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Monday, November 18, 2013

Just too big and talented ... and they have Riley Cooper, too

The 2005 football season has been the best I've witnessed in my time working at the Palatka Daily News.

That season, both Palatka High and Crescent City Junior-Senior High, the team I primarily covered in my team at the paper, made the state playoffs and Interlachen, which has struggled for the better part of the last 15 years, had a 4-6 season, which in many ways was like going 8-2 for that program, under coach Bobby Humphries.

But to have two of our three county teams in the state tournament was a thrill enough, even if both Palatka and Crescent City were second-place teams in their districts that season. Palatka was up in Jacksonville to face Andrew Jackson High in the 3A playoffs. That's where my boss Andy went. As for myself, Crescent City was opening up the Class 2B playoffs ... but they weren't going to be anywhere near the Palatka office.

No, for their first-round matchup, the Raiders were to make a three-hour trek to Pinellas County to face off with Clearwater Central Catholic. So I had to make arrangements to get a hotel room for overnight and locate the nearest Kinko's since these were the days before I would get my own laptop. It's a lot of hustling around, but I was able to locate the closest one to the field I was going to be at was about 10 minutes away up US-19 and fortunately, it was a 24-hour store.

This meant neither Andy nor myself were going to be back in the office to write our stories and lay out the sports section. But unlike today where the backup system doesn't exist anymore, we had a backup plan as the nightside news editor -- and a former sports writer and editor -- named Bob was back in the office.

So leading up to the night of Friday, November 11, 2005, Andy, Bob and myself had to devise a plan to make everything work. In a bare-bones operation such as our newspaper, there could not be a slip-up. We would keep Bob up to date as to what happened that night and if there were any other sports going on that night, it would be up to either Andy or myself to track them down and get the results via cell phones. Thankfully, basketball season had not tipped off just yet, but on the schedule, the only team playing was the Crescent City Junior-Senior High boys soccer team, which was missing a couple of kids from the football team. Crescent City was playing Flagler Palm Coast on this evening, a non-district opponent. In the midst of having to cover and write up the football game, I had to try to remember to make a call to Raiders coach John Thomas after the game.

Such is the life of a small newspaper worker.

Not only did I have to make plans with those at work, I had a girlfriend at the time that I was living with and told her that I was leaving Friday afternoon to head to Clearwater and was not coming back home until Saturday night. Working at a sheriff's office, this was her weekend to work there and she had just switched from late nights to the morning-afternoon shift, so I was not going to see her as I left. As per usual, she would get up at 4 a.m. and take over an hour to get ready for work. I kissed her goodbye and jumped back into bed to sleep until about 11:30 that morning.

I left Palatka at just after 2 p.m. and made the long trek down US-301 and then down I-75 until connecting with the exit for I-275. When I got to where I-4 connected with the I-275 loop, I took that exit and headed east on I-4 for an exit or two. I arrived at the Days Inn in Ybor City. One thing, though -- the hotel people who I set my reservation up for failed to tell me that getting into the hotel was a challenge.

The main entrances were being blocked off for motorists to get into because they were in the middle of some massive upheaval of the roads there. I literally asked a worker how do I get into the hotel -- they had no freakin' clue.

"Just keep driving around" was all this low-brained construction guy could tell me. It took me about 20 minutes to figure out where and how to get into the hotel, but ultimately, I did. And then the first minute of my reservation confirmation was spent bitching out the person there because there was a lack of communication as to how to get in and out of the hotel in which that person kept apologizing for the inconvenience.

Thankfully, my hotel room didn't have a window anywhere near the eyesore of the construction. I had relaxed for about 60 minutes, then it was back out the door again and heading to Clearwater Central Catholic, a school that I vaguely remembered was off of US-19 because there were signs going both ways on that highway that led you in the direction of the school.

With the darkness now settled in since the recent move from standard time to daylight saving's time, I maneuvered my way around the traffic on I-275 until I got to the exit for SR-60 and a long trip over the Campbell Causeway and toward the tricky turn onto US-19 in Clearwater. State Road-60 has a ton of traffic on it, so you have to move fast in getting to where you have to go.

Thankfully, I caught the turn-off and found myself going south on US-19. Now was a matter of finding that sign I had seen a number of times before while I was down that way. And in the flood of night lights and headlights, it was right there on the right side of the road -- CLEARWATER CENTRAL CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL, NEXT LEFT.

Bingo! One turn and the parking lot wasn't that far away. I had settled into my spot, grabbed my things and got to the fairly spacious press box that overlooked the field by around 7 p.m. for the 7:30 kickoff.

Now did I think Crescent City had a shot of winning this game? I did -- but it was a puncher's chance. The Clearwater Central Catholic Marauders were 8-2, so they weren't invincible by any means even if they had won eight in a row going in. But for 5-5 Crescent City to beat the Marauders, a whooooooole bunch of things needed to go just right. Quarterback Louis Haines, now a sophomore, needed to be on his game. Running backs D.J. Johnson, B.J. Sharper, Kerlon Williams and Daniel Wortman had to find the holes and make plays. And the offensive line had to be strong.

The latter was going to be a challenge. For as big as Crescent City was -- this included 6-foot-2, 225-pound Rudy Davis, 6-2, 240-pound Leviticus Bennett and 6-2, 252-pound Antonio Henderson, their center was all of 5-foot-3 and 138 pounds ... soaking wet. But for as big as senior Patrich Buenaventura was, his heart and determination were far bigger than he was.

Still, this was going to be a bit of a challenge because one look at CCC's big senior boys told you everything you needed to know about this group. Toby DeJarnatt was a 6-4, 290-pound center and defensive lineman. Austin Gould was a 6-0, 270-pound guard and defensive lineman. And the biggest of the big boys -- offensive and defensive tackle Kevin Young -- was 6-6 and 320 pounds.

Good luck with handling this situation, Crescent City. While Al Wisnoski, the first-year head coach of the Raiders and a longtime assistant before getting the job, acknowledge the challenge would be burdensome to handle that line on both sides, he still felt confident his coaches would be able to figure out something and expose it during the game.

Well even if he did, there were three skill players to worry about on the CCC side. There was quarterback Anthony Nowels, a 6-4, 211-pound junior who presented a challenge to Crescent City to bring down. There was little Ron Harris, a 5-5, 150-pound sparkplug with blazing speed.

And then there was the best of all these players on the field, a smooth-as-silk, 6-4, 205-pound senior who played wide receiver and free safety and was being recruited by a bunch of schools, including Florida, Texas, Oklahoma State and Tennessee, where he just happened to be flying off to for a recruiting trip that weekend.

His name was Riley Cooper. Had heard a lot about his prowess as one of the 10 best senior players in the country. Now I was going to get the entire Riley Cooper experience on this night.

The Raiders won the coin toss, but opted to defer to the Marauders, sending the message they were ready to play on this evening. And it seemed to work in the first six minutes of the game. The Raiders stopped the Marauders with a three-and-out and got the ball back off a punt at the Raider 48. Williams went eight yards with a handoff, but fumbled. Thankfully, he recovered his own fumble. Then on third-and-1, Haines drew the Marauders off sides for a first down. Wortman, a fullback, went 11 yards up the middle with a dive, then Sharper went 22 yards with a run to the Marauder 5. A face mask call on the play moved the ball halfway to the goal to the 3.

The Raiders were in business to score and dictate the tempo. Sharper, though, got nothing on first down. Johnson, a 1,000-yard rusher his sophomore year, also got nothing on second down. That set up third and goal from the 3.

The play Wisnoski called in was brilliant in diagram -- Sharper would take his defender out wide on a fake handoff and then Johnson would get the ball in the hole created by the defender trying to get to Sharper. It may have worked out if not for one little detail.

Cooper stayed at home on the play. Cooper followed Johnson to where he was going and tackled him for the 2-yard loss. Cooper would say later to me he knew the play was coming from seeing it on film during the week and that he just "followed the play to where it was being run."

Wisnoski needed points and from the 5, a 22-yard field goal with sure-footed kicker and freshman Nate Brown was a good option. But from the time the ball snapped to Brown putting his shoe on the ball, something went wrong. He miss-kicked it and the ball wound up slamming off a Raiders lineman blocking on the play and bounced through the end zone.

No points. Little did any of us know that for all the momentum the Raiders had in those first six minutes of the game, that would be the closest they would get the rest of the night to the end zone on offense.

The Maurauders moved the ball to the Raider 40 on their next drive, but a false-start penalty and two incompletions ended the drive. Crescent City started at its 12 and got a couple of first downs, however the Raiders stalled at the 35. So Davis was called in to punt the ball away.

Standing at the other end of the field was Cooper, the all-everything Marauder. Davis got the punt off and it was a pretty nice one I admit. It took a bounce around the 25 and Cooper had to get it on a hop at the 22. But just as Cooper got the hop on the ball, flying in like a Ninja was a Raider defender who had ideas of making himself a highlight reel hero. He smashed into Cooper with everything he had.

Cooper, though, didn't flinch. He absorbed the hit and stayed on his feet. Heading toward the closest sideline to my view, CCC's sideline, he found what he was looking for -- a block from teammate Colin McCarthy. That sprung him loose and he picked up a wall of blockers, who took care of Davis, the closest person to Cooper on the play. Cooper went untouched the rest of the way and finished out a 78-yard run to give the Marauders the lead with 9:42 left in the first half.

There was excitement upstairs where I was, but it was tempered ... as if they've seen this happen before. To these people, the only things Cooper was missing were the "S" on his jersey and the cape behind him.

Nonetheless, the onslaught was about to begin. On the next Crescent City possession, Haines lost the handle of the ball and fumbled. Marauder defensive end/ tight end Ted Wunderlich, a 6-2, 205-pound senior, snatched the ball at the Raider 34. Four runs and an incomplete pass later, Harris scampered around the left side, found a block to his liking and found paydirt for a 14-yard score with 6:16 left before halftime to make it 14-0 after Anthony Leandri's extra-point kick.

Both teams traded possessions and even though Crescent City got a first down on the next possession after the tradeoffs, they were forced to punt again. Cooper got just eight yards on his return this time and the Marauders had the ball back at their 38. On second and 9 from the 39, Nowels dropped back, practically far from pressured by the smaller Raider linemen, and dropped a perfect pass to McCarthy for 35 yards to the Raider 26. On the next play, Nowels dropped back again and hit Cooper with a perfect slant-pattern throw. Cooper did the rest from there to finish out the score with 20 seconds left before halftime, making it 21-0.

If I wasn't sure the game was over before that, it was over now. For as hard as the Raiders tried in the first half, they were trailing by three scores and after that first drive to the 3 ended with no points, it was highly unlikely they were coming back on this night.

I made the phone call to Bob back in the office that this one was not going to be close and Andy called me with what was going on in his game. Palatka was trailing in its game at halftime, 14-10, and seemed to have a far better chance of winning than Crescent City did.

Glum? Yes I was. But I knew there was a possibility of this happening, too. Now it was a matter of pride in the second half.

Leandri put the second-half kickoff out of bounds and the Raiders opted to move the Marauders back five yards to the 30, hoping to capitalize on field position. But when the Raiders muffed the kickoff on the second go round and Johnson had to retrieve the ball at the goal line, only to get to the 10, it told me all I needed to know about the Raiders' enthusiasm toward the second half.

Three runs by Johnson got eight yards and Wisnoski was not taking any chances. They punted the ball away, but Davis' punt was a poor 18-yard attempt and the Marauders had the ball at the 36. A holding call against the Marauders (for as big as their line was, they weren't very clean as the 15 penalties backed that up on this night) moved the ball back to the 46. Nowels hit Chris Campbell with a 12-yard pass back to the 34, but two false start penalties moved them back to the 44.

Still, the Marauders had confidence and a 9-yard run by Harris and a 4-yard reception by Harris put the Marauders at the 31 with fourth and 5. They went for it and when Nowels hit Cooper with a 7-yard pass for the first down, you can see the deflation of enthusiasm on the other side of the field.

A couple of plays later, I saw worse. Buenaventura, who was also the nose guard of the team, was literally speared in the back by 280-pound center DeJarnatt, who was attempting to block, and he wasn't moving. Whether there was intent or not, and I don't believe there was, it was a pretty mean-spirited spearing.

After the game, Wisnoski was not all too happy with either DeJarnatt or his head coach, Mike Jalazo. He even said he thought it was one of the dirtiest things he'd ever seen in his long coaching career. But no official saw it and Buenaventura had to be taken off the field.

