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Saturday, February 23, 2013

The unconventional way to break in a new car

Never in my life did I believe that I could own an automobile as long as I have owned my 1999 Toyota Corolla. It has 227,000 miles on it, and as long as I get the oil changed every 2,500 miles now and get the things fixed that need fixing, it will continue to run and run and run.

I thank my dad and sister for convincing me 11 years ago on Friday, February 22, 2002 to purchase the Toyota over four other cars (including a jeep). They obviously had an instinct and knew enough about Toyotas to say it would do me good to go in that direction.

But if anyone treated a car the way I did within the first month I had the car, they'd think I was abusing the darn thing.

How? Well, let me set the story up with how we got to this point:

During February 2002, I was having on-and-off problems with my 1993 Ford Thunderbird LX. I had gotten that car in December 1996 and, believe me, that, too, was an awesome car to have, especially with the sun roof. And when I moved to the Florida Keys in 1999, I spent many a trip going up and down the Overseas Highway with the top open.

Still, my car was breaking down at the 175,000-mile mark. I could start the darn thing up and it would start to overheat no more than about a couple of miles into the ride. I didn't know why, but our computer guy at the Key West Citizen, a young man named Jeremy, had a good friend of his who fixed cars who was visiting for about a month or so from Ohio. They both took a look at the car and said, "It can be fixed."

So I put my trust in Jeremy's buddy to fix the problem. Well, this was no cheap little venture. I think on his friend's behalf I spent over $650 getting parts and putting my trust that they will fix the problem and I can continue on with my life and being able to get around town and cover things.

One of those things I had planned to cover was the Florida High School Athletic Association 1A wrestling championship at the Lakeland Center some seven-to-eight hours from where I was on the Florida Keys. It would have been easy for me to tell third-year Key West High coach Troy Bowe to call in the results, but I literally watched his program grow up in the three winters I was living in the Keys. And he had taken quite a few wrestlers with him to Lakeland this time around after they had survived district and regional action.

Bowe had 119-pounder Max Hooten going. He had 130-pounder Bayardo Gomez. There was also 145-pounder Mike Weber and heavyweight Aaron Barker. But the three guys I thought could make a dent in the end were 135-pounder Tony Lombardi, a tough-nosed wrestler with a street-wise mentality and well-versed with his moves, 215-pounder Cody Granger, a senior with a never-ending motor who only knew one direction -- go, and 189-pounder Justin Duck, a senior and easily Bowe's best pupil. In three years, he had improved a little each time out and now he was one of the favorites to win the weight class.

Just one year earlier, the Conchs and Bowe had one wrestler go after a state title in senior heavyweight Chaz Jimenez, a super-sensational kid who played on the football team and had carved his own little niche on the wrestling mats. But 20 seconds into his championship, he got caught in a move by his opponent and not only did the opponent take him down, he broke his leg, too.

An unfortunate end to the season, but at least a feather in the cap of the program just two years in. And now, those Conch wrestlers, Bowe and "Sid" -- assistant coach Randy Lehan -- were going back to Lakeland to make an even louder noise in their third year as a program. And I wanted to see the end result, which I was figuring would be Duck's state championship.

Yes, I admit to being a disgruntled rebel as a sports editor who really wasn't a sports editor, a decision that was out of my hands the previous August when the far-from-brilliant minds at the Citizen thought it was a grand idea to make someone else an executive sports editor over me. But I also knew that covering high school sports was still our bread and butter and at any newspaper, it's pretty darned important. And my attitude of "a day not in the office is a great day covering something" was becoming my almost everyday mantra.

But to get there, I needed a working car. That, too, was pretty important.

Back to Jeremy and his buddy. Jeremy was a smart young man to be our paper's IT guy at 23 years old. He was also dating my assistant Jen, so I knew him quite well at the time. It was Thursday morning, February 21, 2002, and Jeremy and his friend both told me the car was ready. The buddy had been tinkering with the car for the better part of a week, so it better be working and not overheating. He was pretty assured the car would go without trouble. OK.

I started up the car, thanked them and off I went. And once again, some two miles after leaving their place, the car began to overheat. And I can see this was not going to be good. I managed to get the car back to Jeremy's place and bitched both of them out this time. I finally broke down and decided to take the car to the dealership that I was working with in case anything went wrong. They were able to diagnose the problem far better than Jeremy's friend could.

Cracked blocks. I called Jeremy back and got his friend and told him what the dealership workers told me.

"Oh," was his first reaction. "I don't do cracked blocks."

I hung up. Angry. Wanting to wring his neck. What a waste of freakin' time!

I knew it was over for my Thunderbird. It obviously could not handle the Florida heat anymore. So the next trick was getting a new car the next day. I could only drive the car locally before it overheated its way to a stop and I walked what was about a mile from my apartment on Duck Avenue to the Citizen building that night to work.

Come Friday morning, February 22, 2002, I had a long day ahead of me. Up at 10 a.m., I began to take some of the stuff in my car and put it in the apartment, some stuff I would keep in the transfer to whatever new vehicle I was about to purchase. The car staggered to the dealership just over a mile away, but it got there, the last time I would turn the engine off once I parked it.

A guy named Steve came out of his office and asked if he could help me and I said, "We could be here awhile." So the first 45 minutes was spent looking at cars in the lot, me being choosy over what I wanted to get in the front seat of, and comparing prices, which is far from a recreational sport considering the expensive lifestyle of the Keys and the minimal money you are left with at the end after paying bills.

And I realized by about 11:30 I couldn't make this decision alone, so I made a phone call to the one person who I thought could help me that lived nearby.

My ex-girlfriend Beth. Even though we had broken up 11 months earlier, we were still living in the same apartment complex and we didn't despise being in the same area together. I knew she was off from work on Fridays from her hygienist job. The one thing I will always say about Beth was that at times, I probably put her through hell with things she didn't want to do, but she was an absolute trooper. I still hope her husband realizes how lucky he is to have her.

