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.