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Saturday, June 8, 2013

The mess known as the 1991 OCT championship

For the fourth straight year, the 1991 Ocean County Softball Tournament championship game saw the top two seeds in the event make the final.

By far, top-seeded Toms River North and No. 2 seed Brick were the two best teams in the county all season long.

North was getting back to elite status under head coach Becky Miller and she had a senior-dominated team led by the battery of pitcher Heather Richards and catcher Kim Niedzwicki, shortstop Tammy Pape, third baseman Jen Carlisle, left fielder Rene Haskamp and overall best hitter and center fielder Jen Gentle. Everything pointed in North's direction that this should have been their year. They were the favorites that season to win the Class A South season considering their in-town rivals of East and South were going to have somewhat "down" years compared to 1990, South losing quite a few players from the previous two seasons, and East having to be in "interim head coach" mode when Debbie Schwartz took time off from her position to raise her first child, Alex, and Joe Arminio was called up from the junior varsity level to help assistant Dawn Dziedzic.

South still had a very, very good year thanks to pitcher Jodi Solana and third baseman Renae Avalone. East flat-out didn't (5-19) and the season was a nightmare on Raider Way.

Southern Regional was building up toward the next two years with its talent, as was Jackson Memorial. Lakewood had a halfway decent team thanks to seniors Jennifer Cranley and Addie Dix as leaders. Brick Memorial was going through a tough time of it like East.

That left Brick. Yeah, the Brick High Green Dragons who just four years earlier were the laughingstock of high school softball in Ocean County. From 1985-87, the team built a streak of 40 consecutive games.

That's 40 consecutive losing games. When I said they were bad, I mean they were really bad.

But in 1988, a new coach entered the fray. His name was Al Grove. He was the popular longtime head boys bowling coach at the school and his program churned out standout bowlers and his teams were usually division winners. He knew the girls on the softball team and he felt like he could get that program going in the right direction.

Well a new batch of freshmen entered in with Grove that year, but none of them shined quite the way Viki Kara did. Kara was a hard-throwing right-hander whose pitches were just too hard to catch up with. Many in Ocean County did not see this kind of pitcher unless they were facing Solana on an occasional basis. Solana was tough on the left side, Kara was tough on the right.

Brick started turning its misfortune around. Six games into the 1988 season, the Green Dragons broke the losing skid at 45 games when Kara no-hit Howell. In 1989, Brick won an OCT first-round game when Kara no-hit Manchester. But getting to the next level was a challenge after just winning games -- Brick lost in 1989 to eventual champion Toms River East in the OCT quarterfinals, then were stunned by Sue Rogers' Pinelands Regional team in the opening round of the 1990 tournament as Tara Leek tossed a surprising 8-0 shutout against Kara and the Green Dragons.

Now the 1991 Green Dragons had really one shot left to go to that next level. Like North, Brick was senior-laden as well with Kara, first baseman Lori Liegl, third baseman Kim Coco, left fielder Danielle Tomaselli and right fielder Stacy Sherman.

The two teams were on a collision course all season with one another. They split their Class A South battles, North winning the first matchup and Brick capturing the second. And it was that first win that gave North the top seed of the OCT ahead of Brick, which got the No. 2 seed, while South was awarded the third seed. But it was the second win that gave Brick the fourth seed for the Shore Conference Tournament and North the fifth seed, meaning the two teams would collide in the quarterfinals if they won their first-rounders.

Both teams did and in the third meeting, Brick defeated North. Brick lost a tough one to Middletown South in the semifinals. Still, the toteboard read Brick 2, North 1.

As for the state tournament, the two teams reached the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV semifinals. North beat Washington Township, but Brick lost a heartbreaker, 2-1, in eight innings to Cherokee even though Kara struck out 20 Chiefs, including a mind-blowing 17 in a row. Cherokee would go on to beat North in the SJ IV final at North.

