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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

That memorable night at Lake Highland Prep

My second football season at the Palatka Daily News was looking an awful lot like my first. There was not much hope of watching a postseason game.

By Friday, October 15, 2004, we were in the backside of the season. Palatka was having one of its worst years in a long time at 2-4. Interlachen was a better team, but if better meant winning more than zero games in a season, that they were at 1-4.

And then there was Crescent City, the team I got to see for the first four weeks of the season. For the better part of my existence at the Daily News, the Raiders have been the team I've covered. I know that 22-mile ride on US-17 very well from the office south to Wisnoski Field at Wiltcher Stadium.

The Raiders, though, were coming of a humiliating loss, one of the most humiliating in their history the week before. They traveled to Interlachen to face the county rival. And the Rams picked that night to beat the Raiders, 13-8. Why was it humiliating? Because the Rams won for only the second time since 1997 on the football field, the only other win coming in 2001 against Fort White.

While the Rams were celebrating on their home field (it was the only game I didn't cover that season involving Crescent City, my boss wanting to see both county teams play while I got to see Palatka lose at North Marion), the Raiders were left scratching their heads wondering if there was anything positive left in their season at 1-4.

Their head coach was a new guy. He was a Georgia boy named Brad Waggoner. Now Waggoner came to the school as a guy who learned the ropes from being a college grad assistant. Heck, he worked under Mike Dubose at Alabama and was friends with him. He had just turned 30 years old that August and getting the Crescent City head coaching gig was pretty important to him.

He was hired by Joe Warren, who was relatively new to the job as Crescent City's principal. I was not in favor of him firing the previous coach, Gordon Roberts, a solid, good all-around man who had coached that team for 10 seasons. They had a bad year in 2003 and a 56-14 loss in the final regular-season game that season at St. Petersburg Catholic was the final straw.

So it was my job to interview Waggoner weekly to talk about the upcoming opponent. And he didn't sound all that positive going into the next game, which, oh by the way, was the biggest District 4-2B game for the Raiders that season.

It was a trip to Orlando to face the district favorite that season, Lake Highland Prep. Now Lake Highland Prep wasn't exactly burning the football landscape either at 2-3, but their blowout loss the same night the Raiders were losing to Interlachen was a little more explainable – the Highlanders were losing to state-power South Sumter of Bushnell, 49-7.

Still, you can explain losing to a state power. You can't explain losing to a doormat like Interlachen.

And in interviewing Waggoner, he did his best to be upbeat in the face of who he was playing.

"Lake Highland Prep dresses only 24 kids, depending on what they bring to the game," he started. "We're probably going to dress 26. Lake Highland is probably going to be the best team we've played this year. They are a sound football team with a good running back (Tony Watts) and a big quarterback (6-foot-5 Robert Kass). The difference is that they seem to be more polished."

And they were senior dominated. These Highlanders looked too tough for the scrappiest of Crescent City teams. Worse, Waggoner was already about to start his fourth quarterback in six games that season ... his fourth! His first quarterback lost the job, then lost a spot on the team. His second quarterback got hurt. His third quarterback wasn't really a starting quarterback ... just filling a void.

Now he was about to start a new guy behind center. And that guy was Louis Haines. You could've pardoned him if he was just a little green because, well, he was! Haines was a freshman.

Yeah, perfect timing to go send a freshman out to play against seniors and juniors. Good luck with that!

On top of that, Waggoner had already shifted every single player on his offensive line around to play every part of the line by now. And he had two more players – talented running back D.J. Johnson and senior wide receiver Cordae Mungin – who weren't going to start for disciplinary reasons.

After this phone call, I started wondering why they were going to Orlando let alone me going. This had every earmark of a bloodbath.

But we were all ready for Friday night football. My boss was staying in town to watch Palatka take on Nease with a talented junior left-handed quarterback that lost in a shootout the year before to Palatka's Panthers. That quarterback's name was Tim Tebow. Our other football writer, a stringer who used to be my boss' assistant, was on his way to Palm Bay to watch Interlachen take on Melbourne Central Christian.

And I was set to make the trip to Orlando. By October of 2004, I had been in Palatka for 14 months. I rarely had the opportunity to go to Orlando unless my girlfriend at the time had the want to go to Downtown Disney. But the way I went was to take US-17 south into San Mateo, then veer off onto State Road-100 for what is a boring, dark, desolate, 24-mile ride into Bunnell. From there, I take US-1 down to Ormond Beach and pick up I-95 for 15 miles until jumping onto I-4 for what would be about a 45 mile trip. These days to go Orlando, I just take US-17 south until getting to SR-472 and then onto I-4. It's longer, but I'm not going away to come back in if you understand what I'm saying.

I had left at about 4:15 p.m., so I knew I'd have plenty of time before the 7:30 p.m. start. By the time I got off at Exit 85 just outside the heart of Orlando and wove my way to the school, I can see the man-made lake out by the entrance and the long, winding road that led me to the athletic fields. My first thought was "Wow, someone has money here."

I would find myself saying that a lot over the years at the prep schools I would go to cover games.

Lake Highland Prep is a school in which not only the student body is enthusiastic, but so are the parents who come to the games. You would think they were one of the kids. I picked up my roster and found my way upstairs to a fairly spacious press box where I scoped my seat. But as I soon found out, where I was sitting wasn't going to be all that comfortable. My boss calls these people "hanger-onners" because they really have no business of being up in a press box other than to hang out with people they know and seem important.

So 15 minutes before kickoff, I wasn't feeling all that comfortable in a suddenly crowded press box.

I was over next to a kid who was going to be doing the public address for the game. Not one of the "hanger-onners" standing behind us. Oh, heck no! This poor kid, who was a junior at the time, got the nod to do the introductions. Not only was he working the PA, but he was also having to do the non-timing part of the scoreboard.

Where the hell was the kid's help!? This was just ridiculous. I even told him so, but he didn't want to hear it. He shrugged it off and he said it was all good and he didn't mind. So I made him a deal: "You get me in next to you and I'll help you with the scoreboard."

Deal! Suddenly, I wasn't so uncomfortable in my spot anymore.

The game started and Lake Highland Prep had the ball first. And they didn't waste time taking the ball down the field. It was four plays in 57 yards and the final play was a beautifully thrown pass by Kass to his favorite receiver, Grant Handley, for a 30-yard score. The extra-point kick was missed, but the Highlanders had the lead at 6-0.

The first possession for Crescent City with freshman Haines in charge didn't go so well and after a three-and-out, the Highlanders had the ball again at the Raider 47. They got to the 21, then Kass handed off to his other running back, Kory Duffy, for a touchdown run to make it 12-0 lead as the 2-point conversion run failed.

Unlike the jitters of the first drive, Haines and the Raiders settled in and got moving this time around. And it was at this point Waggoner decided to unleash a weapon that he had been saving for weeks.

The double handoff. Haines handed off to senior fullback Shantae Hill, but before Hill could plow into the line, he handed the ball off to the wingback, who in this particular case was Hakim Clayton. Clayton got 17 yards on the play and a first down.

At that point, I was starting to wonder if Waggoner had it in him to run that play all night.

