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Saturday, June 1, 2013

The famous final chapter of Norm Selby's career

I was back in Ocean County in May 2012, my old familiar stomping grounds. I was there to visit family as always and to record more history for my Web site honoring the Ocean County Softball Tournament --

On this particular Thursday, I was doing a doubleheader of games in the tourney -- Central Regional was hosting Barnegat and Toms River East was hosting Toms River North. The Central-Barnegat game went quickly with Central winning, so in between the games, I decided to make a phone call. It was to the best coach in any sport I have ever dealt with in my career -- former Central Regional softball coach Norm Selby.

He was there and I told them I was in the neighborhood so he told me to come on over. He was there along with wife Karin and daughter Lorrin, who played for her dad on varsity between 1990-92. His grandchildren -- I believe older daughter Shannon's kids -- were there as well having a good time.

We talked as if were just picking up a conversation the day or week before. I, of course, was lamenting on the direction the 2012 OCT and how things were getting as screwed up as a soup sandwich. I wasn't even going to tell Norm about how Central was holding the event up because they refused to play a doubleheader to move the tournament along or even play earlier on the day of a prom. I knew I would get a long soliloquy of how back in his time they'd play the day of their prom and then the "young ladies" as he always called them would take care of their responsibilities and afterward they could dress up for a memorable night wherever they were going.

That was "old school," which myself and others appreciated. Norm Selby understood responsibility. He nor his program ever made excuses as to why not play the day they were expected to play. That kind of attitude has sadly dwindled away these days, but that's another blog at another time.

I was there to catch up for the time I had. I had gotten to the Selby household in Bayville at about 5:15 and had some time before making the trek from their house to Toms River East for what was the tournament's "Large Schools" final, an idea to split the tournament into smaller schools and larger schools. I swear the next time somebody comes up with that idea again they should never, ever, ever be allowed to make a suggestion the rest of their lives!

But I digress. As we were talking, Karin asks me politely, "Would you like to stay for dinner? I made chicken." Now I was hesitant about it, but it did make for a moment of levity because it took me back to Norm's last day as Central Regional's softball coach.

It was Monday, June 6, 1994. Trust me, I'll get to the payoff to why I found Karin's question so amusing.

For two years, I had known that after the 1994 season, Norm was going to call it a career as Central's softball coach. He had been with the program since 1977 when he was the junior varsity coach under the late Marshall Davenport. He held that position until 1981 when Davenport stepped down and he took over the varsity program. And in 1981, he inherited an amazing varsity team. Led by pitcher Phyllis Angellella, shortstop Karen Hughes, first baseman Cindy Egnar and a dynamite senior-laden team, Central went 26-4 and won the first-ever OCT championship. And he would earn the first of what would be six Coach of the Year honors from my paper, the Observer, though I wasn't there yet in '81, nor in the spring of '84 when he got that second honor.

And between 1981-94, Selby amassed 293 victories, won the OCT title five times, won the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III title in 1986 and '88, went to the SJ IV title game in 1981, lost the SJ III championship in 1994 and made it to the Shore Conference Tournament final in 1993, losing 2-1 to Toms River North.

Most of the players on that 1993 team were back in '94. But Selby was never supposed to coach those two years -- he had announced that after Louie (his youngest child, Lorrin) was graduating in '92, he would call it a day. But he still had his niece, second baseman Jill Hirshblond, on the varsity team as a sophomore, along with a special group of sophomore young ladies that included catcher Erika Applegate, center fielder Denise Reiser, right fielder Stacy Sperling and pitcher Tara Menschner. During the summer of '92, he was persuaded to stay as the head coach.

And so he and the only coach to work with him from the start, Gloria Garibaldi, agreed to do this for two more years. And in 1993, the program went 23-3 ... but came away with no titles. Central lost in the SJ III semifinals that year and Toms River North was not only the Golden Eagles' nemesis in the SCT final, but also beat Central in the OCT semifinals, a memorable 7-4, 13-inning game played at Point Pleasant Boro.

So 1994 was the Norm Selby Farewell Tour, though it never got much hype. Central began the year on fire, winning its first 23 games. Yeah, it's easy to cover a team when it starts 23-0. All cylinders were going and in the middle of the season, Menschner passed up former Toms River South pitcher Jodi Solana as the winningest pitcher in Ocean County history when she gained No. 66.