All that was left was the OCT. North and Brick both drew byes as the top two seeds in the 14-team event. North defeated fiesty Southern, 4-2, on Gentle's clutch two-run double in the sixth that broke a 2-2 tie. Brick had little trouble beating the Cranley- and Dix-led Lakewood Piners, 10-3, as Kara struck out 10 and allowed four hits. The Piners helped the Green Dragons' cause immensely by committing 12 errors in this game.

An omen of things to come down the road.

Now because of the two other tournaments, the semifinals and final were not set up until the first week of June. So after the May 18 quarterfinals, the next games would not be played until Monday, June 3, a busy day to say the least since it started with me waiting for tickets in Holmdel for a couple of shows I was interested in seeing at the Garden State Arts Center that summer. I stood in line for what was almost four hours. Good thing I planned accordingly that day to take my scorebook and my Radio Shack-made speakers and public address system with me so I could jump back on the Parkway and drive to Lakewood's Wilbur Thompson Field, located across the street from Lakewood High School since I was to cover the games that night and do the PA as well.

Got there just about 4 p.m. and hurried to get everything together for what would be a 5 p.m. start of the twinbill. First up was North and Point Pleasant Boro. The Panthers, the No. 5 seed of the tournament, had turned their fortunes around in 1990 under new coach John Natoli, a super-great guy. However, thanks to budget cuts that spring, a few teachers' heads were on the chopping block at the Boro.

One of those heads was Natoli's. And there was very little support from the higher-ups at the school, most notably athletic director Ed Gilmore. The players went to bat for Natoli, but they could not save his job. And so mere days after Natoli and his players realized he was not coming back for the '92 season, Boro walked on the field and played this semifinal like they were part of a funeral procession.

North could have just about done anything it wanted to that night. The Mariners allowed Angela Stencel to score on an error off a Judy DelPlato groundball in the first inning for a 1-0 lead, but the Mariners then tied it when catcher DelPlato threw away a wild pitch by starter Michelle Meaney trying to get Gentle at third and Gentle easily came in. First baseman Jen DeNitto knocked in Pape with the go-ahead run in the third and North exploded for four runs in the fifth and two more in the sixth. Boro committed four of its five errors in the final two innings and lost 8-1 as Richards allowed two hits, walked four, hit a batter and struck out three.

The story, though, really was never about North winning -- it was about Boro's last game under Natoli, who won 31 games in his two years, but his thanks was to be set free after the school year was up. A number of Boro girls, including Meaney, came off that field in tears. That sight I will never forget.

Sure, North had its moments in the game to win, but this was all about Boro and it was coming after the media attention caused by Natoli's soon-departure. Natoli was melancholy afterward, but he sadly understood the circumstances and had that resignation of "completion" with the program. No matter what anyone was going to say or do in his defense, it was over in Point Pleasant Boro's eyes.

To this day, it is still one of the worst decisions I've ever seen made by a board of education. I've always contended that there are bad teachers with tenure that should be sent out to pasture before any of the young and vibrant ones who could spark an interest in the youth of today.

One semifinal down, one to go -- and in this one, Brick beat South in a battle of all battles featuring the two hardest-throwing pitchers in the county. With Brick holding a 2-1 lead in the fifth, Kara came up against Solana. She took a 1-2 pitch and rocketed it out to the right-center field gap. She circled the bases for an inside-the-park home run. Kara was able to protect the lead and the Green Dragons won it, 3-1, to make their first-ever final. Kara struck out five Indians that night and allowed three hits. In her final game, Solana gave up four hits, two earned runs and struck out six.

So we had our final -- North against Brick. The game was slated for Saturday night, June 8, 1991, at Wilbur Thompson Field. I had to do the preview for the game for the Observer. Coach Miller was not happy with me because I made her win against Point Boro all about Boro and she basically complained that, "Hey, we won the game." I understood her point. It wasn't as if this was the first time she had something to complain about with me, though, and I always kept those complaints in my back pocket. Meanwhile, Grove was just pleased that his kids were performing to the level he had hoped they would all along. This championship was going to be the culmination of from where he started with the woebegone program in 1988 and the end point of his team hoisting the championship trophy.