But it also loosened up Lake Highland Prep's defense. That was for sure. Running the ball was becoming a little easier. And from the Highlanders' 27, Waggoner had Hill fake a double handoff so beautifully that the defense pursued Clayton and Hill had a wide-open right side of the field to run all day for the touchdown.

Haines missed on the 2-point conversion, but Pandora's box was opened. You can see the visibly shaking heads of Lake Highland defenders coming off the field as if they had no idea of what was sprung on them.

It was a new game and I was glad to put those six points up on the scoreboard for the young man doing the P.A.

If the Raider touchdown rattled the Highlanders when they came back out offensively, think again. For the third straight possession, Lake Highland marched down the field and C.J. Weaver finished a 62-yard, 11-play drive with a 3-yard scoring run to make it 20-6 after Kass bounced right and got into the end zone on the 2-point conversion with 8:11 to go before halftime.

But now, Waggoner was about to introduce the Highlanders to the talented D.J. Johnson at running back. Only two weeks earlier, he had been the second quarterback in charge of the offense, but hurt his ankle, then did something that week that forced Waggoner to use discipline on him and sit out the first quarter.

The Raiders marched down to the Highlander 4 on the next drive and decided without a halfway decent kicker to go for it on fourth down. Haines handed off to Hill, but he got stopped at the 1, forcing the ball back to Lake Highland Prep.

It was a crushing blow to say the least and as they headed into the locker room down 20-6, maybe they weren't up to Lake Highland Prep's level after all. The "consolation" of a loss to the Highlanders was that if they won their next two district games against Winter Park Trinity Prep and Pierson Taylor, they'd still more than likely get into the postseason as a district runner-up. That wasn't so bad.

I don't know if it was going through Waggoner's mind at halftime. I never asked him that, but he knew the circumstances of a loss anyway.

After being stopped on their first drive of the third quarter, the Raiders had to punt the ball back to the Highlanders.

Finally, they got a break they were looking for.

Kass was sacked by one of the heart and souls of this team, Lashon Swilley, a player that previous coach Roberts thought the world of as a linebacker. Kass fumbled and Swilley came up with the ball at the Highlanders 25. On the first play from scrimmage, Haines handed off to Hill, going slightly right. Then at the last moment, Johnson, working as a wingback, came from the other end and took the second handoff from Hill. He was off to the races and untouched as he got into the end zone to make it 20-12. The 2-point pass from Haines to wide receiver Chevelle Taylor fell short, but with 3:04 left in the third quarter, the Raiders were suddenly close again.

The Raiders then forced the Highlanders to punt again and started at their own 23 late in the third quarter. They marched down the field 77 yards in eight plays and had the Highlanders playing the guessing game on what they were going to use as a run. Hill, who would finish with 134 yards on 20 carries, gained 14, 17 and 20 yards on runs, while Johnson, who would put up 115 yards on 11 carries, would deliver a 21-yard run.

Then Waggoner gave the Highlanders a new wrinkle to think about: He had Haines spread out wide as a receiver and Johnson, the former quarterback now being used as a halfback-wingback, taking the snap from center. He got to the outside, followed his blockers and was in for the 5-yard score that made it 20-18. They went for the 2-point conversion run, but Haines got stopped and with 7:43 to go.

Still, it was a battle to the finish.

No, I wasn't expecting that. I was expecting the Highlanders to be smart enough to try to defense what was taking place at halftime. Instead, the Raiders were exacerbating the situation further. All the while, I'm looking at the young kid doing PA that I was helping do the scoreboard while keeping my own statistics and I can sense his feeling queasy over what was happening.

"I still think you guys are going to find a way to win this one," I told him.

Five seconds later, though, I said,  "But if I'm you and your fans, I'm not liking what I'm watching, either."

We both got back into our jobs and watched Lake Highland Prep move down the field. But once again, the Highlanders turned the ball over to the Raiders when Kass fumbled and Taylor was there to recover at the Crescent City 26 with 6:58 to go.

Oh, my goodness. They weren't really going to pull this upset off, were they? Not after the Interlachen debacle, were they? Noooooooo! This just couldn't be happening. Suddenly, the Lake Highland parent "hanger-onners" were sounding off, yelling what they could from the press box to get the team up, even if the kids didn't hear them.

On the first play after the fumble, Haines handed straight off to Johnson and the sophomore weaved through and dodged tacklers down the Crescent City sidelines until getting tackled at the Lake Highland 26 for a 48-yard gain. The clock continued to tick away. But two Hill runs netted one yard and two more incompletions gave the Highlanders the ball back at their 25 with 4:20 to go.

It looked as if they may finally take control of this game.

Then the Raiders got another break.

On the first play after the change of possession, linebacker and all-around standout athlete Rudy Davis came from the outside and put a hard hit on Kass. The quarterback fumbled and Davis recovered the ball at the 24 with 4:15 left.

Just like that, Crescent City had the ball back and in Highlander territory.

The Raiders ran the ball, but were stopped. They were content to take as much time off the clock and not call a timeout. On second down, Hill got stopped for a 1-yard gain. The clock still ticked away, now it was under three minutes to go.

Haines, acting as if he was in no hurry, dropped back to pass, but was sacked for a loss of 12 yards.

The clock continued to run. We were nearing the two-minute mark. It was fourth and 20.

I'm not sure at that point if I could even hesitate to guess if there was such a thing as a fourth-and-20 call. Heck, I'm pretty sure Waggoner didn't have one either. But somewhere between the moment Haines got sacked and he got back behind center that the team's other wingback, Cornelius White, had his ear.

With the clock continuing to run, Haines dropped back once more to pass. He got enough protection to let go of the ball. From there, it was a jump ball. And the receiver came down with the ball at the Highlander 2 for a first down and goal.

That receiver was Cornelius White, who used all 6-foot-2 of his torso to out-jump the cornerback to give the Raiders four chances to take the lead.

Down to two timeouts, Lake Highland Prep wasn't using any of their timeouts just yet. Neither was Waggoner, who was feeling awfully good at that point after the 32-yard pass play.

Haines handed off to Hill, who barreled through the line and into the end zone for the go-ahead score with 1:06 left to play. The important 2-point conversion went left, but Hill was stopped short and it remained a four-point lead with 66 seconds to go.

The Raiders had problems in kicking all season long. And once again, their kickoff team failed them as the ball went squibbing up the middle of the field and was returned to the Lake Highland Prep 40.

All Kass and his team had to do was go 60 yards to win the game. On the first play of the drive, Kass dropped back and found Handley for a 20-yard strike to the Raider 40.

Uh-oh, this isn't happening, is it?

A run of more than 10 yards was brought back to the Highlander 46 on the next play due to a holding call, the eighth penalty of the night against the Highlanders. Two plays later, the Highlanders gambled.

They darn near won, too.

Kass dropped back and found single coverage between Handley and Taylor. He lofted a pass out there that just eluded Taylor's hand and into Handley's arms. Taylor recovered in time to get Handley out of bounds, but not before setting up the Highlanders on the Raider 5-yard line with 26 seconds to go.

Uh-oh, this isn't really happening, is it?