Naturally, one of the things we get to do with cars is to test-drive those babies. And I got to do that with Beth -- five different times in five different cars. We would go up to Mile Marker 8 about six miles away and come back each time. I loved the jeep that I drove, the kind that you can basically unbutton and drive in the wide-open. But I can still hear my mother telling me how dangerous those things were, especially with a guy I grew up with who had a serious accident when a jeep he was driving did not hug the corner right and flipped over on him, causing him injury.

But Beth and I did agree we enjoyed riding in the white Toyota Corolla that was on the mostly Ford lot. The car had very few miles on it -- 13,927 to be exact -- and it just felt right. That's when I made a phone call to New Jersey to talk to my dad and sister, who were both on the phone at the same time, both convincing me I couldn't go wrong with a Toyota. My dad had a 1991 Toyota himself and he loved his, so that was convincing enough that I would take it.

That was just after 4 p.m. Well, little did I know that the next two hours of my life would be spent going over paperwork, hearing Steve tell me about the payments, me agreeing to a plan that would be the right fit for me, me making another phone call about financing, etc., etc. etc., with Beth still being a trooper about all this. Oh, and once I got the car in my possession, I had to move everything that was in my old trunk and car into my new car. That was a whole lot of fun, too.

It was finally 6:30 p.m. and my nearly eight hours on the lot was over. I felt like I put a full day in at the dealership myself. And I still had work to do and catch up on what was going on in the wide world of Keys sports.

It wasn't until 7:30 when I walked in to work. Jen knew I was not in a good mood the day before with her boyfriend or his buddy. But on this day, I was just happy to have her there and know that I had a new car. I think I laid out a page while she took care of the other pages and I just called around to see what was going on in local sports. And that meant getting the phone call from Bowe to tell me how his wrestlers did from up at the Lakeland Center. That came after 9:30 p.m.

Hooten, Gomez, Barker and Weber were gone, all losers in first-round matches and only two of them winning wrestlebacks before losing a second time. But Lombardi, Granger and Duck were still alive. I knew what I was going up to Lakeland to see that next morning.

Yes, I was determined to test drive the new baby I had in a very unusual way after I got done with work, which I did by about 12:45 in the morning like I normally did. Jen went home after laying out the pages and I got the last of my stuff done, but I still had one phone call left. I had not told Troy whether I was officially coming up his way or not to cover the event because of the whole car fiasco that I had told him about. I know he was upset when I told him the car broke down and I didn't know what I was going to do. But I was pretty darned determined to make it up that way and I felt good with the new automobile, so I was going to leave a message on his cell phone, figuring he may have turned the phone off to let it charge overnight.

It was after midnight. One ring. Two rings. Then a pickup.

"Hello?" 

"Troy? Sorry to wake you up. I meant to leave a message with you to tell you that I was going to be coming up this morning. I will see you later on."

"Cool. See ya then."

It's the little things you remember, I guess.


Anyway, still awake at 1 in the morning, I got home to the apartment and packed my bags for what would be a four-day road trip. The first two days would be spent in Lakeland, the next two at my cousin Marcia and her husband Jim's place in Stuart. I had state wrestling to cover on Saturday in Lakeland and on Tuesday, I would be at Pope John Paul High in Boca Raton for Key West High's boys basketball state tournament sectional semifinal.

Four days worth of packing was done and my bags were in my brand new car heading north ... for a loooooooong ride.

As anyone knows, if you live in the Florida Keys, nothing is close by. The ride to Florida City alone is 10 minutes short of three hours. Whether I liked it or not in my time living there, I still had to acknowledge local speed limits and you weren't allowed to go any faster than 55 mph. So it was about 5:30 in the morning. I arrived in Florida City and I had a decision to make -- take US-1 up to I-95 and drive for free up to Vero Beach or jump on to Florida's Turnpike, pay tolls and go up to Yeehaw Junction or start on I-95 going north and get off an exit that runs perpendicular with the Turnpike and jump on, saving in toll money until getting to Yeehaw Junction.

I chose the third option, getting off at the Fort Pierce exit and getting on the Turnpike there. Still, it was about 9 in the morning by the time I finally reached Yeehaw Junction. I figured I was going great and that the rest of the ride wasn't going to take long. Well, somewhere in the middle of this vacant hole of nothing but farms and orange groves called State Road-60 did I make a mistake. I was doing my best to avoid local traffic ... but found myself getting further and further away from my destination. I had to stop to eat something at 10:30 and I didn't care if it was Waffle House ... which it turned out to be.

Coffee. More coffee. A third cup? Absolutely! I was somewhere on US-27 heading north. Little did I know I should have just kept taking SR-60 into just below Lakeland and going north on US-98. Worse, the weather was cloudy and drizzling. And temperatures were in the low 50s, a 20-degree difference from what I left hours ago.

By the time I got back onto the road, it was 11:30 and I knew I was running late, and worse, I had a premonition I wasn't close to where I was supposed to be. I figured I'd be at the Lakeland Center no later than 11. And now it's noon. Finally, I'm on I-4. And I realize that my exit to get to the Lakeland Center is still another 15 miles away. And there's traffic on a miserable Saturday afternoon. And if I hear LeAnn Rimes' "Can't Fight The Moonlight" one more time on the radio of my new car, I'm going to scratch somebody's eyeballs out.

Worse, I had never been to Lakeland before, so I had no idea of this huge place I was going toward. The only thing I had was directions and following signs to get there. It was just after 12:45 p.m. that I reached the Lakeland Center, a huge arena just to the west of the main downtown area.

I was relieved and tired. But the car got me to where I had to go. It was one heck of a test drive -- over 350 miles.

I found the entrance way to this big building and got my press credentials, following the directions of those who pointed me to where I had to go. There were eight mats set up inside the arena, two rows of four mats. But in a huge place where all three classifications were wrestling for state titles, I had to be patient to find out when my three remaining Conchs were still wrestling.