It is 4:30 p.m., June 8. This day was just freakishly hot. The afternoon high was 92 degrees. And as I arrived in the back of the parking lot away from potential foul balls hitting my car, I could see both Dave McKelvey, the Lakewood High coach and tournament director, and Steve Levine, who helped run the Lakewood Recreation Softball League that played on this field, getting the field ready for the game. McKelvey had run a hose and watered the field at about 4:40 p.m.

Game time was 7 and I figured he would get back to watering the field again before the game. Never did.

Little did I know of the nightmare that would take place that evening on that field.

This night was going to be unique in many ways, and not just because the two best softball teams in the county were going to settle matters once and for all in a championship game, but this was going to be the very first time that we were going to have a first-pitch ceremony. This was the 10th anniversary of the first championship game played at Winding River Park and the team that won the title, Central Regional, was going to be honored that evening. Dave, who had run the tournament since 1988 and had me come aboard full-time by doing statistics of every game which would lead to the handing out of four individual awards at the end of the event, was more than good with the whole ceremony idea. So before arriving at the field, I had purchased a dozen white roses to give each member of the 1981 Central team that was arriving for the game. And to their credit, most of the players from that team arrived that night to be part of the ceremony, as was head coach Norm Selby and assistant coach Gloria Garibaldi, who were in their first years as the coaching staff in 1981.

By about 5:45 p.m., both teams had arrived at Lakewood's field. And after stretching and running and throwing, they each took their turns at fielding practice. They were both having problems with the field. The field was as hard as a rock, baked in the sun all day long other than the one time McKelvey put a hose to water it down at 4:40 p.m. Somehow, I sensed this was a recipe for disaster.

I never anticipated the battle of attrition I was about to witness, though.

Up from my perch on top of the Lakewood High softball shed, a converted dumpster from years before, I went through both teams' lineups, introduced the coaches and umpires for the final and played the national anthem. And then I introduced the members of the Central team as well as Selby and Garibaldi. At the end, Phyllis Angellella Aires, the winning pitcher in that title game who threw a one-hitter in the 5-2 victory over South that June afternoon at Winding River Park, tossed out the first pitch, which she did in this instance to Niedzwicki. It was an hour earlier when I explained to her that she was going to be introduced last and throw out the first pitch for which she implied playfully, "Do I have to hold my rose?" "No," I answered back. "Demand Selby to hold it." She smiled and he ultimately obliged.

Since that night, the first-pitch ceremony has become a large part of the OCT championship pre-game ceremony and a staple just about every year with the exception of four finals, three of which I was not a part of because I was down in Key West at the time.

And we were off and running on this warm evening with the temperatures hovering still at 85 degrees, the second warmest OCT final ever after the 93-degree, June 7, 1984 afternoon steam bath between Central and Southern at Winding River Park.

Kara was to lead off the game. She hit a grounder at freshman second baseman Lesley Gertner. She fumbled the groundball and could not make a play on it for an error.

This was just the calling card for the rest of the game. Kara stole second and No. 2 hitter Sue Fleisher hit a groundball that ate up Carlisle at third for another error. First and third, no outs and two North errors already. Sherman grounded to Gertner, who tagged out Fleisher, but Kara scored the first run of the game. Coco hit a groundball that caught shortstop Pape in between hops, putting runners on first and second with one out.

That's three errors already and we weren't even five minutes into the game!

Colleen Spillane, the Brick shortstop, beat out an infield single to load the bases. This brought up Tomaselli, whose groundball to Gertner could not be handled properly and Sherman scored to make it 2-0. That's two runs on one hit with four errors within the first six batters of the game. North then got a break when Richards uncorked a wild pitch, but Niedzwicki was cat-like to get to the backstop and throw to Richards at the plate to get Coco in a close play for the second out.

But with runners on second and third, Liegl hit a groundball that Pape could not handle and Spillane came home for the third Green Dragon run on the fifth error of the inning. Richards struck out No. 8 hitter Niki Schley and mercifully, the inning was over.