But on May 28, 1994, Central's unbeaten run came to an end in a most stunning way -- a 4-2 loss in the OCT semifinals against provincial rival Lacey, a team the Golden Eagles owned over the previous 10 years against coach Mike Shern. But Shern's Lions found a way to exploit some mistakes made by Central.

Nonetheless, that title opportunity was gone.

Then there was the state tournament. Central made it to the SJ III final, but lost to eventual state champion Rancocas Valley, 6-2, on the same Central field that Lacey beat them just days earlier.

The hopes of one last Central title under Norm Selby were slipping away. The only tournament left for the Golden Eagles was the Shore Conference Tournament. On Memorial Day Monday, they got an ounce or two of revenge from the year before by beating North in the quarterfinals. But four days later -- June 3, 1994 -- Central, the top seed of the tournament, was facing off with No. 4 seed Ocean Township, a tremendously talented program under the tutelage of coach Mark Frankel. And it looked as if Ocean was going to end Central's season up 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh inning.

However, Central got two runners on base and Reiser came to the plate. I can still see the ball being struck solidly off the bat as it went out over the left fielder's head. The two runners on base scored on Reiser's triple, Central took the victory away from Ocean and bedlam ensued as players mobbed Reiser. Even the stoic Selby and Garibaldi were excited that there would be one more day.

One more game to play. That was to be on Monday, June 6, 1994, at Toms River High School East against No. 7 seed Allentown. Not only was I going to be there to cover Norm Selby's last game as coach, but I was also going to be the public address announcer as asked by tournament director and the best athletic director I ever worked with, Southern Regional's Kim DeGraw-Cole.

So the day before the final -- yes, a Sunday morning -- I got up to make the ride from my home in Toms River over to Central Regional for the last Golden Eagles softball practice of the year.

The last Central softball practice conducted by Selby and Garibaldi. I ended up staying there for two hours. It gave me a chance to get some great interviews with some of the players like Menschner and Reiser as well as listen to my new favorite player -- freshman right fielder and superstar-in-training Cheryl Zellman -- mock the cheerleader stylings of North players during their games that year.

"H-I-T ... get a hit, get a hit, get a hit." You had to be there to hear how this 14-year-old said it mockingly. Classic! But that's how Central approached its games -- it was always business, from how they conducted themselves on the field, to all of the players wearing the Central uniform the same way, all of who wore hats (that was optional at the time) and never breaking out into nauseating cheerleading-style rants. I had a nickname for Central's softball team -- Team IBM, a well-oiled machine that was only missing briefcases when they went to work. Then again, their gloves were their briefcases.

That practice, though, allowed me to see the "down-to-earth" side of these young ladies. Then again, they knew me for the four years I was there and vice-versa. It was easier. And I had known Selby since 1985 when I first started covering softball. Same thing with "G," Garibaldi's nickname.

Being the assistant sports editor at the time, I had to balance out that day of writing the preview, finishing out the weekly Ocean's Own feature, and laying out a four-page section. But I found out that my notes and quotes were so fascinating, I couldn't stop writing the preview of the game.

When it was all said and done, it was 36 inches long -- three feet of copy! And of course, the main thrust of the preview was the fact this was going to be Selby's last game as head coach, win or lose. I approached the story as if everything was going to be the last for the coach -- from the gathering of the team to the taking of the bucket of balls onto the back of the bus to the bus ride to the warming up of the team on that Monday at East to playing the game to going back to Central one last time to unloading everything for the final time.

Yes, 36 inches long. Thankfully, we had the room to put all 36 inches into the paper in 1994.

Come Monday, I had to be over at Toms River East by 3 p.m. to make sure everything was set up to do the PA for the game. Back in 1994 on that East field, our vantage point was set up a bit down the first base line, on the other side of the dugout that Allentown was going to be using, unlike today where the PA is behind home plate.

As I normally do for a game when I have to do the announcing, I always make sure to chat with the coaches and get the lineups to go over names. For some reason, the Allentown Redbird bunch, players and coaches, were as uptight as all get-go. I was searching for that proverbial stick to take out of their asses, they were so wound-up tight. I looked at them warming up and the lukewarm reception I got from head coach Robert MacReynolds said one thing to me -- this could be a loooooong day for either myself or for the Allentown Redbirds. Personally, they looked too uptight to win a title, even if they had an outstanding pitcher named Jenny Boss, who like her team was 23-3 going into the final.