Somewhere in the throng of wrestlers, coaches and officials, I found Mike Hess, a man who had helped to develop wrestlers in the Florida Keys by running a club there. His pupils were members of the Key West High team, including the three guys who were still left. He had the misfortune to tell me Lombardi had lost to Jacksonville Bolles School's Justin Kaperman in a tough bout, 5-3. I knew he had a very special relationship with Tony Lombardi, so it hurt him that he had to describe the match and how his guy came up short. For Tony, it meant he had to go to wrestlebacks and the hope of a state championship was gone.

But Duck and Granger still had their semifinal matches to go. I got there in time. I saw Duck and he was prepared for his opponent. With my press pass, I was allowed to go anywhere within the confines of the floor, but I couldn't actually go on the mat. So behind Troy and "Sid," I watched as Duck -- my favorite of all the Conch wrestlers -- take another step toward a state championship by dominating Lecanto's Billy Simmons, 9-1, to reach the final, just like his good friend Jimenez the year before. I can still remember Justin coming off the mat in a business-like manner, shaking hands with his coaches and just isolating himself as Granger went on to his semifinal bout at 215. Cody was in a tough bout with Lake Wales' Sam Smith. Unfortunately for him, Smith outpointed him in the end, 4-3. His hope of a state championship was gone.

This allowed me to catch up with the coaches on what was going on. In the three seasons I knew Troy Bowe, he had waited for this moment ... to take a group of talented youngsters to the state meet and let them experience what the state championships were about. Troy is a former grappler himself from wrestling-crazy Wisconsin. Randy was a state champion from Pennsylvania who was a Division III All-American in the sport. Those two coaches ate, drank and slept the sport and the guys they were coaching were taking in everything they were teaching them.

This was a good time to be a Key Wester. The wrestling team was rolling in its third year, the boys basketball team was on its way to a memorable run in the state 4A playoffs. Definitely a good time to be covering all this ... and being away from the desk that was hindering me and the office I was hating to be in more and more each day. I didn't want to miss a thing as the so-called "guy in charge."

In their wrestlebacks, Lombardi lost another tough match, this time to Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna's Brian Nitzberg, 4-2, but Granger was able to upend Jacksonville Episcopal's Samuel Ritter, 8-2, to get to the third-place match, another big step for the program.

In between matches, I had a chance to talk with Lehan, a very knowledgeable assistant and one of the best in any sport I've ever come across. I told him I was doing a column on him and he was sorta hesitant about any attention he was getting, but I assured him it wasn't going to be too over-the top. In between matches, I found an hour out of my busy schedule to make it over to the nearby Lakeland Ledger, asking their sports department heads if I could use their Internet and computers to write a column, which I was able to do. I banged that baby out in just about an hour, confirmed with Jen that she had the story, and told those at the paper I'd be back to write my story afterward. I wasn't sure if they were all that crazy about me using their computer, but they were nice to me nonetheless. Back in the miserable, cloudy, yucky weather I went to the Lakeland Center again. 

Inside, I finally found a spot to sit at on press row. It was just myself, my press pass around my neck and a notebook along with a folder of information I needed for the day I was there without a chance to actually sit down. Sitting next to me was a young man who was there to do stories for various newspapers, including the Star-Banner in Ocala. His name was Richard and I think he found it interesting that I was coming up from the Keys to do a story for my paper. I think we spent the better part of the late afternoon and early evening just talking papers and wrestling and we struck up a friendship that still lasts 11 years later.

The finals were set to go off at about 6:30 p.m., and that meant all the finals of all 14 wrestling weight classes in all three classifications. First, though, was the end to Lombardi's and Granger's seasons. Lombardi defeated Tallahassee Chiles' Steve Sivyer, 13-9, to take fifth place at 135 pounds. And Granger finished his career off in a fantastic way -- he pinned his opponent, Pierson Taylor's Andre Reese, in 4:58 to claim third place in the 215-pound class.

Was Duck going to make for a storybook ending for the Conchs in the third year of the program? Could the first state title be in the making?

I was going to have wait a while since Duck was at the late end of the 42 championship bouts. But the good thing was that all eight mats were still out there and those finals were going to go quickly, so no one had to wait too long. I could see the determination on his face. He knew if he wanted this state title, he was going to have to get by the toughest competitor he would face all year. Eric Flinchum of Crestview was a tactician, a master of moves and if Duck got caught, it could be "Goodnight, Gracie."

The time was now -- it was just before 8 p.m. Neither Flinchum or Duck gave in to the other. But the big move of the match came in the second period when Flinchum decided to take the bottom position. He got a big reverse for two points and those two points proved to be the difference in the end as he was not going to allow Duck to put him in a uncompromising position, playing defense the rest of the way. Flinchum came away with the 4-2 victory. And the look of bitter disappointment was still on Duck's face long after the match was over. His wrestling career was over and two points separated him from the gold medal he was battling for all year.

Key West High's day and night were over. There would be no gold medals, but a second, third and fifth was not a bad way to end the night. Still, the thing that made Bowe most proud -- in the final team total, Key West High finished in fifth place with 46 points, just one point behind Pensacola Christian, who took fourth.

Fifth place for little Key West High, a third-year program that had grown up in front of my eyes, the same way another fledgling program I remember back in the early 1980s called Brick Memorial High School in New Jersey took off. There were no championships, but fifth place? Hey, it was a reason to celebrate.

The team had planned to stay in Lakeland through Sunday morning before returning back to Key West, so they were going out to an area bowling alley for midnight bowling. They invited me to come, but my battery was literally near empty and I still had a story to write, so I politely declined. But Cody Granger's mom wanted me to take a picture with the three guys who won medals of some kind that day along with Troy and Randy/"Sid." I was hesitant about it, but then decided, "Why not?" This was just another part of the time capsule called my career. They were on their way to what they were doing and I was on my way in my new car back to the Ledger to write the story of the day/night.

