Pageviews last month

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The bizarre circumstances of Brick-TR East SCT girls soccer in 1990

On this particular Wednesday, I was all about girls soccer. It was May 23, 1990. This was the opening day of the Shore Conference Tournament in the sport and all eight first-round games were ready to kick off at various fields around Ocean and Monmouth counties.

On this particular Wednesday, my job was to cover two Ocean County teams facing off with one another -- No. 12 seed Jackson Memorial at No. 5 Central Regional. This would be the first time in my time at the Observer that I would be covering a Central soccer match at the soccer complex across the street from Central Regional.

The field was far from impressive, but what the heck, it was still playable for a tournament game. And it turned into a heck of a game. Central, under the fourth-year tutelage of Robbie Bechtloff, defeated the always-good Jaguars in penalty kicks to advance on as Kelly Edwards, a Central sophomore playing her first game in goal, protected the net to move the Golden Eagles along to the next round.

Got back to the Observer building in the early evening after a stop at Roy Rogers on Route 9, one of the few iconic restaurants on that road south of Toms River. Wrote the story up and my next bit of business was to sit around and get games over a phone when they called in from all the various sports. But my baby this evening was to round up of the first-round games.

One of our correspondents, Jim Hintelmann, was over at Toms River North covering the matchup between Lacey and North, so I knew that game was being taken care of. That left me to track down two games: the massacre that was going to be No. 1 seed and unbeaten Point Pleasant Boro hosting No. 16 Raritan, which carried the "just happy to be thought of to play in the tournament" banner and the battle of two Class A South rivals, No. 15 seed Brick at No. 2 seed Toms River East.

With the talent of players such as Kim Yankowski, Jennifer Shutt, Charisse Hopkins, Karen Brzyski, Heather Kenny and sisters Wendi and Christie Pearce, Point Pleasant Boro was the overwhelming favorite to win the tournament. But they had a dominating team in 1989 also, and lost to eventual champion Lacey, 1-0, at home in one of the more stunning upsets in tournament history. So even with the most dominant team I've ever seen on a soccer pitch, I was not 100 percent assured Point Boro was winning the SCT title, even as it went into the tournament with a 16-0 mark and outscored its opponents, 162-0. Anything could happen.

But Toms River East was the second seed and if anyone had a chance at Point Boro's feisty Panthers, it was this group of talented Raiders, easily coach Ed Polhemus' best team since it won the first-ever SCT title in 1985. This Raider team was talented from top to bottom, starting with standout forwards Tara Nichols and Nancy Fenimore, continuing into the midfield with senior standout Krista Gerard and into the back with senior stopper Maureen Bonner and junior goalie Sue Lewis, among the best goalies in the area. Like Point Boro, East had a lot of players contribute offensively -- 17 to be exact. That was actually two more players than the Panthers who contributed with either a goal or an assist.

Oh, there was one more thing that the No. 1 Panthers and No. 2 Raiders shared in common -- unbeaten records. East was 14-0, and if you listened to "Professor" Polhemus, you would have thought his Raiders were razor-bladed by the seeding committee for the tournament. He had an argument that his team played a far-better schedule than the far-from-impressive lot the Panthers played.

But Point Boro had that star attraction -- they had Yankowski, the all-time leading scorer in county and Shore history. They had another four-time All-County standout at midfield in Shutt, who was signed, sealed and delivered to go to ACC Country like Yankowski, who was going to North Carolina State. Shutt was heading to the University of Virginia. Wendi Pearce was a tremendous facilitator with the ball and could also put the ball in the back of the net as her 34 goals and 26 assists that season would attest to. She would ultimately earn a full scholarship to Monmouth University to continue her career. Two years later, her younger sister would follow. And all Christie Pearce did was have the most amazing freshman season I have ever witnessed -- 49 goals and 24 assists for 122 points.

East's leading scorer was Nichols with 15 goals and seven assists, while Fenimore had nine goals and five assists. East's schedule of Toms River North, Brick, Jackson Memorial, Brick Memorial and Toms River South was far tougher than Point Boro's "feared" lot of Shore Regional, Manasquan, Point Pleasant Beach, Holmdel and Mater Dei.

Somehow, though, I had the feeling that seeding committee was not a huge fan of Polhemus, who was sounding quite a lot like his 1985 persona when he had the kind of squad that no one within, ummm, 3,000 miles could beat and then proved it as the top seed by winning the SCT title.

"What does Doctor Kulessa have to say about his team?" he would ask me. I would simply tell him that he thinks he's got a really, really good team, too. Polhemus could not wait to prove to the Shore area soccer "experts" that his team was the best at the Shore. And so in the back of my mind, these first-round games were just warmups for both Boro and East.

At 8:30 p.m., Kulessa, one of my favorite people of all time, called me up to give me the results of his game. It was as expected -- Boro 9, Raritan 0. In the six-year history of the event, it was the most lopsided score ever. Yankowski scored four goals to push her total to 53 on the season, making her the first county player to ever score 50 goals in a season. And Christie Pearce had a halfway decent game -- two goals and three assists.

I'm not sure if Doctor Kulessa was listening in on my phone conversations with Professor Polhemus, but if he was, he was certainly sending a message to his team.

Moments after I got off the phone with Kulessa, Jim came traipsing into the building. The defending champion Lacey Lions, the 11th seed, knocked off No. 6 seed Toms River North, 2-1. So once I was able to get the statistics confirmed from Lacey coach Paul Groben at about 9:30 that evening, all was set with that game. Then he asked me about the other games on the day and I told him all the results with the exception of the one game that was still out -- Brick at East.

"They must be having a hell of a game," he said.

"Maybe," I answered back. "I still think East is better than Brick."

"Don't count Brick out," he said. "They're a nice little team that is starting to play well."

And now, I was waiting for the result of the game from Polhemus. It was after 10 p.m. and I gave him a call. Got his wife. She told me he'd have him call me when he got in.

