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Saturday, June 23, 2012

The best female athletes I've been able to cover

Today -- June 23, 2012 -- marks the 40th anniversary of the passing of what we've come to know as Title IX, which allowed women to play on the same level athletically as their male counterparts and ultimately gave them a chance to compete for college scholarships.

And trust me, there are enough stories I could write on each young lady who made their marks in high school and were able to literally cash in and make something of themselves in college and into a professional career, sports or non-sports. Those will always be some of the best stories I've written about.

So after 28 years and hundreds of games on basketball and volleyball hardwoods, swimming pools, bowling lanes, grassy fields and softball diamonds, you'd figure I've seen some great female athletes. And you'd be right. In that part, I've been blessed. So I sat down and thought about who the best female athletes I've covered are over those 28 years.

And I was able to come up with a list of the 10 best, along with their schools, graduation year and their accomplishments, some of which I've written about in these blogs before. Now before I reveal this list in descending order, I want to share some of the honorable mentions, young ladies who missed the list, but certainly deserve the credit for what they did in their careers.

There's Chris Forrester (Toms River South, Class of '85), Linda Kurtyka (Toms River North, '89), Lauren Wagner (Central Regional, '92), Rachel Goodale (Jackson Memorial, '93), Dana Jurczyk (Lacey, '94), Shannon Keelan (Toms River South '96), Erin Leonard (Jackson Memorial, '99), Laura Leigh Tallent (Marathon, '00), Lindsay Brown (Crescent City '04), and Jacqueline Fraga (Interlachen '11). All were fantastic athletes who made their schools proud and not in any particular order.

This next list, though, is in order, from No. 10 to No. 1. Now, let's set a couple of ground rules for being on this list. First, these young ladies had to excel in more than one sport. That's a big reason why they made this list -- because they could do more than one sport, more than one motion/activity, better than most others. And second, they had to be someone I covered at the newspaper I was working for at the time. I know women such as Jill Spaschak (Southern '84) and Michelle McCool (Palatka, '98) were terrific athletes in their own right in high school and certainly beyond in college and after (most pro wrestling fans know McCool's work on WWE over the years), but I never got to cover them in high school. That excludes them from this list.

Got it? Good! Now with plenty of thought behind it, here's that said list of the best I've seen in almost 28 years. And yes, I know some of the ladies here are married now and I'm using their maiden names (he says with raised eyebrows and eyeballs to the top of his head). My apologies for not recognizing your current life and married name, but this is how I remember you as a high school athlete.

10. Dawn Dickten (Lacey, '89): Dawn Dickten wasn't a boisterous or loud person when it came to personality. She simply let what she did on a field hockey field, basketball court and soccer field do the talking for her. And she was an All-County standout in all three sports her senior year as well, making the All-County soccer first teams three times.

It was in basketball as a senior as the team's shooting guard she helped take coach Mike Shern's Lions to the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III final where they lost. But before she finished her career, she scored her 1,000th career point. However, it was in soccer that she starred. As a sophomore, she was part of a Lacey team that went to the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals. Then in her senior year from her center-midfield position, she got coach Paul Groben's Lions to the semifinal round against top-seeded and unbeaten Point Pleasant Boro, which was a dynamo behind standout players like Kim Yankowski, Wendi Pearce and Jennifer Shutt. This should've been a Point Boro rout on Boro's field. Nope! Lacey rode a Sara Patiro goal to a 1-0 stunning upset as Dickten and her defensive mates did the rest. They culminated the program's first SCT championship on that same Point Boro field five days later by knocking off Middletown North, 4-1, in the final. Dickten basically did everything with her identical twin sister Denise (who played the same three sports with her sister), even going to Kean together to do big things and earn major accolades by her senior year in 1993 in basketball.

9. Jessica Jordan (Interlachen, '06): Ron Whitehurst knew Jessica Jordan was a pretty good infielder and could be a fantastic outfielder. So where did he put her during the last two years of her high school career? Yup, of course -- catcher! And she was fantastic there, too. But that was just scratching the surface of how talented this Ram was.

Jordan was an outstanding three-sport athlete from the Western Putnam County school, playing volleyball in the fall, soccer in the winter and softball in the spring. And in all three sports, she earned All-County honors. When Whitehurst took over as the volleyball coach in the 2004 season, Jordan took off as a front-line player. Then when Mike Stevens took over in the 2004-05 season, she really shined as a midfielder-forward and earned Player of the Year honors for that season, one that saw Interlachen win five games after it went a wretched 0-16-1 the year before. But it was the 2005-06 when Jordan helped build all three Interlachen teams. In the fall, the volleyball team went to the state tournament for the first time in 17 years as it finished runners-up in the district tournament to Keystone Heights. In the winter, the transformation from a winless team to a state tournament team in two years was complete when the Rams made the district final for their first time, losing to Keystone in that championship. And Keystone beat Interlachen in the district softball final, but the team was back in the state tourney for the first time since 1999. And it was in the state tournament game, a wild 11-10 loss at Umatilla, in which Jordan had a great game with four hits, including a home run. Jordan earned a spot on the St. Johns River Community College softball team, and though she did not have a starring role with the Vikings, she was still a part of the program's first-ever state tournament-bound team.

8. Wendi Pearce (Point Pleasant Boro, '91): In her three sports, Wendi Pearce got the most out of her talent. especially being only 5-foot-4. But what she did in her four years in field hockey, basketball and soccer -- as well as her quiet leadership -- was what got her on this list and ultimately earned her a soccer scholarship to play at Monmouth College.

In field hockey, Pearce was a facilitator, getting the ball up the field, then feeding off to teammates like Charisse Hopkins and Yankowski. As a junior, she helped the Panthers to their best season in 14 years when Boro won the SCT championship and to a place in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II title match where the Panthers ultimately lost to a very, very good Moorestown team. In girls soccer, she put together one of the greatest statistical seasons no one ever heard of. On a team powered by superstars, all Pearce did was score 34 goals and hand out 26 assists as the Panthers went 20-0 and won the SCT title against Wall going away, 4-1. Boro outscored its opponents, 190-5, that season. In a much tougher division the next year as a senior, she still was a facilitator with 12 goals and 11 assists. In basketball, though, she had an enjoyable last two years as a guard. Her junior year saw her take the Panthers to the NJSIAA SJ II semifinal, where Sterling wiped up Point Boro, 86-46. Pearce and her teammates remembered that for the next year -- playing point guard, Pearce helped guide the Panthers to a 74-49 blowout win of Sterling at Pennsauken High to capture the SJ II title. The Panthers lost in the Group II semifinal to Manasquan in overtime in an amazing game. Still, it was her soccer prowess that got Pearce the scholarship to Monmouth, where she'd play her four years. Still, the best was yet to come from that family.