Another hour on their computers and once Jen said she got the story, all was fan-flippin'-tastic. She said she had everything under control. It was about 10 p.m. and I was hungry. I found the Days Inn (which doesn't exist anymore, it's under another name) that I was going to stay in overnight. Right down the road was a Steak and Shake. I remember getting a hamburger, fries and a soda, then returning to the hotel to finally check in. It was about 11:15 and worse, the temperature had gotten into the mid-40s ... and I was still in a short-sleeved shirt without a jacket. All I kept wanting the person at the front desk to do was confirm my credit card, give me my key and let me get into the room.

That took almost five minutes. They wanted my license plate, which, of course, I couldn't remember verbatim, even to this day. I eventually got the key, got my bag, turned on the heat in the room, turned the TV on, and passed out. I had told the guy at the front desk I did not want room service -- and to not be bothered.

I collapsed in my bed sometime around midnight and didn't wake up until 2 p.m. on Sunday. Wow, was it wonderful sleep indeed. I didn't normally work on Sunday and Monday, so I took it easy in the hotel room that day and night, even if the temperatures didn't get any higher than about 52 degrees. The highlight of my Sunday night was watching the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. By Monday morning, I was out the door and on my way to Marcia and Jim's place in Stuart in the new car. I stayed there overnight and wrote my preview of Key West's boys basketball state tournament game against Pope John Paul II High at their place. On Tuesday, February 26, I saw Key West beat John Paul II to advance to the regional final. I went to one of the local Kinko's to use the computer to write my story. When it was done, I finally headed down I-95 back to US-1 and back to Key West.

The car survived the 740-mile venture. And when Key West beat host Monsignor Pace of Miami in the Region 4-4A basketball final on Saturday, March 1, a game I couldn't go to in person because the executive sports editor thought it was a terrific idea to send the one other person in my department to some newspaper convention in Miami, I was heading back to Lakeland on March 7 and 9 for the state Final Four in 4A.

All totaled, my car had tallied close to 2,000 miles in the first month I owned it. Nobody I know takes a car or a motorcycle out and says, "I think I'll break it in by driving from Florida to New York state and back." That was basically what I did with the car.

And 11 years later, the car is still with me, though I seriously think 2013 may be the last year I have it. It has done me plenty of good, and easily the best car I've ever owned. It has taken 15 trips up from Florida to New Jersey and back. It turned over at 100,000 miles on my way to cover a boys basketball game at Baker County High School in a Christmas tournament on December 30, 2005. And it went over 200,000 miles on my way to cover another boys basketball game on March 4, 2011.

On the ride to 200,000 miles, I was on my way to cover the Palatka High School boys basketball team's FHSAA 4A Final Four semifinal against Cardinal Gibbons of Fort Lauderdale -- at the Lakeland Center. Oh, the irony!

I've taken plenty of rides with that car. But you always remember the first -- and breaking the car in with a 350-mile, one-way trip to watch a group of wrestlers try to finish something they started two years earlier ... that was a heck of a way to break in a new car.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

The night Lacey's wrestlers -- and Don Burstein -- made their mark

Admittedly, I didn't mind covering my share of high school wrestling early on in my career.

I may not have been well-versed on the sport, but I knew who the main players were when it came to the Shore Conference in the mid-1980s. It also didn't hurt that our wrestling writer, John Earle Livingston, lived, ate and drank this stuff. A former wrestler himself at Toms River North in the early 1970s, Earle could not only tell you about each team in Ocean County, but he could also tell you each starting wrestler's strengths and weaknesses.

It may have bordered on overzealous and irritating, but when you get near a fountain of knowledge like an Earle Livingston, you try to get as much from the fountain as possible.

And so it was the third week of February every year that the Shore Conference Tournament is seeded and takes place in two days -- on Wednesday, the first round and quarterfinals are held at the four highest-seeded team's gym and then there is a neutral site for the semifinals and championship, which just so happened to be held this particular year at top-seeded Brick Memorial.

When the tournament was seeded that Monday night, the four host sites for the first round would be No. 1 Brick Memorial, in the middle of a state championship season, No. 2 and Memorial rival Toms River East, No. 3 Point Pleasant Boro, enjoying an unbeaten season, and the fourth seed Manalapan. Since only No. 13 seed Central Regional was the only county team in Manalapan, we just asked the coach of Central's program at the time to call in the scores, knowing they were going to have it handed to them by the host Braves.

That left three other sites to be covered. Earle was going to Memorial to see the Mustangs in the middle of their amazing season. My memory fails me on who was covering the action at Toms River East and our assistant sports editor, Greg, was to cover the matches at Point Boro, all happening on this Wednesday.

Well, unfortunately, a funny thing happened the day after the seeding meeting -- it snowed and it snowed a lot. It snowed enough to cancel the wrestling on Wednesday, pushing the first two rounds to Thursday at the same sites. This, unfortunately, caused a problem. Greg only worked Saturdays through Wednesdays with Thursday and Friday off, so he was out.

That led to the only person in the sports department who could come through in the clutch to cover wrestling when need be.

Yup ... here I am. Just tell me what I need to know and where to go.

And so on Thursday, February 20, 1986, I hopped into my car and headed to the little sardine can that was Point Pleasant Boro High School's gymnasium. If you've ever been to Point Boro, you know that bandboxes don't even compare to this place. You are practically right on top of the action. And by the time I arrived at Point Boro, the place was already packed for the first-round matches which I didn't have to attend, but needed to get the results of. The 8-0 Panthers improved to 9-0 with a 33-25 win over No. 14 seed Monsignor Donovan, a match the Panthers had to pull out with three victories in the last four weight classes. On the other mat set up in this small gym, No. 6 Lacey was taking care of its business against No. 11 Rumson, 48-12, in a complete mismatch.