Earlier in the night, I had talked to Toms River South softball coach Jim Christiano for a preview of his Ocean County Tournament championship game against defending champion Toms River East in a rematch of the 1989 final. The game was to be on Friday and that was the day the preview was going to be in the paper.

At 10:20 p.m., Christiano called me up. Though he was a longtime fixture at Toms River South, his house was on Dunedin Street, the street alongside Toms River East. He had a concern as he went out to walk his dog for the last time that night.

"I just got back from walking the dog and the lights are still on at East and I can hear a crowd," he told me.

I can't quite remember the rest of the conversation, but that one sentence led my mind to this one belief ... this was about to become a looooooonger night than I ever anticipated. For if two teams are still on a soccer field and there's a crowd at about 10:20 at night, this is not very, very good at all.

The phone rang at 10:35 p.m. It was Polhemus. The way he explained how his game went was sort of like this:

"We played a scoreless tie through overtime. Then we went to penalty kicks. It was tied after five kicks at 3-3. Then both teams scored goals. Then they (Brick) went up and Sue made the save on the kick."

I was waiting for the payoff at that point. Boy was I about to be stunned with what I heard next.

"The officials then left and supposedly declared us the winner. The referees were furnished with a copy of the rules in the tournament and they came to the determination that we were declared the winners. And that was it."

I got whatever results I got from him on who scored in the penalty kicks as well as the goalkeeper saves, but I knew we were about to have a huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge problem.

My first phone call after this was to Brick High coach and overall good guy John Hasbrouck. He got home moments before I called him up and from the tone of his voice, he was far from upset.

More stunned than anything, really.

"I'm sure we'll file a protest. I hate to do it because it demeans from the game and both teams played a great game. Right now, it's out of the coaches' hands."

How the hell did this situation ever come about? This was a disgrace ... an absolute embarrassment and indictment of the sport thanks to officials who did not have a grasp of the situation, and worse, a coach ... in this case, Polhemus ... who tried to pull a fast one.

Yes, 23 years later, I'm still calling out Ed Polhemus for this embarrassment. Just because the officials declared a winner doesn't mean you sit still and do nothing! And that's basically what Ed Polhemus tried to do. "The game's over? Fine! We win!" Did he ever once think that Hasbrouck and his players weren't keeping abreast of the situation?

All I knew was my night was about to be turned upside down.

Here's what I could reconstruct from the information both Polhemus and Hasbrouck gave me. After 90 minutes of zeroes, the teams went into the penalty shots. It remained tied at 3-3 going into the sudden-death portion of the shots. Brick was first in shooting each round, and in its sixth kick, first in sudden death, Tina Foray beat Lewis to make it 4-3. But the Trenton State-bound Gerard saved the day by scoring on sophomore goalie Kristin Abernathy to make it 4-4, sending it to the seventh round of kicks.

Up first for Brick was a young lady named Stacy Krasowski. She took her shot and it was stopped by Lewis, which now left it up for whoever was going to kick next for East to win the game and advance the Raiders to the next round against No. 7 seed Middletown North.

This is, sadly, when the three officials, led by a credible head referee named Art Harmon, lost handle of where the game was at. They declared East the winner even though East had yet to take its seventh shot. They walked out of the complex with Brick players and Hasbrouck in shock -- and probably left the East complex with their reputations in tatters because of this boneheaded moment, which, to Harmon's credit the very next day he admitted he simply fouled up. To this day, I'll always remember Art Harmon's candor and respect for what happened.

Nonetheless, it left me to have to call around to athletic directors involved. My first call was to Brick athletic director Jim Rochford, who easily was never on of my favorite people to deal with. If the term "crotchety old man" ever was placed on someone, it would have been this man, who seriously never wanted anything to do with the press, let alone me. But it was my duty to have to call him at 11 o'clock to ask him what he was going to do and if he was going to place a protest with the Shore Conference Disputes and Controversies committee.

Oh, the man was also the co-director of the tournament with Middletown North AD Dean Vorvoort, so you would think he would know what to do here, right? Well, this is what I got from Mr. Rochford when he answered the phone and I asked him just what he would do about what happened.

"I don't know. I was asleep. I'm going back to bed."

He hung the phone up and that was it. Geez, thanks for nothing, assclown.

My next phone call was to Bruce Mulford, East's athletic director, who was there and unlike the Brick AD was a far better person to deal with. He explained what the process was for a protest and that more than likely, he would discuss what would happen the next morning.

I wrote the roundup with the East-Brick controversy leading it off. My lead was unconventional and not from the "this happened, so this happened and this will happen later on" style. It was more sarcastic.

Just when you think you've heard and seen everything in the sport of soccer, the Toms River East and Brick girls' teams topped it one better, thanks in part to a referee's decision.

My boss was not happy that it took until the seventh paragraph to get to the payoff of the story, but at that point, I really didn't care what he was feeling.

It just meant my Thursday was about to be thrown into a tizzy with phone calls.

Turns out the next morning, Rochford files the protest to Mulford, who is the Shore Conference president, which alone would sound very, very awkward. But since both schools are involved in the controversy, both ADs had to excuse themselves from their duties with the Disputes and Controversies committee.

The job of discussing what was to be done about the Brick-East game was left in the hands of three men -- Vorvoort, Monmouth Regional AD Joe Lister and Toms River North (and former East) athletic director Bill Lundy.

In the early afternoon, I reached out to Lundy. Though I may have had my differences over the years with the man, he is still to this day one of the two best athletic directors I have ever dealt with in my career. If you had a question about a ruling or how things worked within his job, he can clear that up easily in five minutes or less. And that was the case with how the ruling ultimately went here.

"We talked for about 15-20 minutes about the situation as it occurred and we thought the fairest thing to do was play the overtime periods again instead of having Brick go to East for maybe one penalty kick. That's unfair to their goalie and to East's shooter to have a game decided on one kick.