On the next play, Watts, who quietly had rushed for 109 yards on 19 carries, slithered his way to the right side of the field and into the end zone for the touchdown that gave the Highlanders the lead.

But near where the offensive line was located, I can see a couple of yellow hankies laying there. I turned to my new young friend and he was shell-shocked and borderline angry.

"Oh, come on! That wasn't a hold!" he shouted from his vantage point. I turned to him and said, "I think they're calling this a hold."

And that's what the head official called: Holding against a lineman, negating the touchdown. Worse, another flag was thrown after the call was made. This time, it was for unsportsmanlike conduct against a Highlanders player who spiked the ball in disgust after the touchdown was negated.

Oh my, this really did happen. Lake Highland Prep went from leading 26-24 with 20 seconds to go to being behind by four points again and now backed up to the Raider 29-yard line after the penalties had been accounted for. Suddenly, there were a lot of angry Lake Highland Prep fans in front of me and down below in the bleachers and behind me in "hanger-onner" alley.

It was first and goal from the 29, now. On the first play, Kass dropped back looking for Handley, but Taylor was there to knock the ball away.

Second down and goal from the 29, 13 seconds left. Kass dropped back again, but this time, linebacker Quentin Wilson came on a late blitz up the middle and forced Kass to miss his target in the end zone by a lot.

Third down and goal from the 29, seven seconds left. Kass dropped back again. He looked for Handley once more, but Taylor was there to knock the ball away again. I looked up at the clock figuring that was it.

Nope. There was 0.6 seconds left. This was not the Lake Highland Prep people running the scoreboard ... or me for that matter. This was the clock operator on the other side of me.

Fourth down and goal from the 29, 0.6 seconds left. How many more chances did Kass need to get the job finished?

He had one last chance. He dropped back seven steps, saw the field and looked one last time for Handley in the back of the end zone. This time around, Taylor and D.J. Johnson were both back there to defend. The ball was deflected by both defenders as all three crashed to the turf.

The ball landed harmlessly on the ground.

Crescent City players went nuts. They acted as if they just won the state title. It wasn't, but it was darn near close to one.

They did the obligatory handshakes in the center of the field as Lake Highland Prep fans stood stunned and shocked by the outcome. How could you not? The Highlanders finished with 365 yards of offense compared to 311 for the Raiders. The Raiders frustrated Kass into 4-of-14 passing for 116 yards and a touchdown.

As for Haines, he was just 2-of-8 passing for 34 yards, but when that big throw was needed on the fourth-and-20 situation with under two minutes to go, he delivered that 32-yard pass to White.

And walking away from the field and back to where the Raiders' locker room was, I can hear from the outside a happy and excited group of players and coaches celebrating the win. They had reason to be happy, most importantly no turnovers in the game.

I found a lot of happy players to interview after this one: from Haines to White to Hill to Waggoner, who didn't have to regret taking over this team by any means anymore after one of the most important wins the program had seen.

"I can't say enough how proud I am of the kids," he said. "There are people saying the program is not going in the right way. But we've stayed the path. We've lost about eight kids for one reason or another, and the ones who are left are committed to being here. We got it done making plays."

That they did. I left from the field sometime after 10 p.m., knowing I wasn't going to make it back in time to write my story in the office. So I had planned to go to the Orlando Sentinel and type the story on the Internet there using our email system.

By the time I got to the paper and found my way to the newsroom and was told how the computer system worked and how I could get to the Internet, I called Andy, my boss, to tell him what happened.

"Well I'll be darned," was his reaction as he was also seething over Nease's coach running the score up on Palatka in a 59-7 victory as Nease had a 52-7 lead after three quarters, telling me he had Tebow continue to throw after the game was long decided.

Then he said something I guarantee I will never hear again in my journalism career.

"Go and write all you can on it."

You know when anyone says that to me that it's like giving me a pass to freely write every ... single ... last ... detail. It took over an hour to write the story, but by 11:45 p.m., I was done writing it and doing the boxscore of the game. I called Andy back and he gave me the final count on the story once he copied the story and put it into our QuickWire systems.

Forty inches. Yes ... that's 4-0.

Hey, he said, "Write all you can!"

I had to wait a half hour but once he and our night editor Bob had looked at the story, he gave me the OK to go home. Turns out Interlachen also won that night as well, 41-10, over Melbourne Central Catholic.

And what did the victory do for Crescent City? The next week, I had another road trip, this time to Winter Park to see the Raiders face the Trinity Prep Saints. They won that game and when I found out from my friends at the Leesburg Commercial that Wildwood, which Crescent City had beaten in a district game a month earlier, had beaten Lake Highland Prep as well, the Raiders had won the district regular season title with one game left against Pierson Taylor at home.

I was proud to walk alongside Waggoner in front of Trinity Prep's building near where the Crescent City buses were and tell him about that Wildwood win over Lake Highland Prep. A smile came over his face. He turned around to tell his players who were on the buses already, but had the windows down to tell them about Wildwood's win and that they were district champions.

I smiled. Compared to where the program was two weeks earlier after that humiliating loss against winless-on-the-field-since-2001 Interlachen, they came a long, long way. The next week, with that double handoff still mesmerizing opponents, Crescent City tore into provincial rival Pierson Taylor to finish the district season at 4-0 and improve to 4-4 for the season.

But the happy times ended there. The rematch with St. Petersburg Catholic at home was a disaster as the Barons steamrolled the Raiders, 66-20. The Raiders still had their state tournament game to play, their first in four years, and it was at home against a very good Dixie County High team from Cross City.

Like all the other home games that year, I got to cover this one, too. The teams were tied at 12-all at halftime, but the Bears went on a 19-0 run in the second half and that was the end of their season at 4-6.

Talking with Waggoner after the season, he was satisfied with how the team came around starting with that Lake Highland Prep game. He was looking forward to the 2005 season and all the great things he thought his team would do then.

Sadly, though, there'd be no 2005 season. In December 2004, Waggoner, homesick and wanting to be near family again, got a job at a new football program at the Daughters of Revolution School in Alabama. He would be back in familiar territory.

Fast forward to 2014 and I'm having my first conversation with Brad Waggoner since he left. He said the job at DAR was a disaster and he bounced around from school to school in both Alabama and in Georgia. All along, he said he wanted to be a college coach, just like he was a a grad assistant before he took the job at Crescent City.

In 2014, being persistent paid off for him as he became a quarterbacks coach and offensive recruitment coordinator for coach Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech University in Atlanta, where now at 40 years old, he's married and the father of a 3-year-old.

It was good to have that conversation not that long ago. He told me over the phone he still had regret over leaving Crescent City the way he did for a program that was to bring him closer to home, but instead, never got off the ground, prompting him to leave the school almost immediately. But he did say one thing that put a silver lining over the whole situation

"The best thing happening was that Al Wisnoski took the job because he deserved it," Waggoner said of the longtime assistant who finally got the chance to be the head coach of the program from 2005-09 when illness finally forced him to leave the job. Al Wisnoski passed away on May 31, 2011.

"He put so much time and effort into that place and honestly, I wouldn't have made it through that year without him. He calmed me down and encouraged me. Looking back, it was a blessing in disguise and gave the man who deserved that job the job."