The 1980s wrestling Panthers were well-known at the Shore area. Their coach was a dominant figure in the program in Ed Gilmore. Gilmore and Jim Hoffmaster, one of the best assistant coaches to ever be a part of a program as a former state champion in Pennsylvania, got the most out of these young men. Hoffmaster's son, Mike, was a dominant 122-pounder. Brett Hill at 115 pounds was a talent, as was Bill Hill at 135 pounds, Dave Nase at 141, Dan Bennett at 158 pounds and the standout of the team, Dan Transue, at 188. The Panthers were loaded from top to bottom and it was no wonder why they were unbeaten.

But this Lacey team was having its best season in its five-year history as a program. Lacey didn't have the same amount of studs as Point Boro, but had kids with smarts. Steve Cassarino was a fantastic table-setter at 101 pounds. And Vinnie Cassarino, Steve's brother, could keep it going at 108. Chris Giglio was a battler at 122 pounds, as was Don Schultze at 141. Chris Suspie and Kevin Mueller could bring the noise and the funk at 148 and 158 pounds, respectively. But Lacey's hammer was at 171 pounds in standout Matt Opacity, a very technically sound wrestler who had carved out a superb junior season for himself.

The leader of this team though was its boisterous head coach, it's mercurial boss who wasn't afraid to speak his mind and let others know. He was a man I barely knew from his umpire work in both baseball and softball.

By the end of the night, I knew who Don Burstein was, long before I got to know him even better when he became the longtime president of  the Beachwood-Pine Beach Little League and his sons would play baseball for Ken Frank at Toms River High School South in the 1990s.

The sound in this small gymnasium could easily bounce off walls with a packed house. The introductions by Steve Ferrullo, Point Boro's softball and boys soccer coach, could barely be heard. But the show went on.

Up first was Steve Cassarino at 101 pounds for Lacey against Dan Gilmore, the coach's son. I figured the coach's son could keep it a close match and this would be the springboard to a great night of quarterfinal-round wrestling.

Nope. Cassarino ran up and down Gilmore until scoring a 15-5 major decision to give the Lions a 4-0 lead. Now the other Cassarino was up against Sam Ferraro at 108 pounds. If the first brother was dominant, you know the one up now had to make a bigger impression. And he did, pinning Ferraro in 1:52, making it a 10-0 lead.

Now I was told by Earle to expect this early on. So the Lacey lead was not a surprise. Boro would get stronger as the match would go on. But at 115, Lacey's Bill Marsh gave Brett Hill everything he could handle before Hill came away with the 4-2 win, cutting the lead to 10-3. Mike Hoffmaster was next and he coolly and calmly worked over Nick Zebrowski, but could not get him on his back, settling for the 12-2 major decision as the lead got cut to 10-7.

I believe the Panther fans -- and maybe Earle -- were expecting pins at those two weight classes to take the lead back. But Lacey still had the lead and I can still see Burstein with each individual wrestler coming out, telling his young men to work whatever they could out there and make each Point Boro wrestler work hard for every point they were to get.

At 129 pounds, Lacey's Giglio was next against a fairly good wrestler in George Maiorano. The two battled, but Giglio was able to grab a point on getting out of Maiorano's hold of him on the bottom, then score a takedown to collect a 4-2 win as the lead went up to 13-7 for the Lions. But Bill Hill got four points back by working over Dan McFall in a 10-1 major decision at 135 that made it 13-11, setting up the big match of the night at 141 pounds between Lacey's Schultze and Point Boro's Nase.

The match started with both Schultze and Nase feeling out one another for the first 45 seconds. Then like a panther himself, Nase sprung out at Schultze and caught him. Schultze tried to fight his way out of the hold for a few seconds, but Nase was not having any of it. Now Nase was in definite command of what he was going to do and he could have easily put Schultze down to the ground to get the two points and then work back points from there. Of the two wrestlers, Nase was better.

But Nase decided on a whooooooole different approach that would ultimately turn the match around. He picked Schultze up and practically slammed him, stomach and face first, into the mat. Schultze didn't move. The referees gave Schultz a penalty point for a slam. And still Schultze could not move.

Suddenly, the once-loud gymnasium was in silence. Nase was being apologetic to his opponent, but he was still not getting up. And I was getting concerned. For the first five or so minutes, I thought Schultze had been paralyzed. I could see concern on the Lacey side of the bleachers. I even saw some of the moms and girls begin tearing up.

This was really bad. They had to call out for the ambulance to come to the school and care for the Lacey wrestler, who still wasn't moving much from the spot he got slammed. By this point, the officials had called the match over and awarded the Lions six very valuable points, making it 19-11.

It was as if the entire gymnasium's air was let out. Boro wrestlers who were expected to dominate were not doing so. And now what should have been a Boro victory behind Nase was a sudden kick to the stomach. Burstein said after the match he heard the doctor say he thought Schultze's ribs were puncturing parts of his body. When anyone hears that, it's not a good thing.

He was sent over to nearby Point Pleasant hospital after a half-hour delay. He ended up having two broken ribs and his season was all but over. And while Lacey fans were still emotional and Lions wrestlers were still stunned somewhat, the show had to go on. At 148 pounds came Boro's Brett Campbell against Suspie. And it was a war with neither wrestler giving in to the other. In the end, Campbell had prevailed, 5-4, and had given the Panthers three points, cutting the lead to 19-14.

Next at 158 pounds was a match that should've been a slam dunk for the Panthers. Twice during the season, Bennett had beaten Mueller. So this should've been more of the same. At least that's what Earle had warned me about.

Nope. Mueller worked Bennett over and under and inside out. It was as if a shadow of Bennett's self was there on that mat because Mueller was having his way. The Lion grappler ended up winning, 12-3, giving Lacey four points and a 23-14 lead with only three matches left and in the first of those matches, Lacey had its best wrestler up.

Opacity lived up to his nickname "Hammer" by putting Mike Boyd through one dizzying tilt after another. The poor kid never had a chance and Opacity was making him pay like he stole something from him. Finally, in the third period, "Hammer" put the hammer down and wrapped Boyd up in one big cradle.