"We also thought it would be unfair to play the game over again because both teams played close to three hours. We talked about those options. But we decided on having five-minute overtimes and then penalty kicks, just so they could get into the game again. So I called Bruce and Jim up again and they both agreed to the decision."

And that was it. Bill Lundy brilliantly explained to me what happened that morning and what was about to happen that afternoon. Either way, I knew I wasn't going to Point Pleasant Boro High School for an anticipated Boro-East matchup -- no, not soccer, but softball. Steven Falk got that Shore Conference Tournament assignment for us.

I was heading over to Toms River East to watch what was going to be 10 minutes of scoreless soccer and then the "re-mix" of the penalty kicks shootout. There was no way in Hades that either Brick or East after 90 minutes of zeroes the night before were going to give in to one another in 10 minutes.

So I arrived at East for the continuation of this bizarre night-day doubleheader for myself. East players and Polhemus looked rather miffed to be back here again ... but hey, it was partly their fault they were back here. Hasbrouck and his Green Dragons were in "nothing-to-lose" mode. Abernathy was as good a goalie as Lewis, but less heralded.

And as predicted, the teams fought hard for nothing in the two five-minute overtime sessions. And here we went again into the penalty kick shootout. I didn't know what to think ... after all, Brick should have been sitting home on this Thursday, May 24. East should have been practicing for the game against Middletown North. And I was supposed to be watching East-Boro softball. This assignment wasn't going to take more than 35 minutes from the moment they kicked the ball off until I finished my last interview.

Once again, Foray was true with her kick against Lewis. And once again, Gerard nailed her shot past Abernathy to tie it at 1-1 after the first round of kicks. After Brick missed its second attempt, Bonner, who was set to kick that seventh-round attempt when the game suddenly ended in East's so-called victory, nailed her shot past Abernathy to make it 2-1.

Brick was down again, but it was Krasowski to the rescue again with a shot past Lewis to make it 2-2 in the third round. East missed its next two attempts as did Brick in its fourth, leaving it at 2-2 going into the fifth kick. Up stepped Jen Kosces, who had four goals all season. She calmly stepped up and nailed her shot to make it 3-2.

This left it up to Fenimore, a freshman, to continue this matchup. To this day, I can still see the look in her eyes as she set the ball down on the sun-drenched Vincent J. Dvorak Field grass. I can see her sizing up Abernathy, who was a study of concentration. And I remember looking at Fenimore's face as if she really didn't want to be put in this situation.

What 15-year-old wants this moment? Not many I know.

The body language, I think, said it all. Everything about that moment said that Fenimore was going to her right ... to Abernathy's left. I wasn't a soccer savant by any nature, but even I could tell she was going there.

So did Abernathy. The ball got booted to the kicker's right. Abernathy went left on a dive and smothered the ball, knocking it away. It could not have been more than a millisecond later that this 15-year-old who should never have been put in the position to be kicker No. 5 in a five-round penalty kick scenario put her hands over her face and began to ball her eyes out as she walked away from the site of her failure to keep the match going on. I never saw Nancy Fenimore's face, but I, again, didn't have to be a genius to know the emotion she was feeling.

East players stood silently, some in tears over the ending. Yes, tough Toms River East's girls soccer team was reduced to nothing more than a mess of emotions. And in the background, Brick players sprinted from where they were standing in the shootout to mob and tackle Abernathy, the rising sophomore star in net.

I can see Polhemus walking over to the gentlemanly Hasbrouck and congratulating he and his team on the win and advancing on. I know inside it killed the man who served as my gym teacher at Hooper Avenue Elementary School for four years and who I covered in this sport for over a decade. Ultimately, both teams came away from their emotional peaks and valleys to shake hands and officially put an end to this 21-hour ordeal.

And though I only got to see the "re-mix" of the game ... better known as "Day Two" ... I had just witnessed the biggest upset in Shore Conference Tournament history in the sport.

Hasbrouck and his players were understandably excited to be the team moving on. And the Green Dragons more than took advantage of this moment of glory -- they went on to stun No. 7 seed Middletown North in -- you got it! -- penalty kicks to reach the semifinal round where Wall would ultimately tear them up and spit them out, 7-0. Brick would ultimately finish the season at 10-7-2, but for all the young talent the Green Dragons had -- including standout sophomore sweeper Dana Anderson and Abernathy, they never could go to the next level, leaving that 1990 run to the semifinal the pinnacle of their success at that time.

As for East, it was left to me to talk to Polhemus over the stunning turn of events. From the moment he started uttering words in that mild-mannered, elegant tone he always took, I knew he wasn't thrilled with the decision brought down by the three-man committee of Vorvoort, Lister and Lundy, his former boss at East before a shakeup in the athletic directors in 1989 moved Lundy from East to North and Mulford from South to East.

"We abided by the ruling those people came up with, but personally, I don't agree with it. Quite obviously, we had a penalty kick in last night's game and it would have put us ahead 5-4 and won us the game. I thought we should have started at the penalty kick or started the game over again. It's a heck of a way to lose, but it's not the end of the world. That's just the reality of life."

It's not the words necessarily that resonated as much as the tone Polhemus took. While he was in control of his words and emotions, inside you can tell the man wanted his one pound of flesh for being put in this situation, but wasn't sure who to take it out on.

Ultimately, though, as egregious as the mistake Harmon made in declaring East the winner of a game it had not won officially the night before because of human error, it was still up to Polhemus and his players to politely point out that they still had one more kick left to take. Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- from the East players to the Brick players and Hasbrouck to the officials who worked the game to the fans to even myself, who was missing out on a Point Boro-East softball game because of this train wreck, deserved much, much better handling of that scenario.