7. Consuelo Lezcano (Marathon, '03): This Middle Keys standout in volleyball and basketball stood tall among others. At 6-foot-3, it was easy to stand out like that. She once told me the hardest part about being 6-3 for her was dating -- all the boys taller than her weren't exactly rocket scientists where she lived and there weren't many guys as tall as she was. But she was a delight.

In volleyball, she was part of a couple of district championships at Marathon in 1999 and 2001 as the middle blocker and hitter. She developed a nice little game while learning it little by little each year. It was basketball, though, that she was dynamite. I can still remember in 2001 when Interlachen came into Key West High to play an awful Key West team. The Conchs' focus was to double- and triple-team her everytime the Dolphins had the ball and they darn-near pulled off that feat. She still scored 22 points and pulled down 14 rebounds in a Marathon victory. She was the four-time county player of the year, averaging nearly a triple-double as a freshman (18 points, 11 rebounds, 9 blocks per game). In her junior year, she and her Dolphins won the district title over tough Westminster Christian as she scored 22 points and pulled down 16 rebounds in the final. That, though, was the appetizer to the team's first-round state game at home on Valentine's Day 2002. Florida Christian came down from Miami with its tallest player being 5-7, so the team's strategy was to take the ball to her and draw fouls to get her out of the game. It was a poor strategy -- Lezcano practically blocked and took everything away from Florida Christian players. By the end of the night, Interlachen blew out Florida Christian, 66-31, and all Lezcano did was go for the single most amazing individual game I had ever seen -- 26 points, 35 rebounds and 14 blocks. The next year in the same first round of the state tournament, the team Marathon played double-teamed Lezcano everywhere she went. And I mean everywhere! She still put up 22 points, 26 rebounds and 11 blocks in another playoff win. She earned a four-year scholarship to UCLA -- yeah, that UCLA and found Los Angeles so much more to her liking than little Marathon, Fla. She was never more than a reserve player for the Bruins between 2003-07, but she's one of the two most gifted tall girls I ever covered.

6. Amy Eller (Palatka, '04): I only got to cover Ms. Eller only one year. But what a year of triumph it was.

In the fall, she won the All-Putnam County cross country championship in one of the most memorable races I've ever seen when she beat favored Talisa Bishop of Interlachen, crossing the finish line at the tough West Putnam Recreation Center course in 21:40, beating Bishop by 18 seconds. It was her third All-Putnam championship in the four years she ran the race. A few weeks later, she qualified for the Region 1-3A meet by finishing ninth in the district race at Middleburg High School. In the winter, she scored 14 goals, which was a program record for the Palatka High girls soccer team at the time and held up for seven years until Loran Strunk exploded for 28 goals her senior 2010-11 season. In the spring, she was a very good No. 1 singles player in tennis, but it was her teaming up with freshman No. 2 singles player Kristin Smith where Eller starred. The team went 16-0 during the regular season at No. 1 doubles, then won a pair of matches to capture the district championship. The pair then went on to win a state tournament match before finally losing, ending the year at 19-1. To this day, it's the last time any Putnam County tennis player or players reached the state tournament. And if you need to find Eller, who went on to play tennis and cross-country at Flagler College in St. Augustine, during the second Saturday in March every year, you can find her running in the 15-kilometer Gate River Run in Jacksonville, where she's been Putnam County's top female runner five times. Once featured in a February 2004 short story in Sports Illustrated, Eller is easily the personality plus winner of this Top 10 group as she's also done dinner theater work, too. Personally, I wish she'd do more of that -- she's the complete package.

5. Kim Traxler (Interlachen, '08): This young lady is a literal natural talent. Numbers don't necessarily tell the story, though.

She came into Interlachen High in 2004 and immediately made an impact in volleyball, where she would be an All-County player two times. In girls soccer, she was All-County three times at forward-midfielder and earned Player of the Year honors in the sport in her junior 2006-07 season when she scored 17 goals. And as a talented third baseman, she was a three-time All-County player and was a part of Interlachen winning back-to-back district softball championships in 2007 and '08. As a senior in volleyball, the Rams won 19 games and went to the state tournament for the second time in three years. As a sophomore, she went to the state tournament her only time in soccer. Her softball prowess got SJRCC's attention and in 2008, she signed to play with the local Vikings for the next two years. She was making an immediate impact as a contact hitter with amazing speed when she dislocated her thumb diving back into third base in an early-season game and lost most of the rest of that year. She came back in 2010 to have a very good season. And Kimmy Bloemers, the softball coach at Florida Atlantic and the daughter of Hall of Fame baseball catcher Gary Carter, took notice of Traxler's talents. They signed her to play her junior and senior seasons and that's where she finished her career just this past April.

4. Kim Yankowski (Point Pleasant Boro, '90): The moment I saw this dimunitive (5-3) blonde with the big hair and those blue eyes on a soccer field helping leadi Point Boro to an SCT title in 1987 as a freshman, I knew I was watching something very, very special. And Kimberly Elizabeth didn't disappoint either.

It was in that freshman season that she helped to fill out a talented Panther team that lacked one thing -- goals. She came in and took over the center-forward position like she had played the position all her life. In that freshman year, she scored 20 goals and added 11 assists in helping the Panthers to not only its divisional title, but the four wins in the SCT, including a memorable penalty-shot victory over defending champion Manalapan. In the final against Wall, she scored three goals in a 4-1 triumph on Wall's field to finish a 16-0-2 campaign. She would earn the first of four All-County first-team nods to become the second player after Kim Brickner of Monsignor Donovan to do that in Observer history in the sport. In her sophomore year, she continued to add on to the legend by scoring 22 goals in a season that saw the Panthers go 15-2. As a junior -- and in the extremely easy Class C division -- she tore open the county scoring record of 30 goals set three years earlier by Tricia Lattanzi by scoring 48 goals, though the Panthers were handed their only loss in the SCT semifinals to Lacey. And while she was doing this, she was having a stellar career in field hockey. In earning All-County first-team honors in her final two years, she scored a combined 36 goals, including 20 her senior year, in helping the Panthers win the SCT title in 1989 as a senior against Wall. She scored both goals in that championship game.