Talk about adding insult to injury by taking out the 5-3, 138-pound nose guard because you could.

The Marauders continued to drive and got a pass interference call against the Raiders to move the ball to the 11. Two Harris runs later, he was in the end zone on a 5-yard score to cap off a nine-play, all-over-the-place 46-yard drive.

After Davis' fifth and final punt of the night, the Marauders went to work one last time against the struggling Raiders. They crafted a beautiful 15-play drive with 10 runs and five passes, and marched 71 yards where Harris finished it off with a 3-yard run to cap off an 18-carry, 106-yard night.

And with 9:06 left in the game, that meant the clock got to run to zero unstopped with the Raiders down 35-0 and the mercy-rule lead taking effect in the fourth quarter. But just as it looked as if there would be no highlights from the visiting team on this night, the Raiders got the one big moment they were hoping to have.

Leandri kicked it off and sent it toward returner/wide receiver Chevelle Taylor. Taylor took the ball and was looking to run a fake play with fellow returner Johnson ... or at least that's what he said to me after the game. But when he saw Johnson go off to block, he knew he was on his own. The senior found his blockers to run behind, then broke into daylight where no one was going to catch him. By the time he was done, he had a 95-yard return for a touchdown in the books and Brown's extra-point kick made it 35-7.

Just two years earlier down the road a bit in St. Petersburg, I had seen Taylor return a kickoff 100 yards for a score against St. Petersburg Catholic and earlier in the season, he had a kickoff return for a score in a Crescent City 18-14 win at Wildwood.

The Marauders had the ball one more time with backups in the game and got the ball to the 32, but Leandri missed a 48-yard field goal. And on the first play after the missed kick, Haines was intercepted for his only time of the night by Nathan Lenz with 2:01 left to put a ribbon on the 35-7 CCC victory.

And there were a lot of Crescent City kids in tears afterward. As I would write in my lead after the game, "About the only thing that came easy for the Crescent City Junior-Senior High School football team Friday night were the tears that flowed freely from each player's eyes after what turned out to be the final game of the season."

I had interviewed Wisnoski, still seething over the spearing of Buenaventura, and Taylor. I also interviewed Jalazo and Cooper afterward.

And I left the field and parking lot that night, heading north on US-19 to the Kinko's in Clearwater, located on the southbound lane. It was tricky to find where I had to go, but I did. I wrote my story up as quick as I could and sent the statistics of the game to Bob, who seemed to be in control of the situation. Bob was done with the news side pages earlier in the evening and all he had to do was fill in the blanks that Andy and I left him for our section, which was about three-plus pages.

Oh, how I miss Bob a great deal. Bob could jump in and help lay out the sports section if need be. We only had him do that twice while I was there and he made our front look fantastic. We sadly do not have someone else to take on that responsibility at the Daily News anymore like we did when Bob was there. It makes our job that much more difficult and it made us appreciate what we had while he was there.

At around 11:30, I had sauntered into my favorite restaurant in all of Florida, Pete and Shorty's, located on US-60. The people and the service are both fantastic. About 20 minutes into being there, I suddenly realized that I still had a soccer match to go after. I made a call to John Thomas, who was already home and he had told me they lost the match, 1-0. I said to him I'd get the results in the paper on Tuesday and he wasn't all that upset about it one bit.

By the time my night was done, I was back at the hotel with the difficult parking lot entry. And the next day, I was back over the Causeway and back into Clearwater after checking out. I ate my lunch at -- you guessed it -- Pete and Shorty's and indulged in an 18-hole round of golf at a resort somewhere in the southern part of Clearwater. I can't remember the darn name, but I can still see me driving to the place. I went to my step-grandmother's house for dinner that night in Clearwater and then made the long trip back to Palatka where I didn't get back home until just after midnight.

Palatka, meanwhile, would lose a tough one in the end to Jackson High, 21-17, to see its season end.

Clearwater Central Catholic went on to beat Sarasota Cardinal Mooney, 24-17, the next week in the playoffs, but would ultimately lose to Pahokee in the state 2B semifinal, 35-16. As for Cooper, he would ultimately choose to go to Gainesville and the University of Florida, where he would get the ball thrown to him quite a bit by a guy who was leading Nease High to the state 4A title in the fall of 2005, Tim Tebow. He would be part of two national championship teams at UF before the Philadelphia Eagles drafted him in the 2010 draft.

I got to interview Cooper when he was a senior at UF after a win against lowly Savannah State, then got to interview him the next year as a rookie after his Eagles defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field with the big story being quarterback Michael Vick's first big start with the team.

To this day, Riley Cooper is the only player I ever got to interview as a high school athlete, a college athlete and as a pro athlete. And unlike the ugly incident at a Kenny Chesney concert in June 2013 in which he made indecent racial remarks that gave his credibility a black eye, I found him to be a very good quote. It's a shame he's defined the way he is now.

I love the road trips I would take for high school football games even if I don't take as many as I used to. And even if the team I'm covering loses, the players and things you get to see on these trips -- like I did in 2005 in Clearwater -- are well worth it.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Three stories, one day -- well, that's what I was hoping to do!

When you're almost 20 years old, you think you're 10 foot tall and bulletproof.

And it's OK, too. We're really only young once. Enjoy your youth while you have it.

So back in the days when we had five- or six-page sports sections, I was open to write anything as long as I could deliver the story in a timely fashion and could find relative reason to have that story in the paper.

My boss at the Observer wanted me to cover not one, but TWO football games on Saturday, November 1, 1986. He had me covering these games far from the office, too. I had the rare 3 p.m. start to a Saturday afternoon game between host Middletown South and Southern Regional, then I had to shuffle off to Shore Regional in West Long Branch to cover the game between Shore, going through one of its best seasons, and Manchester, having a decent year under second-year mentor Bob Hunt, and who a month earlier I had seen upset Freehold Boro and Temple-bound quarterback Anthony Richardson at Freehold.

But two football games weren't going to be enough for my insatiable appetite. Nooooooo! I wanted to do more and had the perfect place to go for a third assignment. It was at Asbury Park's Convention Hall that baseball card afficianado Ed Walsh was hosting. At that time, Asbury Park was on an upswing (I know this because my dad was working at the famous Berkeley-Carteret Hotel across the way from the Hall) and having these big-time card shows was enhancing the reputation.

But this was no ordinary card show with a Hall of Famer.

No, this time around, the card show "star" of the day was a current player ... a player who just happened to have won a World Series title five days earlier sharing center field duties with Mookie Wilson of the champion New York Mets. Somehow, Ed Walsh was able to get Lenny Dykstra to come down and sign autographs. Got in touch with Ed via phone (yes, this was in the era loooong before email) and he saw no problem with me stopping in Asbury Park at around 1 p.m. My goal was to see if I can ween my way through the crowd onto the stage to talk with the Mets' 23-year-old star in the making. Ed didn't seem against the idea. I had been in Asbury Park in August when the great Hank Aaron and Mets pitching great Jerry Koosman were in town to sign autographs and he was able to grant me interviews while they were signing cards.

Naive me figured Hank, Jerry and Lenny were the same baseball kinda guys who were generous with their times and amiable with everyone. Boy was I going to find out differently.

Now how this was all going to work out perfectly where I would be at three places, write three stories and give dictation to our various writers in the office three times was going to need choreography that even Toni Basil or Paula Abdul couldn't quite assemble. Quite honestly, I wasn't sure how I was going to pull this off.

So "winging it" was going to be the operative term of the day. I left my house in Toms River around 11:45 that morning to head to Asbury Park first. The autograph show started at noon, so I figured I'd see a nice-sized crowd there. As I crossed into Asbury Park about 50 minutes later and as I got closer toward the Shore line and the parking lot right by Convention Hall, something just gave me the impression that this was going to be no ordinary day here.

There were lots and lots and lots and lots of cars. World Series championships are going to give it away each and every time. I mean everybody wanted to be at Convention Hall to meet a World Champion New York Mets player. Most everyone might have hoped for Carter or Hernandez or Strawberry or Gooden or even Mookie.

But Lenny Dykstra? Yeah, he was a part-time outfielder but he came up big in a number of spots that fall with the Mets, most memorably his ninth-inning home run off Astros closer Dave Smith to give the Mets a come-from-behind victory over Houston at Shea Stadium in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.

I walked into Convention Hall and the line of those who were there for Dykstra to sign everything from baseball bats to pictures to autograph books seemed endless! I knew I needed to see my man Ed and see what the deal was going to be to even have a chance to ask his star attraction at least two or three questions, let alone sit next to him for a half hour.

I can see that blank "I'm not sure exactly what to tell you" look on Walsh's face when I approached him as to what he thought would be my best plan of attack. Just looking at the situation, you can see the star attraction was just a bit busy at the moment. And quite honestly, I wasn't really all that jazzed up to find out if Dykstra could multi-task all that well, signing autographs and talking to me as I threw questions out at him.

"It might be best if you came back tomorrow," was all Ed was going to tell me. "I don't really know what to tell you." 

Ed was being very honest on this day. I was right on the stage probably no more than about 20 feet from Dykstra. I pretty much had made my decision that this was not going to happen today -- the interview and the story. I could have improvised and interviewed someone who had made the trip from Ocean County to meet the man and have him sign whatever they had for him to sign. But somewhere along the way, the light bulb went on and suddenly I wasn't so interested in overworking myself on this day. After all, even though this was a very big story that a New York Mets player had come to the Jersey Shore for an autograph show at a high-profile place like Convention Hall, it wasn't on Ocean County turf.

Sounds like a copout, but truth it was.

At about that same moment, I saw Joe Zedalis, who was there to do a story for the Asbury Park Press. He was looking at Dykstra from the same angle as I was. So I asked him how long he had been there and what has he seen or heard from the man he was there to do a feature story on.

"He's been acting like a complete ass," Joe said, indicating that he was going to have to pursue his story from a totally different angle since getting an interview with Dykstra seemed as reachable as getting to the South Pole in an hour. "He just looks like he doesn't want to be there."

I was there a lesser amount of time, yet I got that impression as well. Though he was signing autographs and being amicable with the fans who came to see him that day, the Southern California native just never looked like he wanted to be there, as if he wanted to go back to Southern California, already going through the throes of a world championship and everything tied to that title, including the big parade three days earlier.

Resigned to not having any story -- actually happy I didn't have a story -- I told Ed I'd see him on Sunday right back at the Hall and headed to a phone booth on the boardwalk to call my boss at home. Told him he wasn't going to get a story and I knew he wasn't going to be upset. He knew if I had gotten Dykstra and interviewed him, then it'd be an accomplishment. And after all, the two more important stories were still on the docket and at about 2 p.m., I started heading out of Asbury Park and found my way to the Garden State Parkway where I traveled north to Exit 114.

I had been to Middletown South High five months earlier for Shore Conference Tournament softball when Toms River South upset the top-seeded Eagles in the semifinals. But that was a beautiful, sunny late spring day. Today, it was a dreary, yucky, grey mid-fall day in the mid-50s. Made it to the press box for what I thought it would be an easy game to cover.

However, I should have probably read more on this game. Little did I know that Middletown South's quarterback liked to throw the ball. And so did his coaching staff. Southern was in the middle of a miserably bad football season and this was the last year for Ron Emmert as the head coach. Middletown South was having its way in the football game. Honestly, I remember very little from this game. But what I do remember was that South was throwing the ball on three of every four plays and Southern Regional wasn't getting very far ... and the game took three hours! Middletown South won in a romp that could have been ended say 30 minutes earlier, I grabbed the mild-mannered Emmert after the game as he and I were walking on the field and since I had interviewed him a number of times before, I knew what to expect to hear from him -- good effort, but not good enough to beat a team that was better than his team. I sensed he knew the end of the line was coming for a good amount of the '86 season.

With my notes from the game and the interview I did, I had to saunter somewhere to write the game story and dictate it, but I had very little time to make it happen in just under an hour, knowing the second game was at 7:30. I got to the Monmouth Mall in Eatontown at about 6:30 and quickly composed the story. But at 7 p.m. and grabbing something quick to eat in the food court, I made a phone call to one of our writers in the office to tell him that the story was written, but I knew I had to be at Shore Regional to write the game story so at halftime, I'd dictate the story and statistics to him.

