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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.

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