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Sunday, January 27, 2013

The terrible end to Kim Babiak's basketball career

As a full-time student at Monmouth College and having to work nights, let's say the degree of difficulty in accomplishing anything in my life was fairly high. Add a girlfriend in there who didn't have a license to drive at the time, and yeah, things certainly were challenging in the fall of 1986 and winter/spring 1987.

But I did like the idea of making money like any other 20-year-old at the time and I took on assignments to cover in Ocean County to get my foot through the door at another newspaper ... or so I thought back in 1987.

This included covering Friday night basketball when we didn't publish on Saturdays at the Observer. And so on Friday night, January 30, 1987, I was asked by my boss to cover a big Shore Conference Class A South girls basketball game between Toms River South and Southern Regional at South, right around the corner from the newspaper building. My last class of the day on Fridays ended around 3 p.m. during that time, so that didn't bother me at all.

For one thing, I handled all the statistics for girls and boys basketball. This was right up my alley since I knew who the players were on all the teams and I got to see them up close. And in this particular case, the Rams of Southern Regional coach Kathy Leslie came in with an 11-4 record overall and 5-2 in the division, trying to catch up to division leader Lakewood. South, meanwhile, was very formidable at 8-2 overall and 5-1 in the division, also chasing after Lakewood in Class A South. So for now, the battle was for either South to maintain second place in the division or for Southern to force South into a two-way tie in second at the time.

Southern Regional had good players on its team like senior all-everything guard Michelle Jones, scrappy junior forward Patti Caufield, sophomore standout guard Mary Tantillo and solid junior center Charity Smead, a standout in track and field as well. Southern was good. The Indians of second-year coach Barbara Hughes was loaded with talent, too, starting with senior center Toni-Marie Izzie and junior forward Chris Maloney.

But their star player was a senior guard named Kim Babiak. If not for Lakewood's incredible Carol Walters, Babiak would have been the best senior female athlete in the county that year. She was a four-year All-County first-team standout on the tennis court at No. 1 singles and was a dynamite role player for the previous two seasons on the basketball team for Hughes and before her, the late Bill Dougherty. And she was a sensational sprinter and hurdler in track and field. But in her junior year, she left track and field and tried out for coach Jim Christiano's softball team. Not only did she make the team, she patrolled center field and stole 37 bases in 37 attempts -- no one threw her out! And her bat and speed helped the Indians reach the finals of both the Ocean County and Shore Conference tournaments as well as a share of the Class A South title with an overall record of 24-6.

And as I kidded her while she was in high school, I told her it was amazing that she found the time to be the female lead in the Honeydrippers' video for the song "Sea Of Love" because if you remember seeing the video or even view it on YouTube, she looked very much like the young lady in the video. Of course it wasn't her, but she was a spitting image.

I totally thought the world of Kim Babiak. She was a great young lady from a great family. Her mom, Geri, was a sweetheart and her dad, Bob, was a terrific guy. Her older brother, Bobby, another super guy, I got to know as a South football and track standout and then again when he was coaching track at Toms River North in the 1990s.

Babiak was averaging 18.8 points a game in 10 games and a big reason why South and Hughes, also the school's field hockey coach in the fall, did not have to worry about the outside game or handling the ball for that matter.

So as I came into South's gym, I got my spot at the scorer's table, wrote down the lineups for both teams, chatted for a moment with both Hughes and Leslie, and said hello to the people I knew fairly well, which would be Izzie and Babiak. All seemed right for the moment.

Southern Regional teams under Leslie were best known for their defensive prowess. Whether they had the best talent in the county or not, she always stressed defense as a major part of her team. In other words, if you couldn't play defense for Leslie, chances were you weren't playing for Southern Regional at all.

So imagine Leslie's surprise as Izzie won the tip from Smead, Babiak got the ball and drove right to the basket for the game's first two points.

Already, the yelling started from Southern's sideline.

"Michelle Jooooooones!! You are supposed to pick her up!! Where's the rest of you to help out?!"

It didn't take long for the Rams to answer. Jones hit on a layup to tie it at 2-2, then after a South miss, Caufield got the ball from Jones and delivered a basket from in close to make it 4-2. Another South miss and Southern had the ball back, but a pass by Jones was deflected and picked up by Babiak for the steal.

This is where everything changed for South in the game and their season -- and Babiak's basketball career.