Now back to soccer and what would be one of the most amazing seasons I have ever seen on a soccer pitch. Yankowski once again took advantage of that awful C Division and scored an unheard of 61 goals and 34 assists!! Still, another SCT title seemed elusive after the previous year's disappointment. But not this time -- after wins in the first two rounds, the Panthers hammered Manalapan, 8-2, in the semifinals, then Yankowski scored three goals again in the championship in leading the way to a 4-1 triumph over Wall at Point Boro's field this time, culminating a 20-0 season in which the Panthers outscored their opponents, 190-5. After graduating from Point Boro, Yankowski went on to play four years of soccer at North Carolina State. Yeah, she was very, very special.

3. Carol Walters (Lakewood, '87): It didn't matter that Carol Walters played tennis, field hockey, basketball and softball well in her four years at Lakewood High. She could've played soccer and made it look easy. She could've ran track and found her niche. She may have even tried golf and beaten most of the boys. Heck, if there was lacrosse back in that time period, I'm pretty certain Carol Walters may have been the best athlete in the county.

That's because she was the best athlete I covered in the 1980s. Field hockey was not her No. 1 sport and Lakewood High did a lot of losing back then. But she still stood out and actually earned a second-team All-County honor on a team that won no games. By her senior year, she dumped field hockey and took up tennis. And as LHS' No. 2 singles player behind an established Debbie Shelton, all Walters did was win 24 matches and earn All-County first-team honors for her one year. No one comes in cold and wins 24 tennis matches that easily, yet she did. Her main sport, though, was basketball, where not only was she a 1,000-point scorer, but she was an integral part of coach Art Calabro's Piners winning three of four NJSIAA South Jersey Group III titles. Walters was the point guard for the first two in 1985 and '87. For as long as I live, I will never forget that night of Friday, March 8, 1985 at Cherry Hill East High School in the SJ III final against Collingswood when 6-2 center Faith Nafziger fouled out with 2:55 to go and Walters and junior forward Joanne Powell had to take over. Walters supplied two passes within a two-minute span down low in the paint that were picture-perfect to Powell, who caught them and put in for layups. Lakewood won that title, 51-49, and it was sheer joy. Two years later, Walters was a senior on the LHS team that pretty much dominated in Ocean County, then went on to beat county foe Central Regional for another SJ III crown. The Piners could never get past North Hunterdon, the state's best team for three straight years, but it wasn't from a lack of trying by Walters or her Piners.

Then there was softball, where in her senior year, Walters hit nearly .600 and was this county's most dominant player while starting at shortstop for coach Dave McKelvey for her four years. Her bat as a sophomore helped the Piners get to the Ocean County Tournament final as a surprise from the No. 5 seed, and in the final against Toms River South, she delivered two hits and turned in an amazing defensive play that culminated in a double play. Lakewood lost the game, 7-2, but Walters made a name for herself that night on that Winding River Park field. Two years later, she basically hit the snot out of the ball with seven home runs. The greatest example of what she was all about was in the OCT opening-round game at home against Lacey, the tournament's eventual champion. Walters was 4-for-5, and the one at-bat that she didn't get a hit was an error by the Lacey center fielder on a flyball that could have easily been counted as a sacrifice fly. But she banged two long bombs in that game for home runs and drove in five runs. And there she was standing on deck in the bottom of the seventh inning with Lacey hanging on to a 19-17 lead with one runner on base and two outs. If Kelley Edwards gets on base, the game could have likely been over. That, at least in the mind of Lacey coach Shern, was how he was looking at the situation. But Shern's pitcher induced a groundout from Edwards and no one will ever know how that last at-bat turned out. After graduating, Walters moved on to nearby Georgian Court College, where she starred as a point guard on some stellar basketball teams for coach Debbie Emery in the late '80s/early '90s.

2. Kayshia Brady (Crescent City, '12): For the last 19 years, I was convinced I would not be blessed by another amazing and terrific athlete in my career again after -- well, you'll meet her soon. Little did I know that the next best athlete I would see was being born a few months later. The wait was well worth it.

I can still remember Holly Pickens, Brady's coach in basketball, telling me of the great things she was capable of doing as a seventh-grader ... yes, a seventh-grader! In Florida, if you have middle school kids going to the high school (a joint junior high-senior high school existence), they could play varsity sports. And Brady did. And it was on Saturday, February 3, 2007 when Brady made her name known for the next five-plus years. With Crescent City leading 35-33 in the District 6-3A championship game at Palm Coast Matanzas High School over Lake Butler Union County, Union County's point guard started toward the basket as time was expiring. Waiting for her was Brady. The guard thought she could draw the foul when she put her shot up. Instead, she got stuffed by the nearly 6-foot Brady. No whistle. No foul. Crescent City had won its first district girls basketball crown in 22 years. Brady would go on to score over 1,000 points in her career at Crescent City, though her Raiders could not get back to the state tournament until her senior year and just like five years earlier, they were one-and-done there.

In track and field, Brady was the 16th and last (in terms of qualifying shot put throwing distance) in 2008 as an eighth grader at the FHSAA 2A state championship. But lo and behold, she broke off a personal-best throw of over 36 feet and finished in eighth place to take home a medal. I knew I was watching some more amazing magic. Though her mother didn't think it was a good idea for her to go back out as a freshman in 2009, she insisted on coming back as a sophomore for trrack in 2010, and she picked up where she left off, ultimately finishing third in the FHSAA 1A state meet. In 2011, she made the state track meet for a third time in both shot and discuss, but it was in shot that she shined again with another third-place medal. Then this past spring as a senior, she won both district and regional championships and was the favorite to win the state title in the shot in her fourth try. She had a personal-best throw of 43-foot-6 1/4, but Bolles School's Victoria Reiman, who Brady beat by nine inches nine days earlier in the region meet, unloaded with a personal-best 43-10 1/4 to relegate Brady to second-place status. Still, not bad for a last day in the sport to uncork your best throw.

Ultimately, though, it is volleyball that this middle blocker-hitter is going to Florida Southern College for on a full scholarship. For the last three years, Brady has been Putnam County's best volleyball player. The only thing missing in her resume was a title of some kind. That, though, came when she had 14 kills in the District 8-1A title victory over Pierson Taylor in a three-set sweep that gave the Raiders their first district crown in 19 years. But it didn't stop there. Brady continued to put up big numbers and ultimately, the Raiders beat Chiefland and Union County to capture the Region 4-1A title and earn a trip to the state Final Four for the first time in 25 years. And though the Raiders would lose a tough four-setter to Mayo Lafayette, the eventual 1A state champ, last November 15, Brady still delivered 23 kills, seven blocks and 22 digs, a Herculean effort that kept the Raiders in it. For the year, Brady finished with 402 kills, 135 blocks and 345 digs to go along with 28 service aces. She was voted by sports writers as the state 1A player of the year.