On the other side, it was business as usual with Central's coaches and players. Same affable Norm Selby and Gloria Garibaldi as they gave me their lineup. In between all this, I was over by one of the wooden lunch tables that was between the field and the maintenance department shed. East coach Debbie Schwartz was over there overlooking what was going on and she had a guest sitting at the table -- it was her former pitcher, Kim Tompkins. I had done a series of stories honoring young ladies who played in previous OCTs and I had done a feature story on her 1989 victory.

There was an irony with Tompkins being there that day. In that magical 1989 season, she set the county record for victories with 26. Now she was there to watch Menschner, who came into this final with 26 wins like her team, pass her up.

The behind-the-scenes doings were more interesting than the game itself and no one had thrown a pitch yet. Bob Considine, who worked for a short time with me at the Observer before he took his talents to South Beach, err, the Asbury Park Press, got there about 20 minutes before the game. He was doing the main game story, while I was doing the column on the game.

About five minutes later, Bill McLaughlin of the Press arrived to cover the game. He asked me if I had the lineups, which I gave him. Knowing he lived in Ocean County, I figured he had seen my preview story on the game and the fact that this was Selby's last game. It was not a secret that this day was going to be it for him -- I had been writing this for two freakin' years. 

Apparently, Bill must have been the last one to know.

"What did you do -- have dinner with the Selbys?" he asked.

 I smiled. Then I answered.

"Yeah. Mrs. Selby makes a mean chicken dinner."

Soft laughter from Bill. More smiles from me.

Which brings us back to dinner with the Selbys on that late May afternoon in 2012. I got to tell that story to Norm, Karin and Lorrin and in typical Norm fashion, he smiled and said his familiar, "No foolin'! That's funny."

The story was worth the 18 years of waiting to tell. I accepted Karin's offer by the way.

As for the game, I announced both lineups, introduced the head coaches and played the national anthem. And Allentown, which won the coin toss and chose to be the home team, was on the East softball field a few minutes after 4 p.m.

The one person who was missing in the Central lineup was Sperling, who was nursing a sore ankle and was unavailable to start her final career game. In her place was Zellman, a left-hander more than capable of handling the varsity, even as a freshman.

Boss was short in stature, but she could bring it and she could effectively mix in her changeup and curve. And though Applegate got a hit in the top of the first, she was stranded there.

Allentown, a school located in the western part of Monmouth County that would be part of the Shore Conference until 1998, got things rolling against Menschner in the bottom of the first when Barbara Serbes singled to lead off. On the second pitch to Boss, Serbes took off. And Applegate threw a dart down to Selby's niece, Hirshblond, to catch her stealing second. A popout and flyout ended the first for Allentown.

In the third inning, Central had a legitimate threat. Hirshblond singled, Zellman walked and Reiser got on when the Redbirds failed to get an out on a groundball she hit to load the bases with no outs. Dana Kennett, though, did not hit a deep enough flyball to right fielder Amy Bullock to score Hirshblond. Applegate hit a laser on the first pitch, but right at second baseman Serbes for the second out. And Menschner hit a comebacker to Boss to end the frame.

A wasted opportunity. But while that chance went by the board, Menschner went about her business like she had so many times before. She walked No. 9 hitter Alison Bullock in the third, but left her stranded. That Serbes single to begin the first for the Redbirds was the only hit through four innings the calm and cool Menschner allowed.

With the game still scoreless in the fifth, No. 9 hitter Zellman launched a flyball to left field that Alison Bullock had and dropped for a two-base error. The crack was open for Central. But Boss struck out Reiser, then Dana Kennett hit a comebacker to Boss, who wheeled around and caught Zellman off base. She threw a strike to Serbes to nail Zellman for the second out.

Another blown opportunity in the making. How long can Menschner pitch and Central's defense play this well for?

Still, there were two outs and Kennett was on first and No. 3 hitter Applegate was at the plate. She hit her last shot -- the lineout to Serbes -- on the screws. Just bad luck that she didn't get on and break the scoreless tie at the time. The Golden Eagles were about to get a break when on Boss' first pitch, she uncorked a wild pitch, allowing Kennett to move into scoring position.

