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Saturday, August 11, 2012

A state championship game -- and comeback -- for the ages

For four straight days, my 1977 Dodge Aspen had worn a path out between Toms River and the Spring Lake Heights Little League complex, the site of the 1990 state Little League All-Star Tournament. On one of those days, I had to leave my car behind at a gas station on Route 71 when water splashed under my car and got in to soak my engine, causing it to peter out and my dad had to pick me up.

Stupid older-model cars! But I digress.

The two northern New Jersey representatives in this tournament, Morristown National and Rutherford, had come and gone in the first three days. It left the other two teams in the double-elimination event to fight it out. There was Section 4 champion North Trenton and the team I was there to cover, our District 18 boys from Brick National, a Little League on the southern end of Brick Township off Cherry Quay Road that had seen very little success over the past decade, but now under the leadership of manager Roy Yakovchuk and coach Rich Harden, were one victory away from winning the championship and advancing to Bristol, Conn. for the Eastern Regional Tournament.

During the winners' bracket final on Wednesday, August 8, 1990, Brick National beat North Trenton, 6-5, to earn the Thursday off, then wait for the losers' bracket representative between North Trenton and Morristown National. North Trenton didn't make it close, tearing up Morristown National, 9-5.

So it came down to the first championship game on Friday, August 10, 1990. For the first six innings, North Trenton's Jamar Booker and Brick National's Mike Terranova threw a gem, neither pitcher giving in to the other. But in the top of the seventh inning, North Trenton's big bats came alive to score 10 runs -- yes, 10 runs -- mostly off Terranova, the highlight being a grand slam by Howard Williams, who broke a 1-0 game open. North Trenton won the game, 10-0, and forced a second championship.

And now it came down to that second championship -- Saturday, August 11, 1990 -- the biggest day in Brick National Little League's history.

And the biggest day of my young career. At 23 years old, I had been fortunate to leave the state of New Jersey just one time in my career other than to go cover Phillies games at Veterans Stadium, and that was to cover the Toms River 13-year-old All-Star team in the Mid-Atlantic Tournament in dull Dover, Del., in 1987.

I knew if these Brick National kids would prevail, I was going with them up to Bristol for the regional tournament. And yes, I was excited about the possibilities.

But I was also concerned going into the late morning. These boys from North Trenton -- a predominantly African-American squad of tall boys who could have been confused for 16-year-old basketball players -- were pretty freakin' scary good, especially with the bats. Just about every player in this North Trenton lineup could hit the ball a country or city mile. In four games in this state tournament, North Trenton had deposited seven balls over the fence.

The team's ring-leader was pitcher-third baseman James Cox, who was already 6-foot tall at 12 years old. And when he got a hold of a pitch, he sent it very, very far, not a single park could hold his drives in. Cox had already hit nine home runs in the 1990 postseason. And his fastball had been dominant throughout the tournaments. There was cleanup hitter Williams, who had belted four home runs so far. And smooth second baseman Derrick Funches had swatted seven home runs that summer.

If you looked at that lineup from top to bottom, you'd be amazed anyone would have a shot at beating these young men.

But Brick National had beaten North Trenton for the first time this summer a few days earlier. And though Brick National's lineup wasn't scary from top to bottom, it had two very reliable bats in the middle in No. 3 hitter Jimmy Kish, a smooth-fielding shortstop who could hit the ball with authority, and cleanup hitter Justin Marsch, a hard-hitting, left-handed right fielder who socked his share of home runs, just not to the same verocity as Cox or Funches. And No. 6 hitter Brian Patton was a solid contributor at the bat and on the mound. Otherwise, the Brick National team had a ton of scrappy players, starting with Terranova, whose step-father was Harden. Mike Russomano was a prototypical leadoff hitter who could get on base and get around the bases. Yakovchuk's son, Brian, was an unheralded pitcher and solid second baseman on the team. And third baseman Mike Mendes and catcher Ricky Bigelow provided steadiness at their positions.

