I sold. It was a hard lesson learned for the tournament and we ultimately got back to even. As for the games, the third-place game ended up going to extra innings where Southern beat Jackson Memorial and took home the third-place trophy, the only one ever handed out in tourney history. In between games, both East and Central warmed up, the lineups were announced, the national anthem was played and the 10 previous tournament Most Valuable Players were honored in the pre-game ceremony with the first tourney MVP of 1982, Toms River South's Lynne Prudhomme, throwing out the first pitch -- a strike that I thought was going to take off Central catcher Amy McGowan's glove off her.

As for the championship, a game won by Central Regional, 5-0, over Toms River East, it was memorable. Central scratched out three runs in the first inning on former Golden Eagles pitcher Erin Tulko with Erika Applegate delivering the two-run single to highlight the inning. The game stayed that way until the sixth when Central scored twice more to put it away.

Tara Menschner, a fellow sophomore like Tulko and Applegate, had thrown the first shutout in OCT finals history. We gave out the second- and first-place trophies and the individual award trophies. And the honor for Most Valuable Player, which I announced, was a surprise. It went to Applegate, Central's third baseman and the first sophomore to win the honor.

And as both teams left, the sigh of relief I breathed might have been heard through all of Point Pleasant. We made it. Other than being in the red, the rest of the tournament was a success. And for that moment, we didn't care that we were in the red -- we had a successful day and night of softball. Everything ultimately got paid for and we had a template to run this tournament for the next couple of years at Point Pleasant Boro, then when Ric bowed out, Debbie Schwartz came in to run the tournament with me for the next four years.

We turned a profit the next seven years. Ultimately, we raised the price of getting into the tournament from $65 to $85 by the final year of my run in 1999 when I co-ran the event with Jim Christiano, the former Toms River South coach who ran it by his lonesome the first six years between 1981-86.

The main thing about this tournament as I always brought up was that this was a tournament involving the coaches -- the coaches had the interactions, they made things happen once we put a schedule in front of them and then everything went in motion. And very little did the athletic directors have a problem.

I leave Ocean County for this year feeling sad that the tournament has been ruined by people who couldn't take the bull by the horn and run it the way it should have been run -- for the integrity of getting it done before the Shore Conference and state tournaments took place.

This tournament has never ever been about ego. It's about letting those young ladies play and be their best. I'm proud of the fact that in my eight years of helping run the tournament, we did just that.

Even if we were unprepared and unaware of what pitfalls may have been ahead of us that first year in 1992.

But what a wonderful learning experience it was.

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