The best part about Kayshia Brady -- she's a better person than an athlete. And that's saying a ton.

1. Christie Pearce (Point Pleasant Boro, '93): As I watched older sister Wendi Pearce perform on a soccer field and have some good success as a freshman in 1988, my good friend Kelly Kise was telling me that Wendi was only the second best Pearce sister athletically. "Wait until her sister gets to Point Boro," she warned me that summer of '88.

Kelly wasn't kidding. Almost 25 years later, it's hard for me to even think that not only anyone is better than Christie Pearce, but I'll see another one like her again. Her impact was absolutely immediate. As a freshman on the field hockey team, she score 11 goals and was part of that Boro club with her sister and Yankowski that won that memorable '89 championship for coach Judy Goldstein against Wall and then went to the SJ II final before losing to Moorestown. Pearce just kept getting better and better with the sport and by her senior year, she was the undoubted leader of the Panthers. She put together one of the most dominant statistical seasons I have ever witnessed in my career -- of the 33 goals Point Boro scored in that season, Pearce had a hand in 31 of them, 27 she scored on her own and four that she assisted.

People seem to think I'm nuts when I say this -- for as great a soccer player as she has been her entire life, Christie Pearce is the best field hockey player I've ever covered. Yeah. I'm not kidding. She made a sport so complex look very simple and natural.

Then there was basketball. She was counted on to be either the No. 1 point guard or the No. 2 shooting guard and at times because Point Boro was never tall in her time with the team, she had to be the swing No. 3 player as well. But it was during that magical 1990-91 season in which Pearce took off in the backcourt with her older sister. In her freshman year, Pearce's Panthers lost that embarrassing game to Sterling, but when they got to Pennsauken High that night to play Sterling in the SJ II final, it was as if the youngest Pearce was already developing a long memory the way Michael Jordan would develop when someone did something to embarrass him or his Bulls. That night, Christie Pearce stole the show -- well, she stole almost everything that wasn't bolted to the floor. Pearce put up a triple-double in that 74-49 wipeout with 25 points, 12 rebounds and 13 steals. And she had 22 points in that overtime loss to Manasquan that night at Steinert High School. Though the Panthers would not quite reach the same heights as they had in the '90-91 season, it didn't stop Pearce from doing it all -- stealing, passing, driving to the basket and scoring. When she finished up her amazing career, she had totalled 2,190 points, the most in Ocean County girls basketball history. It almost seemed like every field goal of that 2,190 points was some drive to the basket that opponents had a hard time defending.

Christie Pearce could have gotten a college scholarship for field hockey or basketball. But it was soccer that was her first love -- and what has carried her since she was a pre-teen. Pearce set the county record for goals and points as a freshman in 1990 when she scored 49 goals and added 24 assists for 122 points -- an amazing second to the 156 points Yankowski scored -- on that Point Boro team that went 20-0 and won the SCT. She followed that up with 12-goal and 10-goal seasons as a sophomore and junior in the much tougher B South Division in the '91 and '92 seasons. Then the Panthers were dropped down to the C Division in the '93 season against lesser opponents again. And Pearce had a fiesta again. As a senior, she scored 51 goals and added 10 asssists for 112 points with a team that wasn't anywhere near as talented as that 1990 team, but there was no doubt her leadership skills were being honed for the next level. She finished her prep career with 122 goals, second in county history to only Yankowski.

When it was time to pick a college, Pearce had a choice to make between two schools -- Monmouth or North Carolina. On the surface, this was a no-brainer. As a matter of fact, Anson Dorrance, the legendary UNC coach told me in January 2008 that he really wanted her. She would have been a freshman at UNC playing with the great Mia Hamm as a senior. In the end, he understood why she chose Monmouth -- because of her sister being there playing already and family was always more important to Christie Pearce. And in college, she was the Northeast Conference's Player of the Year two times and scored 79 goals and 54 assists for 212 points. And in early 1997 after her college career was over, it was U.S. national team coach Tony DeCicco who called Pearce up and had her try out for the team. She made the team, has been a member of four World Cup squads as a defender. Turning 37 on June 24, Pearce has played on three Olympic teams and is about to captain the fourth team. She owns a World Cup medal from the memorable '99 team run as a reserve and two Olympic gold medals as a starting fullback. It is easily the greatest career I have ever followed in my 28 years.

Now as for Christie Pearce the talker, that didn't come about very easily. When she was beginning to start building a reputation at Point Boro, you couldn't get a single word out of her mouth. I tried. I think she was just being sheltered by the older players so she never had to say anything to us media types. But once Wendi graduated, I started noticing a transformation from this shy, quiet child to being a talkative leader. The true moment I knew Christie Pearce was on my side for the long haul was when I was over at Point Pleasant Boro High covering an Ed Carleton League baseball game in August 1992. It was just a week or so before I headed out on a 2,600-mile baseball trip that I was to detail each day in the paper which enveloped nine Major League ballparks in eight days and I was doing it alone in my 1977 Dodge Aspen, which could handle the trip.

Lo and behold I'm talking about this trip during the game and there was Christie hearing me. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, her reaction came -- "You're doing the trip in that car?" Yep. She had grown up just like that by mocking me. I smiled. Yeah. This job became easier.

It's been 10 years since I last saw her in person playing for the WUSA's New York Power out in Long Island, sitting in the stands at the game with her dad, Robert. It's been 13 years since I last interviewed her. Yeah, she's probably forgotten me. I'm easy to forget.

Interesting thing is she'll always be easy to remember.






Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Two games, one Tandy TRS 80 Model 100 ... good luck!



Boy did we all think on the Tuesday after Memorial Day weekend, 1988 that we were going into a new world of technology. When Steve Sosinski, our managing editor, told the sports department that we were going to go out on assignments with a new "toy" to send back stories, I thought this was heaven.

No more did we have to write our stories out on long-hand on road trips at some restaurant and then call the office collect and have another writer do the dictation over the phone as we read the story. No more racing back to the office after a night event and writing a story as fast as we could before deadline. And no more having our stories mangled by people taking the dictation over the phone, so much so that names were spelled wrong.

No, this was the moment of truth that we were graduating to "big-paper status." The so-called toy (which you see above) was this thing called the Tandy TRS-80 Model 100. And let me tell you, it looked easy. That is, it looked easy until you had to read the directions on how to upload a story and send it into our paper's computer system.