When the referee slapped the mat with 58 seconds to go in the final period, the Lions had their breakthrough victory. Lacey was the class of Class C South wrestling, the smallest classification in the Shore Conference. For as great a season as Burstein's Lions were having, they needed that one win to designate that they were one of the best teams at the Shore.

This was it. And an excitable Burstein caught Opacity as he jumped into his coach's arms, knowing the 29-14 lead was now insurmountable. Through the loudness of Lacey's side, Burstein let out a blood-curdling yell that either infuriated Panthers fans or frightened them. Burstein was on a high as a coach and he really didn't care what anyone thought.

And that was proven in the next match when Point Boro's Transue pinned Lou Copio in 73 seconds and Transue was so angry at Burstein and the Lacey people that after he got the victory, he flipped the Lacey coach the bird.

Yes, he flipped him the bird. That cost the Panthers a team point, not that it mattered at this point.

When Clint Allgair pinned Bobby Trainor at heavyweight, the Lions had finished out a resounding 35-19 win and had gained respect from all those who were there in that Boro gymnasium that February night.

"This win proved we could beat a bigger school than us," Burstein said afterward. The Lions improved to a pretty nice 13-1, but more importantly, they were heading to Brick Memorial and the SCT semifinals and a date with Toms River East. "The win proved we are one of the four best wrestling teams in the Shore area."

In a year in which Brick Memorial was on its way to not only a state championship, but the No. 1 ranking in the state, and Toms River East was still good, Burstein had no dreams of grandeur for his kids.

"We're not looking to win everything," he said to me afterward. "We're just happy to be here."

I couldn't help but root for the Lions to at least make the final that Saturday night. And two days later, the Lions gave Warren Reid's Raiders everything they could handle before ultimately falling, 34-26. And, unfortunately, Burstein was not brought back the next year as Lacey's coach.

The program continued to build for years to come. And I got to know Burstein as one of my favorite Little League presidents at Beachwood-Pine Beach. He could be a little gruff, but if you were honest and your intentions and heart were in the right place, he liked you a lot. I know he liked me a lot. Anything I ever asked for during my Little League coverage years, he got for me.

His oldest son, Jeff, was a standout pitcher for coach Frank's 1994 NJSIAA Group III champion South team, clinching the championship game on the mound. Sadly, Jeff had his life taken away by a driver who was under the influence of drugs one late July night in 2001 at the age of 25. I believe Don Burstein never recovered from the loss of his son. He passed away a year or so later.

I can honestly say Don Burstein was one of my favorite people. I miss him a whole bunch. And for the dozens and dozens of times I dealt with that man in my 15 years at the Observer, my all-time favorite memory was that loud and crazy night in February 1986 at Point Pleasant Boro High School when his rag-tag Lacey Lion wrestlers tamed a bunch of experienced Panthers.

Admittedly, I didn't mind being there to cover that event at all.



Saturday, February 9, 2013

The make-or-break first year with the make-or-break championship match

My first winter of covering soccer in Florida came in the 1999-2000 season in the Florida Keys. And it was a good winter, too.

There was the Key West High boys soccer team of coach John Pierzchala, a veteran club that had been cut short in the previous two district tournament championship matches against Cardinal Gibbons High of Fort Lauderdale.

There was the great story of the young ladies at Coral Shores High School in the Upper Keys led by head coach Diane Powers Wischmeier, a small, but fiery redhead whose Hurricanes were having a breakout season.

And then there was the tumultuous first season of new coach Scott Paul and the Key West High girls soccer team. The Ohio native had a very talented team, but he ran into one very big problem -- he was replacing a very popular coach named Tim Conrad, whose 1998-99 Key West team won a district championship and big things were expected under the new coach.

Except the new coach was not as "friendly" as the previous guy was. And this was causing major issues. The team was losing matches it probably should have won to start the season. But everything came to a head during the 1999 holiday season. The Conchs were playing in a tournament in the Fort Myers area and not only did they lose all their matches, Paul was angry because some players either didn't show up physically or were there physically but weren't taking the tournament all that seriously.

It was right after the tournament had wound up and the team was back in Key West that I made a phone call to Paul. It was Monday, January 3, 2000. I was the only one working full-time in the sports department after my so-called "assistant" decided to move to another branch of our newspaper to work for them because he didn't like the fact that I took the sports editor's job he wanted away from him the previous summer and he just simply didn't like me. So I toughed it out by my lonesome until further notice.

When I got Paul, I asked him how he did. He had told me the tournament was a disaster and he gave me the scores. But then he went one step further ... he had written a statement that he wanted me to copy verbatim into the newspaper so he could get the message across.

Now, I knew this was professional suicide, mainly for him and his burgeoning coaching career in the Southernmost City. What little I knew about this back-stabbing little town was that you didn't talk down and you didn't turn your back on the knife-wielders. Personally, I couldn't have given two craps about the repercussions as far as putting it into the paper was concerned. But I did care about what he was telling me.

By the third sentence, I told my new friend to stop. I wanted him to take a step back in knowing what it was he was doing and saying and what kind of effect it was going to have on not just his program, but the school and perhaps this little town. I said to him, "I have highlight and delete buttons. We can stop this if you'd like and pretend nothing happened."

He respected me for what I was telling him. But he wasn't going to be stopped.

"No," he said. "I'm going on, brother."

And so he did. It was about seven or eight sentences long, but it made for a nice, little tidy paragraph basically pummeling the malcontents on the team who were dragging this club down. He basically put it out there of "it's my way or the highway." Needless to say, Paul got the attention of those he felt were underachievers and yes, he lost at least two or three girls on the team, at least two of which were seniors who were still devoted to the old regime and the more laid-back approach.

This was not how Scott Paul was going to run things at Key West High School along with partner in crime Tony Chiello -- not necessarily with an iron fist, but an understanding that if they were going to win and be successful, they were going to have to adhere to what he and Chiello were teaching them and having to work uber-hard to get to their goals.