As she took the ball down the floor for what seemed to be an uncontested layup, Smead raced down the court as fast as she could to try to catch up with Babiak. I can still see Babiak being grabbed from behind by Smead -- not viciously by any means -- but as Smead got her, she turned Babiak around as the South guard threw up a wild shot.

That's when it happened. It wasn't clear enough, but when you started to hear wails of pain, you knew it wasn't good. To brace her fall from Smead's foul from behind, Babiak put her right arm out.

It snapped. The wrist was broken. And for the next five to 10 minutes, the game was delayed as South trainer Debbie Morante had to come out to tend to a shaken and crying Babiak. And worse, when her good friend and longtime teammate Izzie came over to see what was going on, she became so shaken she started to weep openly. This moment was an absolute hot mess.

I always said the person who really should have been crying at that moment was junior Karen Schuler, who was now going to have to be the full-time point guard of the team and with the knowledge she was not going to contribute nearly 20 points a game.

As Babiak was taken off the court for what would be the last time in her high school basketball career, heading over to nearby Community Memorial Hospital, I knew -- and I think Hughes and South fans knew -- that South's season was not going to be the same. Babiak was the engine that ran this automobile and without her, South didn't really stand a chance.

There was an emptiness within that South gymnasium for that moment and for the rest of that game for that matter. And I remember there was a sudden heaviness ... not of hatred, but a slight bit of anger ... toward Smead, who was only trying to do her job at that moment, but in her clumsy way of doing it, had just put a damper on South's season. I could feel it in the gym for the rest of the night, especially after Schuler came in and missed both free throws.

The game went on from there and that bit of anger grew even more as Southern went on a 13-0 run to make it 17-2 in the first quarter with Jones taking advantage of not having Babiak all over her like white on rice with eight points in the run. South stopped the run by putting a full-court pressure on Jones and Tantillo and went on an 8-0 run to make it 17-10.

Sadly, that would be the closest South would get from there. Leslie made the adjustments for her young ladies and by the third quarter, the game got out of hand. By the end of the game, Southern had put the finishing touches on a 66-40 rout. By far, the rest of the game was very unmemorable. Jones had 22 points, most of which came on long-range jumpers, while Smead had 14 points and eight rebounds and Caufield had six points and seven rebounds. Reserve Kristen Stohrer added eight points off the bench.

Maloney ended up leading South with 14 points, while Izzie had 10 points and Schuler had six points after stepping in for Babiak.

But all that was trivial. Broken wrists don't heal that quickly and not only was Hughes having to face the reality she didn't have her superstar guard for the rest of the season, but Christiano was not going to have his centerfielder for her senior softball season. Without her that spring, South had a good season, but certainly could have had a better season. The Indians went to the OCT semifinals that spring and who knows if Babiak were in the lineup how well they may have done against Lacey in a 13-12 loss.

Meanwhile, Hughes and her Indians had to move on from this particular game. Unfortunately, they had to move on to a date the very next night at Lakewood ... and it didn't go so well. Lakewood was in the middle of a second state South Jersey Group III title in three years and blew out the Indians. To add insult to already hard-luck injury, Walters scored her 1,000th career point in that game.

Babiak would eventually return to track and field and have a successful season with a pair of wins in the county meet that spring. She would go on to play tennis at the Jacksonville University and graduate with a degree in marketing. In 1996, she was working for the American Hockey League team in Baltimore and she let my dad and I into the old Civic Center in downtown Baltimore to see the place that the old Baltimore Bullets played basketball back in the day while we were down for an Orioles game the night before. It was good to see her. Shortly after she showed us around that morning, she got the call to work with the marketing department with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Ultimately, she got to do the same thing, but this time head the department, with the Houston Texans franchise as they were getting of the ground. And we were in contact my first couple of years with the Palatka Daily News since I got to cover the Jacksonville Jaguars in the same AFC South division and asked her if she ever came back to Jacksonville. She said she really didn't really travel with the team, but in January 2004, she got to help out the NFL with whatever the league asked her to do in preparing Reliant Stadium for Super Bowl XXXVIII when the New England Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers.

The next year, it was Jacksonville who got to host the big game and to do a column on what a franchise or a city had to get done to make a city presentable for a Super Bowl, I called up the one person with experience who can tell me what does happen. Now Kim Phillips, she answered the phone and gave me 45 minutes of wonderful time. It was a good conversation as we caught up on what was going on. She had not given me any indication that she was leaving the Texans, but she did.

