Like a lot of things that have happened in my sports writing career, numerous events I got to cover came by accident.
Someone was supposed to cover the 1998 Little League World Series, not me. Someone was supposed to cover Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville in 2005, not me. Someone was supposed to cover the 1986 Jersey Shore Summer Basketball League championship, not me.
And when it came to witnessing my first state sectional championship in person, I wasn't supposed to be there either.
It was Friday night, March 8, 1985. And it was supposed to be a night off from work, my one night off a week I was supposed to get. But all that got changed the weekend before when Chris Christopher, our esteemed Ocean County Observer main sports writer, had a little accident at the gym he was a member of at the time. Seems the story goes that Chris was adjusting the weight he was lifting on one of the universal machines and as he was doing that, he had left his hand on the weight, not knowing his fate was about to be sealed a moment later when the suspended weight came accidentally crashing down on his fingers, breaking a couple of them.
There's nothing more frustrating than being a journalist with broken fingers. Henceforth, Chris was out of commission ... for practically an entire month! So that meant Mark's free Fridays got tossed to the wayside for the entire month. I spent every day -- even my one day off from work -- having to take scores over the phone (whatever there was left of the winter season since basketball season was winding down) and not only have to write all the team previews for the upcoming softball and girls soccer seasons, but for the upcoming baseball season. Good thing the season started on April 1.
And back in the day, it wasn't divisional previews involving our teams that would take up about six to seven inches per team ... nooooo, this was 15-20 inches per team. When I got done with what amounted to 44 previews since Point Pleasant Beach did not have a softball program as well as Ocean County College baseball and softball previews, I frankly did not want to write another preview for months.
But with the bad, there also came some good with Chris' absence ... though I certainly with all my other responsibilities at the time (which included coming up with the All-County boys and girls bowling teams and male and female swimmer of the year honors) wasn't too thrilled with doing a little extra.
The "little extra," though, involved covering the Lakewood High School girls basketball team, a talented team with the focal point being 6-foot-2 senior Faith Nafziger, a 1,000-point scorer who was taking her talents after graduation to St. Peter's in Jersey City. So at least I knew who to focus on when the Piners, who were now in the semifinals of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III tournament, faced Rancocas Valley at neutral site court Collingswood High School.
Well, before I had to go down Route 70 and then I-295 south to get to my destination, there was going to be a passenger along the way with me for this ride ... and all the other rides I would take as long as LHS was still alive in the state tournament.
Yes, I had to take longtime Lakewood resident Chris Christopher with me to the games. This meant I would have to pick him up at the house he lived at with his parents off of Central Avenue. Yeah, it was taking me away from where I had to go, but back in 1985, I had a hell of a lot more patience than I do now.
For this ride and the subsequent road trips, I had to listen to him just talk non-stop ... from start to finish. I don't think he was completely convinced that these Piners had it in them to be a state sectional champion. Certainly on Tuesday, March 5, we would soon find out against Rancocas Valley's Red Devils.
Well, the Piners didn't look good as a team. Even though Lakewood had as much as a 14-point lead in the second quarter, the Red Devils cut the lead down and with 4:29 left, Terri Johnson's layup gave Rancocas Valley a 42-41 lead. But that would be the only lead the Red Devils would have the rest of the way as Lakewood got its second wind and got seven points from Nafziger and six more from point guard Carol Walters, in what would turn out to be a 55-44 Lakewood win.
So after I had dictated the story over the phone to our assistant sports editor, I had to take Chris back to his house in Lakewood -- more non-stop chatter the whole way. And I knew he'd be begging for a ride on this particular Friday night, March 8 when the Piners would face a formidable foe in Collingswood High.
Collingswood's Cols were a balanced team, but there was no doubt with who the leader was -- an almost 30-year-old man with beard and mustache named John Bach Jr. And I knew the name -- he was the son of the legendary coaching legend Johnny Bach, who by 1985 was the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, but a year later, would be let go and he'd hook up with the Chicago Bulls and be a part of three NBA titles in the early 1990s as an assistant.
So it was off again to pick up Chris on what was a night off for the newspaper, so there was no rush to have to find a pay phone, call collect and then dictate a story over the phone. Once again, I got Chris at his folks' place and off on Route 70 we went with him yapping all the way from start to finish and me thinking that I knew where I was heading to ... on this night it was Cherry Hill East High School. Somehow, for some strange reason, the directions I had were to Cherry Hill West High School. Apparently, the officer I spoke with the day before was a bit confused.
Once I stopped at a 7-11 in town to get an idea of where I was going, I found I didn't have far to get. The problem was by the time the two of us got back on the road and found our way to Springdale Avenue and on to Cherry Hill East High, it was the middle of the first quarter. I was going to have to wing it somehow from here.
Now before going on, let me tell you about the Lakewood High girls basketball team. The Piners were really good, but they had different characters making up that club. Heading the character list was cantankerous head coach Art Calabro. Coach Calabro was one of my all-time favorite mentors in my time at the Observer. The man was not afraid to speak his mind about not just the teams his squad was playing, but wasn't afraid to call out his own players as well as motivation.
And what a team he had -- beside Nafziger, who I found to be kind of inward then and not the way I know her now, there was junior forward Joanne Powell, who went about her own business as a rough-and-tumble rebounder who scored on occasion. Center and 6-foot-1 Chrystal Navarro and weak-side forward Chelsea Brown were not only talents at their positions, but were stunning-looking young ladies as well. Nafziger's sister, Deanna, came off the bench to provide a boost where she could.