Would East have beaten the vaunted Point Pleasant Boro Panthers in the 1990 SCT final? My guess is probably not, but it would have been a terrific game. That's what happens in the game of "What if?" We will never know. The Panthers would beat Wall in the championship on their home field, 4-1, to clinch their second SCT title in four years with Yankowski scoring three times to finish her unbelievable season at 62 goals and 34 assists for 158 points. Wendi Pearce scored the other goal in the final. They finished the season at 20-0 and outscored their opponents, 190-5, ending the greatest soccer season I have ever witnessed, male or female.

That's how good they were as a unit -- Yankowski, Shutt, Hopkins, Brzyski, Megan and Erin Quigley, Kenny, Wendi Pearce. And Christie Pearce, who would carve out her little niche in the history of Point Boro soccer and go on to a pretty decent career at Monmouth and, eventually, the U.S. women's national soccer team as three-time Olympic champion and one-time World Cup winner Christie Rampone.

East, meanwhile, still had a number of talented players back from the 1990 team and were expected to be the favorite to win at least the Class A South title and go on another run in the SCT in 1991. That didn't happen. A group of Brick Memorial Mustangs led by standout center-midfielder Cindy Beltran upset that apple cart and won the division title.

That was it for the Raiders in the Polhemus Era. They never quite recovered from that.

But then again, many observers including myself believe East never recovered from that two-day circus on May 23-24, 1990 on that Vincent J. Dvorak Field against a gutty Brick High team that wouldn't go into the night quietly.

Remembering the human error and circumstances of what happened initially on that particular Wednesday, they had no reason to ever go quietly into the night in the first place.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The epic '93 OCT drama that was East-North

No high school softball rivalry to me was as more intense in the 1990s within Ocean County, New Jersey as the one between Toms Rivers East and North.

There were plenty of reasons why, but the main was the fact it was always the teacher -- North's Becky Miller, who founded the program in 1971 -- against the student, Debbie Schwartz, who played for Miller in the mid-to-late 1970s. And if you watched both of them on the sidelines, there was one word that can describe the two coaches when it came to gametime.


Both coaches Miller and Schwartz were just that ... focused. Both would pull out all the stops to win their respective games, but it really showed when the coaches had to play one another, which was twice a year in the Shore Conference Class A South season. Any other meetings between the two schools would come in either the Shore Conference Tournament or the state tournament or, more than likely, the Ocean County Tournament.

To this day, the most amazing game I saw the two teams battle against one another in was the 1990 Shore Conference Tournament semifinal at Southern Regional High School when North grabbed a 6-1 lead in the sixth inning, only to watch East score four times in the bottom of the sixth and two more in the seventh to steal a 7-6 victory as Schwartz kept having her players bunting on the third-base side while North third baseman Jen Carlisle stayed even with the bag. I can still see East cleanup hitter Jeannine Zarrillo laying down the game-winning bunt with the bases loaded.

It was only then that I got a gist of what Schwartz was doing in that game. And I can still see North pitcher Heather Richards, so angered by the outcome, taking her glove and whipping it against the dugout wall as if she was trying to knock the wall over.

In the Ocean County Tournament, Schwartz's Raiders and Millers' Mariners would play one another seven times between Schwartz's first year at East in 1988 and Miller's last year at North in 2000. Miller's Mariners won the '88 battle, Schwartz's Raiders won the '00 matchup, both in blowout victories.

Four of the seven matchups between the two teams were blowouts of eight runs or more with both teams winning two games each. There was the bizarre 1999 semifinal at Toms River South when North fireballer Lauren Anderson threw a one-hitter that was a no-hitter originally and lost to East, 2-0. And the 1994 semifinal came down to a final at-bat with East winning the game in the bottom of the seventh, 5-4.

But of those seven matchups, none of them quite had the intensity and determination as the quarterfinal-round game at Point Pleasant Boro Middle School on Saturday, May 22, 1993.

The two teams were closely seeded at the meeting, North getting the fourth seed over No. 5 East. This game was part of a tripleheader of quarterfinal games that day at Boro's field. The first quarterfinal had been played on the previous evening with No. 7 seed Jackson Memorial springing an upset on Class A South champion and No. 2 seed Southern Regional, 12-6, with seven runs in the top of the seventh inning on Boro's field.

After Lacey won a yawner from Pinelands Regional in the first game of the new day, 8-3, we were settling in for both East and North converging on the neutral field to play. You can sense it from watching the teams warm up and chatting a little bit with both head coaches that there was a nervous edge to this one. While top-seeded Central Regional was the spotlight team of the quarterfinal round of games, they had a supposedly easy game against No. 8 seed Monsignor Donovan waiting for them later on.

East and North was the spotlight game. I had a feeling neither team was going to disappoint.

East was 13-9 on the season and the second-place finisher to Central in the 1992 tournament. And the Raiders had most of their team back from the previous year, including hard-throwing right-hander Erin Tulko, now a junior. However, Tulko was not as intimidating as a junior as she had been her sophomore year and the 13-9 team record showed it. As a matter of fact, Schwartz was relying more on backup pitcher Marissa Kelly. If Tulko got into trouble, Kelly would be the girl to come in and bail the team out of trouble.

On the other hand, North was 15-6 and playing like it was the higher-seeded team going into the early evening/late afternoon battle. The Mariners were riding a five-game winning streak and had the steady and accurate Anna Solosky, also a junior on the mound. After being an extremely young team the year before and losing their All-County top power hitter to graduation, Paige Reinheimer, I wondered how much North had in it to make a run in the OCT.

As the public address announcer for the game, I went through the substitutes and starting lineups for both teams for which afterward the teams went back to their dugouts and the umpire yelled out, "Play Ball!"

East had an early first-inning threat against Solosky with runners on first and second in the top of the first, but Solosky got No. 5 hitter Cheri Klem to ground out to second baseman Jaclyn Cherubini to end the inning.

