I had been warned a day or two in advance. All I hoped for was that I wasn't going to be out in the bitter cold of late November New Jersey on two consecutive weekend days.
The weather reports I had heard on the radio and saw on television were a bit mind-numbing ... and toe-numbing and finger-numbing and lips-numbing. The temperatures were expected to be unusually cold that particular weekend ... highs (at best) being 11 degrees on Saturday, November 21, 1987, but "warming up" to about 20 degrees the next day.
Well, I was already planning to be at Trenton State College that late Sunday afternoon while the sun was still shining for the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association South Jersey Group IV field hockey championship game between Toms River North and Morristown. That had already been confirmed just a couple of days earlier when North's Mariners made Notre Dame look absolutely foolish on a slippery, muddy Bordentown High field in a 4-0 romp in the Group IV semifinal matchup.
To anyone who has never had to cover a sporting event in 20-degree weather or less, it's something you don't put on a Christmas wish list. And usually, the temperatures in mid-to-late November in the Garden State are in the mid-to-upper 40s, still somewhat comfortable.
Twenty degrees and less than that was not making me feel any better. And so I knew my fate on Sunday. After all, I'm going to take 20 degrees over 11 any day. Mama didn't raise no fool.
The problem, though, was I may still have to cover a high school state tournament football game, which, thankfully, had both games involving our local teams, Point Pleasant Boro in SJ Group II and Toms River South in SJ IV, at home. And my boss was double-staffing both games. Somewhere in the middle of his thinking, I did my best to persuade him from sending me out into the cold both days by just reminding him gently that I was the one going out there alone to Ewing Township on that Sunday to watch North's field hockey team go after a state title.
I was also keeping an eye out on the state girls gymnastics championship that day and one of our young ladies, Toms River North senior Janice Rogers, was going after a state title. So if I could reason to my boss' sane side, I could talk my way out of doing a football game and freezing my ass off a second day.
Wouldn't you know it -- it worked!! I talked my way into not covering either football state tournament games. Instead, I did offer my services to come into the office on that Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. to start doing the little things and get that state tournament gymnastics meet over the phone.
So I left for the office just before 3 in the afternoon and headed to one of my favorite places to eat on a Saturday at that particular time -- the Poor Boys sub shop in the strip mall on Route 166 just past the entrance going south on the Garden State Parkway. I got to know both Richie and Rob, the store owners, over the course of the last couple of years and one of them owned the store in Toms River, while the other owned another store in their hometown of Howell. Not only were they very friendly guys, but the help was very friendly, too, especially Karen Schuler, who was working at the store on this particular Saturday afternoon. Karen was a senior at Toms River South and a very good three-sport athlete in tennis, basketball and soccer, so I knew her and her younger siblings Linda and Doug.
"I'll gladly take being in, thanks," she deadpanned. "You couldn't catch me outside for a football game in that (weather)." I agreed with her considering she knew I was going to be out in this cold the next day covering the field hockey state final.
I did reach my destination before 4 p.m. and did my normal routine of collecting agate and sending it out for paste-up at the end of the night (this was loooooooong before the days of computer layout when we basically did everything by dummy sheets, pica poles and proportion wheels).
Once I believed I had enough out there to work with, I just waited to hear from North coach Laura Meszaros, who had taken over the program just the year before. Janice Rogers was a tremendous talent as a freshman in the 1984 season, but she decided to not come back and compete with North the next two years, concentrating on her club gymnastics, which I never really got a straight answer as to why she did so. But she was back as a senior and dominant.
And she was part of a quintet of dynamite Shore area gymnasts that I called the Fab Five, an amazing collection of talent that would not only dominate at the Shore Conference meet, but would do well in sectional and state meet competition. There was Rogers. Then there was Amy Woomer of Ocean Township. There was Jan Dalziel of Neptune. There was Jen Levie of Holmdel High. And the other senior in that quintet other than Rogers was a Howell High School hotshot talent named Bonnie Bernstein.
Yes, thaaaaaaat Bonnie Bernstein, who was about to take her talents to the University of Maryland.
At the Shore meet, Rogers and Levie tied for first place in the all-around, but Levie won on a tiebreaker.
It was 6:30 p.m. and our writers had come back from Point Boro and Toms River South, one each writing a main story, the other writing a sidebar. Both South's Indians and Boro's Panthers had won and advanced to the state sectional final in two Saturdays. I sure was hoping it wasn't going to be as cold as it was that day.
Then I get a phone call transferred to where I was sitting. It was Laura Meszaros calling. Coach Meszaros, whose mother, Jean Garretson, I knew as a Spanish teacher at my alma mater, Toms River East, and whose brother Ricky I had known as a good baseball and basketball player at Toms River Little League and then again at Toms River North, was very good about getting details to me on what was going on. So I was hoping for the best for her prized senior.