Wisnoski would take the Raiders to three more postseason appearances in 2005, '07 and '09 with the middle year being a 10-0 perfect regular season.

But the resurrection of the program began on a mid-October Friday night in 2004 when a flailing football team was looking for a spark, a direction to go in when they seemed once again lost in a storm.

It was that night in Orlando everything changed. To this day, it is the best football game I have ever covered since I've been at the Daily News. Nothing has matched the drama and intensity of that night at Lake Highland Prep.

Brad Waggoner may have been the coach for one year, but his impact was indelible to turning things around at Crescent City. I was fortunate enough to be there when that turnaround took place.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Yeah ... everyone has First Amendment rights!

I'm watching some people on Facebook puke out their self-serving venom against professional athletes who found it offensive in how officers took care of matters in incidents in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y.

The most recent of these "protests" were the "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts worn by two of the greatest players the NBA has seen – LeBron James and Kobe Bryant – during warmups in reference to the Staten Island incident in which an officer used an illegal chokehold on an African-American man who was illegally selling single cigarettes on a street corner.

His life was worth wasting over that? Serioiusly?!

I get it. A majority of people in this country turn five different shades of green, make horrible faces, then make even worst comments about these so-called "spoiled athletes."

"Why doesn't he just play and STFU! He's being paid a lot of money!"

I've got a comment for you back: Have you ever heard of the First Amendment?

I'm sure you have because that's what allows YOU – that's right, yoooooou! – to make heinous and awful comments. Just because an athlete is making a boatload of money doesn't make that athlete just go out there and "play the game." Pure and simple. You may also forget that their upbringing and "where they came from" might not have been the best of situations. I'm betting money, as a matter of fact, that their surroundings were better than yours growing up.

So yeah, let me help you on this – YOU'RE WRONG and maybe YOU should STFU!

Obviously, you have no clue about what happened during the 1960s. Maybe you were sleeping a lot in history class, so as a reminder, I'm going to get you up to speed:

We had racial tensions in this country that seem to be about 100 times worse than now. We had African-Americans shot to death for no reason at all and even after a law was passed to desegregate schools in the South, that still didn't stop white Southerners from wanting to make it loud and clear that minorities (they used the "n" word in many cases) weren't wanted.

Want a sports angle on it? I'll gladly give you one:

African-American baseball players like Bob Gibson, Curt Flood and Bill White of the St. Louis Cardinals were not allowed – not allowed! – to stay in the same hotel in St. Petersburg, Fla., as their white teammates in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Yeah! This stuff happened!!

And so you had Selma. You had Birmingham. You had Albany, Ga., and St. Augustine, Fla. And the protests were peaceful ones for the most part. Only when white people felt threatened that they decided to open up fire hoses on protestors, all hell broke loose and lots and lots of arrests were made.

You had Washington, D.C. on that famous day in August 1963 where in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. made the now famous "I have a dream" speech.

And Mr. King was getting some prominent people of the day to help fight those racial discrimination wars such as Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Jackie Robinson and Flood and then later on Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). And Muhammed Ali, whose stance against the Vietnam War, easily the most polarizing war in our country's history, was made into something racial by saying, "I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong ... no Vieg Cong ever called me 'Nigger.'"

You see, there was plenty of activism among athletes. African-Americans, especially. Who will never forget Tommie Smith and John Carlos putting their fists in the air after taking medals in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, their fists covered in black gloves?

They set the standard that seemed to get lost in the 1990s and 2000s when the divide between black and white seemed to become greater again.

Now, James and Bryant as well as young stars like Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose are making statements with the "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt, a week after five St. Louis Rams players came out of the tunnel with their hands up after a grand jury failed to indict a white officer for killing an African-American teen, the details still mirky, but the job of putting together the indictment process so poorly done that a first-year law student would laugh out loud if he saw the shoddy job that was done.

I will support police officers throughout this country. They have a terrible job in a lot of cases. They deal with the world's biggest scum and in a lot of cases, they have to make life-and-death decisions that could mean everything.

I am blessed that some of my friends that I grew up with are cops, sadly many of which are retiring after putting in 25 years or more. These cops I know are good men. Very, very good men. They deserve every bit of praise. And it's not just them. It's a lot of cops ... thousands throughout the country who deserve our praise, love and thank yous for all they do.

You see, my cop friends don't have egos. They checked theirs at the door. They're humble human beings who only want to make it through the day and go home to their families. We, as a society, should laud those cops.

Unfortunately, it's the rogue ones that ruin it for the all-too-good and by-the-book officers. They are out there and quite honestly, those cops shouldn't even be allowed to have a badge or a gun. There, I said it!

When I left Toms River, N.J. in 1999, I got to see how other communities lived. Other than a smattering of towns I grew up around, I never lived in a town that had quite as many African-Americans as I did in both Key West and then Palatka, both in Florida. In the south, it's a bit different. And I've heard it on both sides of the spectrum.

The cops I've come across in my years in Florida have been fantastic. They tell me about their day and they don't want to go into too much detail over certain things, but they have respect for the citizens they protect. And then I hear the minority side of the fence and though some just go about their business, they also are aware that because of their skin color – yes, they said it to me – they have been stopped by white officers. One even said to me, "I keep my head low and just abide by what the cops say. I'm doing nothing illegal and when they're done, they tell me, 'You're good. Have a nice day.'"

Soberingly, this stuff happens here. This same African-American male, who said he's been stopped three times by officers as an adult (he's 26), told me, "This sh*t just happens. You learn to deal with it. I tell them, 'Search the car all you want. I have nothing.'"

Race relations is a problem in this country. Let's get that straight. Sad thing is no one of my color wants to get into a discussion over it.

Why? Well, that would mean being "inconvenienced." No one of my color wants to have a frank discussion over that. They feel as if "Well, if you're not breaking the law, then all should be OK in life."

Folks, it ain't all black and white, figuratively speaking, I'm sorry to say. There are those one or two cops in a police force who are not above harassing the citizens and doing it in such a way that it's not apparent on the surface. Like the guy who got stopped three times by officers even if he was minding his own business.

And no one is above harassment, black or white, for any reason. Heck, it happened to me.

It was Friday night, August 21, 1987. I was at the Ocean County Mall in my hometown of Toms River, N.J. I was 20 years old at the time and I was going through the mall minding my own business and looking at different stores and at kiosks. I came to one kiosk in the center area of the mall where a young lady, about 17 years old and from Bayonne, was working it. She had something there that I was interested in buying for my mother, but I didn't have the money for it. However, she was nice enough to say she'd put it on hold for me.

She had a friend who was working at a kiosk next to hers. That girl was about the same age and she was from Lacey Township. Class of 1989, I remember very well. We began talking and somewhere along the line, it got a little flirtatious, but nothing overt to the point where I felt they were being violated in any way. I had a lot more class than that.

I left the mall, but I came back with my sister. I told her to wait in the car since this was my first stop and that we were going to go somewhere else to pick something up for dinner and take it home. She wanted to get out of the house and I had my Dodge Aspen at the time.

When I got back to the mall, I came back to the same girl from Bayonne and paid for what I asked her to hold for me. I was appreciative of it and I hoped to see her again.