Cracking the code to get all the gold at Fort Knox seemed much easier. Inside the soft carrying cover of the machine was a photocopied handwritten piece of paper from the pen of none other than Sam Christopher, the legendeary longtime news writer from Lakewood whose son, Chris, was one of the two fulltime sports writers at the Observer. Now Sam, being the consummate note taker, wrote the directions like he was scribbling down names and places for a story, though I do admit, it was a step above maybe a doctor's handwriting. Translation: They were readable, but it sure took a lot to completely understand what he wrote.

We were winding down the spring high school sports season and still had numerous postseason events on the schedule. In our sports department, the first guinea pig to try the Tandys was our new assistant sports editor, Dave Tippenhauer, who had state track and field to cover that Saturday in South Plainfield. He ran through the tests and obviously got everything to go through.

Well guess who was next to try out the new toy? Yuppers, yours truly.

It was to happen on Tuesday, June 7, 1988 -- or as I sarcastically called it, the day I became a man. But I was about to take my "manhood" to a totally different level unlike Dave. Most everything Dave did was done by the evening the previous Saturday, so he had time to send his agate and story from the track meet. It got through without much trouble, but just in case, he had time to get it all done.

No, I chose the tougher route on this particular Tuesday. It was to be on that day that I would do a "day-night semifinal doubleheader" in the Shore Conference Girls Soccer Tournament at two different fields in two different counties. The first game was a 3:30 p.m. battle between fourth-seeded Toms River North and top-seeded and defending champion Point Pleasant Boro. The second game was a 7 p.m. start at a park field not far from Manalapan High School between third-seeded Jackson Memorial and second-seeded Manalapan.

So you can imagine that after the first soccer match is done at approximately a few minutes after 5, I have to get my interviews done, rush to a place that not only can I eat, but can also type away on the new toy, find the right-fitting phone for the couplers that held the phone to send the story, then make sure the story gets through, jump into a car and travel up Route 35 to the Route 34-35-70 circle, take Route 34 out to Route 33, somehow find my way to Route 9, then to a park that I've never been to in my life, cover that game, get the quotes I need, and then figure out where I could do that story and send it afterward.

Yeah, the only thing easy about this was just how I explained it.

I made sure to do tests the night before. I can still remember it -- I typed in "This is a test" into the machine, called up the number that was attached to our computer system, made sure I heard a fax-like ring, put the phone receiver into the couplers, hit a couple of buttons, watch the machine do its magic by uploading the story and then check the computer to see if it got through.

Miraculously, "This is a test" came up at the end.

This was going to be really easy.

Or so I thought.

Knowing I didn't have to show up at the office that day or night on this gorgeous 7th of June, I headed from my house in a T-shirt and shorts up Hooper Avenue, into Brick, then off onto the Route 70-88 circle (yes, there was still a circle there at the time) and straight onto Route 88 through Brick into Point Pleasant and onto the streets that forced me to park my car on a side road near the football/soccer field. Point Boro has always been one of the most unique schools in terms of location and as I parked my car and walked toward the stadium, I was ready to see North's Mariners, loaded with a lot of underclass talent at 14-3-1, taking on a Point Boro team that was 15-1 and still tremendously good after losing some key seniors to graduation the year before.

This game was a Who's Who of young ladies who would go on to play college soccer one day -- for North, there was Jill D'Alessio (Georgian Court) and the great Linda Kurtyka (North Carolina State), while for Boro, there was Kim Yankowski (North Carolina State), Jennifer Shutt (Virginia) and Karen Anderson (Green Mountain in Vermont). And a number of the young ladies who played for North's soccer team had some part in being on the NJSIAA Group IV championship and unbeaten field hockey team the previous fall like Katie Vignevic, Krista Saponara, Sue Gerbino and Lori Garrabrant.

But the one player that I thought North needed on this particular day was a junior named Dawn Ostrowski, whose college field hockey career was all but set for her after an amazing season as a catalyst on that championship team. She was a pretty darned good soccer player, too, scoring 11 goals and 10 assists for the '88 season. However, it was in the previous game, the quarterfinal-round matchup at home that Saturday against No. 5 seed Howell, that not only did North's fate change, but so did Ostrowski's as well. She ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament going after a loose ball and she was done for the rest of the year. She tried coming back from it in field hockey the next fall, but she had no lateral movement and it was quite obvious she was never going to be the same player she was.

Judging from that, I wasn't sure if the rest of the Mariners were going to carry the load for her. Figured all Point Boro needed to do was a pop a goal in behind freshman goalie Lynn Gesser and that was it.

But that didn't happen. Led by Yankowski, Andrea Mucho, Alaine Kamen, Shutt and freshman backup Wendi Pearce, the Panthers peppered Gesser and the Mariners with plenty of shots. They just couldn't penetrate her.

Then in the second period (back in '88, soccer was played in four 20-minute quarters, now they're played in two 40-minute halves), the Mariners pounced on one of their few opportunities. Kurtyka, North's sensational goalkeeper during the state field hockey championship run, was able to bring the ball into Boro's side of the field and pass off to Gerbino, who was able to find a hole and penetrate through. She lost the ball, but another freshman named Sharon Ruppe was opportunistic. She may have worn No. 13 on her back, but there was no bad luck in this situation. She slipped the ball past Boro goalie Jen MacIver to give the Mariners a 1-0 lead.

And though the Panthers kept the pressure on the Mariners, they never found the back of the net. North had persevered, 1-0. After the game, myself and longtime Asbury Park Press writer Tony Graham talked to North coach Jean Konyhas and Boro coach Bob Kulessa, two of the coaches who started with their programs when the sport became official in 1976. And I interviewed the shy Gesser as well as the very outgoing Saponara, who had to hold it together with her defensive teammates throughout the game.

It was about 5:15 p.m. and I didn't know many places that I could go to send a story. So I made it across the canal into Point Pleasant Beach and stopped for a sub at Jersey Mike's ... the original Jersey Mike's on Trenton Avenue near Arnold, looooooooong before the place became a national entity. And that's where I sat down to do the story. The hard part about writing the story was that if you see the machine above, it only allowed you to look at the story eight lines at a time. And if you needed to insert something into the story above, you'd have to put your finger down on the "up" arrow and wait until you got to the point you had to place your insertion. Talk about time-consuming.

The turkey sub was awesome as always. And by about 6 p.m. I had finished up my awesome story. Now I needed somewhere to send it. I couldn't get the people of the shop to let me use their phone to send it so I made the most of what I had to do. I jumped into my car and found Route 35. I headed north out of Point Pleasant Beach toward the 35-34-70 circle. Right at that intersection was an Exxon station.