And so I got on the road again from the mall to West Long Branch and Shore Regional High, which again I was familiar with since I was a student at Monmouth College nearby and had seen my fair share of field hockcy matches in recent times featuring the vaunted Shore Regional program. I got into the press box about five minutes before kickoff and asked if there was a pay phone somewhere near the field. The only pay phone, the guy doing the public address system that day told me, was in the front of the school, which was a fairly long walk from the football field. So as I kept my statistics from the football game that was competitive early on between Shore and Manchester, I scoped the field to see Jim Hintelmann of the Red Bank Register walking the sidelines covering the game as well.

When halftime arrived, I got to my car quickly in the parking lot behind the football field and drove around the school to the front of it on Route 36. There was a perfect pay phone there where I could talk to whoever I wanted to from the seat of the car. Once I was able to get in touch with Chris, one of our writers, I was able to give him statistics and dictate my Southern-Middletown South story to him. Thankfully it was a blowout that I could dictate to him in less than 10 minutes. He hit the save button and told him we'd do it again after the Shore game.

So I scurried along some streets back to the football field parking lot, jumped out of the car and started covering the game on the field, something I disdain doing even to this day because you can't see an entire field from your spot walking the same field. But being this was an emergency situation, I had no choice. I walked alongside Jim and for the better part of the third quarter, I was catching up on the game from him between plays and timeouts getting each and every play in order as it happened. Football is not a sport that you can take a play off while keeping statistics -- every play is important and needs to be jotted down.

By this point, Shore had pulled away and was en route to victory over Manchester and in the fourth quarter. Having the statistics taken care of thanks to Jim, who I will always remember fondly in this business, the only thing left was to grab Hunt and interview him afterward. I had done so and it was back to the car ... and back to the front of the building to the same pay phone where I had the call made collect and then dictated the statistics. Then about 15 minutes later, I called collect again and dictated the story on Shore's wipeout of Manchester, which just didn't have it that night.

And by about 10:45 p.m., the night was over. I made a stop at my favorite place in the Eatontown-West Long Branch area -- White Castle on Route 35. My favorite girl working there, Mary, was not there on this Saturday night because she was off celebrating her birthday. But I remember eating in silence and heading home afterward.

The long day was over and two football games that I know I covered in a half-ass manner were done and written and the one assignment I really looked forward to was never finished because of extending circumstances involving the person who was there to sign autographs and the attitude he took on the day.

The next afternoon, I went back to Asbury Park to see Ed and things were much, much quieter on this day -- it was the legendary Brooklyn Dodger Duke Snider, a Hall of Famer in every way. The crowds weren't as huge as they were 27 hours earlier, and that was more than fine. He gave me a great interview and told me about his time as not only a Brooklyn Dodger, but as a New York Met in the early years of the franchise-- "They sold me off like I was a slave."

I went back to the office that evening to write the story for Greg, our assistant sports editor.

The adventurous weekend was over and in the end, I got three stories -- just not in one day.

Sometimes, it's best you don't think of yourself as 10 feet tall and bulletproof. You get better results that way.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The 2003 Amy-Talisa battle royale in western Putnam County

Two months into my new existence as a sports writer at the Palatka Daily News, I was pretty much covering every sport on a full-time basis during the fall season. I was handling volleyball, boys and girls golf and doing some previews for the upcoming football games each Friday night, sharing that responsibility with my boss, while covering a weekly Friday night game.

And I was handling coverage of cross country. Now let me tell you about my relationship with cross country before I moved to Florida -- it was one race, really. I covered it in 1993 at the Ocean County Observer for Bob Considine, who was stuck doing something else on a Saturday morning, so my boss sent me to a cross country meet on an September day at Toms River High School North.

Here are my memories of that day -- it was cold, it was humid, and it was raining non-stop. And I got to bond with the Asbury Park Press writer who I had seen at a couple of assignments I was at before. She brought hot chocolate in a thermos and we sat in her car. I wasn't turning her down when she offered some that hot chocolate to me. Lemme tell ya, it was pretty damn gooooooooood.

When I moved to Key West in the late summer 1999, I was the sports department for all high school sports except for football and I got to handle it that first fall with a disgruntled assistant who didn't get the job that I got. But I wasn't required to be there to cover the cross country event, just to happen on by the Key West Golf Course where the races were held and I'd scribble down the results and head back to the office afterward. There was never really any big cross country meets in the Keys, just the two or three events every fall.


So by the time I got to Palatka, I needed to be well-versed in the sport. I had an idea of how scoring went, first runner in for a team scores one point, second-place runner gets two points for his or her team and the first five runners from a team score and that's their team score at the end of the race. In other words, the lowest score wins.

And my first cross country coach who got me enthused about the sport was Interlachen High veteran mentor Dwayne Cox. Now he had been the head coach of the program for a number of years, and not only was he enthusiastic with what his team could do, but he was also enthusiastic about the sport in general. He held an annual race at the school every second Saturday of October. That's unheard of in Putnam County, Florida since most of the high schools would rather just take the weekend off from hosting anything and get right back into it on a Monday.

He invited me to IHS to take some pictures of some of his runners for the sport's preview story. So I did and got a picture for the preview of his two best runners -- Jeremy Criscione, a junior, on the boys side, and Talisa Bishop, a senior, on the girls side. If you heard Dwayne Cox talk, you'd have sworn these two young people never ... lost ... a  ... race! If someone beat them, they had to be some kind of something, if you know what I mean.

So being a newbie to the sport in Putnam County, I figured, "OK, no one is going to really challenge them." But then I had to talk to the other two coaches in the county, Phil Johnson at Crescent City and new coach Mike Lehning at Palatka. And at Palatka High, Lehning was raving about his senior leader on the girls side, a young lady with a load of talent named Amy Eller. And so while I was headlining the preview with the two IHS kids to lead off, I also had mentioned how good Eller might be during the season.

Again, a newbie picking up all he can pick up just enhances a story. So indirectly and practically by accident, I had contrived this rivalry between Eller and Bishop. But I didn't really need to try hard to do that -- they had both carved out a nice little rivalry between them. In the All-Putnam County meet that was started by Cox in 2000, Eller had won the first two county championships, but in 2002, she had developed mononucleosis and was not at 100 percent when Bishop got her and won the title.

During the 2003 season, the two had run against one another in races at different sites. Both times, Bishop had beaten Eller. And during the season, both runners had run personal bests under 22 minutes.

And that would be the backdrop for the next All-Putnam County championship, which for the second straight year was being held at Interlachen High's home course at the hilly West Putnam Recreation Center on Wednesday, October 15, 2003. The fact the race was held on a Wednesday was remarkable in its own right -- it's a religious day and it's rare anything gets held in Bible Belt Florida on that day!

As I drove down State Road-20 into Interlachen, then made a left turn and traveled the one mile south to get to the park, I took a look at the backdrop and saw how vast and wide this place was. The park had a lot of trees in the outlying area and in the middle was a downhill-like bowl ... not quite like the famous "Bowl" at Holmdel Park, where the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association championships were held every third Saturday in November, but still a challenge nonetheless.

Though there are just three schools that run cross country in the county -- all three public high schools -- there were 39 competitors for the race that day, 21 on the boys side and 18 on the girls side. Some of the boys and girls were doing simple jogs of the course preparing for the race, some were relaxed under the large gazebo with benches underneath where race headquarters were.

Cox had things measured out beforehand and actually had the kids walk the outer ring of the course so they could get a feel of how the course looked, especially to the schools that had not run at this challenging park before. That had already been done by the time I arrived at 3:40 p.m. for what I thought was a 4 p.m. race. It would start closer to 4:15 p.m.

The first race up was the girls race. I knew the boys race was going to be a freakin' farce since Criscione, who had started his domination of the sport in the area by now, had run races in the 17- and 18-minute range and not too many other runners were crashing in under 20 minutes.

No, this day was about the Amy vs. Talisa matchup. This would also make for the last matchup between the two since they did not have any more regular-season runs left and both girls had their schools in different classifications.

Though Bishop had won twice against Eller, I figured it might be a closer race this time around because this was the county meet -- Bishop had something that Eller wanted and was trying to keep her from doing ... defending the title.

And so as the 18 girls lined up to start the race down at the start of the bowl to run up the bowl and around the park twice, I kept my focus on the two favorites. I also figured with a pretty solid team that Interlachen, led by Bishop, her twin sister Heather and some other good runners, would win the team title. Almost figured that was in the bag for the Rams.

Holding on to his trusty clipboard in one hand and his stopwatch in the other, Cox got the girls lined up and as he said, "Go!" they were all off and running. And coming up the hill and winding their way around the first turn in the first circle of the race, Bishop and Eller were leading with Heather Bishop and Palatka's Emily Piscitello, also a senior, following right behind. But within the first mile, it was clear where this race was headed as Talisa Bishop and Eller forged ahead and left the other two girls behind in the larger second wave of runners.

For the next 15 minutes or so, this was the Talisa and Amy Show. And neither had a big lead on the other for the rest of the first mile. But as I can see them coming to start the second lap around the park, Eller caught Bishop and forged ahead. It was almost the halfway point of the race and I can see that it may have been a bit of a struggle for Eller, as if she may have picked the wrong time to go ahead. Not too long after she had gone ahead, it was Bishop passing Eller by as they headed for the woods.

But in spite of seemingly looking like she was in control, Bishop could never shake off Eller and build a bigger lead. On this very cool October day, both runners were running a ridiculous pace, both at just over 13 minutes after two miles, neither looking ready to give up. Simply insane.

After the second lap, runners had to go out of the park temporarily to run a shorter distance, but would come right back in. As the pair neared the third mile, it was clear Eller had one more burst in her. She had been shadowing Bishop for most of the race and now with about three-tenths of a mile to go, she was making one last effort to storm ahead. In that last three-tenths of a mile at West Putnam Recreation Center, runners had to go down the bowl one last time and then challenge themselves at the 3-mile mark to run back up the bowl and onto flat land, then circle the outside of a soccer field and detour onto the soccer field where they would cross the finish line.

As they got to the middle of the bottom of that bowl, Eller passed up Bishop. And as if she got her second wind, Eller was widening the gap on Bishop as they climbed out of the bowl and made a right turn for the outside of that soccer field.

There was no stopping Eller. She was undeterred at this point. The pig-tailed, brown-eyed beauty was in another gear that Bishop couldn't keep up at. And she widened her lead as she made it around the soccer field to the very end, then cut across as she crossed past the goal at the one end of  field and came storming up the field to the finish line.

Eller crossed and collapsed in a heap. She was handed her first-place card by Johnson while she was still on the ground recovering from the last two-tenths of a mile. Not too far behind was Bishop, who crossed the finish line, was given her second-place card and walked away in near shock.

Meanwhile, Eller was still on the side of the finish line recovering ... and weeping, both out of exhaustion and out of total elation.

Yes, she won that race. Amy Eller won the 2003 All-Putnam County title in the best girls race I had ever covered -- and really, it was my first one. She had crossed the finish line on this challenging course in 21 minutes and 40 seconds. Bishop crossed the line 18 seconds later in 21:58.

When asked why she thought she'd win, Eller answered simply, "I love the cold weather. This whole summer it was so hot, but when I felt it was just a bit cold, I felt my Yankee blood can handle it."

Now let me stop here -- Amy Eller was born in Arkansas. That's far from Yankee territory, but her parents hailed from Syracuse, N.Y. So I'm sure the visits she made to see family up north may have contributed to the "colder days" and the "Yankee blood" thing kicking in.

As for winning, Eller said afterward, "It's hard because both of us (she and Bishop) wanted to win and we had to go as hard as we could. I wanted to prove I could get the title back. I wanted this because when I remember back to my high school career, I wanted to remember that I won the final time I raced (in Putnam County)."

I never got to interview Talisa Bishop afterward. And I should have. But this day belonged to her rival. It also belonged to Palatka's girls. Piscitello finished fourth behind Heather Bishop, then a slew of Panther runenrs came in behind Piscitello -- Traci Driggers was fifth, Alice Heh was seventh and Mia John was eighth. First, fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth ... that's 25 points and the Panthers had taken the county girls team title away from Interlachen, which scored 43 points.

The boys race was just an afterthought in the end -- Criscione massacred the field, winning in 17:12 and making the challenging home course look like a stroll in the park. His next closest competitor, teammate Bryan Meily, was a distant second in 19:20. Interlachen won the boys team title handily with 20 points.

The 17:12 Criscione ran set a record for the county meet on the boys side

It still stands today.

So does the times put up by Eller and Bishop on that day they both laid it out on the line for county supremacy. Ten years later, Eller's 21:40 and Bishop's 21:58 are still the two fastest times ever run in the 13-year history of the event.

Still!