North got the bottom of the first going with leadoff hitter and head instigator Kristin Smith. She drew a four-pitch walk from Tulko ... a sign of things to come. Tulko came back, though, to strike out Cherubini, bringing up No. 3 hitter Lesley Gertner. On the second pitch of the at-bat, Miller had Smith stealing second. She got down there in plenty of time, and when first-year catcher Amanda McGovern's throw sailed into center field, Smith was on her way to third.

But I thought unwisely. Center fielder Julie Foukarakis was right there as if she knew the ball was going to come to her on a hop. A perfect throw would have nailed Smith by about 5 feet at third base. Unfortunately, Fouk, as most of us called her, uncorked a bouncer that got past third baseman Vicki Guarneri and into dead-ball territory that allowed Smith to score the first run of the game.

Not a promising start for East at all, I thought. North hadn't hit a freakin' ball and yet, the Mariners had a run. It was going to get more interesting. Gertner hit a groundball to shortstop Kelly Gyurecz, who fumbled it for the error. And within the first two pitches to cleanup hitter Kelly Gorga, Gertner had stolen both second and third. Suddenly, I was starting to think that the errant throw by McGovern right off the bat was playing games with her head.

East had to bring the infield in and that was a good thing when Gorga hit a grounder right at first baseman Angela Velardi, who looked Gertner back to third and tagged out Gorga. But Kim Scourzo walked and she was on second two pitches later.

The next battle was one of the best pitcher-versus-hitter struggles I've ever seen. No matter what Tulko threw, Stefanie Rusin was getting a bat on and fouling it off. She fought off three two-strike foul balls and worked the count to 3-2. Finally on the ninth pitch of the at-bat, Tulko struck out Rusin and escaped with the one run scoring.

Somehow, this was a victory for East. It got the Raiders fired up and they were about to take it all out on Solosky in the second inning. Fourkarakis led off the second with a single and one out later, McGovern singled her to second. Solosky struck out No. 9 hitter Krissy Klem for the second out, but it was back to the top of the lineup. Gyurecz hit a chopper to her counterpart at shortstop, Gertner, who fired, but the ball was wide of Scourzo at first and bounced away into dead-ball territory to score Foukarakis and make it a 1-1 game.

The other runners moved up and that was great news for the next hitter, second baseman Amy Mullane, who roped a single to right-center field to score both McGovern and Gyurecz to make it 3-1.

That would bring up Tulko, who had jacked seven home runs in 1992, one being in the OCT quarterfinals against Solosky and North in a 13-3 mercy-rule win. Though Tulko was struggling through issues during the '93 season, you can still see she had power. Tiger Woods may have a bad round or two in his game, but from time to time, he showed you he could still come through when needed.

And that was about to be the case with Tulko. On an 0-1 pitch, Tulko drilled Solosky's offering over Rusin's head in left field. On a wide-open Boro field, that was trouble. Mullane scored easily and Tulko didn't stop until she circled the bases for a two-run circuit clout to make it 5-1, her third career OCT home run in two years.

Although East put two more runners on base in the inning, Solosky did get the final out.

In '92, a 5-1 lead with Tulko on the mound was the equivalent of Mariano Rivera coming into the ninth inning with a lead and a save opportunity. In 1993, it wasn't the same thing.

North showed its resiliency ... and it's criminal-like demeanor. Tulko hit No. 8 hitter Bonnie Shapiro with a pitch. Then Shapiro stole second and third to get herself 70 feet form home plate with two outs and Smith up again. Tulko uncorked a wild pitch that allowed Shapiro to score to make it 5-2. Smith ultimately walked and stole second base. Cherubini and Gertner walked to load the bases. However, Tulko avoided trouble by getting Gorga to hit into a forceout to shortstop Gyurecz, who tossed to Mullane to end the rally.

North put runners on second and third in the third inning with two outs, but Tulko got Solosky to fly out to Foukarakis to end the rally.

While most people like myself thought North was wasting its scoring opportunities, North coaches, players and fans were looking at it as opportunities they may not have gotten against Tulko the year before and opportunities they thought were still out there the rest of the game.

East, though, was about to make this much harder for North in the fourth. With one out, Mullane hit a grounder to Gertner at shortstop, who bobbled the ball for one error, then compounded matters by throwing the ball in the dirt past Scourzo and into dead-ball territory for another error. Tulko singled to center and when the throw came to the plate to keep Mullane at third, Tulko scampered to second base, putting two more runners in scoring position.

Again, North's fielding was about to get the worst of it. Velardi hit another grouder, this one to third baseman Gorga. Gorga secured the ball, but she, too, threw wildly to first and into the dreaded dead-ball territory to score both runners, making it 7-2.

Not only was North blowing opportunities in its part of the inning, the Mariners were throwing the game away with their shoddy defense. By now, I started wondering how much they really, really wanted this one. I was just hoping they wouldn't embarrass themselves out of this one. That five-game winning streak wasn't very promising in continuing. Maybe East just had North's number for some reason. Like 1990 in that SCT game. Like 1992 in the one-sided OCT affair.

But North showed signs of life in the bottom of the fourth. With Cherubini on first and one out, Gertner hit a blooper out to center fielder. The ball landed in front of Fourkarakis, but because the play was iffy for her, it meant Cherubini had to hold up. Fouk got a perfect bounce and fired to Mullane at second to force out Cherubini.

All the bounces seemed to go East's way, too. But Gorga was able to get a hold of a Tulko pitch and place it out to right field. With Gertner going on the crack of the bat hitting ball with two outs, she wasn't stopping. Krissy Klem came up with the ball, but did not hit Guarneri at third with a perfect throw. It bounced away into -- you got it -- dead-ball territory to score Gertner and send Gorga to third to make it 7-3. Though the left-handed hitting Scourzo grounded out to Mullane to end the inning, it was certainly a sign of life for the Mariners.

Again, the Erin Tulko of  '93 was not the same brand as the year before, so other teams were going to try and take advantage of it.