And that conversation in early February 2005 was the last time I talked with Kim Babiak Phillips. I'm sure a lot has happened in eight years, but I do miss her. She may not have been the best athlete I ever covered, but she certainly was one of my favorite people I got to know in these 28 years.

She was worth the time and effort to go see play and cover ... even with a busy schedule to manage.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The basketball game that may have cured what ailed me

There are times that fish made in restaurants and I didn't get along. I stick now to the occasional visit to McDonald's for a fish fillet sandwich or Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips if there are any within a reasonable distance or good ol' Red Lobster. None of them have done me wrong over the years.

These days, I make my own fish meals, usually a good grilled salmon or simple tuna fish from a can. I still love clams and scallops and won't ever deny myself shrimp of almost any kind.

But back in my "reckless" days, any fish was not off limits to me. I was a fan of the old all-you-can-eat clam strips meal at Howard Johnson's restaurant. And I used to enjoy going to Friendly's in Toms River for the clam boat and occasional fish sandwich.

And thus begins this tale of literal woe for me. On Friday, January 14, 1994, my new girlfriend and I went to the nearby Ocean County Mall for dinner and a movie. We stopped in at Friendly's on that particular evening and I ordered the fish sandwich they made there. All seemed fine afterward and we went to the movie at the old cinema around the corner within the mall. We came back to my folks' place and both of us fell asleep that night in my small bed.

The next morning -- Saturday, January 15, 1994 -- we both woke up and I was feeling sluggish. She knew I had to be at work in the afternoon, so we spent the morning together and then she took off for her home in Monmouth County. But I couldn't shake whatever it was that I had. Usually at the Observer at this particular time, I would come into work around 4:30 p.m. and if there were games to pick up during the day, I'd do that. At this particular time, I was the girls basketball writer for the paper, and the highlight of the day/night for me was the big Class A South match-up between two very good teams, Southern Regional and Toms River North, with the game at North that night. It would be the first meeting this season between the two big-time rivals.

But at 3 p.m., I started feeling worse. I couldn't shake whatever it was I had. It was so bad that by 4 p.m., I was wishing whatever I had went away. At that point, I called up my boss, Mike, and explained to him that I was not up to taking phone calls, but I was up to covering the basketball game right around the corner from me at North and could I just forgo being in the office where I felt miserable. He knew I was very good for the time he was there at being loyal and dependable. So he gave me a pass and told me he'd see me after the game.

By 6 p.m., the pain was becoming so bad that I was starting to feel nauseous. I spent quite a bit of time upstairs in the bathroom trying to induce my vomiting. That's how bad it was. Problem, though, was I couldn't do it. That's when I knew there may be a problem for this one evening. Or at least that was my best hope -- that this wouldn't linger for days.

I knew at 6:30 what the culprit was in the past 24 hours since I hadn't eaten anything else before or after. The only thing I could do was tough it out -- and so by 7 p.m., I was off to make the three-plus mile trip to Old Freehold Road to Toms River North's old gymnasium to watch this battle of titans.

North's Mariners of long-time coach Ray Cervino were the defending Class A South champions and were led by a dynamite group of players, starting with junior guard Sandy Bisogno and junior center Dana Simonelli and included sophomore forward Kristen Herzer and 5-foot-7 freshman phenom Melissa Fazio. Southern coach Kathy Snyder had been coach of her team one year longer than Cervino of his. She, too, had a dynamite group of young ladies playing like guards Jodie Davis and Kirsten Sciallo, a good forward in Jamie Bogdol and the Rams, too, had a freshman phenom with a lot of potential in 6-1 center Candice McCallum.

On paper, this was looking to be a tremendous battle. But they were polar opposites of one another. For North, there wasn't a jailbreak they didn't enjoy making -- if Cervino had given Bisogno, his point guard, the green light the entire 32 minutes, she'd have run opposition defenses ... and her own team's offense for that matter ... ragged. North averaged 67 points a game in compiling a 5-3 record. Southern, on the other hand, didn't quite have the talent to go up and down the court quite like North did, so they had to slow it up -- and I mean slooooooooooow it up. They were averaging 26 points a game defensively in getting out to a 7-0 start and a Christmas tournament championship.

In other words, it was the proverbial "something had to give."