Scott Paul could have lost the team that January 4, 2000. To most observers -- including my former assistant, who went on the sports radio talk show to tell the host that he thought Paul was insane in not so many words to call his players out like he did -- this should have been the end.

But a funny thing happened soon after that -- the Conchs came together. And the team began to win.

And so they got to the District 16-2A tournament less than a month later and won their semifinal battle with tough Cardinal Gibbons to get to the championship, which was slated for Friday, February 4, 2000, a month after the Paul "statement" that may have lost the team. Because we had no Saturday paper at the time, this gave me a chance to plan out what kind of soccer coverage we were going to have that day. I had the Key West boys and Coral Shores girls playing for district titles, too.

So two days in advance, I had contacted a young man named Shane Liddick, who was on loan from the news department until I got a full-time assistant, to go over to Tommy Roberts Stadium to cover Key West's boys district championship that night with Cardinal Gibbons. I called up Wischmeier to tell her there was an outside shot I may swing by to where she was at Palmer Trinity in the south part of Miami to see her Hurricanes play in the District 16-1A final against host Palmer.

That left me to go to Miami to cover Key West's girls battle with host Gulliver Prep, the current bully of that district and the top seed. Over the 2 1/2 years I worked in Key West, I grew familiar with the trip to 88th Street and a right turn off US-1 that took me to Gulliver Prep.

It was on this particular Friday my girlfriend was off from her dental hygienist job in her Big Pine Key, so we planned a day where we would get up at about 9 in the morning and head north by noon to make it to Gulliver Prep for a 4 p.m. game. We gave ourselves plenty of time to stop for gas, pick up any small breakfast-like food along the way and just let her sit back and enjoy the beauty of the Keys on the Overseas Highway heading to Florida City with the sun roof open in my 1993 Ford Thunderbird LX, still the most beautiful car I ever owned.

We got to Gulliver by about 3:30 in the afternoon after shooting straight up US-1 into south Miami, then making that right turn onto SE 88th and going a couple of miles until seeing the school on the left side. She and I had a little bit of a walk from the parking lot to going around the building until getting to the field in the back of the school, but already, there was a nice crowd of fans assembled, mostly for the home Raiders, who like Paul were coached by a first-year mentor named Joe Maurer.

Key West had yet to beat Gulliver in two games this season, but Paul went in feeling very optimistic that his team had come together at the right time and now in this final, it would culminate in a championship. My girlfriend didn't mind sitting in the bleachers while I covered this game, walking the other side of the field where the two teams were assembled.

From the opening whistle, I knew this was going to be a "first-goal wins" kind of battle. The Conchs had some key players in their midfield and defense like Diane Herlihy and Mary Meyer, but their defensive stopper was senior goalkeeper Keia Hughes, who was recruited to play the goal even though she stood all 5-foot-2. But let me tell you something, she got the most out of her height and abilities.

Gulliver had the better of the play in regulation time and in a number of cases, the Raiders may have gotten on the scoreboard, but Meyer was there to sweep away any problems in the back and Hughes was there to make one timely save after another, some diving stops to keep the game scoreless.

To Gulliver girls, it was slowly becoming a frustrating afternoon on their own field. I felt they believed they could just walk onto their field and handle their business against the Conchs, not that I thought they looked completely down on the them, but they had that air about them that nobody was going to beat them.

Eighty minutes came and 80 minutes went with neither team scoring. This meant that the game would have to go to 10-minute overtime periods. Those had to be played out unlike today's rule that allows for a "golden goal" to end a game in overtime. So two 10-minute periods came and went like the 80 regulation minutes. Still nothing ... well, except a fiery Italian in Chiello walking away from a possible red card because he got frustrated with the lack of calls that were being made against the more physical Raiders. Word had it that he just left and walked around Gulliver's campus while the rest of the game went on. I'm sure Paul might have needed him somewhere, but the way this game was going, it didn't matter.

The game went into third and fourth five-minute "sudden-death" overtime periods. The first goal here would win the game. But Key West's defense and midfield wasn't going to allow Gulliver to get anywhere near the Conchs' box and the same went for the Gulliver defense.

So after 110 minutes of soccer and the sun starting to go down in the beautiful blue south Miami sky, this classic of a championship was going to be decided by the dreaded penalty kicks. Neither Maurer or Paul was happy with this. Both coaches agreed afterward they would've played all night to get a winner on the field, though Maurer wasn't going to be as agreeable after the end result.

I can still see the process that Paul was going through with his players on who was going to take what kick. That took about five minutes for him to decide. When the officials had their lists of who was kicking when, both teams' players assembled in separate groups on the east side of the field, all eyes fixated on this end.

Was this going to be the story of a lifetime that I was about to write -- how a coach read his players the riot act exactly one month earlier, then watched as his regrouped girls took home a district championship from the big, bad Raiders of Gulliver Prep? That scenario was rolling around in my head, but I needed a finishing plot in what would be a 12-yard scenic panorama. Gulliver won the toss and elected to kick first against Hughes.

So up stepped top offensive player Jackie Garcia. Garcia signaled she was ready. So did Hughes. Garcia ran on to the ball and booted her shot to Hughes' right. Keia Hughes guessed right, getting her big paw on the ball and knocking it away.

Key West players and fans were cheering loudly. They had stuck the first dagger in the Raiders' hopes.

Up next for Key West was Amber Rivas, a sure-footed scorer. She sized up goalie Megan Rivera and once the official whistled her to go, she raced up to the ball and put her shot to Rivera's left side. Once again, though, a goalie guessed correctly and Rivera punched the shot away.

Now it was Gulliver players' and fans' turns to squeal in pleasure. Next was midfielder Emily Schweim. She got the go-ahead from the official and laced a shot that eluded Hughes to her right and high and into the net, a Gulliver player finally taking advantage of Hughes' height, to make it 1-0.