"How did it go today?"
"It went very well."
"Oh? How so?"
"She won the state title."
There was a pregnant pause on the phone. I had to collect myself for the moment. I was about to write this amazing story about "the comeback kid" who literally walked back into her school's gymnastics program, dominated during the regular season and finally came out on top in the biggest meet in the end. She won her state title by .05 points over Levie, getting her revenge from the Shore Conference meet.
A state title involving a North female athlete. This doesn't happen everyday. And now, this young lady could possibly be the opening act for what would be an amazing finale. Could this be the weekend of two North state championships, one an individual all-around state title and one a team title, and both involving female athletes?
Yeah, this doesn't happen too often anywhere. And it was halfway home in happening. I wasn't there at Somerville High School when Janice Rogers made history that afternoon by winning that all-around state championship. I would've done anything to see the look of satisfaction and maybe surprise on her face. It would've been definitely worth it.
But I bargained to get out of a state sectional football game on a day when temperatures hit 12 degrees and the wind-child was about minus-10. A witch's teat had nothing on this very brutally cold day. But I was about to endure a day like this, maybe a little warmer, the next day.
The trip in my 1977 Dodge Aspen to western New Jersey to a college I had never been to before on Sunday, November 22, 1987, was an hour long and I remember just cranking the heat up as much as I could. It had been just a year earlier that I was at nearby Rider University to watch Central Regional lose to Northern Highlands in the NJSIAA Group III field hockey championship in temperatures that were close to 60 degrees.
And surprisingly, the sun was strong enough to make the brutal cold not feel so brutal. But I came into the stadium wearing a T-shirt, a sweatshirt over that and a heavy jacket that had a hood on it and was wearing gloves, which would make note-taking a challenge. I had to pick my points to write when I could.
I arrived moments after our photographer, Tom Spader, got to Trenton State. If you thought I was dressed warmly, you should've taken a look at him. He looked like he was bundled up for an expedition to the upper Northwest Territories in mid-January. He was going to be there for the whole game like I was, getting either a celebratory state championship shot or a kids-breaking-down-in-tears-in-defeat shot.
The Mariners came into the game with a 20-0-3 record. They were dominant in their matches for most of the season and the close ones they found a way to win -- like superstar Kim Bush's overtime rocket shot of a penalty corner at the top of the circle to beat Shawnee for the South Jersey Group IV title that slammed into the back of the net behind the goalie so hard that the sound of the ball hitting the supporting wood of the cage could be heard all over Toms River North. Bush, Katie Vignevic, Christy Emmert and Dawn Ostrowski led the offense, while the defense was guided by Mary Bendel, Sue Gerbino, Krista Saponara, Kerri Gallipoli and goalkeeper Linda Kurtyka.
And I knew Morristown, who came in with a 16-4 record, was very good. But I walked in believing North was going to win this game regardless. You just have a feeling about a team or someone and you ride it a long way like I did with this special group of Mariner ladies.
There were two things that I felt could keep North from their anointed place in history. One was complacency and believing too much they could just show up to that TSC field and throw their sticks down and Morristown would just roll over for them. That didn't happen. The second one, though, was how long North's players would have to wait in the sub-freezing temperatures to play. The first two games of the day both went into overtime, including Shore Regional's overtime tie with Delaware Valley that meant the two teams would share the state Group II championship. It was at the Shore Conference Tournament that both Shore and North played to a 1-1 tie and shared that title.
So what was slated for a 4:30 p.m. start was agonizingly dragging on. And even though temperatures hit 30 degrees, that still wasn't making me feel any warmer. I wound up going back out to the car to keep warm until I knew there was little time left in the next game before North played. At least those girls were going to be out there running around. I wasn't going to be so fortunate.
The next state final got done, I got out of my car and, by then, the sun had disappeared. Now the temperature was 25 degrees and it was complete darkness at 6 p.m. for the final championship of the day. My plan was to watch the first half upstairs in the open press box, then do the second half on the field. Going to the bathroom beforehand was going to be a key factor. So as I'm upstairs standing in the press box feeling like a Popsicle, the game got underway.
North put immediate pressure on Morristown's defense and on goalie Chris Giviskos. One of the two greatest talents I've ever seen on a field hockey field (the other being the great Christie Pearce Rampone at Point Boro in the early 1990s), Bush weaved her way into the Morristown circle and took a shot that Giviskos made a save on. But the ball wasn't cleared out and Ostrowski put a 10-yarder in past the goalie off the rebound to give North a 1-0 lead and send the North faithful in the press box off in a fairly loud cheer just 3:38 into the game.