But in North's case, they were having to deal with an angry coach, who watched his talented Mariners stink up the entire court in a 69-59 loss two nights earlier against Middletown North. So let's just say Friday's practice the day before the Southern game wasn't a very pleasant one.

One team concentrating on playing better defense, the other team concentrating on playing defense by never allowing the other team to have the ball for any amount of time.

Yeah, this one had the potential of being bad in that regard.

I didn't know it was going to be this bad when McCallum and Simonelli jumped center to start the game.

North won the toss and brought the ball up the court. Herzer took a Bisogno pass and scored to make it 2-0.

And Southern took the ball down the court and proceeded to take a lot of time off the clock. No shot clock. No warnings. Nada. North just allowed Southern to dribble around or hold the ball. You'd thought Dean Smith was making a 1970s cameo in the North gym the way Southern was going to work the four corners. Somehow, Taragh Maples scored to make it 2-2. And with one more North basket in the first quarter, it was 4-2 in favor of the Mariners.

The second quarter began with Southern doing more of the same -- holding onto the ball, not allowing North to do anything with it. But nothing was coming from it. Allyson Sieka, another North sophomore forward, delivered a basket to make it 6-2.

And under Snyder's command, Southern continued to slow it down until the Rams found what was an "appropriate" shot. They drained the clock to under 90 seconds left before halftime when Davis found the right moment to put up a 3-point shot.

"Noooo! You can't do that! Noooooo!!" 

Swish. "Greaaaat shooot!!"

It was now 6-5 and after North missed another attempt at the basket, McCallum rebounded and got the ball back to Davis. This time, the Rams decided to drain about 35 seconds off the clock before Davis, all of a sudden feeling frisky as hell, threw up another three-point attempt.

Swish! Southern led, 8-6. And when North could not hit a shot at the buzzer, that was the score at halftime.

Southern 8, Toms River North 6. It was a battle of Ocean County titans and Snyder and the Rams successfully slowed it down to a crawl like no one ever saw before or since.

And the way I was feeling at that point physically, if they had put a working toilet bowl right next to the scorer's table, I think I may have been successful in getting rid of what was ailing me.

The Rams and Mariners had succeeded in taking basketball back 50 years in those God-awful 16 minutes. Only two Christian schools with little talent could equal that kind of a first half and I guarantee you, the Christian schools would put up more shots than Southern and North had put up in that first half.

There was no way in hell I was going to be watching a 16-12 game and then having to write about it. Without saying a word, I was clapping hard, my way of pleading and willing Southern to play a little more offense ... and pleading and willing North to get some kind of groove going to make this game seem a little more, well, enjoyable.

I don't think in my 28 years of covering athletics have I wanted something as dull and tedious as this game to be a little more exciting. The first thing Cervino did coming out of the locker room was to drop out of the 2-3 zone his team was playing and go man-to-man so they could open things up more. Yeah, it was a little bit of a risk to do that, but deep in his heart, I think Cervino knew his team had better overall talent than Snyder's Rams.

It didn't work at the start as McCallum scored her first basket of the game to begin the third quarter. But at least North got Southern out of that "hold-the-ball-for-minutes-until-you-go-into-REM-sleep" mode. And Cervino had Bisogno and her teammates push the envelope, taking the ball to the basket and drawing fouls -- much to Snyder's consternation toward the officials over the fouls her girls were not committing but yet they were getting called for. Both Sieka and Herzer drew fouls and each hit both free throws to make it 10-10. And on the inbounds pass after Herzer's free throws, Fazio came up with a steal and fed to a driving Bisogno for the layup that gave North the lead back at 12-10 with 6:07 left in the third quarter.

Now that was what I was waiting for. And unfortunately, it was not what Southern Regional wanted to see. North was able to outscore the Rams, 8-4, the rest of the quarter to build a 20-14 lead by the end of the period, the last two points coming after McCallum fouled Bisogno on a 3-point shot at the end of the period.

Southern never truly got back into this game. North took advantage of Southern's fouls, some more questionable than others, and would finish the game a gaudy 22-for-27 from the charity stripe. Maples hit a basket with 4:33 to go to cut Southern's deficit to 23-17. But 17 seconds later, Sieka had three layup opportunities, the third one going in to make it an eight-point lead.