Now it's close to 6:30 p.m. and I figured once I got to send the story through a regular phone, there'd be no problem.

The workers at the Exxon station were nice enough to allow me to use their phones. But there were problems. I swear to you I followed directions with the couplers correctly. But each time I tried to send the story ... nothing. Zippo! The handy-dandy Tandy was anything but handy-dandy, which wasn't making feel so randy at the time.

So I called the office from the regular phone they allowed me to use for a few moments or so. I got Chris.

"I'm having problems with the machine. It's not taking the story through. The story is done, just tell the boss that I'm going to have to send the story later. How much later, I don't know? I'll figure it out. I normally do."

Chris was understanding of the situation. I'm not so sure I was.

It's almost 6:45 p.m. and I still had a good half hour to go before getting into Manalapan. Thankfully, the directions the cops gave me the night before to this field were perfect. Getting there seemed to take forever and by the time I showed up in the parking lot to go to the only lit field in the complex, the first quarter was practically over and the second quarter had arrived.

I get behind the young man who was keeping the scorebook for Jackson and scribble down the names of the team on his side. I didn't even bother with getting Manalapan's. I figured, "What the heck. I'm already behind. The next story isn't going to exactly be a novella."

As I start walking away, I can hear the heart-warming and sarcastic voice of Jackson's longtime soccer coach, Mike Costa.

"Did you just get back from the beach?" he said, spotting me in the same T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops that I wore to the game.

"Yeah. Sorry you missed it, it was a beautiful day," I answered back smiling. That's the kind of relationship I had with that man for the 11 years I covered girls soccer with him as Jackson's coach. He was abrasive, but you had to get him and never be offended by whatever this good guy said. We worked together quite well.

Nine minutes into the second quarter, Samara Lenga took a pass and beat standout Jackson goalie Jeannette Nash to make it 1-0. And Manalapan's defense was such that it wasn't going to give away any freebies. It was 1-0 at halftime and already Jackson looked like it was in trouble. Jackson, though, had its opportunities, putting 15 shots on net. but the Jaguars never could get anything against Manalapan's defense. And when Doreen Gilbride scored with 4:16 left in the game to make it 2-0, the door was practically closed.

I interviewed Costa afterward in which he asked me, "Did North really beat Boro?" to which I replied, "Yes. They were outshot and yet they held it together." "Wowwwwwww," he said back. "I didn't see that coming. Good for Jean and North."

Then I interviewed Manalapan coach Bill Ciullo, a very affable guy and one of my favorite out-of-area coaches I've talked to in my career. I was going to see him again in the final against North. One thing about Bill Ciullo -- when he had a very good team, man was he a confident guy. He felt like he could beat North, even with the final on North's field that year. And his Braves did, but not without a fight, winning the title game, 2-1, two days later.

But that was two days later.

I still had to deal with the present.

It was just about 9:15 p.m. I had a second story to type into a machine that had yet to work for me. Some example I was setting on this day. Well, nonetheless, I called the one person at nearby Manalapan Diner who I thought could get me out of this quandary at this hour with a couple of hours left before trouble lurked.

"Hello?" "Hi grandma! How are you?" "Hiiiiiii Mark. I'm fine. And how are yooou?" "I'm just fine thanks. Listen I need a favor." "What's the matter?" "Can I come over to your place to write a story? I'm in Manalapan, it won't take long and it's sorta complicated because I'm working with a computer that I'm using for the first time."

I can almost hear the reluctance of my grandmother saying, "Come on over." But hey, I was blood, and she'd help me out in a time of need.

So it took about 25 minutes to get to where she lived on the Howell-Freehold Township border off of Route 9. I could get to her place with a blindfold on. She waited for me at the door. Hugs, kisses ... and, oh, by the way, I need a desk to work at.

Once I showed her the new toy I was playing with, I was able to actually send the story by using the other means to send it -- the wires that went from the machine into my grandmother's phone, which at this point was far easier than the the headache couplers were. Shazaaaam! The Boro-North story that I worked on four hours earlier had gone through at last.

I called up the office to make sure it came through. Got Chris again. He checked the story and then told me I had a message.

"Call Tony Graham. He wants to know who the name of the one girl you and he interviewed after the game was."

"Oh? OK."

Yes, even the great Tony Graham made the simplest of mistakes of not getting the name of the person he was interviewing. After smiling for a second, I called up Tony's extension at the Press. He explained in his rush to get out of Boro and back to the office in Neptune he had not gotten the name of the girl we were talking to and he didn't want to guess.

"That was Krista Saponara. I know her because she was part of that state champion field hockey team in the fall. Really cool girl, too." By the way, 10 years later, I did a feature story on Saponara while I was up in Bristol, Conn., covering the Eastern Regional Little League All-Star Tournament that Toms River East American was playing in. She was a producer working for ESPN at the time and got to meet ESPN football analyst and former Green Bay Packers wide receiver Sterling Sharpe while I was there.

"OK, I thought that was who it was. Thanks a lot for your help."

"No problem Tony. You've helped me before. It's easy to return the favor with you."

And it was. Tony Graham is easily the best sports writer from another competing paper I've ever dealt with in almost 28 years in this business. I just felt bad that I couldn't help him sooner, but remember, it's 1988 -- there was no way to communicate with one another back in the day since there were no cell phones.

Needless to say, I typed in the "easier" Jackson-Manalapan story as well as the agate from the game and sent the story, all within about a half hour.

And by about 10:15 p.m., my day was done. Everything worked out and my grandmother was the star of the night in the end. I stayed at her house until about 11. I knew I was pushing her bedtime, but I always told her that if I had enough time after an event ... or before ... I'd come to visit her. Of course, I never told her that when I came to visit, I'd have work to do, too. But she was always good about it.

By 11:45, I was back home, never once having to see the office and never once having to dictate a single word from a story I did to Chris Christopher or any other writer to take down on computer. The Tandy was a success and these would be the machines I would use for the "far-away" events I covered for the next 11 years while I was at the Observer.

No more dictation!

Before I knew it, June 7 was June 8. And I didn't have to be in the office to finish out the paper at deadline. I could come to the office right after the much-anticipated Ocean County Softball Tournament final between South Jersey sectional champions Central Regional and Monsignor Donovan at Toms river South.

Overall, it was a very good day. And night. And a successful day and night, too.

And I became a man that day.