So much for non-partisanship in the press box. By the way, across the field on the other side, the school was building a bigger and more comfortable press box for the next season. It wasn't available to us media types yet, so this open-air press box was the best anyone could do.
The Colonials were staying in this game as best as they could, but the defense of Gerbino, Gallipoli, Bendel and Saponara, all seniors playing their final game, was making things very difficult for any offensive surges. Exactly 14 minutes after Ostrowski's goal, the Mariners added on to the lead.
Bush took a feed from fellow senior teammate Vicki Trotman and put an 8-yarder past Giviskos to make it 2-0. It was textbook pass-and-shoot for the pair who looked like they had done it all season long. It was Bush's 35th goal of the season and the Ohio State-bound star broke the county record for goals in a season first set by Toms River South's Chris Forrester in 1984.
But the celebration of the second goal was short-lived. Just two minutes after Bush scored, Morristown answered back when Sherry Smith delivered a penalty corner pass and Julie Jacobus rocketed a shot past Kurtyka at the 19:19 mark.
North made it out of the rest of the first half alive holding a 2-1 lead. Suddenly, this state championship that I had them winning in my head going into TSC hours earlier wasn't going to be as easy to grasp as I thought.
I left the comforts (whatever comforts there were) of that press box and headed down to the field. I covered dozens of field hockey matches over the years at ground level, so this was nothing different other than the turf was pure carpet, something I had never experienced before. The balls took off like jet propellers with one good solid hit. I wasn't sure how much more offense North had in it on this cold night, so it was up to that stellar defense to protect the lead.
North's defense had given up just eight goals in 24 games. I believe the defense had it in them for one more solid, 30-minute effort. And with 10 minutes left, Morristown was starting to feel a bit frisky, getting closer and closer to Kurtyka. But each time it looked like the Colonials were going to have something, a stick from either Gerbino or Gallipoli or Bendel or Saponara or, in the end, Ostrowski, was there to knock that chance away. And it was dicey back there -- one small mistake like a stick obstruction in the circle would constitute a penalty corner chance and the Colonials had gotten their goal on a penalty corner on this cold night.
Morristown could never get a good shot the rest of the night. Whatever threats it did have would go over the end line and give North the ball. The clock stopped on the scoreboard as usual with two minutes left, meaning the timekeeper had to get up from her spot at the table to follow the head official up and down the field counting down every 15 seconds how much time there was left. Then it got to 10. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
The whistle sounded. The screaming began.
The North second state title of the weekend was official.
Coach Becky Miller had been the Mariners' mentor for 18 years and was stopped from a state title in 1980 in the Group IV final. Now she, assistant coach Debbie Dietrich and the Mariner players were enjoying this once-in-a-lifetime moment. The smiles were wider than a river as they got a chance to collect that state title. And at that point, all I cared about was making sure my tape recorder was working. Thankfully, it did. I talked with coach Miller, Bush and Saponara. They talked about that "dream of getting to the mountain top," the same way Martin Luther King Jr. did a generation earlier. I ended up using that as the lead to the story I was about to write a couple of hours later.
Saponara, who I would do a feature story on 10 1/2 years later when she worked at ESPN as a football producer, was just elated beyond all elation.
"Everyone is friends," Saponara started. "Of course, we all have our conflicts here and there, but we all pull together and we did it."
Yes they did. They did do it.
I turned the tape recorder off and headed back to the car. It wasn't until I got to the Great Adventure exit on I-195 when I finally and completely thawed out. Tom had gotten back to the office, developed his pictures, dropped those black-and-white bad boys off on our assistant sports editor, Greg, and had left.
I got in about 35 minutes after Tom had gotten back and banged out the story in less than an hour (it's harder to type a story when you're relying on a tape recorder giving you that exact quote you are looking for and you're hitting the 'forward' and 'rewind' buttons a lot). I can still see the picture of North's winning moment on the very front page of the newspaper as Kurtyka and coach Miller held up the state championship trophy. It still is emblazoned in my mind.
That whole weekend is still emblazoned in my mind. And here's the coincidence of all coincidences. My two top athletes in their respective sports -- Ms. Rogers and Ms. Bush -- shared another thing in common that I found out weeks later when I had to interview them individually.
The same exact birthday! Both young ladies were born on February 25, 1970.
Two state championships. The same school. Two female programs. The two top female athletes in their team's sports who win state titles have the same exact birthday.
Amazing. Suddenly, I forgot it was that brutally cold that weekend.
OK, maybe not so much the latter. I think a chill just went through me again.