Here we go again. Now could Applegate deliver. The count was 2-1 when Boss threw one to Applegate's liking. She hit a grounder just out of the reach of shortstop Becky Chamberlain into left field for a base hit.

Selby was not hesitating from his third-base post. He waved his left arm around to send Kennett home and test Alison Bullock's arm. The throw came to the plate and Kennett was coming in at the same time toward catcher Mary Valentine.

No, she literally was coming in toward Valentine because the Redbirds' catcher was literally standing in the baseline and in front of home plate. Kennett couldn't go around Valentine so she did the next best thing.

I want to tell you, that crash at home plate was absolutely amazing. It was as if Valentine never knew the locomotive was barreling down on her. The ball laid on the ground about 10 feet from the sprawled out Valentine and Central had a 1-0 lead in the last game of the season.

Yep, all 5-foot-5, thin-as-a-rail Dana Kennett caused that damage. I don't remember if I smiled or was shocked, but I do know one thing ... it would have taken a lot for me to see a crash like that again the rest of my career. Just smashingly perfect.

And, of course, McReynolds came storming out of the dugout standing up for his catcher, demanding little Dana Kennett be tossed out of this game. Demanded it!! How DARE she run her down like that.

In a sense, McReynolds was right that a collision like that would get a player thrown out of a game. But not in this case -- his catcher foolishly stood in the baseline with the train (Kennett) bearing down on her never possessing the softball. Can you hear Rube Baker from "Major League II" telling Jack Parkman that the train is coming and asking, "What do you do?"

McReynolds could have argued the point all day, but Kennett wasn't getting tossed. He finally left disgruntled.

That dynamic crash at the plate signified the turning of the game's fortunes. In the bottom of the fifth, Melissa Infante singled to right field to lead off. Kristen Vranden went in to run for her. This brought up Valentine, still probably a little woozy from the home-plate crash. On a 2-2 pitch, Valentine hit a comebacker at Menschner. Menschner wheeled around to her left and threw a perfect strike to Dana Kennett coming over to second from her shortstop position. Kennett caught the ball, stepped on the base, crossed the bag and threw a strike to her twin sister Danielle at first.

To this day, I have never, ever seen a 1-6-3 double play executed on a softball diamond as perfectly as that one that Monday afternoon at Toms River East. Amy Bullock flied out to Zellman to end the inning and Menschner and her mates were protecting a 1-0 lead with six outs to get.

By the end of the top of the sixth, the task would become much, much easier. Junior left fielder April Rose, one of the unsung heroes of this Central team, rocketed Boss' third pitch of the inning to the left-center field gap for a triple to lead off. After Danielle Kennett reached first on a fielder's choice that kept Rose at third and stole second, sophomore third baseman Dana Cook delivered a single to left to score Rose to make it 2-0 as Kennett moved to third. Hirshblond hit a grounder to shortstop Chamberlain, who flubbed it for an error to make it 3-0. She stole second to put runners on second and third with no outs still.

Zellman singled to right to score Cook, making it 4-0.

Central had finally gotten to Boss. Now Reiser was about to put the final nail in Allentown's coffin. On a 1-1 pitch, Reiser went to the opposite-field gap. There was no fence on East's field, so Reiser and the runners on base could run all day if they wanted to. Hirshblond and Zellman scored and Reiser ultimately stopped at third.

Yep, another Denise Reiser triple when the stakes were at their highest. This time, though, the triple didn't finish a comeback.

It was finishing out a rout. Dana Kennett hit a grounder toward Boss. Whether Reiser rattled Boss or not, I can't remember, but Boss' throw went over first baseman Sheryl Fodera's head for an error, easily allowing Reiser to score the seventh run.

And Central still had no outs. The 10-run rule was not out of the question, especially after Central loaded the bases with two outs later in the inning, but Boss got Cook to ground out to second to end the threat.

Central had sent 12 batters to the plate to get six runs on six hits and got helped out by two errors.

The competitive phase of the 1994 Shore Conference Tournament championship was over.

Menschner set the Redbirds down in order in the sixth. Like I said earlier, Allentown looked way too tense and tight to win a championship on this day. Central got two hits in the seventh, but could not score, leaving it up to the defense to finish out the perfect way to end the season.

And a coaching career.