A few days later, I talked with Cox. I asked him what happened to his best girls runner at the end of the county meet. Turns out, according to him, that she was not properly snacking right coming into that race, saying there were days leading up to that run in which she wasn't snacking at all.

Well, Cox got all this straightened out with Bishop. A week later at the district meet in Inverness, Bishop placed fifth in the race and qualified, along with her team, for the regional meet. That's where she put together a great race to finish second -- yes, second in the region. It qualified her for the state 2A meet at Tampa's Ed Radice Park. Though she finished 27th, she was able to say she made it all the way to the last race of the season.


That, unfortunately, could not be said of Eller. She finished ninth in a tough district race held 10 days after the county meet at Middleburg High School. However, she would finish 20th in the region meet and miss out on qualifying for the state 3A meet.

But that senior year was the start of big things for both girls. For Eller, she would continue on to score a then-record 14 goals for her PHS soccer team that winter, then make All-County as a first singles player and first doubles player in tennis that spring. Teaming up with freshman Kristin Smith, the pair won first singles at their district meet and won a first-round match in the state tournament before losing in the next round and finishing their doubles season at 19-1. Bishop, meanwhile, ran track and qualified for the 2A state meet in the 3,200 at the University of Florida, located 30 miles from IHS. She finished seventh on the track that day to also finish her IHS sports career on a high note.

Both Eller and Bishop went off to nice college careers in their sports. And in years after they graduated high school in 2004, both have competed in running. Eller was Putnam County's top female runner at the 15-kilometer Gate River Run in Jacksonville for five straight years. Meanwhile, Bishop, now married and a mom known as Talisa Fletcher, has won her share of road runs since moving on from an NAIA All-American running career at Montreat College in North Carolina.

To this day, both are still fantastically great young ladies in their mid-20s that I see or talk to from time to time. And yes, I have a hard time thinking of one without the other.

Because for one cool October afternoon in western Putnam County, they had a battle royale in sneakers that tested their skills and wills.

A day that I remember quite vividly ... still.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

What's in a name after all?

My first year of doing columns at the Ocean County Observer was 1993. And I do admit, I had a lot of fun coming up with ideas for those columns.

But I was about to come across my first creatively naive column. And it almost didn't happen.

This story starts on a Sunday afternoon, January 3, 1993. I actually had taken a couple of young ladies who I had covered in high school and had graduated the year before -- Toms River South's Danielle Nicosia and Toms River North's Carolyn Lemke -- out to Red Lobster. I had made a vow to them that if my 1992 rotisserie baseball team -- Lemke's Nicosians -- had finished in the Top 5 in my 12-team league, I'd take them out for dinner.

It was a far funner time, especially when you're 25 years old going on 26.

Well lo and behold, my team finished fifth and that meant I got some kind of a reward monetarily. It was $60. And after getting that check, I had asked the two young ladies if they were up to eating at Red Lobster on the first Sunday of the new year. They both said they were and it was a very casual and enjoyable dinner, especially when both knew each other growing up in Toms River and both competing in field hockey and soccer, Carolyn at North, Danielle at South.

During the conversation, the topic crossed into baseball. I don't how or why, but that's what happened. And Carolyn mentioned that she wanted to meet her namesake -- Atlanta Braves second baseman Mark Lemke. Now if you remember back in the early 1990s, Lemke was the reluctant and surprise hero of the 1991 World Series and was ready to take home the Series Most Valuable Player honors against the Minnesota Twins until Kirby Puckett (Game 6) and ultimate MVP Jack Morris (Game 7) stole the trophy away from the Braves.

But he was a fascination and not only was he a fascination to Carolyn, but also to her younger twin sisters Alyson and Janis, who were both ran track at North in the spring with Alyson running cross country and Janis playing field hockey in the fall. The wheels began to grind in my head at that point.

This plan could just take off.

And the idea started to go in motion after I had taken both Carolyn and Danielle back to their homes. I had taken a look at the Braves' 1993 schedule, which had been posted somewhere in print -- this was loooong before the age of the Internet. The Philadelphia Phillies and Braves were going to play quite a few times during the year, but probably the best time for all this to go down would not be until the weekend of September 25-26.

I put everything off until May. I made a phone call to the Atlanta Braves public relations department and got its head of the department, Jim Schultz. I had told him the story of the three sisters in Toms River with the Lemke last name who would love to meet his team's second baseman with the same last name. He would see what he would do about it.

Well, I heard nothing. So the spring turned into the summer and I figured I'd give it one more try to get Schultz. I contacted the public relations department and made a formal request for the sisters to meet Lemke at Veterans Stadium again. The person on the other end of the phone asked me to put the formal request down in writing and send it via fax machine. So I did. I even faxed a copy of the feature story that I had done on the sisters at Christmas 1991, a story my boss lamented about for days -- not because of the content of the story, but that he put a picture of their faces on the front sports page of where the fold of the newspaper was located!

You just had to hear him to believe me.

So weeks went by and nothing. And when the Braves swooped into Philly to play the Phillies at the Vet, it was during a very tense time for them. The Braves had to practically win every single day and night for they had the hard-charging San Francisco Giants right beside them in the National League West standings and both teams were headed for over 100 victories with only the winner going to the postseason and the second-place team staying home.

This weekend was the next-to-last weekend of the baseball season. So with everything going on -- and the Phillies on the verge of winning their first National League East title in 10 years -- I just figured things were too hectic and too busy for my three young ladies to meet the man that shared their last name.

Then at about 2 p.m. on Saturday, September 25, the phone rang at my house. My mom answered the phone. She asked me to pick it up. After I did, I yelled for her to hang up because I had it.

"Hello?"

"Hello, is this Mark Blumenthal?

"Yes. Who would this be?"

"My name is Glen Serra and I'm with the public relations department of the Atlanta Braves."

Suddenly, my ears perked up. I had practically put this whole "meeting" thing out of my mind. And then I sheepishly asked him what he was calling me about.

"I got your fax from Jim Schultz and he passed it on to me. I spoke with Mark earlier today and he said he would like to meet the three sisters."

The wheels were grinding again. And I asked him how we were going to do this.

"Well, there's an allotment for tickets. How many tickets do you need?"

"Well, there's the three sisters, their mom, I'm sure, their brother (Brian) and myself. That would be six."

"That will work. Come to the stadium before 1 p.m. and go to 'will call.'"

After I thanked him and Mark for all they did, I suddenly had a column/story to write again. And my first phone call was to the sisters' mom, Barbara Donnelly, a sweet lady who I had known for a number of years, especially her working at the trophy shop on Charles Street near Route 37 that our paper and sports department did business with.

I was concerned, though, because all this was going down in less than 24 hours. People have plans and you hate to break them up. But once I told her that Mark Lemke wanted to meet her daughters, any plans that had been made were thrown to the wayside. She didn't think she would have a problem making the calls to all three of them and she was available to go with her son to the Vet as well.

After putting in a full Saturday's worth of work -- by this point, my boss had not wanted me to cover high school football anymore and just strictly concentrate on helping with layout and picking up the other sports that were going on that day -- I was prepared for a big Sunday.

That morning, however, was dreary, humid and drizzly, the kind of weather that makes you want to just turn over and go back to sleep. It was 9 a.m. Mom had gotten up and made me breakfast before anybody else got up. A bacon-and-eggs meal with coffee followed with me heading out the door by 9:45. It would take me 15 minutes to get to the Donnelly/Lemke household. With the rain still coming down in between a mist and a drizzle, I got out of my '77 Dodge Aspen, walked to the door, knocked on it and found mom, Brian, Alyson and Janis about ready to go. Carolyn, who was now a sophomore at Trenton State College (The College of New Jersey now), had told her mom she would meet all of us at the Vet.

Somehow, we'd all find each other in front of Veterans Stadium even in the era before cell phones.

Now I knew Carolyn was excited about meeting her namesake, but I wasn't as sure with the two younger sisters. I found out the feeling was mutual.

"We tell people not to speak bad about the Braves. Our cousin plays for them," Alyson told me. "Since my sophomore year (1991-92), I've been telling people he is our cousin. And people believe it."

Janis admitted that she had never seen a baseball game before, but she said she thought it would be exciting -- even though the last-minute plans forced her to miss a surprise birthday party she was to put together on this day.

But everything had to go as planned for it work. If there was one part of the whole detail that got screwed up, we'd never be able to get into Veterans Stadium and meet him. So all the pressure was on me to deliver and me to lean upon Serra to hold his end up.

I told the four of them they were following me to Veterans Stadium. We took Route 571 to Route 70 and went west until we got to I-295. We took that south to the exit for the Walt Whitman Bridge. Once over the bridge, the stadium and adjacent parking lots were not too far away. These were lots that you didn't have to pay for, but you had a little bit of a walk. That wasn't a problem as the rain finally stopped on what was still a cloudy day.

Once we got to the grounds outside of the stadium, Carolyn had found the five of us and we all went to "will call," which was right there in front of us. I had told the lady behind the window about the tickets via Mark Lemke and Glen Serra and she had all of us on the list. Unfortunately, the tickets didn't have us all sitting together -- three tickets were together over by the third-base line a few rows up from the Braves dugout and three more tickets were to sit out in center field. So the three sisters took the tickets by the Braves dugout and Mrs. D., Brian and myself got to sit out in the seats in center field where everyone kinda, sorta looks very small.

I know the three of us had a good time sitting together the entire time, even though I didn't know Brian quite as well as I knew the sisters. But for almost three hours, we sat and watched as the Braves continued their winning ways with a 7-2 victory over the Phillies as 17-game winner Steve Avery beat 15-game winner Curt Schilling. As for Lemke, who was in the starting lineup, he was 0-for-4, but had an RBI and finished out the game with a diving stop to his left, then throwing out Jim Eisenreich for the final out of the game.

It was the Braves' 100th win of the season and the last meeting of the year between the two teams before fate would have both teams meet again in the National League Championship Series.

In the middle of the game, I had called Serra on a pay phone at the Vet to a phone he was sitting at during the game. He had given me directions on where we should all meet afterward. After the six of us had come together again, we went in that direction. We were going to stand in the reception room where the elevators were right nearby and wait for Serra to come up to the room. There were two older men, probably both in their 70s, who were manning the elevators. They asked me what we were doing and I told them that a guy from the Braves' public relations department was to meet us there. So they were fine with it.

A few moments later, Serra, who I had not yet met in person, but had three phone conversations with, had arrived. He knew who we were by the picture of the three sisters. So after we all introduced ourselves to him, he took us to the elevator and down to the where the Braves clubhouse entrance was.

The five of them got on, and I was the last to board the elevator when the two older men started fussing, demanding I get off the elevator! I had to show them my press credential, which I wasn't wearing for this game, but had on me and they still were insistent that I don't board this elevator. If not for Serra saying something to them, I may never have seen the meeting. These two old coots were giving me a ration of crap and making life difficult.

The funny looks I got from all four females in that elevator pretty much said it all. "I can't believe I'm the one who put this all together and THEY were about to ruin it," I remember saying.

It was a short ride down the elevator to the clubhouse level below the stadium, but Serra took us to outside the clubhouse. Now I had been in the visiting clubhouse a number of times at the Vet when I got to cover the occasional Phillies game, but now it was just a matter of waiting for Braves players to file out. Serra stayed with us until he went into the clubhouse to tell Mark his "ladies" were waiting on him. And the six of us were patient, me holding my camera for the occasion where I'd get pictures. We knew he would come out eventually.

We started watching various Braves players leaving the clubhouse, some individually, some in groups. Avery and fellow pitchers and future Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz had walked out of the clubhouse. Catchers Damon Berryhill and Greg Olsen left. And other players had left. How much longer were we to wait?

"I was a little nervous," Alyson told me later on. "Especially the waiting. He's a slow dresser."

Indeed. But after nearly 20 minutes of waiting, our man of the hour came out of the clubhouse with teammate and center fielder Ron Gant. He was dressed in a dark mustard-colored jacket, no tie, wearing a pair of sunglasses and sporting his George Michael-like five o'clock shadow. He knew he had people waiting on him. He turned to the six of us and greeted the sisters and their mom. From there, it was small conversation and signing Brian's baseball cards, taking pictures with the family, and signing a picture for Carolyn. There was something she specifically wanted on that picture.

"I need you to write it like this -- 'To cousin Carolyn, Best Wishes, Mark Lemke, No. 20."

The truth is that it was the final day of a three-game series and the team was heading out as fast as possible to Philly International Airport and back to Atlanta to finish out the season with series against the Houston Astros and the expansion Colorado Rockies. They still had the Giants on their trail as the season was coming down to the final 100-yard sprint.

