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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.

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