But driving the bus as the team's point guard was sophomore Walters, a sophomore with an obtuse knowledge for the game of basketball who, when I set eyes on her for the very first time I knew I was watching someone very, very, very special. If she wanted to do things with Magic Johnson flair, I'm pretty sure she could, but that wasn't who she was. And while I'm sure he worked her hard and let her know if and when she was doing something wrong, Calabro thought the world of Carol Walters. He, too, knew he had something special.
This Collingswood team, though, was not only tough, but tall, too. As for the game, it was back and forth throughout with each team stopping the other's momentum for the first three quarters. The intense fourth quarter saw Collingswood begin what was a run that it thought would take it to the South Jersey Group III title. With over three minutes left, Collingswood took a 52-49 lead and then with 2:55 to go, Nafziger picked up her fifth foul.
Disqualification. Trouble for the Piners. The 6-foot-2 girl in the middle was gone. And so I thought the same about Lakewood's chances of winning the SJ III title, too.
But the Cols missed the front end of the one-and-one free-throw situation and Powell came down with the rebound. She handed off to Walters, who set up the Piners' offense until she felt comfortable with lobbing a pass in to Powell. The 6-foot Powell hauled in the pass and put a bank shot in for a layup, cutting the lead to 52-51 with under two minutes to go.
You'd think at that point, Lakewood would be patient and wait for a mistake. And that's what happened. Collingswood turned it over and the Piners had another shot at the basket. Once again, Walters was patient. When the opportunity presented itself, she threw a lob in Powell's direction.
Same results all the way round. A basket with just under a minute to go gave the Piners the lead.
Collingswood held the ball and waited for the moment to strike against the Piners. Bach called a timeout and set up for the final play. They executed it down low, but the Cols' forward missed the shot. Powell rebounded, but was fouled. They sent her to the free-throw line in a one-and-one situation, but she missed. Collingswood came up with the rebound and pushed the ball down the court for one last chance.
The shot went up but missed the mark.
Lakewood escaped once again -- but this time with the South Jersey Group III championship. Even without their 1,000-point scorer on the court for the final 2:55, the Piners found a way. And Calabro reacted like he won the overall state championship. Part of it, I came to find out later, was just a release from all the pressure he had felt with the job because the Piners started that 1984-85 season 0-4. They put it together after that start to win 18 of the next 20 games, including this run to the SJ III title, the second for the program in four years.
Got interviews with Walters, Powell and Calabro afterward. Chris was acting like a proud fan of the Lakewood Piners. After all, this was his hometown high school team -- even if he graduated from St. Joseph's High School. But that's another story.
We got out of Cherry Hill East and headed back across 70, me dropping him off at home and heading back on my way back to my parents' home in Toms River. And I realized I was lucky to even see this amazing moment. I wasn't supposed to be covering it, but I did. And I was proud to call it my first sectional championship as a journalist. The next day, I wrote the story at work and did it as a four-part play.
The focal point of that play was Walters, who at 15 years old showed me the leadership ability of a college point guard. I knew I was watching something special in this young lady. Like Nafziger, she, too, would be a 1,000-point scorer who would take her talents to nearby Georgian Court College, where she would be a star again with the basketball team between 1987-91. In 1987, she, Navarro and Brown helped lead another group of Piner ladies to another SJ III championship.
That ride, though, would end the same way this 1985 ride would end -- a loss to unbeaten and state power North Hunterdon. The game in '87 was much closer than the one I got to go to two years earlier. Oh, yeah, and I had to bring Chris along as his chauffeur again for the Group III game against North Hunterdon at Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, which was a lot easier to find than Cherry Hill East was.
Chris' chauffeur. Ha! I definitely wasn't being paid enough for what I did.
We actually got to Notre Dame so quickly that late afternoon, Tuesday, March 12, that we were two of maybe 11 or 12 people in the gym besides the Piners and the Lions. And that game was a disaster from the start. North Hunterdon jumped on a helpless Walters quickly as the Piners committed eight turnovers in the opening eight minutes to take a 21-4 lead just three minutes into the game and ultimately hold a 29-5 lead at the end of the first quarter. Calabro did everything within his power to slow the Lions down -- he called timeouts, he picked up two technical fouls (coaches were allowed three then) -- but it had little effect.
Lakewood would lose to North Hunterdon, 62-44, as the Lions invested in lots of second-half garbage time.
The year ended with the Piners going 18-7, the third straight 18-win season under Calabro. Nafziger finished with 22 points and ended her career with 1,196 points.
Chris and I ended up going to a nearby restaurant where we rehashed the game and I wrote what I needed to so I could dictate the story over the phone to our assistant sports editor. One final trip to Chris' house in Lakewood to drop him off and it was over.
Lakewood's season was over. My misery of writing 46 previews and writing up my all-county sports stories and his all-county basketball team stories was only beginning.
But I managed. I got through it. The last coach I talked to for a preview -- and I remember this vividly -- was Toms River South baseball mentor Ken Frank, who believed he had a very good team for the upcoming '85 season. When did that man ever have a bad team?
Mind you, I was 18 years old and had endless energy at the time. If I had to write 46 previews, do numerous all-county teams and cover a team playing in a state sectional tournament now, I'd burn my candle out a lot easier.
Still, it was a great learning experience, which I will always treasure. That March 8, 1985 was a milestone night for my career.
Someone else was supposed to cover that South Jersey sectional final, not me. But a journalist is worthless with broken fingers.