 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Somewhere above, I know Amo has my back

It's been 28 years since Regina Ammerata, our class advisor and my junior year Algebra I teacher, handed me my diploma to confirm I was officially a high school graduate. OK, she really didn't give me my diploma. That was handed to me up in the cafetorium once I turned back in my cap and gown.

Still, it was a momentous occasion to say the least. But I can admit something today that I couldn't do 28 years ago. By the time I got to my junior year, I actually liked school. The first two years -- which I'm told are usually the two hardest years of high school -- were as painful as a trip to the dentist office for a routine root canal. Being picked on as a freshman by loser sophomore burnouts who don't really have much to offer in life and probably won't when time will tell unless they figure that being a bully isn't the way to go was not the bestest of times for me. I hated school.

But what got me through those first two years of high school were three friends that I will forever be grateful to have -- even if sadly one of them is no longer among us and hasn't been for nearly 20 years.

When I was a freshman, it was hit or miss as to who you were going to have around you at lunchtime, simply because you had no clue. It wasn't as if I had anyone freely to pass along the information to. I kept to myself for the most part. Unless it was people from the neighborhood I grew up in, I had no idea who some of these people were.

However, there was one person that I knew because he was in my eighth-grade class at Toms River Intermediate School East. His name was Chris Amoruso. Amo, as I called him, was friendly enough to feel safe around and outlandishly wild enough to squirm around, too. God knows what he might say or do to cause some kind of embarassment at any time or any place. That was Amo, and I accepted him for who he was. I always thought he was the second coming of John Belushi with the things he said and his actions. If our high school class had a superlative category of "Most Likely to Turn Out Like Senator John Blutarsky," it'd have been Amo.

Amo, to me, was the friendly face in a sea of faces that I had no familiarity with in seventh-period lunch.

Yet, there he was along with a friend he grew up on the island with across the Barnegat Bay. His name was Scott Abbott. Scott was one of the smartest people around. And it was amazing how the three of us hit it off as if we were all from the same neighborhood. I still remember a cold February 1981 day in which Amo invited me to come to Scott's place to play cards. We spent the whole afternoon just doing so, my mom dropping me off in the morning on a day off from school and her picking me up late in the afternoon. I felt safe among the two of them, but so isolated since they were on that side of the bay and I was on the other side of the Mathis-Tunney Bridge.

By luck come sophomore year, the three of us were put together again in the same lunch period. Someone must have been watching. But early in that sophomore year, Chris had brought a friend along who was shy and well, I wasn't sure if he was going to break up what Chris, Scott and I had as friends. He was pretty conservative, but Amo introduced us to the new guy. His name was Tom.

Tom seemed kinda shy at first, probably the feeling-out part considering he knew Chris and I think he kind of sorta knew Scott. He didn't know me. I was that guy that Chris could make fun of and knew I was not threatening in any way and I came in peace. By the time Tom -- it took me about a month or so to find out his last name was Yanna-something, I couldn't even tell you what I thought it might've been in November 1981 -- got comfortable around the three of us, we all saw a transformation that I didn't quite see coming.

If anyone did, they were just flat-out lying.

Tom, we come to find out, was a big fan of this British music act that I had heard of called Adam & The Ants. I knew "Dog Eat Dog" and "Antmusic" and "Stand And Deliver" when I was a freshman. I went to Listening Booth and Camelot Records in the Ocean County Mall a lot. He was living out being Adam Ant or one of the Ants or some facsimile of them. He got all punked out, which worried me a little. You don't go from conservative looking to a punked-out Adam & The Ants Meets The Clash Meets Madness look that easily.

But that, I still to this day believe, was the power of Chris' aura. It worked well for Tom. It wouldn't have worked well for Scott and it sure as hell wasn't going to look good for meeeeee. That's what Amo's personality was all about. The three of us just stood back and let Tom be this non-threatening individual and we actually enjoyed it.

I also had Chris in Rick Dispoto's geometry class that sophomore year. And the year before that, I had him in Warren Reid's physical education class. And in the latter class, there were three burnouts, two who were in that class taking it again. And one was a neighborhood kid who acted as if he was the bully of it. His role was to agitate me. It was easy considering his two burnout-bully friends were sitting around both Amo and I. Even though my name comes after Amo's in alphabetical order, I always got to sit in front of him in those two classes. One time, the said "bully" came in and whipped his burnout jacket right into my chest. I stopped for the moment as I looked at Chris and he looked back as in to say, "What the f**k, man?!"

But the looks we gave to one another were code ... as in "I got your back" and "Yeah, I know. Thanks." Chris had a way to pick his moments and nail the "bad guys" when they least expected it. He didn't nail the main agitator, but during a wrestling drill in Mr. Reid's class (Mr. Reid was the wrestling coach), we had one of those quick drills where you were matched up against someone who was opposite you on the wrestling mat. When Chris came out to the mat, one of the burnouts was his opponent.

No chance for the poor guy -- Amo took him down and wrapped him up like a pretzel. And when the other burnout conspirator/co-hort was in Amo's way the second time around doing those quick wrestling drills, he had him down quickly and wrapped up like a pretzel, too.

Needless to say within time, none of those guys were bothering me anymore.

That was Amo.

Amo and I had a blast in geometry ... not really by learning anything, but by watching Dispoto flirt with two of the girls in the class, so much so that he put their desks up practically near his desk, one of those girls being my neighbor. That was always worth talking about at lunch. Being a partial southpaw, I told Amo I heard a statistic once that left-handed people have an 80 percent chance of being less sick than right-handed people, in which Amo responded in the only way he could respond -- he breathed on me and coughed afterward.

Yeah, that was Amo.

Amazingly again in our junior years, the four of us were put together in the same lunch period. Of course, I always worried at the start of each of those years that if I saw one of those guys, they'd be sick and tired of seeing me. But that wasn't the case.

By junior year, Scott was still Scott -- witty, sarcastic and finding the right things to say at the right moment. Amo was still Amo ... and heck, I didn't ever want him to change. And Tom was becoming the individualist that most people may have bristled at. But he had the three of us -- and we were pretty darned acceptable to anything Tom wore to school, from the thin punked-out jackets to the red Converses on his feet. If Tom wanted to come to school dressed in a gorilla suit, we would've had a great laugh about it and still carried on the same conversation, though I will admit it might have been hard to hear him through the suit.

Unfortunately, by senior year, we were broken up as a quartet and put in different lunch periods. And it was hard for me to find someone who could fill in those six shoes. Admittedly, I struggled my senior year with lunch, mostly because anyone I knew who was a fellow senior was blowing the popsicle joint known as our cafetorium and going to Driftwood Deli for lunch. No one was asking me if I was interested in joining along and it bothered me a little.