If any team was going to hang with ... and beat ... these scary, hard-hitting tall boys from North Trenton, it was definitely Brick National.

As I arrived a half hour before the game and got my place at the scorer's table behind home plate next to Trentonian writer and a great Little League scribe in Jim Davis, who I had known for years, we both didn't hide the fact that this was a huge day. Jim had done numerous tournaments beyond the state thanks to the success of powerful Nottingham over the years in District 12. Now it was another team from his home base that was one victory away from taking him to Bristol.

The pomp and circumstance that was this final was so intense as the lineups were being announced, you could cut the tension with the proverbial knife. But the beauty of this state tournament all week long was how well the two teams got along with one another. They practically became friends during the week, and in the midst of an intense and powerful week, it was refreshing to see how much they supported the other. Both teams' players knew they were going to be playing one another for the right to represent New Jersey in the Eastern Regional tournament.

As was their custom, the North Trenton coaches took the visiting side of the scoreboard after winning the coin toss so their kids could hit first. Roy Yakovchuk put his eggs in Kish's basket for this game. Kish could throw the ball hard, but he mixed in a nice breaking ball that could keep the North Trenton hitters off-balance for the better part of the game.

But with two outs in the first, Cox singled to right and when Marsch fumbled the ball for an error, the first of nine errors in the game between the teams, six by Brick National's usually dependable defense, things looked desperate. Bigelow could not handle one of Kish's breaking balls and the passed ball allowed Cox to go to third. Williams singled to left field to score Cox for the early 1-0 lead. Kish got out of further trouble by striking out Jerry Dennis to end the inning.

Not surprisingly, it was Cox that North Trenton's coaches turned to pitch the clinching game on this beautiful Saturday morning on an equally beautiful-looking field surrounded behind the first- and third-base sides by trees. With one out, though, Terranova reached second base on a fielding error by first baseman Dennis. He took third on a wild pitch. Things looked good for Brick National's two big guys at the plate, but Cox got both Kish and Marsch swinging to end the threat.

It was deflating. And it was about to get tougher for Brick National and Kish in the second when Booker and Jordan Younger each singled, moved up on a groundout and both scored when shortstop Terranova mishandled Corey Floyd's groundball, making it 3-0. It took a heads-up play by Bigelow to keep things in check as he took the throw home on the play at the plate and fired a strike to Mendes to nail Floyd trying to get to third. That was huge considering the next hitter, Funches, singled. He was left stranded at first, but Brick National's deficit was three runs.

Still manageable by no means. And in the bottom of the second, the boys from South Brick were about to be heard from. With one out, it was Patton who woke the doldrums up on the Brick side of the fence when he took a 3-2 Cox fastball and deposited it over the center-field fence to make it 3-1.

There was the wakeup call. A rattled Cox then hit Bigelow with a pitch and Mendes beat out an infield hit to put two runners on base. A wild pitch by Cox moved the runners into scoring position and No. 9 hitter Stan Czekay walked to load the bases. It was apparent Cox's cage was really rattled. He walked Russomano on five pitches to force home Bigelow. Then he walked Terranova to bring in Mendes with the tying run. There was still one out and the big boys were coming back to the plate.

But reliever Williams struck out Kish for the second out. Marsch made good contact and sent right fielder Corey Brown as far as he could before he could make the catch to end the threat, just mere feet from a grand slam.

It wouldn't be Marsch's only grand slam opportunity in this game, though.

Now it was a new ballgame and anything went from the third inning on. New life for the Brick boys. Patton, though, got into trouble in the third inning after he relieved Kish. After striking out Cox and Williams, he allowed a hit to Dennis. Then Bigelow was called for catcher's interference and Booker was allowed to reach. Then an error by new first baseman Yakovchuk loaded the bases.

I was holding my breath again -- another two-out rally for the North Trenton bunch. Bob McCall hit a rocket down to third base but Mendes was once again the reliable third baseman any Little League All-Star team needed. He scooped up the ball and stepped on third to end the rally.