McCallum hit a free throw to make it 25-18, but that would turn out to be Southern's last hurrah. Herzer hit two free throws and then completed a three-point play with 1:18 to go to make it 30-18. Fazio hit two free throws to finish out the 32-18 win that solidified North as the team to beat in the division and handed Southern its first loss of the season.

Another highlight of this night was having to interview both coaches afterward. While Cervino was succinct about where things fell into place and how he was proud of his girls for bouncing back from that terrible first half to win the game, two nights after that terrible exhibition against Middletown North, the always-outspoken Snyder was far more direct about the fouls being called on her team that eventually led to Bogdol and McCallum fouling out.

"The officials stunk." Yeah, I heard about it from her athletic director, Kim DeGraw-Cole, a few days later that she probably shouldn't have said that and that I probably shouldn't have written it. But in all my years I knew Kathy Snyder, she was never backing down from what she thought.

Still, Snyder wasn't going to throw complete blame solely on the people calling the game.

"We will take full responsibility for the loss. We should've been as good as North, but when you miss free throws (the Rams were 2-for-6 from the line in the fourth quarter), you don't help yourself."

Herzer scored 10 points and had six rebounds, while Bisogno had eight points. McCallum was held to six points in this one.

I struggled back to the office, still feeling like crap. And once I got the story written and boxscore from the game put together for the scoreboard page, I helped out where I could before leaving for the night. The next day, the stomach virus went away and I was able to go to the bathroom and didn't have to put my face into the toilet.

North won this game because they were, by far, the more talented team. Southern's scrappers could only hang with North for as long as they could before the Mariners took them to task. And in the return battle a few weeks later at Southern, North won that game, too, and eventually captured the division title again.

But there would be a third battle between the teams. That would come in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV Tournament quarterfinals on Thursday, March 3, 1994 at Southern, the second-seeded Rams holding a better overall record than the seventh-seeded Mariners on the cutoff day for the state tournament. I was off from work that night, so fellow writer Steven Falk got to cover the game, and I took the game in as a spectator.

Southern stayed with North the entire way. North held a 39-36 lead with mere seconds left in the game, but Southern had the ball. Snyder diagrammed a play that threw North for a loop -- they sent McCallum out behind the 3-point arc. With Simonelli jumping out at her, McCallum launched a shot that hit nothing but net. Simonelli was called for the foul and McCallum sank the free throw to finish out the four-point play and when North's last-ditch prayer was not answered, Southern had come away with a shocking 40-39 win. I can still see Snyder running on the court hugging her freshman center in what would become McCallum's defining first moment of her young career and I can still see the tears streaming down Simonelli's face, mainly somewhere between sadness and shock.

North's promising season was over and Southern moved on. The Rams ultimately would lose to a talented Vineland team in the SJ IV semifinal two nights later. But the scripts both teams would begin writing the next three years would be remarkable. In 1995, Southern Regional reached the SJ IV final, but lost to Washington Township. In 1996, North beat Southern, 36-27, to win the SJ IV championship after Southern once again threatened to slow things up, holding North down and taking a 15-9 lead at halftime. North would go on to play for the Group IV championship, losing to Elizabeth in the final. And in 1997, Southern returned the favor on North, beating the Mariners in the SJ IV title game at Toms River East for what would be Snyder's first-ever SJ championship in her long and illustrious career. Southern, led by McCallum as a senior, would ultimately lose to Ashja Jones-led Piscataway in the Group IV semifinal, a year after North had beaten Piscataway in that same game.

That North-Southern rivalry was at its absolute best in that four-year period and was easily the best Ocean County girls basketball rivalry I got to cover.

And to think it began with something so terribly not close to basketball that I could have easily thrown up ... which was something I so badly wanted to do on that January 15, 1994.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The moment I knew the Memorial matmen were for real

My last semester at Ocean County College in the winter/spring of 1986 was yet to start. It was a new year, and I was excited about the things to come. And I was excited about the assignments I got handed to me during the holiday period at the Observer.

I saw the finals of the Jaguar Classic boys basketball tournament at Jackson Memorial High School. I got to cover the WOBM Christmas Classic final when Southern Regional's Steve Lally sunk a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to beat Toms River North and give the Rams the championship. And on the Saturday before that, I got to cover the Neptune Wrestling Classic at Neptune High School.