After all this time, I still felt like an outsider ... except to the other three guys who got broken up away from me those last nine months of my high school life. I ate a lot of lunches alone and in silence my senior year among underclassmen that I barely knew. If not for John Morgan, a junior who was playing music at lunchtime upstairs, senior year lunch just may have been the crappiest time of my life. Good thing we both had a love for music, though I still believe to this day I must have been agitating the hell out of him.

Still, school was a lot better place to be my last two years. I missed only one day of school my junior year and four total my senior year. Junior year was the best year -- because of my three amigos who allowed someone who wasn't from across the bay to be part of their group.

On Sunday, January 22, 1984, I came to find out that the night before, Chris had gone to a school dance and was seriously injured in a car accident. I went to see him a couple of days later on a miserably rainy and cold January 24 at Community Memorial Hospital, and he looked the role of someone who was hit in an automobile accident on Fischer Boulevard. He was hurting, but he was in good spirits. He was able to joke about things during my 90-minute visit with him. Other than the aches he was suffering and the scratches on his face that made him look like a road map, he was fine. And I felt better for visiting him. He was soon out of the hospital and back at school the next week.

And so it was that Friday, June 15, 1984, I said goodbye to my three friends as I got my diploma and moved on to my next life. Tom moved on to go to the Army and I didn't see him again. Scott moved on to college and I never saw him again.

A year later in the summer of 1985, I'm at the Seaside Heights boardwalk with my friend Joe and we both see Amo. He was working at one of the game stands that summer, maybe moving around to different ones. I never really knew, though. He happened to have the "frog game" this particular night where you take the rubber mallet that is given to you and hit a metal pad and if the frog lands on another pad, you get a prize. My uncoordinated buddy decided to try it and wouldn't you know it -- he got the darned frog on the pad!! Since Amo knew Joe as well as he knew me, he announced, "This lucky bastard just won a prize," and handed him some stuffed animal.

Joe and I left Amo that night figuring we'd see him again sometime that summer. However, we never got back there and all of us had gone about our lives in different directions.

It's Wednesday, March 24, 1993. I was coming back from a high school boys and girls All-Star basketball doubleheader at Ocean Township High School that night. I turned on WOBM-FM to find out what's going on in the news world. The lead story was of a robbery and shooting that evening at the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Lakewood. Well, robberies and shootings are going to get my attention immediately.

But then they named the manager of the store who died at the scene when after opening up the safe for the robber was shot in the back of the head -- it was Christopher Amoruso, 26. The age gave it away, especially knowing his birthday was July 14.

It was as if my world had just come to a skidding halt. By the time I reached the office, I couldn't go in immediately. For the next 10 minutes, I sat in my car and balled my eyes out. You reach as far as you can, wondering "Why? Why did this happen and happen to him?" The murder, come to find out, was an inside job since it came from someone who worked at that KFC and knew the store's makeup. And the murderer was not only found guilty in his trial, but sentenced to life in prison for his cold-blooded act of cowardly disgrace, especially against someone who detested violence so much.

It still, though, wasn't going to bring Amo back. I came to find out from the story in the Observer the next day after the murder that Chris was engaged to be married and he was working his way up through culinary school. His whole future was pretty much laid out in front of him. And one senseless act of violence ended that.

The viewing and funeral was four days later on that Sunday at the funeral home on the Manchester-Toms River border. Another grey, cloudy, yucky, awful day, just like the one that January Tuesday nine years earlier when my friend George and I went to Community to visit Amo. I'd been to services before for my grandfather and my friend Ted's father. That was two funerals in 12 days. They were pretty bad.

But they were older. They weren't a peer of mine. This was someone you joked with for four or five years of your life. This was someone who had your back when you didn't want to fight because you didn't want to. My mom went with me to the funeral home. I saw Chris' mom and his brother, Louie, a state trooper who had the unenviable task of carrying the casket along with other co-worker and friends, including a policeman named John Vierbuchen, who Amo and I graduated with at East. This wasn't where I wanted to see John again after about six or seven years.

And with the open casket, it just hit me. It took me a long time to move away from his casket as I looked down on it. I started thinking about the good times in eighth grade and again in high school. Then I started feeling horrible that I could not keep up with Chris for the next seven and a half years after I saw him last.

The things we always want to say to the people we care about -- the people we love -- we never truly get to say. It took me every ounce of my soul to keep from breaking down right there. I told him I loved him and finally was able to walk away.

The service was hard. I think it took me a few days to get beyond it. Then again, you never truly get beyond a service for a friend.

There are days I think about Amo. Three in particular -- our 10th reunion in 1994, our 20th reunion in 2004 and most recently, our 25th reunion on Friday, August 21, 2009. There is no doubt in my mind that Amo would have stolen the show at each of those reunions one way or another.

I am glad to have Tom Yannacone -- yeah, that Yanna-something individualistic guy I really didn't know his last name when I first met him -- in my life again as a friend that I enjoy talking with from time to time. Voted by his peers as top male individualist of our class (Scott, Amo and I would like to think we had something to do with just letting Tom be himself), Tom's got three kids of his own now, one heading off to military duty shortly just like he did, and is a Seaside Heights cop nearing the end of a long career there. Heck, he even gets to protect the "Jersey Shore" cast and once in a while gets to be in pictures as an escorting cop to one of the cast member's court appearances. That lucky bastard!

As for Scott, I never saw him again, but I am sure that he is doing quite well with whatever it is he is doing. Tom, from time to time, tells me where Scott is, but I always manage to forget after he tells me! I'm sorry for being a bad friend, Scott.

And when I get into Toms River, it's my friends and fellow TRHSE '84 classmates Bobby G. and Double-V that take the place of Amo and Scott when we hang out at some restaurant with Tom and myself.

I wish Amo were still here among us. I won't lie. The pictures I see of him and Tom together dressed up as the Blues Brothers or at graduation are still painful. But to me, lunches or dinners with Bob, Vinny and Tom are therapeutic.I know Tom is there and in some ways, it's still some of the same conversations, just nearly 30 years later ... I can still get him going with some Adam & The Ants' song.

I know Amo is there in spirit when the four of us start BS'ing about anything and everything. I'm pretty sure he'd be happy for how Tom and I turned out, as well as Scott. Same for Bobby G. and Double-V.

Somewhere up above, Amo is smiling.

And I'm pretty sure he's still watching my back, too.