Whew! That was close. However, Williams had settled things down by the third. He struck out Yakovchuk and Patton and got Bigelow on a lazy flyball out to left fielder Booker.

Worry, though, crept back into play in the fourth against Patton. When left fielder Russomano misplayed a Brown flyball for an error, the wheels were in motion. Cox singled Brown to second and Williams singled home Brown to give North Trenton the lead.

And like a lot of rallies involving North Trenton all week, this one didn't stop either. Dennis got a hold of a 2-2 offering from Patton and drilled his seventh postseason home run over the left-center field fence to make it a 7-3 game.

When Brick National could not do anything in its half of the fourth, North Trenton kept pouncing on its opportunity. Floyd reached on a forceout after McCall singled and the smooth-as-silk Funches planted an 0-2 Patton pitch over the right-field fence for an opposite-field home run, making it 9-3.

A 9-3 lead with six outs to go. This was looking more and more insurmountable for the boys from Brick, especially when Kish got to third after a double and wild pitch to lead off the fifth, but Williams struck out the struggling Marsch, got a comebacker from Yakovchuk and struck out Patton to end the frame. Williams had allowed no runs on two hits, with no walks and six strikeouts in his 3 2/3 innings of work to this point. In a game as important as this one, Williams was the star with two hits, a run and two RBI at the plate and his stellar pitching.

Patton, who was relied on to do his best by manager Yakovchuk because Kish had not done well in his two innings and Terranova could not be used because he had thrown the night before, delivered a 1-2-3 top of the sixth inning to keep the Brick boys at a six-run deficit.

But let's face facts -- these scary-good kids from North Trenton were ferocious. They pounced on just about every opportunity afforded them in this game. And now they were just three outs away from a trip to Bristol. I turned to my writing colleague from the Trentonian, Mr. Davis, and said, "Well, it was a good run for Brick. Congratulations before I forget and have a safe trip to Bristol."

Jim took one stern look at me and said, "You haven't seen these kids play when there's a little pressure on them. This thing is far from over."

Really? There's three outs to go ... what the heck could possibly happen to keep North Trenton from its state title and its Eastern Regional date in Bristol? For the moment, though, I was going to let Davis' words soak in my head and just go with it. Maybe he knew something I didn't at that second.

The bottom of the Brick National lineup had accounted for two of the three runs and No. 7 hitter Bigelow was up first against Williams. He drew a walk.

Suddenly, there's a runner on base to begin things. A wild pitch moved Bigelow into scoring position. Brian Gatto, who came into the game for Mendes in the fourth inning and had grounded out in his first at-bat, hit a comebacker to Williams, who took the out at first as Bigelow moved to third.

Two outs left for Brick National. No. 9 hitter Czekay came back into the game in the top of the sixth and he drew a walk, putting runners on first and third. Now the top of the order was coming back up. On a 2-2 pitch, Russomano hammered a shot over Younger's head in center field for a double to bring in Bigelow and send Czekay to third. Now it was 9-4.

Still a long way to go and only two outs left in the tank. Terranova walked to load the bases for the hungry meat-eaters of the order.

Kish hit a groundball that swallowed up third baseman Cox for an error. Czekay scampered home and now it was 9-5.

The bases were loaded and Marsch was strolling to the plate in the form of the tying run. But if you had seen Marsch in the state tournament, you would've questioned the validity of his being placed in the cleanup hitter's spot. Yes, he was scary and when he got a hold of a pitch, he could send it a long way. However, until this at-bat in maybe the biggest moment of his 12-year-old life, Marsch was a dismal 0-for-11 in the state tournament.

However, there was that little thought in mind that if he could just get a hold of one pitch -- one little pitch -- things could change in a heartbeat. I had seen him perform well in the district and sectional tournaments. So I knew what he was capable of doing. But his slump was starting to get the best of him. And against Williams in the previous inning, he was made to look silly at the plate, flailing away at strike three.