But before leaving alongside Serra, I had given Mark a picture of the three sisters that my photographer at the paper, Pete Picknally, had taken of the trio for that December 1991 story.

"I got this," he said. 

"Really?" surprisingly said Carolyn. "We weren't sure you had gotten it in the mail (when they sent it after their feature story came out after Christmas 1991)."

"Yeah," he answered back. "I sent it to my mom (in Rome, N.Y., where he grew up)."

A smile came across Carolyn's face. The quiet-spoken Lemke shook everyone's hands and was on his way with Serra and the rest of the team to the airport. And the six of us were soon on our way out of the Vet with a lifetime of memories in those few minutes.

I not only fulfilled a wish for a family of sisters, but my picture of the three sisters, their brother and Lemke (with Serra in the background, by the way) made its way into our paper in my column a few days later. It was a milestone moment in my career -- it was my first photography credit! I've had a few more since, but it was something I treasure to this day.

All three sisters are now in their late 30s and married with kids. I hope I was able to bring some kind of joy to them on this particular day 20 years ago. I hope they still remember.

I've now done columns for over 20 years and I still will tell you that this particular column about this particular Sunday, September 26, 1993, is still the funnest one I've ever written.

A promise I fulfilled almost nine months earlier was taken care of: Alyson, Janis and Carolyn Lemke got to meet their namesake.

Cousin Mark.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

That first Toms River East American state Little League title

The Summer of 1995 was becoming just another summer at the Jersey Shore for myself. I was about to begin my 12th summer of covering District 18 Little League Baseball at the Observer.

The championship of the District 18 Tournament came down to crosstown rivals Toms River and Toms River East American with the finals slated at Toms River's Mapletree Road complex, my old stomping grounds as a kid both playing and then coaching. Toms River had beaten East American earlier in the tournament and relegated the Windsor Avenue Gang to the elimination bracket -- one loss, and it was all over. But much to the credit of the East American kids, they won their way through the bracket and would be seeing Toms River in the final, knowing it'd have to win twice to capture the district championship.

East American won the first final emphatically, 9-2, forcing a second game. It was in that second game where East American held on to a one-run lead in the sixth inning when Toms River's Mike McTamney roped a shot to right field that was looking bad for East American. But luck would have it that just weeks earlier, Toms River Little League had replaced its short 4-foot high fences around their outfield with a 6-foot-high fence.

Let's just say McTamney's shot hit the wall about 6 inches from the top. A sure two-run home run in May was just a double now in July and, worse, Toms River had its runner who was at first thrown out at the plate to end the game. East American won, 7-6, to capture the district title by that shear bit of luck.

And I figured, "They got away lucky with that one." But then came the Section 3 Tournament and that's where I realized these boys from Windsor Avenue were gooooood. They made it to the sectional final -- which ironically was being played at their home field -- against perennial power Nottingham. East American, this time, was coming through the winner's bracket ... one win, and they were champions. But Nottingham built a reputation of being great with solid, fundamental ball and when No. 9 hitter Chris Balgowan hit a double to the right-field fence off hard-throwing Colin Gaynor in the second inning to give the visitors a 2-1 lead after Gaynor had hit a first-inning solo shot, they announced to the hosts they weren't going down without a fight. Nottingham won the game, 6-2, to set up the second final.

So on Sunday, July 30, 1995, back at East American's main field, manager Mike Gaynor sent the other worthy starter he had to the mound, Jeff Frazier, to seal the deal. And all Frazier did was mix his fastball with his hard-turning curveball to the tune of eight strikeouts, no walks and one sixth-inning solo home run on five hits in East American's 5-1 triumph over Nottingham, highlighted by Chris Donnelly's two-run home run in the second and an RBI double from Jeremy Dandorph and two-run double by Frazier in the sixth to seal the deal.

And here we were again -- a trip to the state tournament for a District 18 Little League Baseball team for the third time in six years. Brick National had won dramatically over North Trenton in the 1990 final at Spring Lake Heights and three years later, Toms River lost twice to Nottingham in the '93 final in Rutherford.

This time around, East American was going to Section 4 host Gloucester City for the tournament. If you've never been to Gloucester City, it's located within a hop and a jump from Philadelphia via the Walt Whitman Bridge. As a matter of fact, the complex was located within shouting distance from the Whitman Bridge. So every day starting with the opening game of the tournament on Tuesday, August 1, I'd have to take off from Toms River across Route 70 into the Cherry Hill area and go south on I-295 to Exit 26 and veer off at the exit before heading over the Whitman Bridge and weave my way through Gloucester City until getting to the complex. It was a nice, but small complex that looked shoe-horned into a community of regular houses, looking in some ways like the Sayreville Little League complex I covered tournament games at from time to time over the years.

The opening day was a very special one -- Joe Carter, who had just finished up his reign as the president of Manchester Little League, the hosts of the 1994 state tournament and who I had known for years in association with the league, was throwing out the first pitch in a ceremony that officially passed the torch from Manchester to Gloucester City. Sadly, Joe was dealing with a very heavy heart after the passing of his daughter Carrie-Anne, who had lost her battle with cancer five months earlier, just one month after she turned 19. Joe and I talked during East American's opening game, but I found him to be melancholy and reluctant to do anything at that particular point.

No parent should ever have to bury their child, but that's what he and his wife had to do. I could feel his pain as we talked. Unfortunately, it was one of the last times I ever ran into Joe.

As for the game, East American drew Section 1 champion North Hunterdon in the opener. North Hunterdon's team wasn't exactly loaded, but they were talented with a strong top four presence in the lineup in shortstop Bryan Wagner, catcher Brent Dilts, second baseman Anthony Schiavino and cleanup hitter and left fielder Mike Cust. Yes, die-hard baseball fans recognize the last name of "Cust." The team was managed by Jack Cust Sr., who built a complex on property he owned that would most help some of his players, but mostly his oldest son, Jack, who was 16 at the time and would one day be a Major League player.

To start the tournament, Mike Gaynor sent No. 3 pitcher Chris Cerullo, normally one of the outfielders of the team, to pitch. I figured out that Gaynor's strategy was to go with Cerullo first and if he got the win, he'd be on Easy Street with his son Colin and Frazier waiting in the wings to finish the tournament out. What Gaynor didn't figure out was that this North Hunterdon team threw their No. 1 guy at his club ... and that guy, J.P. Longueil, was pretty damn good. Longueil kept East American hitters off-balance all afternoon. When No. 5 hitter Vince Ragucci delivered a two-run home run in the second inning to give North Hunterdon a 2-1 lead, that set the tone for the day. Though Colin Gaynor would hit a monster home run to center field to cut the lead to 3-2, North Hunterdon would score in the fourth on the back end of a double steal attempt and in the fifth on an error by Gaynor, who came in to pitch that one inning.

North Hunterdon had the 5-2 win as Longueil allowed six hits, walked two and struck out three.

And East American found itself in a predicament. Because they lost in the first game, the Windsor Avenue Gang was going to have to win four games in four days. And with North Hunterdon beating Section 4 champion Audubon the next day in the winners' bracket final, I didn't give East American much hope, especially since it was saving Longueil more than likely for the kill in Friday's first championship game.

Now we were all going to find out how crafty Mike Gaynor was a manager. And I'll never forget as we sat in the bleachers watching the next game between Audubon and Rutherford American, he felt that a few bad breaks cost his team. Then he said something prophetic that I kept in the back of my mind the rest of the week.

"We're the best team here, Mark. I know we are. I still think we're going to win the state title."

Maybe, I thought, this was all bravado. Maybe, I thought, he was just saying this because he had to give his kids something to believe in. But maybe, I also thought, he was absolutely correct ... that East American, in spite of that loss, was the best team in this four-team event.
 
So come the next day, he had to shuffle things around. He went with Jeff Frazier on two day's rest instead of three, which was the original plan, for the first elimination bracket game against Section 2 champion Rutherford American.

Dandorph scored East American's first run in the second inning off an error on a groundball by Danny Gallagher. Another error allowed Frazier to score in the third inning, then a two-run double by Frazier in the fourth and a bases-loaded walk to Bryan Jedrusiak made it 5-0. East exploded for five more runs in the fifth as Frazier belted a three-run home run and Cerullo had an RBI double. A 10-0 lead with three outs to get for the 10-run mercy-rule victory seemed safe, right? Well it wasn't as Rutherford American got three runs in the fifth against Frazier, making him throw 26 pitches to end his day at 73. Gaynor had to come in for the sixth to finish it out, though he had to escape a bases-loaded situation in the final frame. Before that, Frazier had a two-run double to finish out a 3-for-4, four-run, seven-RBI day in East American's 12-3 victory.

One down, three to go. It wasn't pretty, but at least East American knew it wasn't the worst team there. Rutherford American was going home and next up was Audubon. For this one on Thursday, August 3, Gaynor sent Cerullo back to the mound, believing that it was just bad breaks two days earlier that did him in against North Hunterdon. East American loaded the bases in the first, but Audubon starter Andrew Noe got out of trouble when he induced Jedrusiak into a comebacker.

East American took a 1-0 lead in the second inning on Noe when with runners on first and second, Frazier hit a groundball to second baseman Ryan Gilmore. Gilmore flipped the ball to shortstop Brian Jakubowski for the forceout of No. 9 hitter Kevin Blaney, but the return throw to first was not in time. While all this was going on, Gaynor sent Gallagher around third and force the issue early. He made it in before the throw home for a 1-0 lead.

Talk about having a big set of cojones. However, all that was for naught as Audubon scored twice on Cerullo in the third as a passed ball by Brian Julian allowed one run to score, than a single by leadoff hitter Gilmore plated the other run.

The game settled in at 2-1 when in the fifth, Frazier singled, moved to second on a wild pitch and third on a passed ball and Colin Gaynor walked. However, Gaynor was called out when a groundball hit by Cerullo struck him in the leg. That was a bad break for East American as Frazier had to be sent back to third. Cleanup hitter Andrew Diaz hit a slow roller to Noe, who picked the ball up and looked Frazier back. He threw to first to get Diaz, but Frazier scampered home a milli-second after the ball left Noe's hand. He would score on the throw home to tie it at 2-2, though they were able to finish out an unusual double play at third base when catcher Kevin Brown threw to John Whitcroft to nail Cerullo trying to take the base.

In the top of the sixth, East American took the lead when pinch-hitter Mike Angelo and Gallagher walked and Blaney delivered a bloop single to right-center field to score Angelo. Gaynor, who came into the game for Cerullo in the fourth inning, just needed three outs to nail it down.

But Jason Seeberger began the sixth with a four-pitch walk. Gaynor got No. 8 hitter Jeff Hunt on strikes for the first out. But within the next three pitches, the tide turned. Those were three pitches that found the backstop to No. 9 hitter Michael Chappell. And those three pitches allowed Seeberger to scamper home with the tying run.

You can feel the deflation in the tires. Gaynor got out of the sixth inning, but we were about to have free baseball -- the winner moving to the final, the loser going home. Talk about drama!

Cerullo got to second in the seventh inning with two outs, but Julian hit a comebacker to reliever Mike Kelly to end the frame. In the bottom of the eighth, Gaynor walked Brown on four pitches to begin the inning, then Julian suffered another passed ball to put the winning run on second with no outs. So Gaynor remedied the problem by striking out the next three kids with his hard heat that would be clocked later on in tournament play in the low 70s (almost 98 mph from a regulation 60-foot, 6-inch mound).

Onto the ninth. Gaynor's innings were adding up and there was a concern he wouldn't be able to pitch much more in the tournament. East American needed to do something. Gaynor singled to start the ninth and when shortstop Jakubowski made an error off a Cerullo grounder, East American was in business. Donnelly, now in Diaz's spot in the lineup, walked to load the bases. This time around, I sensed East American wasn't going to blow this opportunity. Julian singled to center field to score Gaynor, making it 4-3. A fielder's choice grounder turned into a close play at the plate off a Jedrusiak grounder as Cerullo beat the play home, making it a two-run lead.

That would be enough for Gaynor. Now in his sixth inning of relief, Gaynor gave up a two-out single to Jakubowski, but ended it when Noe hit a groundout to first baseman Frazier. Gaynor had thrown 84 pitches and was absolutely out of pitching Friday's first finale with North Hunterdon.