Up now was Jessica Eden for Key West, a young player with a lot of potential. She stepped up and like a veteran, delivered a kick that Rivera guessed correctly on going left, but the power of the shot was not enough to knock it away. It trickled into the net to tie it up at 1-1.

New life with three kicks left to go. Next up was talented Gulliver sweeper Jillian Papa. She, like Schweim, was looking to go high on Hughes, but had too much mustard on the shot -- it sailed over the crossbar. Key West folks were in joy, but it was still tied up. The Conchs needed to take the lead.

Up next was Meyer. Meyer had a devastating foot and a keen sense for clearing a ball. Now she was being tested in one-on-ones with the goalie. She sized up her attempt and decided to go left of Rivera like Eden did. But her shot was too far of the mark and it stayed at 1-1.

As the darkness was beginning to approach, I did catch an eye on my girlfriend, who even from a distance I could see was really into this sports drama, even if she wasn't completely into sports and only took an interest because I was into sports and had made that my profession.

For the fourth round, Gulliver chose midfielder Stephanie Gilewicz. She didn't decide to go wide or really high on Hughes. She chose a route that no goalie could ever anticipate a shooter going -- she shot straight ahead and a bit high at Hughes. The goalie was fooled by the shot, but was able to get a glove on it. However, the force of the shot was too much for Hughes' left hand to take and the ball found the back of the net for a 2-1 lead.

Hughes would say to me afterward, "The thing that frustrates me is I read it. You're taught on penalty kicks it's a 50-50 chance of guessing right. And usually, you dive one way or another. I read that it was going high and I guessed right, but the ball still slipped by me."

Next up was stopper Marina Burton, a fairly accurate kicker who Paul was now counting on to equalize this  match again. She, too, went to Rivera's left, but the goalie had figured out the pattern by now of which way the Conch kickers were aiming. She dove to her left and knocked the ball away, leaving Burton dejected going back to her teammates' small circle away from the action and keeping it at 2-1.

Now it was up to Monica Ortega to finish this out. If she nailed the kick, there would be no need for Key West to go. Ortega calmly set the ball down on its mark and waited for the go-ahead from the official. She ran up to the ball pretending it was going to be a rope, but she decided to chip it and fool Hughes. The only person that was fooled was Ortega as the chip shot floated over the crossbar, keeping it at 2-1 with one kicker left.

That last kicker was sophomore Katie Gonzalez. In my short time at the Citizen, she was one of my favorite athletes there and a standout in cross-country. But she loved soccer and now, Paul was asking her to keep this match going. So Gonzalez set up the ball on its mark and took a look at Rivera and where she was heading. The official asked if she was ready. Then the official asked if Rivera was ready. When they both agreed they were ready, the whistle sounded.

I can still see the shot as clear as day. Gonzalez -- like almost every other kicker before her -- went left of Rivera. This time, though, the goalie never had to make a save. The shot sailed wide of the mark and harmlessly off the field.

And there was the still photograph in my memory forever -- in the background, the Gulliver players running toward and jumping on Rivera, while in the foreground, Katie Gonzalez is on the ground in a crouched position, hands over her eyes filled with tears after her failure to keep the match going on.

I, too, felt horrible for Katie Gonzalez.

Gulliver Prep had won the district championship. And Key West players were left in tears, no one taking it harder than the 5-foot-2 dynamo Hughes, who had stretched herself to the limits all afternoon in keeping her Conchs in the game until one penalty kick too many found the back of the net.

For Scott Paul, it was numbing in how it ended. Like a first-time jilted lover, Paul was left having to pick up the pieces of a defeat that was cruel and unfair in most soccer circles.

"Penalty kicks are no way to decide games," he said. "Penalty kicks have nothing to do with the system of soccer, they have nothing to do with the fitness of players and they have nothing to do with the team concept. I don't care if we played all night. I just think the game should have been decided on the field."

In a perfect world, Scott Paul would've been correct. But soccer never allows for that perfect world to exist. Ultimately, those who run soccer decide that an ending has to come and those dreaded penalty kicks are the way those games come to an end.

It was almost a quarter to 7 and nearly dark when I found my lady and she and I headed back to the Southernmost City. We stopped to eat at the Golden Corral in Homestead before making the trip back. For the hour we spent that night at the restaurant, we talked about a number of things, but we talked about what we had witnessed from opposite sides of the field.

"That game was so amazing," she said, me knowing that she really didn't understand all the nuances of soccer, but knew she saw a great match. "Those girls were incredible out there." Then she told me saw a teary-eyed Hughes and told her she played great that day.

I openly admit I never have been high-spirited when it came to taking the girlfriends of my life to sporting events, simply because I knew most of them really weren't into sports. But on occasion, I got lucky enough to take them somewhere that would always leave a positive impression in their minds. We ultimately got home after 11:30 p.m. and the next day, I went to work to write up what I had witnessed the day before and to lay out the paper. And I also found out that both the Key West boys and Coral Shores girls had won their district championships on that Friday, so the weekend was far from a loss at all.

But I look back on that Friday, February 4, 2000. And I think about the setback of the Key West High girls soccer team and though it was a sad ending, it only laid the foundation for what was about to become a prosperous run as head coach for Scott Paul. That 1999-2000 Key West team would ultimately finish the season at 14-8-5. By 2003, the Conchs were winning district championships and every year that Paul was head coach from 2000-2011, the team made the state tournament. In 2005, Key West made it to the regional final in Class 3A before falling to American Heritage of Plantation. And in all 14 of Paul's seasons in charge of the program, the Conchs have had at least a .500 record.

That first year, though, was a make-or-break year to say the least. Looking back on it, it helped strengthen a program that needed a direction toward great things happening.

I could have told Paul he could stop and we'd never have that conversation three days into the new millennium. And that tough loss one month later only helped guide the program to a great decade to come.

In that regard, I'm glad I was there at the start.