The first pitch was a called strike. I'm still thinking at this point that there's one out and if he could just make contact somehow and put the ball in play, something good could come out of it, even if it was a sacrifice fly. Williams delivered his next pitch, a fastball about letter-high.

And Marsch did not miss this one.

PIIIIINGGGG!!!!!!

That sound still resonates in my head to this very day. The ball took off. There was no doubt about where it was going. The last I saw of the ball was it clearing the snack stand some 280 feet away from home plate situated in center field. I never saw the ball land, the way Barry Bonds hit that bomb off Troy Percival a dozen years later in Game 2 of the World Series.

For one of the few times in my career, I let out an "Oh my God!" The Brick side of the field was absolute bedlam. Marsch had gotten out of his slump in an incredible way and at the right moment.

It was 9-9. In a matter of less than 10 minutes, the Brick National boys had wiped away a six-run deficit facing the end of their season. And I was having a hard time putting this into words other than that three-word outburst.

The looks and the sunken shoulders on the North Trenton side told the story. And Brick National's players were like sharks in water looking at blood, waiting to pounce on Williams further. Yakovchuk singled and Patton walked after Williams was finally relieved by Floyd to continue the rally. The winning run was now on second base. But Harden got greedy. He called for the double steal and catcher McCall threw a strike to Cox to nail Yakovchuk at third. Bigelow walked to put runners on first and second, but Gatto struck out to end the inning.

However, what looked absolutely desolate 20 minutes earlier was now a major sign of hope. For the second straight day, North Trenton and Brick National were going to extra innings to decide the game's fate.

Feeling good about himself, Marsch was put on the mound by Yakovchuk. This Brick National team had a lot of pitchers, though, outside of Terranova, Yakovchuk and Kish, none were that outstanding, just good enough to keep things from getting out of hand. Patton had eaten up some needed innings for Brick National and though he gave up six runs, his effort was honored and noteworthy.

With one out, Marsch walked the dangerous Funches, never giving him anything good to hit. Brown singled to move Funches to second. Cox hit a screaming line drive, but right at Kish at shortstop for the second out. Marsch was almost out of the top of the seventh, having to face cleanup hitter Williams, trying to atone for what had just happened in the previous inning. He went after Marsch's first pitch and lined a single to left field. Russomano went to pick the ball up, but could not pick it cleanly. That error was enough for Funches to race home to make it 10-9.

Marsch got Dennis to ground out to end the inning, but here we went again -- Brick National was down to its last three outs, just like a half-hour before. This time, though, it was No. 9 hitter Czekay starting the rally and Brick National's players, coaches, manager Yakovchuk, family, league officials and friends knew North Trenton's invincibility was no longer there.

On a 1-1 pitch, Czekay blooped a ball into right field. I can still see second baseman Dewayne Rogers and right fielder Brown go hard after it. It landed just inside the foul line and Czekay didn't stop until he got to second with a double.

The rally was on again and the top of the order was waiting. Russomano, though, hit a sharp comebacker at Floyd, who bobbled the ball, but recovered and tossed to first baseman Dennis for the out. It was that bobble, though, that allowed Czekay to get to third with one out. Terranova came up and he was a gamer throughout the entire postseason to this point. If he could get the bat on the ball, something good was going to happen.

But the No. 2 hitter got anxious and popped up the second pitch he saw on the left side of the infield and into Cox's glove for the second out.

Now the situation was dire compared to an inning earlier. Brick National was down to its last out and the last hope was the solid Kish. He took a strike for the first pitch. Then on Floyd's next offering, Kish hit a soft grounder on the right side of the infield. It became a race between Rogers and Kish to who was going to execute the moment better. At this point, you could have put the film in slow-motion with Rogers coming in as fast as he could and Kish running as hard as he could.

Rogers got to the ball and threw toward Dennis. Kish slid into first base.

"Saaaaaaafe!" the umpire called at first base. North Trenton's coaches were stunned. Czekay scored and suddenly it was 10-all. If anything, I knew we were going to be at least in the top of the eighth inning in this already incredible ball game. But now the game was on Marsch's bat. Just a half-hour ago, Marsch had battled out of his horrific slump with a shot that left everyone breathless.