It was now Brick's turn to be in the field and the left-handed hitting Gentle greeted Kara with a single to left field. Tomaselli muffed the routine grounder in the outfield for one error, allowing Gentle to get to second, then her throw to second skipped past Fleisher, allowing Gentle to move to third.

Two errors, one play. Can someone please play this game correctly!?!

Well Kara was about to remedy the immediate trouble. She struck out Pape and Richards swinging and caught DeNitto looking to end the inning.

Richards left two runners stranded on base after hits in the top of the second and in the bottom of the inning, Carlisle beat out an infield single. Niedzwicki beat out a bunt single on the left side and when third baseman Coco threw the ball away for yet another error, Carlisle was on third with no outs. Right fielder Paige Reinheimer delivered an opposite-field single to right to score Carlisle, cutting the lead to 3-1 and putting Niedzwicki at third. But Kara struck out designated hitter Kim Snell and got Haskamp to pop out to her to end the rally.

In the third, Coco hit a grounder right back at Richards, but Richards didn't take her time and threw errantly to DeNitto for North's sixth miscue of the game. Pape, though, had her back. She snagged a Spillane line drive at her and thrw to DeNitto to double up Coco, then gobbled up a Tomaselli grounder to end the inning, keeping it at 3-1.

And it was Kara's turn to soon err. After Pape walked, Richards put down a bunt, but Kara's throw to Liegl was low and in the dirt for Brick's fourth error of the game, moving runners to second and third with no outs. Yet another North threat. But DeNitto popped out to Coco, Carlisle struck out looking and Niedzwicki lined out to Liegl to squash that opportunity.

North was doing damage to itself. The Mariners had the opportunities, but couldn't cash in, yet they were hanging in there down 3-1 after three innings.

Then this venture was about to get waaaaaay more interesting. Liegl delivered a solid hit to right field, and when the ball took an unfamiliar hop on the Thompson Field grass to Reinheimer, she couldn't glove it. It skipped past her, but not too far. Still, it allowed Liegl to get to second on North's seventh error of the game.

After Richards struck out Schley on a third-strike bunt attempt foul, designated hitter Kelly Munro came up. She hit a grounder that Pape snagged, then looked to second to hold up Liegl. Unfortunately, her throw was not quite near DeNitto and skipped away, allowing Liegl to get to third as Munro scampered to second.

Kara grounded out to Gertner for the second out, but Liegl scored to make it 4-1. Then Fleisher, Sherman and Coco all followed up with solid singles to score Munro and Fleisher. Reinheimer threw a strike to Pape at second to nail Coco trying to advance on her single.

But once again, Brick made North pay for the errors it made and it was 6-1. The Mariners couldn't let this game get badly out of hand. And by the fourth, Kara had found her groove. Going in with a 21-4 record, just like her team, Kara settled down. She gave up a fourth-inning single to Haskamp, but everyone else she got out, including fifth-inning strikeouts of Pape and DeNitto.

By the fifth inning, I can see a head pop up slightly over the shed I was sitting on from the ladder. It was McKelvey, who looked at me and told me, "This is it. I've had it." It was code that after four years of running the OCT, he had enough. I'm pretty certain the activity on the field was making it harder for him to want to stay around. And so by 1992, the tournament was going to have its fourth director in history after South coach Jim Christiano, former East mentor Rick Dispoto and McKelvey. 

In the top of the sixth, another Gertner error, her third of the game, got Kara on. But back-to-back comebackers from Fleisher and Sherman to Richards turned into forceouts at second. Then after a single by Coco, her second of the game, Spillane struck out looking.

North was still in this, but were trailing by five runs with two innings to go. These Mariners were in a familiar position, though -- just one year earlier, it was them leading East, 6-1, with three outs left in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinal matchup at Southern Regional before East rallied for a 7-6 win in the bottom of the seventh. So it could be done again.

And North was about to start taking advantage when Carlisle hit a grounder to Fleisher, who couldn't completely haul in the grounder for one error, then threw wildly away from Liegl for another error, putting a runner on second with no outs. A good start for North.