Solosky had a relatively easy top of the fifth. Then the Mariners exploited the Erin Tulko of '93 in a big way in the bottom of the fifth.

With one out, Megan Russell reached on a Mullane error. Once again, Miller began to play mind games on McGovern and the Raiders. On cue, she had Russell steal second. Then a passed ball by McGovern advanced Russell to third ... just like that. Tulko then walked Shapiro and Solosky, the Nos. 8 and 9 hitters, a huuuuuuge no-no for any pitcher.

Smith hit a groundball to Guarneri, who fired to McGovern at the plate to cut off Russell from scoring.With two outs, the batter was Cherubini. Cherubini worked the count to 3-2, then drew ball four for yet another walk ... and an RBI, cutting the lead to 7-5.

On the next pitch, Tulko uncorked a wild one to bring in pinch-runner Marureen Bojus. One more pitch later, Gertner singled to left-center field to bring home both Smith and Cherubini, tying the game at 7-all. Though Gorga hit a comebacker to Tulko to end the inning, North was making the message that it was here for the rest of the early evening.

That's when the game really took off.

The quiet Solosky, a study of concentration, sent East down in order in the top of the sixth. Then in the bottom of the sixth, Scourzo walked on five pitches against Tulko.

By this point, Schwartz had seen enough of her ace. She took Tulko out of the game after a sloppy 11 walks -- granted, not all of them were her fault with an umpire who was calling the strike zone very tight. She had only three strikeouts in this one. Schwartz brought her go-to girl in situations like this with Kelly.

However, Rusin greeted Kelly with a single and Russell singled to bring in Scourzo and North was ahead  again for the first time since the first inning at 8-7. With runners on first and third and no outs, Kelly calmly settled down to get a strikeout, foulout and popup.

It was North's game and the fans were eating it up. The rivalry was in full bloom for everyone to see with each coaching staff -- Miller and Jayne Donald of North and Schwartz and Dawn Dziedzic of East -- expressing the importance of this final regulation seventh inning.

The Raiders were about to have the first crack at Solosky in the top of the seventh. With one out, Foukarakis, now playing left field with Tulko going to center, and Guarneri each singled to right field. McGovern then singled to left field to score Foukarakis with the tying run. Krissy Klem bunted for a base hit to load the bases and bring up the top of the order. Gyurecz singled to left field to score Guarneri and give East the lead back at 9-8, but Schwartz put the stop sign up for McGovern at third to keep the bases load. Mullane hit a short flyball to center field that Smith came on in to make the catch, but McGovern -- not the fastest afoot -- was held up by Schwartz at third, setting the stage for Tulko-Solosky tussle ... again.

There would be no drama to this one, though. Tulko went after the first pitch and skied a flyball to center field that Smith secured in her glove to keep it at 9-8.

At this point, I started wondering if Schwartz would go back to Tulko just because she can still dominate one inning if need be. Again, if you have Mariano Rivera on your team, you're not going to hesitate to use him.

But Schwartz stayed with Kelly. She felt Kelly would get her team the best shot at holding the lead and moving on to the semifinal round.

In 13 pitches -- three that made contact with aluminum -- the plan was about to backfire. Kelly started out very negatively by walking a stubborn Cherubini on a 3-1 pitch that Schwartz demanded an answer as to from the umpire as to why it was a fourth ball and not a second strike.

This brought up Gertner. On a 2-1 pitch, she hit a sinking line drive toward the left-field line. To this day, I can still see Foukarakis hustling for that ball with the knowledge of what would happen if she either caught it or did not.

Unfortunately for East fans alike, Foukarakis came up short on her dive to get the ball. It skipped past Fouk and bounced away from her, still in fair-ball territory. Cherubini scored easily and Gertner did not stop until she got to third.

Fouk's attempt at the ball was simply a "no-guts, no-glory" thing. She'd be a hero if she caught it. Fouk didn't and suddenly, the Mariners were 70 feet away from the plate and winning the game ... and, oh by the way, that brought up cleanup hitter Gorga. East's infield was in, trying to get the ball and make a play at the plate if need be.

The count got to 2-1. They could afford to put Gorga on first and take their chances at a double-play ball with Scourzo at the plate, They chose, instead, to have Kelly pitch to Gorga.

Gorga won. She stroked a single to center field to bring home Gertner to tip the scales in North's favor one last time, 10-9.

East miserably lost a game it had under its collective wings. Raiders players walked off the field hurt and saddened, no more so than Kelly, who was relied on heavily by Schwartz to pull out the win. I am not sure Marissa Kelly ever recovered from this one. Meanwhile, Schwartz was still seething from a ball-strike call against Cherubini to start the inning that didn't go in her favor.

North survived and advanced to the next round against top seed Central Regional. Most of us figured Central would walk right over North, especially thanks to an early-season victory. But North was not that same team it had been earlier in the year. The Mariners defeated Central in the semifinal round three days later and would finish out the unlikely story of them winning an OCT title by 10-run mercy rule against Jackson Memorial a week later. It is still, to this day, the only mercy-rule finish to an OCT title game.

The Jackson Memorial OCT title game win capped a 12-game winning streak to end the season, still the greatest ending I've ever seen a softball team had. In between the OCT games, North was successfully completing its Cinderella run to the Shore Conference Tournament title as an 11th seed, beating Central Regional again, this time, 2-1, in the final at Rash Field in Wall.

East would bounce back the next year to win the OCT, including that semifinal win against North.

In a heated rivalry between teacher and mentor, teacher won on this day because Miller wasn't going to leave a stone unturned in her bag of tricks in being aggressive with her pupil.

The East-North rivalry was, by far, the best rivalry of the decade, especially in the 1990s. The '93 game, though, will always be the classic in terms of OCT play just because of the one-upsmanship the teams displayed that late afternoon/early Saturday evening at Point Boro Middle School's field.