Well no more than about three seconds after the transaction was over – and I'm guessing this was something that was set up in advance so I wouldn't say no and walk away from the purchase – this 5-foot-6, blonde-haired asshole with a Napoleonic complex comes walking over to me, probably not much older than me.

"Excuse me! These girls say you were harassing them. Were you harassing them?"

"No. I may have been a little flirty, but I wasn't harassing them."

"Well, they say you were harassing them!"

"I wasn't, sir."

At first, I thought this was a joke. Little did I know this asshole was a Dover Township cop who was doing security at the mall and didn't have to dress up in uniform.

"Just leave now!" He then barked.

Then this jerkoff put his hands on me to push me back.

"I don't want you to be anywhere near these girls again! Do you hear that?!"

Then he pushed me backward again.

"Fine! Whatever you say." And I walked away.

I walked back to the car humiliated ... and violated by this douchebag.

My sister asked me what was wrong and I told her what happened.

"I didn't even do anything," I told her.

One thing you find out about family is that if you mess with one of us, you get parts of the clan after that. I don't know what was said, but I'm pretty sure those two girls got an earful from my sister.

One of them, I find out moments after she returned, had told my sister there, "Well, he was gyrating his hips in a sexual manner."

"Oh, really?" I said. I'm glad she was such an expert in that kind of thing.

I knew I had a possible police harassment report I could've filled out, but I never did. The reason: I always felt the Dover Township cops would believe his side of the story and would never believe mine.

Sad but true, but I lost quite a bit of trust in police officers that day. It's hard for me to trust a cop that I don't know. If it's my friends, they'll tell me everything I want to know. I'm blessed with them because, again, they have done a tremendous job for the people and towns they serve.

And sadly, I got stopped by the 5-foot-6 Napoleonic complex dude again in January 1992 in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven on Route 37 coming home from work. He didn't remember me, but I sure recognized him that night. And like that time in August 1987, he gave me a bit of an attitude. After I showed him my license, registration and insurance and he held me there in the parking lot for nearly 10 minutes, he let me go.

I've only told this story to two people and that was 2 1/2 years ago – two of the best people I've ever known in Officers Yannacone and Gannon, while we were sitting there at Tiffany's in Toms River and they were talking about police work.

But that incident in 1987 is mainly why I will never be allowed to serve on a jury. Twice, once in Key West in 2001, the other in Palatka in 2009, I was asked to come in to be part of a jury. I was there both days for a significant amount of time. Then they bring you into the court where you must answer questions from both lawyers on the case as well as the judge.

Both times, they asked the question, "Have any of you ever had trouble with the police?''

I put my hand up both times. And I explained the incident in 1987, but I always used the caveat "Other than that, I've never had any trouble with cops, especially in Florida."

Let's say I've never made the final cut. In my opinion, I will never do my civic duty because of that incident.

I'm proud to do what I do daily and have been professionally for 30 years. I've seen a lot. I've heard a lot. There's things out there I've still yet to see and hear.

But I'm grateful for my First Amendment rights. We don't use those rights enough in this country. Some sit quietly and never say what's on their mind. And then there are those who say waaaay more than they deserve to.

I've known those people, too.

And I'm grateful we have great law enforcement out there throughout this country and that I am honored to know quite a few of them.

They don't represent the rogue, bad one. I know both sides very well.

So when an athlete who is paid a lot of money wants to exercise his First Amendment rights, no matter what color, race or genre, they should be allowed to have it, plain and simple.

And to those who think those "spoiled athletes" should just STFU, you simply just don't want to have a clear and honest conversation.

That's too bad.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

CZ's underdog soccer-playin' Toms River East Raiders

The weekend after Thanksgiving, 1985 meant state high school football playoff games. Toms River South and Central Regional were playing away at Pennsauken and Willingboro, respectively.

And as much as I wanted to be at a high school football game, the boss didn't think me worthy of covering either game, giving those games off to our big guns, Chris getting the Central-Willingboro game and Greg, our assistant sports editor, doing the South-Pennsauken game.

However, my boss did think me worthy to send this just-turned 19-year-old out to the other side of the state for something that wasn't football.

State tournament soccer.

Yeah, I know -- it's not high school football. I'd rather have been up in the press box of a football game, but at 19 years old, I was a trooper who said yes to almost anything handed to me.

And it was the state tournament. I'm not going to resist it. I had finished up my first spring of covering high school girls soccer at the Observer, so I was somewhat well-versed on the sport. At that time, my whole idea of surviving the coverage was paying close attention to small details and recording how each goal was scored. Honestly, I wasn't well-versed in the true nuances of the sport, but I felt like I could get by.

Oh, and the team that was playing was Toms River East, and that gave me some advantages. One, it was my alma mater, two, some of the players on the team I knew from growing up in my neighborhood or having siblings that I knew when I went to the school, and three, the head coach was the loquacious Rob Czarniewski, the gentleman most everyone knew as "CZ."

CZ was the coolest coach going. I met CZ as coach Ed Polhemus' assistant coach during the girls soccer season the previous spring that saw East lose just two games and win the first-ever Shore Conference Tournament championship against Freehold Township. He was outspoken, but not to an overbearing point. And anything I needed, he could deliver for me. He was honest when it came to his team. He also walked into a terrific situation. CZ became the head coach of this East team after the team's previous coach, the very likeable Chuck Potter (also my junior year history teacher at East and one of my all-time favorite teachers at the school) left New Jersey to work at an Air Force base 75 miles outside of Kansas City.

Still, though, when the postseason began for East, they were a lower seed who would have to advance through the tournament with one road game after another. And three of the four wins to capture the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV came via overtime shootout, the last one against standout goalie Chris Gillis and Jackson Memorial in the SJ IV championship at the school I was going to at the time, Ocean County College. (Years later, Jackson coach Mike Costa wondered aloud to me if anyone had gone into the woods to collect the two soccer balls he punted in there after his team lost.) Talk about pressure!

But after getting through all that, the next obstacle in the way would be a huge one. Central Jersey Group IV champion Hightstown was the No. 1 team in the state, according to the Star-Ledger and were 20-1-2, loaded with a ton of talent, including scoring machines Jim Barlow and John Klena. And goalkeepers Al Meyers and Rob Radigan were very, very good. Hightstown didn't get to this point of the season by just being lucky.

East had its hands full. There was no question about it. Even with a talented team that included forwards Brenden McKibbin, Rich Albers and Joe Perselli, a defense anchored by the steady Teddy Gillen, Mike Ruhnke and John Brown in the back along with goalkeeper Joe Flaherty, I still felt like I was going to be watching the final game of the Raider season, even if East had compiled an 17-5-1 record. Not a chance, I told myself.

But I'm a trooper. I'm going to see this game out in western New Jersey regardless.

Now the site of this game, I was told, was Rider College in Lawrenceville. And I left early enough on this Saturday afternoon, November 23, 1985, to head that way for what was a 1 p.m. game. Back in that time, getting to the Trenton area meant having to deal with detours as the highways were still being worked upon to connect I-195 with I-95 and I-295 properly. It meant having to get off at the Hamilton Township exit, drive a couple of miles, then hook up with the I-295 loop. Finding the exit was not a big problem and by about 12:20 p.m., I was at Rider College for the big soccer match.