And sure as you can place a bet on a favorite, North Hunterdon, who had the day off on that Thursday, had Longueil ready to go again against the team he tormented the first time. Two things, though, which assured all of us things were going to be OK this time around on Friday, August 4 -- first, Mike Gaynor wasn't messing around ... he was sending his best overall pitcher in Frazier, a one-day Major League player with the Detroit Tigers, out to the mound and second, he was still not overly impressed by Longueil's stuff. He believed that this time around, his kids could get to the North Hunterdon ace.

More importantly, he had a lot of faith in Frazier. But after an exhausting, nine-inning victory over Audubon, there was an air of uncertainty as to how much emotion was going to be in the collective East American tanks.

Longueil had pitched an effective first two innings, getting helped out by a groundball double play in the second. But when third baseman Chris Wowchuck committed an error off a Todd Cuchie groundball to begin the third inning, that opened the door just enough for the Windsor Avenue Gang. After a walk to Angelo, leadoff hitter Frazier delivered a single to load the bases for Gaynor. Gaynor hit a sky-high flyball that I swear to this day had to have hit a plane or a bird on the way up. Centerfielder Cust never felt comfortable camped underneath and dropped the flyball allowing Cuchie to score the first run. Luckily, no one else scored and the bases were loaded. However, two pitches later, Gallagher sent a line drive single to center field to score Angelo and the speedy Frazier to make it 3-0.

One inning, three runs. Frazier did the rest. In one of the most clutch pitching performances I've ever seen in all my years of covering Little League baseball, Frazier allowed two hits, walked three and struck out six in a tidy, 78-pitch 3-0 shutout victory over North Hunterdon to extend the state tournament one more day to a second final.

And I knew at that point North Hunterdon's goose was officially cooked, hours before the team was to step onto the field again. The looks on their faces as they walked off the field said it all -- North Hunterdon had shot their load in this one game to punch their ticket to the state championship and got rejected by an East American team that wasn't going to go down without a fight again and a pitcher who was better than their best hurler that day.

Tired of four straight days of traveling back and forth from Toms River to Gloucester City, I had gotten the OK to stay overnight at the Best Western a couple of exits away. The next morning, I checked out and went to the nearby Taco Bell for an early-morning lunch. This was the first Taco Bell I ever enjoyed a soft taco supreme at during the late 1980s, a couple of years before Toms River built its first store in October 1991. Our photographer correspondent, Laura Lee, was going to be coming this way to the game and I told her to meet me at the Taco Bell and she'd follow me to the complex. We went over what it was I was looking for from her that day. She was going to stay the entire afternoon.

Then she asked me how TR East American will do. "Laura," I said, "they're going to beat the living shit out of this team."

And so we were all back at Gloucester City for one more game. It was Saturday, August 5, 1995. East American was sky-high off the victory the night before. North Hunterdon showed brave faces, but as I told  Tony Spina, a longtime Toms River East member who was the president of the league at that point, "Pick your score. East is going to make North Hunterdon pay for winning on Tuesday." He agreed.

With one day rest, Gaynor got the start from his father. And he set the tone of what would be a long couple of hours for North Hunterdon when he hit a home run off Schiavino in the first inning after Frazier walked for a 2-0 lead.

But North Hunterdon wasn't going to be as easy as a cheap hooker. Dilts and Eric Nodes delivered RBI singles in the bottom of the first to tie things up. A lot was going to depend now on how East American responded against Schiavino in the second.

It didn't look good to start with when Julian struck out and Dandorph flied out to start the inning. But No. 8 hitter Jedrusiak battled for nine pitches against Schiavino before drawing a walk. It always seems to start with an innocent two-out walk. Blaney walked. That was asking for trouble since Mike Gaynor's two best hitters -- Frazier and his son -- were up top and next in the lineup. Frazier delivered a single on an 0-1 pitch to center field to score Jedrusiak to make it 3-2. A wild pitch later, Gaynor walked to load the bases.

This brought up Cerullo, the third threat in the lineup. He didn't waste time -- he drilled a shot to the opposite field that for a moment I thought was clearing the right-field fence. It didn't. It hit the fence, but nonetheless, all three runners scored and it was 6-2. Gallagher blooped a single to left to make it 7-2.

The rout was on.

This brought up Diaz. On a 1-1 pitch, Diaz connected. The ball flew out over the left field fence for Diaz's first home run of the postseason ... and what a time to get it. It was 9-2.

Still, North Hunterdon didn't back down against Gaynor. Two costly errors and an RBI single by Ragucci cut the margin to 9-5 going into the third. Now East was going to have to answer again.

Did I ever mention that East American wanted to beat this team into submission, by the way? Oh, yeah, they did ... and then some. Dandorph singled, Jedrusiak reached on an error and two batters later, Frazier sent a shot well over the left field fence for a three-run home run to make it 12-5. Then Gaynor doubled, Cerullo beat out an infield hit and Gallagher singled home Gaynor to make it 13-5.

But wait, there's more!

Chris Aiello, now in the game for Diaz, reached on an error to load the bases and Donnelly walked to force home another run. Dandorph was hit by a pitch -- all these runs now coming against reliever Wagner, who probably was not feeling so good at this point -- to plate another run and Jedrusiak singled to right to score Aiello and Donnelly to cap an eight-run third, making it 17-5.

By this point, I was rooting for 20 runs, but I was also rooting for a quick finish since I had to get back to Toms River to not only write my story, but to put together the sports section with my boss out that weekend.

The crowning jewel ... the knockout punch ... the icing on the cake -- whatever you want to call it -- came in the top of the fourth inning when Gaynor and Cerullo hit monster home runs to left-center field that totaled a combined 600 feet to make it 19-5. And by now, Gaynor had settled down. He took care of business in the bottom of the fourth with three up and three down, the last out being a harmless groundout by Mike Cust to shortstop Danny Gallagher to end it.

And for the first time in its program's history, Toms River East had won a state Little League championship. Mike Gaynor was right -- THIS was the best team in Gloucester City that week. The 19-5 finish to the tournament was emphatic. And East American players were able to carry the state championship flag around the Gloucester City field with pride as family members and fans were allowed to come onto the field and take pictures.

Those four victories in four days may still be the most amazing thing I've ever seen a team accomplish in all my years as a writer. No one I've ever seen loses a tournament opener at that level and then has to go the long way around in a short amount of time to win it all. Sure as anything, East American used that momentum onto the next stage -- the East Regional Tournament in Bristol, Conn. East American vanquished its four opponents by a 32-4 count, including a 10-0 mercy-rule victory over Brandywine Little League of Delaware to win that championship and move on to the Little League World Series, the first team to do so from Ocean County since Lakewood won the all-national event in 1975. There, though, East American suffered jitters and lost two of the three games in the event to go home.

Three years later with Todd Frazier and Scott Fisher leading the way at the top of the lineup, East American was back at Williamsport for the World Series and won it all, beating Kashima, Japan, 12-9, in the memorable championship. And one year later, East American made it back for a third time in five years, but lost to Colby Rasmus-led Phenix City, Ala., in the national final.

That was one heck of a Little League run for any league in my 29 years in this business. And it all began when the first Windsor Avenue Gang had its back against the wall in the state tournament and responded in a most emphatic way.

It didn't hurt they had a manager who believed they were the best team there, either.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Pop culture? Not so much!

By the spring of 1993 at the Ocean County Observer, we were moving in a bigger direction in the sports department. Mike, our former assistant sports editor, was now our sports editor as of that early March, and a month later, I got elevated to assistant sports editor. After 8 1/2 years, I had finally moved into a full-time position. I was hesitant about it, but I couldn't have been happier.

And our spring 1993 All-County teams were going along just nicely thanks. There were all the basic All-County teams done by our writers there -- Steve Falk did the boys tennis and golf teams, our new track guy, Bob Considine, had put together the All-County boys and girls track teams, I was putting together both the girls soccer and softball teams and Chris Christopher was in charge of taking on the All-County baseball team like he normally does. Mike wrote the Male Athlete of the Year story on Jackson Memorial runner Rich Morris, the first junior to win the honor in that award's history which I still was not sure he deserved (my choice was Pinelands Regional's James Vila, a terrific all-around senior athlete). And there was nooooooo doubt whatsoever as to who our Female Athlete of the Year was -- that would be Ocean County's greatest female athlete, Point Pleasant Boro's Christie Pearce, with 12 All-County first team nods in field hockey, basketball and soccer and who was taking her talents to West Long Branch to join sister Wendi at Monmouth University to play soccer.

But 1993 was also the first year we unveiled a new All-County team. Actually, two of them. For the first time ever, we were doing scholar-athlete teams. While over the years we were honoring the best athletes the county could offer up, what we had not done was reward those who did very well in the classroom with their own All-County team. It was 15 boys and 15 girls representing the 15 high schools in the county, the 14 public schools and Catholic school Monsignor Donovan.

And it was Chris who drew the nod to write the stories. One thing I will always say on Chris' behalf was the man worked very, very hard to put together stories, especially at All-County time. And though at times his stories may have read the same (I called it his "formulaic approach"), they were always done on time and each bio on each kid on each All-County team was done with care. So for the first time, we were given a list of the 15 boys and 15 girls from all our county schools who captured the honors in their classes. And over the years, there was a banquet honoring the young student-athletes thanks to the athletic directors of the county that was held in Brick Township. And for a number of years, I remember WOBM-FM personality Kevin Williams being the emcee of the event.

So it was a big deal. It was decided that after all the spring sports stories were done and the athletes of the year were announced, the All-County scholar-athlete teams were to be announced to our readers. And as always, Chris banged out the two stories of all 30 kids and gave them off to Mike, not ever mentioning the kid's prowess on the field or on the court, but what they were ranked in their class, the grade-point average and what clubs and events they were a part of.

It was a Tuesday night, June 29, 1993. The boys' All-County scholar-athlete story had run in the paper. We had finished up putting the paper out and the only two people left in the sports department were myself and Mike. Mike had been busy most of the night and he wanted to finish up on something he was doing, so he asked me if I could read Chris' All-County girls scholar-athlete team.

I said, "Sure." So I found the file in our system and began to read his story. Now when you're reading the same stuff over and over and over and over again and it's all written in that "formulaic approach" I was talking about earlier, your eyes tend to get a bit heavy and you literally believe that this is the piece of work that was meant to cure insomnia. And, of course, Chris did this All-County team in alphabetical order by school name. So he started with Brick High, then Brick Memorial, Central Regional, Jackson Memorial, Lacey ... and now I'm up to Lakewood's recipient of the honor.

I am not 100 percent sure of who it was, but I am about 90 percent sure so I won't mention the name, but if it was who I think it was, she was one heck of a smart young lady who pitched for the Lakewood Piners softball team that spring. So I'm reading her bio and it's basically the same stuff over and over again in that fantastic "formulaic approach." Apparently, she was a thespian and did plays at Lakewood High. So I'm reading about the plays she was a part of in her four years at the school. And one of those plays is sticking out like a sore thumb to me.

"Greece." 

My mind was not clearly all there after going through a few bios already. It wasn't clicking in. I just kept looking at that word in its spelled out form.

"Greece."

I don't know why it took about 15 seconds, but when it finally sank in, I put my hand over my eyes and gave this, "Oh ... my ... God" reaction to what I just figured out. I shook my head and showed a busy Mike what I just read.

Well it took Mike far less time to figure out the "Greece" thing than I did. I still remember the reaction as he read that line of the young lady's plays and saw that. He hit his forehead with his hand and shook his head afterward.

There was this look of dumbfoundedness that came across.

I made the edit on the screen to change "Greece," to "Grease" ... as in the famous play-turned-movie about high school life at Rydell High School in the 1950s, as in the movie that was celebrating its 15th anniversary in 1993, as in one of the most memorable movies of the 1970s ... of all-time, really!

Yeah, Chris -- that would be THAT "Grease." I don't know anything about that other play "Greece." What was the highlight of "Greece?" Traditional folk music and broken plates all over Athens??

Nonetheless, Mike and I got this terrific laugh over this faux pas. Interestingly, Chris didn't mess anything else up in the All-County story. We were done for the evening.

Now it's Wednesday, June 30, and I had arrived at the same time as Mike. Steve had arrived not too far after that and both Mike and I called Steve over to tell him what Chris had written. In typical Steve fashion, he shook his head and asked, "Are you serious?"



So before I had left to come to work, I slipped into my parents' album collection at home and pulled out the famous "Grease" double album (above) which, of course, featured John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John on the front. I kept it underneath the computer terminal ready to pull it out when the time came. So I'm sitting on one side of the sports desk with Mike and Steve is on the other. Chris was out covering a basketball game that night. Well sometime after 8 that night, Chris came back from his event and he reported to the desk as he always had to tell us about what was going on at Bay Lea courts that evening.