More importantly, those errors helped to establish history -- the 14th and 15th errors of this championship game had tied the record held by Central and South in the 1986 final. The next faus pas was about to be record-setting.

The next batter was Niedzwicki. She put a bunt down to move Carlisle up. Kara went to grab the ball between the mound and the first-base line, but couldn't pick it up. A freakin' flat-out, history-makin' error!

That's when I knew something needed to be announced. And I was just the person to do it.

"Ladies and gentleman. With that error, the two teams have now combined to set a new OCT record for errors in a final. That was the 16th error of the game."

Brick assistant coach Amy Tice looked directly up my way from where she was just below in the first-base dugout and said, "Thanks a lot!"

No matter how bad any final was before this one -- or after this one -- this championship game was going down as the worst one ever! Though the hardness of the field caused by a hot day and not helped by having a hose water down the field only once was making matters difficult for both teams defensively, still these were the two best teams in the county! No excuses!!

A passed ball by catcher Denise Hill allowed Niedzwicki to get to second, but because of Kara's hustle, Carlisle was held up at third. Kara was able to bear down to strike out Reinheimer and Snell. That left it up to Haskamp, the Mariners' No. 9 hitter. On a 1-1 pitch, Haskamp hit a two-hopper to Liegl, who let the ball play her instead of vice-versa. The ball skipped off her glove and to the foul-ball side of first base. The 17th error of the game allowed Carlisle to score, making it 6-2.

But Miller was going to gamble. She sent Niedzwicki around third heading home. Liegl was able to get to the ball that was not too far from where she fumbled the initial grounder. The left-handed Liegl picked the ball up, wheeled around and fired a strike to Hill, catching Niedzwicki by about a step as the tag was made to end the threat.

North got a run, but it needed more. And now down 6-2 with three outs left, you could see the wind was taken right out of their sails by the most important play of the game -- a throwing gem that came, naturally, off an error.

Tomaselli singled to begin the seventh and a Richards error off a Liegl grounder was only complicating things further when Richards recovered the ball and had Tomaselli dead-to-rights out at third, but Carlisle dropped the ball for the 11th North error, putting runners on second and third with no outs. Schley grounded out to Pape, who froze the other runners. But Munro singled to score Tomaselli to make it 7-2. And with Munro taking second on fielder's indifference, it brought up Kara with second and third and one out. She hit a groundball that Gertner could not handle for her record-tying fourth error in the final, allowing Liegl to score to make it 8-2. Grove put in Shannon Bowman as a pinch-runner so Kara could get to relax a little bit before going out to pitch in the bottom of the inning. Bowman took off for second and stole the base, but on the play, Richards, who got the ball from Niedzwicki, tried to catch Munro sleeping.

Didn't work ... the one-hopper Richards threw in Carlisle's way bounced behind her for the Mariners' 13th and final error of the game brought home Munro, making it 9-2. Fleisher blooped a double to right field, but because there was an uncertainty of whether the ball would be caught or not, Bowman held up at third. Then Sherman hit a groundball at Pape, who kept the runner close at third, then fired to DeNitto for the out. Bowman took off for home and DeNitto fired a strike to Niedzwicki to nail Bowman to complete the 6-3-2 double play and end the inning.

The irony of all ironies -- in having the worst fielding day of any team in OCT championship history with a record 13 errors, which still stands to this day, North finished the day with a very well-tailored double play.

But no matter how good North was, it wasn't scoring seven runs with three outs left against Kara, who was primed to finish out the rags-to-riches story for Brick.

Gentle started the inning out by reaching on an error by Coco -- the ninth Brick error of the game and the 22nd and final miscue of this matchup. But for as quickly as Gentle got to first, she was off for second.

One problem -- she left first base too soon and was banged out for it by the umpire for the first out of the inning. Gentle, a two-time All-County center fielder, had her last high school memory be of that. Pape and Richards both reached on singles, but the seven-run mountain to climb was just a bit much for the Mariners. DeNitto went after the first pitch from Kara and popped up to the pitcher.