In the end, North was just a little more focused.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The strong sense of a great softball season ... even in an opening-game loss

The opening day of the 1998 Ocean County high school softball season would have been heavenly.

If it had been held on March 31.

It's hard to believe, but March 31, 1998, a Tuesday, was a rare scorcher of a day at the Jersey Shore -- in the northeastern part of the United States for that matter. Temperatures on this last day of the third month of the year reached a high of 87 degrees. For a good part of this day, I thought I had moved to Florida by accident. The highlight of the afternoon was watching Alberto Castillo single home Brian McRae with the winning run to watch my New York Mets beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 1-0, in 14 innings at Shea Stadium.

At that moment, I thought this was the year for the Mets after so much disappointment. It was so close to happening, too.

But I was getting ready for the next day-- the anticipation of watching our county's best softball team open up with a tough road match-up in Middletown against perennial power South.

This was the year big things were going to happen with Toms River North. When I had last left the Mariners, a good amount of the players were in tears on the Toms River High School East softball field after Cheryl Zellman had belted the "shot heard 'round Ocean County" to give Central Regional a 2-1, nine-inning victory over the Mariners in the Ocean County Tournament championship. A sad way to end the season for North, however, the Mariners had won 20 games and had a lot of the players who felt the despair and pain that night at East returning.

This included their dynamic battery of junior pitcher Lauren Anderson ad senior catcher Teresa Andreani. They both had dynamite '97 seasons and the best was yet to come in the '98 season, Andreani coming off a fantastic field hockey season the fall before when North made it to the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV championship game.

To prepare for the first day of the season, I wanted to make the coverage of the game "different." Instead of going up there to cover the game, I had planned with Al Ditzel, my boss, to use this game as my Thursday column, feeling this would be a great kickoff to the season and this game would stand out and alone for the section. The only thing was there would be no pictures to accompany the game since it was out of our coverage area, but that wasn't an issue. There would be this game as a column and the rest of the games would be put into one roundup.

All was OK by Al and I went to sleep Wednesday night thinking everything was hunky dory for the next day.

When I woke up the next morning, you could have blown on me and knocked me over. From this gorgeous, warm day on the last day of March, I was greeted by something quite a bit different. The temperature had gone from 87 degrees to 54. And that sunny day? Naah, that was like a distant memory now. The crazy Jersey weather was showing as it was raining on and off throughout the morning. I had to make a phone call up to Middletown South to ask the athletic office how the weather was some 35 miles from where I lived and if the game was still on.

"Still on," was the answer I got from the secretary. Even if I got up there and it poured again and the game was rained out, I was getting paid for turning my Ford Thunderbird LX over and driving to South and back to the Observer building.

I headed up north, going my normal route of Hooper Avenue, then onto Beaverson Boulevard in Brick, and onto Route 88 in Lakewood before getting on the Garden State Parkway and driving up to Exit 114 to get off at the Middletown exit. I'd been there numerous times for various events over the year, whether it was football, soccer or softball. And all the while, there was no rain, but the roads were still fairly wet and the clouds were still grey and yucky.

I still remember getting out of my car, notebook in hand, set to make the long walk from the parking lot to the familiar softball field where I covered my first game there in 1986 when Toms River South stunned then No. 1 seed Middletown South and pitcher Karen Rosenthal in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals. And the two constants over the 12-year period were where the softball field was situated and how good the Eagles were. Still are, actually.

Oh, there was the third constant at Middletown South High -- long-time head coach Tom Erbig. Also the wrestling coach at the school, Erbig was one of the best "opposing" coaches I had known. He always invited me to call him if I ran into a jam or was writing a preview that involved his team.

North was going through the infield and outfield drills. North stumbled a bit defensively in warmups and I could not help but think this could be the preface for a bad afternoon under these grey, yucky clouds. But I knew one thing was a good constant -- the pitching of Big M, Anderson's nickname, but more importantly, her interaction with Andreani. Though they may have been a year apart in class at North, Andreani being the senior, Anderson the junior, you'd swear they were more sister-like than that.

And one other thing -- North had a lot to prove in '98, not because they had everyone back. It was just the way that the '97 season ended for the Mariners and longtime coach Becky Miller. The OCT final was tough enough for anyone to handle, but Anderson threw a no-hitter in the South Jersey Group IV championship game against Shawnee ... and lost! Yes, North lost the game, 1-0, because they couldn't hit either.

But the worst dignity-losing defeat was their Shore Conference Tournament game at Toms River East in the semifinal round against Allentown. The game was played the afternoon of North's senior prom, and it wasn't just the senior girls who were going to their once-in-a-lifetime occasion, but a number of North juniors and sophomores were being invited by the senior boys. And so even though North could bargain to play the game much earlier in the afternoon on that particular Friday, May 24, Allentown simply said, "Nope," infuriating everyone from Miller to the Mariners players and parents.

Without some key kids in the North lineup, Allentown won the game, 1-0.

And with Toms River East winning the Class A South title that particular year, the North Mariners came away with a 20-win season -- and nada to show for it.

This 1998 season was about to become one of "unfinished business." But for that to be in full effect, a very good effort was needed against one of the Shore's best teams in these Eagles, who would beat that Shawnee team North lost to in the SJ IV final in the '97 Group IV semifinals, but would lose in the state Group IV final.

With two outs in the first inning and Lisa Miller on base, cleanup hitter Anderson stepped to the plate. She got a hold of an Emilia Murtha offering and drilled a shot to deep center field. For one moment, I envisioned the ball disappearing over the center field fence and the Mariners taking a 2-0 lead. I was so sure of it. But as I watched center fielder Lindsey Keppler retreating as deep as she could, I could sense that the 240-foot sign in center field was looking more like 440 feet. Keppler camped under the ball and hauled it in 15 feet from the fence.

I knew the air was somewhat heavy that day with the humidity and all, but even I thought this was ridiculous.