Coach Tony Caravella's Brick Memorial wrestlin' Mustangs were there and they were expected to dominate a field that wasn't exactly powerful and mighty. So in all fairness, I couldn't really gauge how good this team was. I knew they were coming back defending Shore Conference Tournament champions after Dean Kanabrocki's "bear hug 'heard round the Shore" tied up Tim Rioux and gave the Mustangs the title over defending champion Toms River East. And most of the wrestlers on that club were back, including Kanabrocki, Dean Albanese and Bob Martin, a 169-pounder who had high hopes of going all the way to a state championship.

But dominating a group of teams that didn't strike the fear of God in Memorial's eyes wasn't all that scintillating. It just felt, well, "blaaaah." Yet, it was a story and it got in the paper and no one complained and I guess it was all right, yadda yadda yadda.

A week and a half later as 1985 was now 1986, I draw the assignment to go see Brick Memorial wrestle again. OK, fair enough. I'll see them a second time and maybe the team or teams they face will be a lot more intimidating.

Turns out, one of the teams they were going to face was a fellow Top 10-ranked school in New Jersey called Delaware Valley. So, yeah, I'm hyped up. I couldn't wait to go!

"Where am I going to see this?"

"Delaware Valley Regional High."

"Where the hell is that?!"

"Somewhere in northwest Jersey."

Suddenly I wasn't so excited about a road trip. Monmouth County, sure. A little further than that, I'm still OK.

Out in the hinterlands, what the f**k!!?? What did I do now to draw this assignment from hell?

The only thing I had to keep telling myself was that once I got there, I was going to see this great match taking place last on the day. It was an all-day quadrangular event that started around 1 p.m., would start up again with two more matches at 3 p.m. and finish up with the two other schools there, St. Augustine Prep and Seton Hall Prep, wrestling at about 5 p.m., then followed up by the finale at about 7 p.m.

So really, I didn't have to be there for Brick Memorial's mow-downs of the other two schools. I just had to make sure that I was there for the big one and could get the results of the other two matches Memorial wrestled in. Fair enough. So I set out at about 2 p.m. on that Saturday afternoon, January 11, 1986. I had gotten directions to Delaware Valley via the cops in the little village of Frenchtown. Yup, that's where I was going ... Frenchtown, N.J. I was highly doubting anyone was saying, "Oui" and "Bonjour," but was feeling amused nonetheless.

My aim was to get to DelVal by just after 4 p.m. That should be no problem. One of the keys to this ride, though, was to find Route 29, which runs alongside the Delaware River. And I was pretty sure the directions I had were accurate. How I interpreted them was another story, though.

Back in 1986, I-195 that sliced across the state from Trenton to Wall Township did not directly hook up with I-295, and so I would have to exit off in Hamilton Township and weave my way through Yardley, then ultimately, I'd pick up I-295 heading north. When I-295 turned into I-95 heading south, there was the exit for Route 31, one way takes me into Trenton, the other takes me north toward Flemington. Well, since I had not done any coverage of any events at that particular time in Flemington, I thought, "This should be interesting." And so I took the exit for Route 31 north.

It's a lot of pretty scenery, but my goal was to look for Route 202, which if you took a left turn and headed south would take you directly onto Route 29. Well, somehow, I found the exit before I found New Hope, Pa. and veered right and headed north. Route 29 is even more a beautiful route as you drive alongside a mountain that overlooks the Delaware River. My goal was to get into Frenchtown and my directions stated that once I found the road I was to get to, I was to turn left.

That's right ... left. Eight miles later, I hit said road. And stupid me made a left turn -- over the bridge onto Route 32 ... into Pennsylvania. Nope, that wasn't where I was going and my boss later referenced the same scenario (in about the same area) that killed NBC news woman Jessica Savitch in 1983. Thanks a lot!

Unlike the rainy night that took Ms. Savitch's life in a canal, it was a beautiful day and I could see clearly that I wasn't supposed to be in Pennsylvania. There were no tolls, so I immediately found the first intersection I could turn around at and went back over the bridge.

Hmmm, maybe it was a right turn I was supposed to take. And it was. I was on Everettstown Road in Frenchtown, but with my directions already screwed up, this was not going to be as easy as first thought. I ended up asking someone at a gas station where the school was and how far I was from it. Turns out I was still a long way to go. Once I was pointed in that direction, it became pretty easy to find the school.