In the seventh inning, Kara only threw six pitches -- four of North's Mariners went after Kara's first pitch and put it in play. That was the case with Carlisle, whose high school career ended with a lazy flyball to center field that Schley backed up a couple of feet on and pocketed for the last out of the game.

Brick players celebrated at the mound and Grove, who was to turn 50 later that year, became the oldest coach to win an OCT title, an honor he would hold until 1998. He was given the Gatorade bath by his players soon after it was over.

Brick ended the season with a 22-4 record, the best in program history. And Kara took home both the Most Valuable Pitcher and Most Valuable Player honors in her final game. She finished with 46 wins and her contributions to Brick's turnaround as a program prompted Grove to retire her No. 13 jersey.

Ironically, the Top Fielder Award went to a player on North's team -- DeNitto, who did not make an error for the entire tournament. And after it was all over and I had to read the final, ugly totals -- Brick, nine runs, 13 hits, nine errors, North, two runs, nine hits, 13 errors -- it was one of North's player who approached my post after the game and told me, "How dare you!"

To this day, I still have no idea what she was talking about. If it had to do with announcing the error totals of the game and the fact a record had been set of 22 errors in the final, then I'm not sorry at all. Actually, I was quite embarrassed to be there to witness this disaster and she had no room to talk considering she committed a few of those errors.

If I felt sorry for anyone that day, it was Lesley Gertner, the freshman pressed into the role at second base because normal second baseman Snell got hurt and couldn't play the position, forcing Gertner into a distinction no one ever wishes to have. She tied the four errors made by Toms River South shortstop Michele Recchion in that '86 final for most miscues in a final. Coincidentally, Recchion and Gertner would be joined on the list of four-error players by another North second baseman, Nicolette Schellato, in the 1997 final at Toms River East against Central Regional.

But in 1993, Gertner and North redeemed themselves when it won the OCT as a fourth seed and Gertner was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player, an amazing comeback to say the least.

Still, as I packed up my things and left, I had one side partying with their trophy -- and another side pissed off at me. And as I put my stuff into my car, I realized something -- my car window on my driver's side was still down because of how blazing hot it was that day. And as I went to sit down in my '77 Dodge Aspen, my driver's side seat was wet. There was not a cloud in the sky and we had no rain in the final.

You could figure out which side caused that to happen. So with a soggy seat, I drove back to the Observer to write up the game story and file it.

And the next day, I still had a whole lot of crap filed away in the back of my mind, including the actions of some loser fans on the Toms River North side. So on Sunday, I asked Dave, our assistant sports editor, how much room we had. He said we had plenty. I told him I could give him an OCT notebook as a followup to the game. He was fine with it.

My first phone call that Sunday evening went to South coach Jim Christiano, whose Indians stumbled and fumbled their way to that embarrassing 11-error performance in the '86 final against Central, which they lost, 9-5. He said he had read my story and that he was just in shock over the performances of both teams, especially North because he told me that North's big asset was its defense. But he said he was also relieved he didn't have that record anymore for most errors in a final by one team. He gladly let North have that mark.

So my lead was of Christiano's reaction to the error-fest that took place in Lakewood that Saturday night. And needless to say, Becky Miller wasn't too pleased with her place in history and she complained again about the story.

"Why are you complaining about it? It happened. Your team did it and it cost them."

 Again, she was stating her claim that yes, her team did make 13 errors in a final and that they can't replay the game. But it was just the whole precedent that it was, well, being celebrated. It was never talked about again.

Hard-as-a-rock field or not, North couldn't look this bad in a final. I couldn't care less what excuse they used. North was a No. 1 seed, plain and simple. North didn't play like one.

And thus the 1991 season ended that destructively. Twenty-two errors in a final during a season that was loaded with some of the best softball individual talent I ever encountered. It shouldn't have ended that way.

But it did. I hope I never view another game quite like that one again.

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