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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.

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