One problem, though: No matter how much I walked around the campus at the college, I saw no inkling of soccer players or fans. I found the student center with a pay phone and one person inside to answer any questions I had.

"Is there a high school soccer game today here?" I asked.

"None that I know of," the young man answered back.

Greeeeeeeat. Just what I needed to hear. It's 12:35 p.m., 25 minutes from the game starting and no idea where this game was being played. Then the young man who had some familiarity with Lawrenceville suggested a couple of places.

One of those places was Mercer County Park. That's nice, but I had no idea where it was located.

"It's actually right near the college if you go down this road," he said, telling me which side of the road it was.

I thanked him and said that I had nothing to lose. He didn't really know where else they could be playing soccer. So back to the 1973 Chevy Chevelle I drove to weave my way out of Rider and back on the main highway and down the road to find the sign that pointed me toward Mercer County Park. I drove into the park, parked and began to walk around to see if I can find any idea or thought of a soccer match.

It was probably about 1,000 feet, but in the distance, I could see teams warming up. And I recognized East's black and silver colors. And as I got closer, I could see the very tall, beard-wearing sight of CZ.

Yeah, I was in the right place at long last. The teams were mere minutes from kicking it off. It took me mere minutes to jot down rosters for both teams thanks to East's managers, said my hellos to CZ and assistant coach John Crowley and then settled in to walk up and down the sidelines for the game between the Raiders and Rams.

And just as I suspected, Hightstown was really good. The Rams tested East's defense early and put as much pressure as they could on Flaherty, whose brother John I graduated with at TRHSE. But Flaherty was there to make the stops before the situation escalated out of trouble. And McKibbin had a golden opportunity in the second quarter, but his head ball was stopped by Meyers, who made 10 saves in the first half. Albers and Perselli also had golden chances, but Meyers put an end to those threats.

Through 40 minutes of soccer, it was scoreless. Maybe these Raiders had a chance after all. Maybe I was underestimating them on this beautiful Saturday afternoon with temperatures hovering near 60 degrees. The more this game went on, the more confidence they were gaining against the so-called best team in the state.

I can still see the Raiders breaking the huddle after the halftime talk with their coach and CZ looking at me with an "OK, let's see how this goes" look to him. CZ admitted to me that he had been preparing for this season since the summer and that his Raiders were as prepared as they were going to be. Maybe he had this laissez-faire attitude about him, but that told me he had confidence in his club regardless and that they had confidence in him back.

But mere minutes into the second half, things got a bit dicey for the Raiders. Barlow got free of East defenders and had a strong shot from about 15 yards away. The ball went over Flaherty's head and for one moment, it looked as if the Rams had taken the lead.

However, to show you what kind of a day it was at this park, the ball banged off the crossbar and got cleared away by Gillen.

Wow! That was all I could think at that moment. East really dodged that first serious bullet on this afternoon. Still, there was no threat in sight for the Raiders as the third quarter (games back in that time were played in four 20-minute quarters) was winding down in this scoreless battle.

Then the Raiders put a little pressure on Hightstown's defense. And it was near the end of the third quarter that the entire mood of the game changed. One of Hightstown's defenders was able to get to the ball and tap a short pass back to the second-half goalie, Radigan.

This would prove to be a mistake for the defender had no idea that McKibbin, who was a pest to the Rams' defense all day, was hanging around near the net. McKibbin pounced on the delicate pass to Radigan and intercepted it. Once gaining control, he put a shot past the outstretched Radigan that just found the inside of the outside post at the 16:47 mark of the third quarter.

East players on the bench jumped up jubilantly, while CZ and Crowley remained relatively calm. They knew there was still 3:13 left in the quarter and a whole 20 minutes after that and these Rams would be there to make things tough.

What the coaches didn't know was once that goal was scored, the entire team felt confident enough to protect a 1-0 lead. Mere moments after that goal, McKibbin had ideas of another goal, but his shot was just wide of the net.

With 20 minutes left, the Raiders were nursing the 1-0 lead. Then nearly five minutes into the last quarter, East struck again. McKibbin made a kick toward the net that was heading for a Raider teammate. Radigan made the decision to come out toward the player and was able to get a hand on the ball.

But as if bad luck was following Radigan and the Rams, there was Mike Browne trailing the play. Without a defender nearby and Radigan out of position, Browne pounded his shot past the goalie and into the net to make it 2-0.

The stunning turn of events in the last 10 minutes had East players, coaches, families and friends who were there to cheer the Raiders on believing that another trip to the state Group IV final at nearby Trenton State College was in the immediate plans.

After all, at 1-0, the game is still in the balance. At 2-0 and with the Raiders' defense hitting on all cylinders, there was no way I believed Hightstown was crawling back into this game. Klena, who scored 29 goals that season, had very little impact against Ruhnke, John Brown and Gillen, easily one of the best defending midfielders I've ever covered in the sport and who would go on to perform nationally in soccer.

With under a minute left, the outcome was obvious. But the Rams were making things interesting. They put enough pressure on East to make the Raiders commit a tripping penalty within East's scoring box. That meant a penalty shot and Barlow was called upon to deliver the kick. He was true with a shot to the left of Flaherty -- the only thing that did get by the senior keeper -- to make it 2-1. And with 40 seconds left, anything could happen.

Naaaaaah! Once East kicked off after the goal, the Raiders efficiently ran the clock out and were celebrating the 2-1 win with an unusually calm demeanor. But that was the confidence this team had -- maybe they were the only ones who thought they would win that game that sunny afternoon in Lawrenceville. And maybe it was the quiet, even-keeled demeanor of their confident coach that had something to do with it, too.

"We just come to the games to have fun," he said.

Yeah ... fun! Imagine that?

"It's a lot easier when you're the underdog," CZ continued after the game. "You can just go out there and play. We've been the underdog in every game of this tournament and most likely, we'll be the underdog for the state final."

He may have felt that way, but the way they played against the so-called No. 1 team in the state, these Raiders could have played Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer and the 1970s North American Soccer League New York Cosmos.

They would find out later that it would be Westfield they would play for the state final  on TSC's Astro-turf field on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, November 27, 1985. And as if they didn't miss a beat from the Hightstown win, the Raiders captured the state Group IV championship, 3-1, over Westfield as Albers scored twice and assisted on a goal by Ruhnke. Flaherty made seven saves to preserve East's first state overall state title in any sport since the school was born in 1979.

It was a nice going-away present for CZ.

Going away present?? Yeah, as I found out first-hand after the win over Hightstown that afternoon and he had told no other media person, this was a one-and-done year for him. CZ was never comfortable being a head coach of a program and he was gladly giving up the head coaching duties to Crowley.

"I told the boys this just today," he told me on that November 23, 1985. "In the beginning of the season, my assistant coach, John Crowley, and I made an agreement to switch the head coaching position. So next year, I'll be John's assistant coach."

That's when I knew I had gotten the trust of someone that I got to cover for them to allow me to break news, even on the high school sports level.