But the school itself is out in the middle of nowhere. Literally. DelVal High is literally out there in farm country. Still, I didn't care at that particular moment. I was here at last and thankfully at just before 5 p.m. right before the sun set. I just had a feeling I was going to have to take an alternate route to get back home since the route that got me here in the first place felt like a half-day misadventure.

I came to this meet lacking a notebook or a notepad. I didn't have one available and there wasn't a spare one in my Chevy Chevelle. But I had a large 11x17 piece of paper and a clipboard. This was all I was going to need on this day. The one side of the piece of paper was going to be used to copy down the results of Memorial's three matches, bout by bout, as well as notes that I took from the people I interviewed afterward. The other side of this piece of paper was to literally write my story, then to dictate it to either Chris Christopher, our main writer, or Greg Darroch, our assistant sports editor, when I was done. I had secured the phone in the athletic office at DelVal with a little persuasion since the team's very well-liked coach, Vince Fitz, was going to be there awhile anyway.

Yes, this was the era before laptops and handy-dandy Tandys. This was the era of dictation. Ugh!

Once I had contacted Caravella and assistant coach Denny D'Andrea about getting the results I needed from the young lady manager of the team on the blowout wins over Seton Hall Prep (69-0) and St. Augustine Prep (59-12), I was pretty set for the big match of the night. The St. Augustine-Seton Hall match went quick with St. Augustine winning its only match of the afternoon, 34-21.

Now the mats were being cleared and less than 15 minutes later, the lights dimmed down. It wasn't as dramatic as the opening ceremonies of a Phillipsburg High Stateliner match or the Hollywood-produced "Vision Quest" lineup intros, but it was still effective. DelVal fans were raucous and ready to rumble like their wrestlers were. And the Brick Memorial faithful who came to the match were just as fired up. And back in the day, they traveled well.

This was finally the moment of truth, the time to find out if Memorial was for real. The lineups were read. The announcer had done what he was supposed to do to get the crowds fired up. No national anthem ... unlike today where it's played like three or four times at an event. It had been played once already and once was freakin' enough!

It was time to wrestle. First up for Memorial was 101-pounder Tony Nash, who was 8-1 up to this point in the season. His opponent was a kid named Neil Day. And Nash made him kneel all day. Nash put on an exhibition that was stunning. By the time the six minutes were up, Nash had won via a superior decision.

OK, that's just one match. Now came 108-pounder Dan Pulsifer. He went up and down his opponent without much resistance to the tune of a major decision. Same thing for 115-pounder Joe Block. Up, down, over, around, inside, out. Another major decision. It was 13-0 after three matches.

Suddenly, the raucous home crowd wasn't so raucous. Finally, though, it had something to cheer about at 121 pounds when Rob Godown defeated Chuck Marotta by decision. But it was 129-pounder Scott Kirsch who got the three points back with a 13-6 decision in an exhibition of duck-unders and pretzel-twisters against Scott Tettmer, making it 16-3.

Five matches down and Memorial was being businesslike in its approach. Getting those three wins early from Nash, Pulsifer and Block was huge and their best wrestlers were still yet to come.

The 50-50 match involved Ed Feyko of Memorial against Jack Raymond of Del-Val at 134 pounds. The winner of this match was going to gain some momentum for his team. For Del-Val, this was huge. But Raymond could not get the best of Feyko and Feyko walked away with a decision.

This was bad news for Pete Bonilla was up now. Bonilla was a transfer student from Southern Regional High's program and there was always question as to how a talent like Bonilla just suddenly appeared out of nowhere at Caravella's doorstep in the kid's senior year. Miraculous, indeed. Some relative lived in the area so that was the supposed "in" for the kid.

Well, Caravella and D'Andrea weren't turning away very good wrestlers and Bonilla made his mark at the 140-pound weight class by pinning Lance Cyphers in 1:56, making it 25-3. And Fitz was without one of his best wrestlers, 8-1 Rick Savacool at 147 pounds, who supposedly had a bad boil and was not allowed to wrestle. That was a big break for unknown Joe McCabe, who pinned backup 147-pounder Matt Shenberger with a textbook cradle to all but make the match a done deal at 31-3.

There were still matches left. Alabanese came up at 157 pounds and faced another top-notch wrestler in Jamie Wicks. It was a war between the two of them, both exerting as much energy as they could give. In what turned out to be more a defensive battle than anything else, Wicks out-pointed Albanese, 6-4, Albanese's second loss of the season in 10 matches.