Mike told him all is cool. Then it was my turn.

"Chris, I had to edit your All-County girls scholar-athlete team last night. You had one mistake in there as far as I could see, but it was a pretty glaring one."

Chris looked at me quizzically.

So I ask him, "Spell the play 'Grease?'"

He looked at me like I was nuts or something close to that.

"You had a girl from Lakewood High who was in the musical 'Grease.' Spell 'Grease?'"

And so he proceeds to spell it just like the country -- "G-r-e-e-c-e."

At this point, Mike is doing everything within his power to keep from cracking up and Steve is looking stone-faced at Chris knowing there's a punchline waiting to be delivered. That's when I pulled out the famous album with the famous cover on it.

"Chris, recognize this album?"

It was slowly coming back to him. I think he started to half-heartedly sing, "You're The One That I Want," but I wasn't having any of that.

"C'mon Chriiiiiis!" I said with a smile. "This was out 15 years ago! You had to remember this, right?"

Mike couldn't hold it in any longer. Chris walked away knowing that we called him on his pop culture references and poor Mark, our nighttime news side editor, just shook his head in absolute disbelief. And I didn't stop smiling for another hour.

I'm pretty sure that Chris was careful about the names of plays and how they were spelled in the following years while I was there as an editor looking over his work.

But I had to admit it was one of the funniest things I had ever seen in my 15 years at the Observer.

And I'm still waiting on the movie version of "Greece."

 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The mess known as the 1991 OCT championship

For the fourth straight year, the 1991 Ocean County Softball Tournament championship game saw the top two seeds in the event make the final.

By far, top-seeded Toms River North and No. 2 seed Brick were the two best teams in the county all season long.

North was getting back to elite status under head coach Becky Miller and she had a senior-dominated team led by the battery of pitcher Heather Richards and catcher Kim Niedzwicki, shortstop Tammy Pape, third baseman Jen Carlisle, left fielder Rene Haskamp and overall best hitter and center fielder Jen Gentle. Everything pointed in North's direction that this should have been their year. They were the favorites that season to win the Class A South season considering their in-town rivals of East and South were going to have somewhat "down" years compared to 1990, South losing quite a few players from the previous two seasons, and East having to be in "interim head coach" mode when Debbie Schwartz took time off from her position to raise her first child, Alex, and Joe Arminio was called up from the junior varsity level to help assistant Dawn Dziedzic.

South still had a very, very good year thanks to pitcher Jodi Solana and third baseman Renae Avalone. East flat-out didn't (5-19) and the season was a nightmare on Raider Way.

Southern Regional was building up toward the next two years with its talent, as was Jackson Memorial. Lakewood had a halfway decent team thanks to seniors Jennifer Cranley and Addie Dix as leaders. Brick Memorial was going through a tough time of it like East.

That left Brick. Yeah, the Brick High Green Dragons who just four years earlier were the laughingstock of high school softball in Ocean County. From 1985-87, the team built a streak of 40 consecutive games.

That's 40 consecutive losing games. When I said they were bad, I mean they were really bad.

But in 1988, a new coach entered the fray. His name was Al Grove. He was the popular longtime head boys bowling coach at the school and his program churned out standout bowlers and his teams were usually division winners. He knew the girls on the softball team and he felt like he could get that program going in the right direction.

Well a new batch of freshmen entered in with Grove that year, but none of them shined quite the way Viki Kara did. Kara was a hard-throwing right-hander whose pitches were just too hard to catch up with. Many in Ocean County did not see this kind of pitcher unless they were facing Solana on an occasional basis. Solana was tough on the left side, Kara was tough on the right.

Brick started turning its misfortune around. Six games into the 1988 season, the Green Dragons broke the losing skid at 45 games when Kara no-hit Howell. In 1989, Brick won an OCT first-round game when Kara no-hit Manchester. But getting to the next level was a challenge after just winning games -- Brick lost in 1989 to eventual champion Toms River East in the OCT quarterfinals, then were stunned by Sue Rogers' Pinelands Regional team in the opening round of the 1990 tournament as Tara Leek tossed a surprising 8-0 shutout against Kara and the Green Dragons.

Now the 1991 Green Dragons had really one shot left to go to that next level. Like North, Brick was senior-laden as well with Kara, first baseman Lori Liegl, third baseman Kim Coco, left fielder Danielle Tomaselli and right fielder Stacy Sherman.

The two teams were on a collision course all season with one another. They split their Class A South battles, North winning the first matchup and Brick capturing the second. And it was that first win that gave North the top seed of the OCT ahead of Brick, which got the No. 2 seed, while South was awarded the third seed. But it was the second win that gave Brick the fourth seed for the Shore Conference Tournament and North the fifth seed, meaning the two teams would collide in the quarterfinals if they won their first-rounders.

Both teams did and in the third meeting, Brick defeated North. Brick lost a tough one to Middletown South in the semifinals. Still, the toteboard read Brick 2, North 1.

As for the state tournament, the two teams reached the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV semifinals. North beat Washington Township, but Brick lost a heartbreaker, 2-1, in eight innings to Cherokee even though Kara struck out 20 Chiefs, including a mind-blowing 17 in a row. Cherokee would go on to beat North in the SJ IV final at North.

All that was left was the OCT. North and Brick both drew byes as the top two seeds in the 14-team event. North defeated fiesty Southern, 4-2, on Gentle's clutch two-run double in the sixth that broke a 2-2 tie. Brick had little trouble beating the Cranley- and Dix-led Lakewood Piners, 10-3, as Kara struck out 10 and allowed four hits. The Piners helped the Green Dragons' cause immensely by committing 12 errors in this game.

An omen of things to come down the road.

Now because of the two other tournaments, the semifinals and final were not set up until the first week of June. So after the May 18 quarterfinals, the next games would not be played until Monday, June 3, a busy day to say the least since it started with me waiting for tickets in Holmdel for a couple of shows I was interested in seeing at the Garden State Arts Center that summer. I stood in line for what was almost four hours. Good thing I planned accordingly that day to take my scorebook and my Radio Shack-made speakers and public address system with me so I could jump back on the Parkway and drive to Lakewood's Wilbur Thompson Field, located across the street from Lakewood High School since I was to cover the games that night and do the PA as well.

Got there just about 4 p.m. and hurried to get everything together for what would be a 5 p.m. start of the twinbill. First up was North and Point Pleasant Boro. The Panthers, the No. 5 seed of the tournament, had turned their fortunes around in 1990 under new coach John Natoli, a super-great guy. However, thanks to budget cuts that spring, a few teachers' heads were on the chopping block at the Boro.

One of those heads was Natoli's. And there was very little support from the higher-ups at the school, most notably athletic director Ed Gilmore. The players went to bat for Natoli, but they could not save his job. And so mere days after Natoli and his players realized he was not coming back for the '92 season, Boro walked on the field and played this semifinal like they were part of a funeral procession.

North could have just about done anything it wanted to that night. The Mariners allowed Angela Stencel to score on an error off a Judy DelPlato groundball in the first inning for a 1-0 lead, but the Mariners then tied it when catcher DelPlato threw away a wild pitch by starter Michelle Meaney trying to get Gentle at third and Gentle easily came in. First baseman Jen DeNitto knocked in Pape with the go-ahead run in the third and North exploded for four runs in the fifth and two more in the sixth. Boro committed four of its five errors in the final two innings and lost 8-1 as Richards allowed two hits, walked four, hit a batter and struck out three.

The story, though, really was never about North winning -- it was about Boro's last game under Natoli, who won 31 games in his two years, but his thanks was to be set free after the school year was up. A number of Boro girls, including Meaney, came off that field in tears. That sight I will never forget.

Sure, North had its moments in the game to win, but this was all about Boro and it was coming after the media attention caused by Natoli's soon-departure. Natoli was melancholy afterward, but he sadly understood the circumstances and had that resignation of "completion" with the program. No matter what anyone was going to say or do in his defense, it was over in Point Pleasant Boro's eyes.

To this day, it is still one of the worst decisions I've ever seen made by a board of education. I've always contended that there are bad teachers with tenure that should be sent out to pasture before any of the young and vibrant ones who could spark an interest in the youth of today.

One semifinal down, one to go -- and in this one, Brick beat South in a battle of all battles featuring the two hardest-throwing pitchers in the county. With Brick holding a 2-1 lead in the fifth, Kara came up against Solana. She took a 1-2 pitch and rocketed it out to the right-center field gap. She circled the bases for an inside-the-park home run. Kara was able to protect the lead and the Green Dragons won it, 3-1, to make their first-ever final. Kara struck out five Indians that night and allowed three hits. In her final game, Solana gave up four hits, two earned runs and struck out six.

So we had our final -- North against Brick. The game was slated for Saturday night, June 8, 1991, at Wilbur Thompson Field. I had to do the preview for the game for the Observer. Coach Miller was not happy with me because I made her win against Point Boro all about Boro and she basically complained that, "Hey, we won the game." I understood her point. It wasn't as if this was the first time she had something to complain about with me, though, and I always kept those complaints in my back pocket. Meanwhile, Grove was just pleased that his kids were performing to the level he had hoped they would all along. This championship was going to be the culmination of from where he started with the woebegone program in 1988 and the end point of his team hoisting the championship trophy.

It is 4:30 p.m., June 8. This day was just freakishly hot. The afternoon high was 92 degrees. And as I arrived in the back of the parking lot away from potential foul balls hitting my car, I could see both Dave McKelvey, the Lakewood High coach and tournament director, and Steve Levine, who helped run the Lakewood Recreation Softball League that played on this field, getting the field ready for the game. McKelvey had run a hose and watered the field at about 4:40 p.m.

Game time was 7 and I figured he would get back to watering the field again before the game. Never did.

Little did I know of the nightmare that would take place that evening on that field.

This night was going to be unique in many ways, and not just because the two best softball teams in the county were going to settle matters once and for all in a championship game, but this was going to be the very first time that we were going to have a first-pitch ceremony. This was the 10th anniversary of the first championship game played at Winding River Park and the team that won the title, Central Regional, was going to be honored that evening. Dave, who had run the tournament since 1988 and had me come aboard full-time by doing statistics of every game which would lead to the handing out of four individual awards at the end of the event, was more than good with the whole ceremony idea. So before arriving at the field, I had purchased a dozen white roses to give each member of the 1981 Central team that was arriving for the game. And to their credit, most of the players from that team arrived that night to be part of the ceremony, as was head coach Norm Selby and assistant coach Gloria Garibaldi, who were in their first years as the coaching staff in 1981.

By about 5:45 p.m., both teams had arrived at Lakewood's field. And after stretching and running and throwing, they each took their turns at fielding practice. They were both having problems with the field. The field was as hard as a rock, baked in the sun all day long other than the one time McKelvey put a hose to water it down at 4:40 p.m. Somehow, I sensed this was a recipe for disaster.

I never anticipated the battle of attrition I was about to witness, though.

Up from my perch on top of the Lakewood High softball shed, a converted dumpster from years before, I went through both teams' lineups, introduced the coaches and umpires for the final and played the national anthem. And then I introduced the members of the Central team as well as Selby and Garibaldi. At the end, Phyllis Angellella Aires, the winning pitcher in that title game who threw a one-hitter in the 5-2 victory over South that June afternoon at Winding River Park, tossed out the first pitch, which she did in this instance to Niedzwicki. It was an hour earlier when I explained to her that she was going to be introduced last and throw out the first pitch for which she implied playfully, "Do I have to hold my rose?" "No," I answered back. "Demand Selby to hold it." She smiled and he ultimately obliged.

Since that night, the first-pitch ceremony has become a large part of the OCT championship pre-game ceremony and a staple just about every year with the exception of four finals, three of which I was not a part of because I was down in Key West at the time.

And we were off and running on this warm evening with the temperatures hovering still at 85 degrees, the second warmest OCT final ever after the 93-degree, June 7, 1984 afternoon steam bath between Central and Southern at Winding River Park.

Kara was to lead off the game. She hit a grounder at freshman second baseman Lesley Gertner. She fumbled the groundball and could not make a play on it for an error.

This was just the calling card for the rest of the game. Kara stole second and No. 2 hitter Sue Fleisher hit a groundball that ate up Carlisle at third for another error. First and third, no outs and two North errors already. Sherman grounded to Gertner, who tagged out Fleisher, but Kara scored the first run of the game. Coco hit a groundball that caught shortstop Pape in between hops, putting runners on first and second with one out.