Suddenly, reality was setting in. On the field, Menschner admitted later she started to tear up when she realized this was going to be the last inning. And it hit Selby, too. He still had one bit of unfinished business to attend to -- he took Zellman out of the game and put Sperling into right field to play the seventh inning ... and finish her career with her four senior teammates and friends on the field.

All I had left to do was the announcing and to cue up Queen's "We Are The Champions" for the end.

Menschner kept it together. Boss hit a textbook comebacker to Menschner, probably the 652nd one she fielded in her four-year pitching career at Central. One out. Fodera was next. She hit a lazy flyball that Reiser had probably tracked down hundreds of times before.

Two outs. One left to get. It was designated hitter Suzanne Potts. Menschner got the count to 1-2. Then one last riser.

A popup on the right side. It was all happening right in front of me. Hirshblond went back. Sperling went in. What an incredible way for a season to end -- to see the injured senior who lost the last half of her season coming in to snag the last flyball of her career and send she and her senior classmates to a memorable championship.

That didn't happen. However, another senior caught the last ball. Hirshblond pocketed the popup and the celebration began for Team IBM, who let their guard down and let the emotions flow freely.

"We Are The Champions" played and players and coaches hugged. Just after 6 p.m., it was over. Central Regional had that elusive Shore Conference Tournament championship with a 7-0 victory and it came in Norm Selby's final day as head coach.

"We Are The Champions" finished playing and we had a trophy ceremony to go through. I wanted the fans who were there to witness this history to give both teams a hand for the effort they gave on this day. On the field, I had every one glue their eyes on DeGraw-Cole as she was about to hand Selby, Garibaldi and their players their SCT championship.

"Congratulations to Central Regional and head coach Norm Selby, coaching his final game today with Central, on their first SCT championship. That ends the tournament. Thank you for coming and please drive home safely."

Then I grabbed another cassette I had worked on and had another song ready to play on the way out. But the song wouldn't come on! About 10 seconds went by with me trying to figure out what was going on. Eventually, I found the spot on the tape where it began. And when I did, I let the song play from start to finish.

It was Frank Sinatra's "My Way," an appropriate song to go out to. In the office later on, Bob tells me, "I'm on the field (to do interviews) and you put that song on and I couldn't get anything out of anybody because they all started crying!"

Sorry, Bob. I still had to do my interviews. And they were all still pretty emotional about the victory -- a true storybook ending no less. They cleared up the sniffles and tears enough to talk. And as I finished talking to the players and Garibaldi, I can see Selby over by home plate talking to arguably the best softball player he coached, Michelle Carlson, although he coached her on varsity one season before she transferred to East and had an All-State high school career, then had a memorable turn at Trenton State College in which she was two-time NCAA Division III Player of the Year.

Norm comes back to the dugout and I asked him what he and Michelle talked about. When she left to go to East in 1988, I felt there was a little consternation between the two of them, but she maintained all along -- even to this day -- that the transfer had nothing to do with softball. It wasn't her choice.

"Same ol' Central," he told me about what she had told hm. "Pitching and defense."

They had a nice conversation, no animosities. Never any animosities. Michelle Carlson could have been an All-State player at Central Regional, too. The respect was a very healthy one.

We chatted and he told me something that seemed so profound.

 "There's a phrase that epitomizes our program," he started. "Basically, if we keep trying, someday we'll get it right."

And Selby and his players got it perfectly right on the last day of his tenure as Central's coach. The only way Menschner could have pitched better for her 77th and last career win was if she threw a perfect game. She gave up two hits and walked one. That was more than good enough. And the Central defense was perfect, not committing one error in the championship. Defense was always something Norm Selby preached in his 14-year career as Golden Eagles coach.

He also told me that people still didn't believe that this game was his last as Central's coach. But, as he said, he wasn't "BS'ing them." He really was calling it a career as he and his team exited East's field and made that final trip back to Bayville to unload the bus and take that bucket of balls back to where they kept it all those years.

This championship day was done Norm Selby's way. The 294th victory was the sweetest of all his triumphs. And it was emotional. And it was the last game of the season.

And Norm, Karin and I talked about that day for a little bit over the chicken dish that Mrs. Selby made. A lot of good memories of that particular day.

Oh, and Mrs. Selby does make a mean chicken dinner.

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