With three matches to go, the Mustangs had a 31-6 lead and the win was clinched. But there was the 169-pound bout between 7-1 Martin and Jim Slotterback. Martin came out aggressively, looking to put Slotterback on his back and down in pin position quickly. It looked like Martin was on his way to doing so. Then, out of nowhere, I learned why a sport like wrestling is not always a slam dunk when it comes to the competition.

Martin tilted a little too much into a bad position and Slotterback caught him. Within a matter of five seconds -- that's really all it took ... five seconds -- Slotterback had Martin in the perfect cradle, put him on his back and had him pinned in just 82 seconds. I can still see the scene, even through the darkness of the gym with only the lights shining down on the mat. The DelVal side was jumping up and down for absolute joy. The Memorial side just sat in silence. Their golden boy and best hope for a state title basically got caught and pancaked.

Said Caravella after the match, "He's not good off his back. Last year, he was never caught on his back."

It was about the only major hurrah the Terrier fans had that evening. DelVal's Kelly Wicks was given a forfeit win at 187 pounds and Kanabrocki pinned John Stains in 1:23 to finish it off.

Brick Memorial 37, Delaware Valley 18. And it wasn't a narrow escape either -- it was a resounding win, one that took the air out of the room of those DelVal fans.

If I had not known two weeks earlier in that meet in Neptune, I sure as anything knew that these Mustangs were for real. I talked with Kirsch, one of the senior leaders of the team and one of the more vocal Mustangs on the club. And I talked with both Caravella and Fitz afterward. Fitz was in awe of what he saw across the mat. Caravella was in awe of what he saw from his own guys.

"I think we've proven we're the best in the state," Caravella told me afterward.

They made their point and it was pretty loudly, too.

The crowds had dispersed and I was in the athletic office scratching out my story. The problem, though, was trying to do it with the lead I wanted to write it with. I finally had written the lead and story and was ready to dictate it over the phone to Chris. He took all three agates from the matches Memorial wrestled that day. In the middle of that dictation, though, Fitz walked into the room and said he needed to get out of there as soon as possible and apologized.

I figured I could find a pay phone somewhere and call collect. Fitz gave me some places to call from, but the problem was, it was not exactly warm that night, temperatures in the upper 20s.

I asked Chris to give me about 20 to 30 minutes to leave the school and find a pay phone. It took closer to 20, but I had backtracked to a gas station that not only had a pay phone, but one where I could make a phone call from inside my car. Anyone else remember those phones long before cell phones ruled the day?

Once I got settled in, I connected with the operator and asked to call collect to my office. Chris answered the phone and accepted the charges, and I was able to dictate my story to him from the heated confines of my car. I think it took 10 minutes, but he had everything from me and about 9:35 p.m., my night was over and I was able to get home around 11:30 that night.

By the way, I would see that bridge in Frenchtown one more time a year later when my then-girlfriend and I crossed over it and headed north through the Delaware Water Gap area on Route 32 toward Route 22 and ultimately to Dorney Park for her 18th birthday.

Three days later after that match on January 14, 1986, I was at Toms River High School North for a Class A South boys basketball matchup between North and Brick Memorial. Memorial's boys basketball team was also in the middle of a divisional championship season. I'm sitting near the press table like I did in the early stages of my career when two Memorial wrestlers showed up and decided to say hi to me. It was Kirsch and Albanese who were there to support the basketball guys.

Scott Kirsch was so happy to know that his prowess was in the paper as well as his team's success that he told me, "We don't want Earle covering us ... he's out. We want you." Now it was all flattering that he felt that way and that I did him justice with the two matches I covered in those three Saturdays. But I told him he was going to have to accept John Earle Livingston, our wrestling writer, and that he would do just as good a job covering his team as I would. I had other people and sports to cover.

But it made me feel good, I do admit. And by the end of February, Memorial had that magical season, finishing unbeaten, winning the Shore Conference Tournament with relative ease, then winning the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III and overall Group III state titles. They would finish the year as the No. 1 team in the state. And two of their wrestlers -- Block at 115 pounds and Martin at 169 -- would go on to win state championships that year as well.

It is still the most dominating wrestling team for one season I ever witnessed. And I was glad to see it when it truly blossomed on a January Saturday night where one wrong turn landed me in Pennsylvania momentarily.

In the hinterlands. It truly felt like it.