That's three errors already and we weren't even five minutes into the game!

Colleen Spillane, the Brick shortstop, beat out an infield single to load the bases. This brought up Tomaselli, whose groundball to Gertner could not be handled properly and Sherman scored to make it 2-0. That's two runs on one hit with four errors within the first six batters of the game. North then got a break when Richards uncorked a wild pitch, but Niedzwicki was cat-like to get to the backstop and throw to Richards at the plate to get Coco in a close play for the second out.

But with runners on second and third, Liegl hit a groundball that Pape could not handle and Spillane came home for the third Green Dragon run on the fifth error of the inning. Richards struck out No. 8 hitter Niki Schley and mercifully, the inning was over.

It was now Brick's turn to be in the field and the left-handed hitting Gentle greeted Kara with a single to left field. Tomaselli muffed the routine grounder in the outfield for one error, allowing Gentle to get to second, then her throw to second skipped past Fleisher, allowing Gentle to move to third.

Two errors, one play. Can someone please play this game correctly!?!

Well Kara was about to remedy the immediate trouble. She struck out Pape and Richards swinging and caught DeNitto looking to end the inning.

Richards left two runners stranded on base after hits in the top of the second and in the bottom of the inning, Carlisle beat out an infield single. Niedzwicki beat out a bunt single on the left side and when third baseman Coco threw the ball away for yet another error, Carlisle was on third with no outs. Right fielder Paige Reinheimer delivered an opposite-field single to right to score Carlisle, cutting the lead to 3-1 and putting Niedzwicki at third. But Kara struck out designated hitter Kim Snell and got Haskamp to pop out to her to end the rally.

In the third, Coco hit a grounder right back at Richards, but Richards didn't take her time and threw errantly to DeNitto for North's sixth miscue of the game. Pape, though, had her back. She snagged a Spillane line drive at her and thrw to DeNitto to double up Coco, then gobbled up a Tomaselli grounder to end the inning, keeping it at 3-1.

And it was Kara's turn to soon err. After Pape walked, Richards put down a bunt, but Kara's throw to Liegl was low and in the dirt for Brick's fourth error of the game, moving runners to second and third with no outs. Yet another North threat. But DeNitto popped out to Coco, Carlisle struck out looking and Niedzwicki lined out to Liegl to squash that opportunity.

North was doing damage to itself. The Mariners had the opportunities, but couldn't cash in, yet they were hanging in there down 3-1 after three innings.

Then this venture was about to get waaaaaay more interesting. Liegl delivered a solid hit to right field, and when the ball took an unfamiliar hop on the Thompson Field grass to Reinheimer, she couldn't glove it. It skipped past her, but not too far. Still, it allowed Liegl to get to second on North's seventh error of the game.

After Richards struck out Schley on a third-strike bunt attempt foul, designated hitter Kelly Munro came up. She hit a grounder that Pape snagged, then looked to second to hold up Liegl. Unfortunately, her throw was not quite near DeNitto and skipped away, allowing Liegl to get to third as Munro scampered to second.

Kara grounded out to Gertner for the second out, but Liegl scored to make it 4-1. Then Fleisher, Sherman and Coco all followed up with solid singles to score Munro and Fleisher. Reinheimer threw a strike to Pape at second to nail Coco trying to advance on her single.

But once again, Brick made North pay for the errors it made and it was 6-1. The Mariners couldn't let this game get badly out of hand. And by the fourth, Kara had found her groove. Going in with a 21-4 record, just like her team, Kara settled down. She gave up a fourth-inning single to Haskamp, but everyone else she got out, including fifth-inning strikeouts of Pape and DeNitto.

By the fifth inning, I can see a head pop up slightly over the shed I was sitting on from the ladder. It was McKelvey, who looked at me and told me, "This is it. I've had it." It was code that after four years of running the OCT, he had enough. I'm pretty certain the activity on the field was making it harder for him to want to stay around. And so by 1992, the tournament was going to have its fourth director in history after South coach Jim Christiano, former East mentor Rick Dispoto and McKelvey. 

In the top of the sixth, another Gertner error, her third of the game, got Kara on. But back-to-back comebackers from Fleisher and Sherman to Richards turned into forceouts at second. Then after a single by Coco, her second of the game, Spillane struck out looking.

North was still in this, but were trailing by five runs with two innings to go. These Mariners were in a familiar position, though -- just one year earlier, it was them leading East, 6-1, with three outs left in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinal matchup at Southern Regional before East rallied for a 7-6 win in the bottom of the seventh. So it could be done again.

And North was about to start taking advantage when Carlisle hit a grounder to Fleisher, who couldn't completely haul in the grounder for one error, then threw wildly away from Liegl for another error, putting a runner on second with no outs. A good start for North.

More importantly, those errors helped to establish history -- the 14th and 15th errors of this championship game had tied the record held by Central and South in the 1986 final. The next faus pas was about to be record-setting.

The next batter was Niedzwicki. She put a bunt down to move Carlisle up. Kara went to grab the ball between the mound and the first-base line, but couldn't pick it up. A freakin' flat-out, history-makin' error!

That's when I knew something needed to be announced. And I was just the person to do it.

"Ladies and gentleman. With that error, the two teams have now combined to set a new OCT record for errors in a final. That was the 16th error of the game."

Brick assistant coach Amy Tice looked directly up my way from where she was just below in the first-base dugout and said, "Thanks a lot!"

No matter how bad any final was before this one -- or after this one -- this championship game was going down as the worst one ever! Though the hardness of the field caused by a hot day and not helped by having a hose water down the field only once was making matters difficult for both teams defensively, still these were the two best teams in the county! No excuses!!

A passed ball by catcher Denise Hill allowed Niedzwicki to get to second, but because of Kara's hustle, Carlisle was held up at third. Kara was able to bear down to strike out Reinheimer and Snell. That left it up to Haskamp, the Mariners' No. 9 hitter. On a 1-1 pitch, Haskamp hit a two-hopper to Liegl, who let the ball play her instead of vice-versa. The ball skipped off her glove and to the foul-ball side of first base. The 17th error of the game allowed Carlisle to score, making it 6-2.

But Miller was going to gamble. She sent Niedzwicki around third heading home. Liegl was able to get to the ball that was not too far from where she fumbled the initial grounder. The left-handed Liegl picked the ball up, wheeled around and fired a strike to Hill, catching Niedzwicki by about a step as the tag was made to end the threat.

North got a run, but it needed more. And now down 6-2 with three outs left, you could see the wind was taken right out of their sails by the most important play of the game -- a throwing gem that came, naturally, off an error.

Tomaselli singled to begin the seventh and a Richards error off a Liegl grounder was only complicating things further when Richards recovered the ball and had Tomaselli dead-to-rights out at third, but Carlisle dropped the ball for the 11th North error, putting runners on second and third with no outs. Schley grounded out to Pape, who froze the other runners. But Munro singled to score Tomaselli to make it 7-2. And with Munro taking second on fielder's indifference, it brought up Kara with second and third and one out. She hit a groundball that Gertner could not handle for her record-tying fourth error in the final, allowing Liegl to score to make it 8-2. Grove put in Shannon Bowman as a pinch-runner so Kara could get to relax a little bit before going out to pitch in the bottom of the inning. Bowman took off for second and stole the base, but on the play, Richards, who got the ball from Niedzwicki, tried to catch Munro sleeping.

Didn't work ... the one-hopper Richards threw in Carlisle's way bounced behind her for the Mariners' 13th and final error of the game brought home Munro, making it 9-2. Fleisher blooped a double to right field, but because there was an uncertainty of whether the ball would be caught or not, Bowman held up at third. Then Sherman hit a groundball at Pape, who kept the runner close at third, then fired to DeNitto for the out. Bowman took off for home and DeNitto fired a strike to Niedzwicki to nail Bowman to complete the 6-3-2 double play and end the inning.

The irony of all ironies -- in having the worst fielding day of any team in OCT championship history with a record 13 errors, which still stands to this day, North finished the day with a very well-tailored double play.

But no matter how good North was, it wasn't scoring seven runs with three outs left against Kara, who was primed to finish out the rags-to-riches story for Brick.

Gentle started the inning out by reaching on an error by Coco -- the ninth Brick error of the game and the 22nd and final miscue of this matchup. But for as quickly as Gentle got to first, she was off for second.

One problem -- she left first base too soon and was banged out for it by the umpire for the first out of the inning. Gentle, a two-time All-County center fielder, had her last high school memory be of that. Pape and Richards both reached on singles, but the seven-run mountain to climb was just a bit much for the Mariners. DeNitto went after the first pitch from Kara and popped up to the pitcher.

In the seventh inning, Kara only threw six pitches -- four of North's Mariners went after Kara's first pitch and put it in play. That was the case with Carlisle, whose high school career ended with a lazy flyball to center field that Schley backed up a couple of feet on and pocketed for the last out of the game.

Brick players celebrated at the mound and Grove, who was to turn 50 later that year, became the oldest coach to win an OCT title, an honor he would hold until 1998. He was given the Gatorade bath by his players soon after it was over.

Brick ended the season with a 22-4 record, the best in program history. And Kara took home both the Most Valuable Pitcher and Most Valuable Player honors in her final game. She finished with 46 wins and her contributions to Brick's turnaround as a program prompted Grove to retire her No. 13 jersey.

Ironically, the Top Fielder Award went to a player on North's team -- DeNitto, who did not make an error for the entire tournament. And after it was all over and I had to read the final, ugly totals -- Brick, nine runs, 13 hits, nine errors, North, two runs, nine hits, 13 errors -- it was one of North's player who approached my post after the game and told me, "How dare you!"

To this day, I still have no idea what she was talking about. If it had to do with announcing the error totals of the game and the fact a record had been set of 22 errors in the final, then I'm not sorry at all. Actually, I was quite embarrassed to be there to witness this disaster and she had no room to talk considering she committed a few of those errors.

If I felt sorry for anyone that day, it was Lesley Gertner, the freshman pressed into the role at second base because normal second baseman Snell got hurt and couldn't play the position, forcing Gertner into a distinction no one ever wishes to have. She tied the four errors made by Toms River South shortstop Michele Recchion in that '86 final for most miscues in a final. Coincidentally, Recchion and Gertner would be joined on the list of four-error players by another North second baseman, Nicolette Schellato, in the 1997 final at Toms River East against Central Regional.

But in 1993, Gertner and North redeemed themselves when it won the OCT as a fourth seed and Gertner was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player, an amazing comeback to say the least.

Still, as I packed up my things and left, I had one side partying with their trophy -- and another side pissed off at me. And as I put my stuff into my car, I realized something -- my car window on my driver's side was still down because of how blazing hot it was that day. And as I went to sit down in my '77 Dodge Aspen, my driver's side seat was wet. There was not a cloud in the sky and we had no rain in the final.

You could figure out which side caused that to happen. So with a soggy seat, I drove back to the Observer to write up the game story and file it.

And the next day, I still had a whole lot of crap filed away in the back of my mind, including the actions of some loser fans on the Toms River North side. So on Sunday, I asked Dave, our assistant sports editor, how much room we had. He said we had plenty. I told him I could give him an OCT notebook as a followup to the game. He was fine with it.

My first phone call that Sunday evening went to South coach Jim Christiano, whose Indians stumbled and fumbled their way to that embarrassing 11-error performance in the '86 final against Central, which they lost, 9-5. He said he had read my story and that he was just in shock over the performances of both teams, especially North because he told me that North's big asset was its defense. But he said he was also relieved he didn't have that record anymore for most errors in a final by one team. He gladly let North have that mark.

So my lead was of Christiano's reaction to the error-fest that took place in Lakewood that Saturday night. And needless to say, Becky Miller wasn't too pleased with her place in history and she complained again about the story.

"Why are you complaining about it? It happened. Your team did it and it cost them."

 Again, she was stating her claim that yes, her team did make 13 errors in a final and that they can't replay the game. But it was just the whole precedent that it was, well, being celebrated. It was never talked about again.

Hard-as-a-rock field or not, North couldn't look this bad in a final. I couldn't care less what excuse they used. North was a No. 1 seed, plain and simple. North didn't play like one.

And thus the 1991 season ended that destructively. Twenty-two errors in a final during a season that was loaded with some of the best softball individual talent I ever encountered. It shouldn't have ended that way.

But it did. I hope I never view another game quite like that one again.