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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.

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