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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.

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