I made my way back to Toms River to type in the story that late afternoon and gladly told Chris, who was also our boys soccer guy, "It's yours now ... but if you need someone to go out there for the state final."

That was to light a fire under his behind. It did. He got to cover East's state title win over Westfield, while I was glad to recover from working another Tuesday all-nighter at the Viking News to put out another weekly edition of the paper.

I would get to see my share of state championships over the years, so trust me, I wasn't discouraged. But this state semifinal game was something special. Though not enthused to cover the game at first, it turned out to be a memory that still lasts in my mind to this day.

Then again, a calm and collected coach like Rob Czarniewski, whose style made his players play calm, cool and collected, made it easy to want to watch the game and be there to report on it.

Thanks, CZ!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

In 30 seconds, it was over

Tuesday, November 8, 1994.

It wasn't just another Tuesday. This was Election Day, the biggest day of the year politically no matter what branch of government. And in Ocean County, New Jersey, there were plenty of seats up for grabs that night.

I loved Election Night. No, not because I'm the political junkie that I am. It meant that if I had an assignment to cover at the Observer, I could cover my game in the afternoon, write it up and head on home before 10 p.m.

And this Election Day was no different. It was normally on Election Day that state tournament field hockey was going on. And, normally, one of our county teams was playing for the right to move on to a South Jersey final.

Lacey, the defending NJSIAA South Jersey Group III, was facing off with Pennsauken in the SJ III semifinal at Lacey. My boss, Mike, was my "backup" as a field hockey writer. We had rode together the year before to Trenton State College for the NJSIAA Group III title game between Lacey and West Essex, a game that ended in a 3-0 West Essex victory.

Since that game was being played on Lacey Township's field, it was agreed he would be there closer to the office so he can get back, write his game story and then lay out the section, which we needed to be done with by around 10 p.m.

I had the longer ride that day. My drive was across Route 70 to the town of Voorhees where Eastern Regional, the defending state Group IV champion, was to face off with Toms River North in the SJ IV semifinal. Though Lacey was a very, very good team, I really wanted to see North play. The Mariners were coming off winning a dramatic Shore Conference Tournament championship in overtime against those Lacey Lions in an all-Ocean County final just 11 days earlier. And now, here North was in the SJ IV semifinal with the chance to move to the championship, a game they had not played in since 1990.

Unlike a team led by stellar named seniors the year before, this North team of longtime successful coach Becky Miller was guided by players who had a chance to make a name for themselves for the first time, players like twin sisters Connie and Tracey Sadowski, forward Megan Wagner, unheralded midfielder Arathi Malliah and new goalkeeper Dawn Albruzzese.

North came in with an impressive 18-2-2 record, a record that would make most people's jaws drop.

That, though, paled in comparison to the gaudy 16-0-2 mark Eastern Regional took into this championship game with it. The Vikings, the second seed of the event behind another unbeaten power, Shawnee, were a very skilled team with a few standout players like forward Jessica Fraser, midfielder Dana Reynolds, goalie Meghann Vitt and solid defender Jessica Jaworski, the daughter of former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski.

Eastern had an unbeaten game streak of 29 going into this one. North had its hands full. All I wanted as I drove west on Route 70 toward I-295 and to the next exit and left turn off the exit toward the high school was for the game to be just that ... a game. Eastern's state title in 1993 had put the school on the state map as a power.

But there was one concern I had going toward the school -- how bad a shape was the team's field looking. In 1990, I had driven to Eastern Regional for the SJ III championship match with Central Regional and the field was horrendous, balls bouncing around like a pinball machine because of the unkempt field. Central lost that title game, 3-2. I couldn't imagine it being any worse than that November day four years earlier.

So I arrived and immediately I recognize the field is not in the same place it was four years earlier. That was a plus. Then I noticed the field immediately in the back of the school. It was in pristine condition -- no bounces, no uneven ground. It was beautiful, almost like artificial turf.

Wasn't sure at that particular moment whose hands this was playing into, but I figured I was about to watch a very competitive match. Or at least I was hoping it would be competitive.

For the first 10 minutes, it was back and forth with neither team's defense yielding to the other's offense. There was a fair share of whistles and stoppage of play. Heck, I got to understand the sport after so many years, the whistles every five to 10 seconds were secondary by now.

Then at the 14-minute mark, Eastern Regional struck and struck hard. Reynolds took a blast from outside the circle that avoided Albruzzese and into the net for a 1-0 lead. However, the Mariners got a break when the referees waved off the goal. In the sport, you need a teammate or someone from the other team to touch the ball if the shot comes from outside the semi-circle. They ruled no one from either side touched the ball and the goal was disallowed.

A big break, it turned out, for North.

But I can see Eastern beginning to gain momentum. And it was at that time the Vikings moved the ball in a smooth transition from defense to offense once again. The ball found its way to Fraser. She got it, made a move on Albruzzese and put it behind her in the net at the 18:23 mark to give the host team a 1-0 lead.

North, though, was determined to make something of the game before halftime. They collected four penalty corners in the last 10 minutes, but could not punch the ball in behind Vitt. As the whistle sounded, North players came off the field to the sideline intent to listen to what their legendary coach would say to them in the break. The Mariners were only down 1-0, and had they given up another goal, the tenor of this game may have changed dramatically.

There's still so much you can do down a goal in any sport, be it field hockey, soccer or lacrosse. What Miller was preaching was patience. She knew her team could play with this unbeaten team from southwestern New Jersey after 30 minutes.

On the other side, Eastern was huddled around its coach, talking about second-half strategy, looking confident. When you play that many games without a loss, you, too, feel invincible.

But something told me as North players passed right by me on the sideline that they had a confidence that didn't let them down. I saw some girls smiling heading back to the sideline.

Something told me they were ready for a big second half. All they needed was a break.

And so the second half began and North was starting to feeling its oats. The play was getting better on the field and part of the plan was Miller substituting in players freely in the second half. One move saw Miller put in Christine Busch. I wasn't sure what Miller had in mind, especially with Busch scoring one goal all season, but whatever it was, she felt she could contribute in some way.

The Mariners had come into this game without one of their better scorers, Erica Bergen, who had suffered an ankle injury in North's SJ IV quarterfinal win over Triton that was bad enough to keep her in street clothes. Now Miller was summoning one-goal Christine Busch in to make something happen, not confusing her by any means with the most famous Bush to ever play for the Mariners, Kim Bush, who scored 34 and 35 goals in seasons in the 1980s, the last one being North's NJSIAA Group IV championship win in 1987.

Almost nine minutes into the second half, the Vikings seemed comfortable. But they were about to get a test. North collected its ninth penalty corner of the game. The ball came out to Tracy Sadowski, who avoided one of Eastern's "flyers" on the corner, moved closer to the net and put a shot on. Vitt made the save, but the ball was still free. It found its way onto a stick that was about to redirect it into the net behind Vitt to tie the match at 1-1.

And whose stick was it? Yeah ... Christine Busch. That Christine Busch with one goal all season. That tied it up and the North fans who made the trip across the state were starting to believe. All postseason long, the Mariners' defense was starring. The goal Fraser scored was the first goal all postseason the team gave up. In winning the SCT title, the Mariner defense never gave up a goal.

