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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.

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