Marsch took a strike. On the next Floyd offering, Marsch met ball with bat. He lined a single to right field. Kish was not stopping. The throw came in from Brown on a bounce to Cox. Kish was dead-to-rights out at third base ... if Cox could have just gloved the throw. He missed it. And the ball went behind him to the fence.

Kish got up and took a quick glance at where the ball was located. He took off for the plate. Cox recovered the ball and fired toward catcher Williams. The ball one-hopped off Williams' chest protector. Kish slid into the plate.

And I still have the picture of me raising my arms in jubilation as Kish slid into home plate knowing that Brick National had just made the comeback of all comebacks in my young career and that it was I who was about to plan a trip to the Eastern Regional Tournament in Bristol, Conn. and not my dear friend and scribe Mr. Davis, who would get plenty of other chances to go after 1990. He passed away about a decade ago. I miss my dear friend a whole bunch.

As for the aftermath of the 11-10 victory, I witnessed moms hugging other mothers and grown men hugging one another. Lots and lots of hugs. Lots of tears, too, mostly from those moms, some from the dads and a whole bunch of tears from North Trenton's players who felt they were the ones heading north after carrying the state flag around the Spring Lake Heights field. It was up to the Brick National parents and officials there to console those boys who looked like men, but needed us to be reminded they were still 12 years old. From those Brick National-based men and women, they needed to be reminded they did great things during that week. That sportsmanship as well as compassion will always be reminders of that great week and the respect and care these two programs had for one another.

Of the two Brick Little Leagues, National was the forgotten one of the two between themselves and American by 1990. This was a win for the south side of town, one that will live on forever in everyone's minds that morning and early afternoon at the Spring Lake Heights complex.

This team got me to Bristol, Conn. and I could not thank them enough, from Roy Yakovchuk to Rich Harden to every last player on that team. In Bristol, Brick National won a pair of games in what was a single-elimination tournament back then. But in the semifinals, Brick National lost a heartbreaking extra-inning semifinal affair to Shippensburg, Pa., the highlights being another Marsch bomb to tie the game in the sixth again and an unusual triple play that got Shippensburg out of a first-and-third jam in the top of the seventh, then the winning run scoring on a base hit in the bottom of the seventh.

It was heartbreaking. If Brick National had beaten Shippensburg, there was no doubt in my mind whatsoever the boys from Brick would have won the regional final and would have been on to Williamsport and the Little League World Series. Shippensburg actually reached the Series final, but was blown out by a team from Taiwan in the title game. It was hard to watch that game on television knowing that could have easily been Brick National in Shippensburg's place.

As for Marsch's blast in that second state championship game that tied the game at 9-all against North Trenton, it was the greatest home run I ever witnessed in my years of covering Little League of all levels ... until Chris Cardone hit the two home runs coming off the bench that gave Toms River East American the 1998 Little League World Series title over Kashima, Japan, 12-9.

That 1990 state championship game was a landmark moment for myself in my career. It's still one of the greatest events I have ever witnessed in my journalism career.

And I'm still wondering if Justin Marsch's shot has landed yet.



1 comment:

  1. This is Jamar Booker P/1b for the North Trenton LL team written about in this article. Wow you really bought back some memories. Great job on the article; however I truly believe to this day had we beaten Brick National we would have swept through the regionals and made some noise in Williamsport. We traveled to Bristol and watched Brick play in the finals and I must say it was a great experience. A week later the team traveled to Williamsport and took in some games there. I'm still in awe of the whole experience to this day. Great memories. By the way that first state championship game against Brick, was my most memorable moment of the tournament, not because we won, or because I threw a one hit shutout in ten innings of work, but it was knowing that I get another chance to play against a great group of kids from Brick that didn't see the color of our skin. they just saw another group of 12 year old kids that enjoyed the great game of baseball and loved to have fun off of the field as well.

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