Now it was Middletown South's turn to come up in the bottom of the first. And Alison Erbig, the coach's daughter, led off with a walk. Erbig moved to second on a wild pitch and a Katie Sullivan sacrifice bunt moved her up to third. One out and Anderson was in trouble. Didn't even take one inning for this to happen!

No. 3 hitter Jen Dodero came up. She was bunting against the hard-throwing Anderson. She popped it up between the pitcher's mound and home plate near the third base line. Anderson hustled as hard as she could to get after the ball. But she was not fast enough. Her dive was good enough to get a glove on the ball, but not smother it in her mitt.

The ball bounced into foul territory allowing Erbig to score. That was the kind of competitor Lauren Anderson was -- she was going after that pop-up even if any of her teammates told her to stay away from the ball for it was going to bounce foul.

Nonetheless, it was 1-0. And though Murtha was no Anderson by any means, she was still managing to get the ball over the plate and Mariner hitters were obliging to hit pop-ups, flyballs and groundouts to Eagle defenders. Murtha would only pick up three strikeouts, but her fielders collected 11 groundouts, five flyball outs, a lineout and a popup. In other words, Murtha made her effort look, well, effortless. When the Mariners had any inkling of a threat, there would be an "at'em ball" to an Eagles player to end the threat.

Just very frustrating for an opening game.

And Middletown South was making contact against Anderson, even if she picked up six strikeouts on the day.

Still, it remained 1-0 until the sixth inning. Sullivan went with an outside fastball and drilled a shot to the right-center field gap for a double. Three offerings later, she was standing on third after a wild pitch. One batter later, Aimee Barselona made the same adjustment on the outside fastball that Sullivan made and took Anderson to the opposite field for a double as well to score Sullivan to make it 2-0.

Down 1-0 with three outs to go gives you hope. But down 2-0 with three outs left? Forget it, especially the way Middletown South was fielding on this afternoon. North went down in the seventh inning in order and Middletown South had opened the season with the 2-0 triumph.

I knew the possibility of this would happen. I wondered aloud if these Mariners were still suffering the hangover of the '97 season, the clutch-less clan of softball players who couldn't buy a hit when needed. But I realized, too, that this was just the first game of the season. There was a long Class A South season and then the postseason would arrive. With the warmer weather so, too, the Mariners would warm up.

As I typed in my column later on, "There will be plenty of good days against the opponents for the Mariners ... this one was just an early lesson about what to do and what not to do against a team that has, well, been there, done that.

It was true. But not only did North not hit, Anderson was far from being, well, Lauren Anderson. She walked four South Eagles. That's bad alone. But she also uncorked five wild pitches. Five! This was not the Big M I knew.

Still, throughout her tough day, I knew she was going to be all right in this season. Because she had a patient backstop that day behind the plate in Andreani. I've seen a lot of great catchers, some who could hit the ball a ton and some who handled their pitcher or pitchers with the right temperance you need to keep them in line.

Rarely, though, have I ever seen a catcher mix those two traits.

Teresa Andreani is the only catcher I have ever covered in nearly 30 years of covering softball who could do that and do it with a fireballing battery mate. You think catching a hard-thrower is a lot of fun? Try to do so when that hard-thrower is not on top of her game.

I've seen a lot of special pitcher-catcher relationships over the years. I saw Kathy Hawtin handle Kim Tompkins between 1987-89 at Toms River East. And I saw Kelly Honecker handle Kristy Tice at Central Regional between 1995-97.

But I saw something special with T and Big M. I interviewed both of them after the game. All Anderson could talk about on this terrible day weather-wise was how off she was and how terribly she performed, putting all the blame for the loss on herself.

Well Andreani wasn't having anything to do with Big M taking the loss on her shoulders by her lonesome. I asked T if her battery mate takes things too hard. She answered, "I think she does."

What soon followed was the reason I believe North was going to be the best team I saw in this season -- and arguably the best Ocean County team I would see for one year on a diamond.

Anderson looked at her teammate and retorted, "Do not!"

"Do too."

"Do not."

"Do too."

Finally, Anderson gave her teammate one more, "Do not," following it up by saying, "If my team loses, I feel that it's my fault for it and I'll take the blame for it."

That conversation soon ended. I knew it wasn't all Lauren Anderson's fault for the loss. It wasn't her fault that a ball that she hit in the first inning that felt like it was going about 300 feet simply died in the cool, humid air in the center fielder's glove. And to give up two earned runs to a very, very good Middletown South team is more than good.

It's when your team can't score one run that you know there might be a problem.

Still, there were going to be far more better days than bad days for North's Mariners. They wound up winning the Class A South title in a runaway, losing one game in the division that season to Jackson Memorial. North did it again in the state tournament as Anderson threw a no-hitter ... and lost again, this time to Lenape.

But when it came to the Shore Conference and Ocean County tournaments, the Mariners were at the top of their game. They won the OCT going away, beating Jackson Memorial in the final, 4-1, as Anderson would earn Most Valuable Pitcher honors with 48 strikeouts in three games and outfielder Barb Ihrig claimed Most Valuable Player honors for a big finale.

And wouldn't you know it -- guess who North had in the SCT final at Wall High School? If you said Middletown South, give yourself a prize! And unlike the first outing on that ugly, yucky April 1 game, this finale, played under sunny, blue skies was never a contest. Anderson struck out 15 Eagles hitters and the reliably-sound defense of Middletown South fell apart under the avalanche of eight errors in an 8-3 North win.

North finished the season at 24-3. And both Andeson, who struck out a county-record 367 batters, including an amazing 30 in a 15-inning, 1-0 SCT quarterfinal-round game against Lacey, and Andreani earned All-State first-team honors as Andreani was on her way to St. Joseph's on a full scholarship to continue her softball career.

Everything that year clicked for Toms River North in a big way. And I knew it was going to thanks to a pitcher and catcher who were in tune to each other all season long.

Even if the first game of the season didn't go so well.