Which was why at 1-1, I felt good about North's chances now. They seemed to have gotten through the early, rough patches of this one. And the teams played some intense field hockey for the next 20 minutes, neither again giving in to the each other.

And as the clock operator walked alongside the one referee counting down to zero, overtime was in sight.

Now during the SCT, North played a pair of overtime games, including the 1-0 championship win over Lacey. So the Mariners were prepared for what was to happen next. In the overtime, four field players are taken off each team, so it's a literal seven-on-seven. Normally, you put your six best stick-handlers with speed out on the field to try and make things happen. And with eight less players, the game really becomes more wide open.

North was used to it. Eastern Regional was not. The Vikings did not have a postseason tournament to play in and when a game ends in a tie in the regulation, that's it. There's no overtime. So Eastern's players were getting ready for something that was really foreign to them. The wide-open field would work to a skilled, faster team's advantage.

In this case, I knew North had the advantage. So about eight minutes after the regulation game ended, the 12 field players and two goalies hit the field for overtime. There were two 10-minute sessions to be played and if it was still tied, penalty strokes would be taken.

Eastern won the toss and decided to take the ball to start the overtime. The ball was passed on to Reynolds who was able to move up the field. She seemed to have a clearance toward a pass to a teammate, mainly Fraser. But she lost the ball.

The ever-reliable Malliah took the ball. And with Eastern heading down the field quickly to start, the Vikings did not make a quick transition back. An Eastern player was called for stick interference, giving North the ball. Eastern was still transitioning back to defense when Malliah made the quick decision to take the ball immediately and fire a pass.

That pass went to Tracy Sadowski, the heart and soul of the team's offensive side of the field. Using her speed, Sadowski broke away from her nearest defender and found herself in a one-on-one with Vitt. And as if to see her make the first commitment on the ball, Sadowski put a pass by Vitt toward an open player.

That player was Megan Wagner. Since no Eastern defenders were quick enough to get back, all Wagner had to do was re-direct the pass with her stick.

The next sound I heard were high-pitched squeals of girls celebrating in front of the Eastern net. The goal took just 30 seconds ... yes, 30 whole seconds. In 30 seconds, North was going to the SJ IV championship game for the first time in four years.

And just like that in 30 seconds, Eastern Regional's unbeaten season and streak dating back to the 1993 season were over. Some Eastern players were stunned, others just balled their eyes out.

The win against Lacey in the SCT final was amazing. The win against unbeaten Eastern was even more incredible. Miller was stunned. All she could say immediately was, "It was a picture-perfect goal. It was beautiful. We'll take it."

If you thought Busch scoring her second goal of the season to tie a state tournament sectional semifinal was amazing, the winning goal was even more of a surprise. Like Busch, Wagner had scored only one goal the entire year up until this game.

Two players who doubled their goal total on the season in the team's biggest game of the season up until then.

"We try to develop a philosophy where everybody that is sitting on the bench knows they have to be ready to go in when we need them to. I think with having Erica hurt, that was a prime example that we had to go in and fill her shoes," Miller said.

And just as Miller finished that sentence, up and over her head came the bucket filled with water and ice. She reacted like most anyone getting dumped with the contents of a water cooler. But she wasn't caring at that moment. She and her players earned their trip to the SJ IV final against top-seeded Shawnee, who had taken care of Jodie Davis- and Kirsten Sciallo-led Southern Regional, 1-0, in the other semifinal with Shawnee outshooting the Rams, 29-4, but scoring its goal on a penalty stroke by opposing goalie Danielle Vile against Sciallo.

I finished my interviews and walked back into the high school to go to the bathroom before heading back to Toms River. For the next two to three minutes, I started back-tracking to this game. Eastern Regional was the defending state champion, yet North made it look way too easy to score that overtime goal. That boggled my mind.

Three days later, North would be making the trip back out west, but not as far this time. Shawnee proved too much for the Mariners and beat them in the SJ IV final, 2-1.

I found my way back on Route 70 and drove through the boring part of the ride. The darkness was soon approaching at about 4:35 p.m. as I got to the intersection of Route 70 and Route 539 in Whiting. And as the traffic light turned green, I will always have this memory etched in my mind as I put my foot on the gas and headed out again on 70.

For one moment, I looked down in my car to check on something, though I don't remember what. When I looked back up, I swear to you all I saw were the eyes of a streaking deer go by. I could clearly see the eyes and nothing else. I will never be able to confirm if a deer blurred past my car no more than 10 feet from it. But I can still 20 years later see those eyes.

I arrived at the Observer building on Robbins Street at about 5:10 p.m. and began pounding away on the keyboard to write the story and what I had witnessed that afternoon. I got the Southern-Shawnee score from Southern coach Kathy Snyder, who was still in amazement over her team's performance despite being outshot, 29-4. And Mike told me that Lacey had dispatched of Pennsauken, 1-0, to move on to the SJ III title game.

After helping out with my scoreboard page on an early deadline, I was out the door by 9:30 p.m. and back home on Election Night. 

I will forever enjoy working on Election Day/Night at the Observer. I was always assured an early night.

And on this particular day, I was given a great finish with two unlikely scoring sources playing hero.

Yeah, I really enjoyed this Election Night.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Halloween state tourney shocker on Raider Way

If not for the fact the teams were Shore Conference Class A South rivals, the opening round of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association South Jersey Group IV field hockey match between 10th-seeded Southern Regional and No. 7 seed Toms River East should have been a romp.

As a matter of fact, that sole reason was the only one I could muster as to why I even remotely thought that the Rams had a chance to knock off the Raiders on their home field in this match on Halloween afternoon, Tuesday, October 31, 1995.

The Raiders were playing their first match since scoring the tying goal with 1:17 left in regulation time to tie Red Bank Regional and hold on in the overtime sessions for the 2-2 tie and a share of the Shore Conference Tournament championship on Shore Regional High School's field. The Raiders were on such a roll, you'd think they were invincible.

But Southern Regional had no reason to believe that. The Rams played the Raiders twice during the regular season. There was the match on October 9 when the Raiders took command and never let go in a 2-0 win on Southern's field. However, there was also the match on Saturday, September 23 at East that the teams played. With a minute to go in a scoreless tie, the Rams were threatening the Raiders and Jessica Corle, Southern's main scorer, tipped in a shot that was taken from outside the circle to give her team the 1-0 victory. East coaches, though, disagreed with the goal, claiming the shot came from outside the circle and was never tipped or touched, which would mean it would need someone within the circle to touch it.

The Raiders hadn't forgotten that game on their field. And neither did the Rams as they were about to face off in this state tournament opener in what would be the very last year that field hockey had the fall spotlight for girls sports to itself before girls soccer was moved from the spring season to fall. With numerous girls soccer players throughout the Shore playing the sport, this was an "end of the line" kind of season for quite a few programs.

The two programs were competitive because of their head coaches. East's head coach was Debbie Schwartz, who I had known for years thanks to her success coaching softball at East. She had taken over the Raider program in 1992 after Gail Halbfoster retired from coaching and immediately began to turn East into a top-notch team at the Shore, culminating with that co-SCT championship against Red Bank Regional. The Raiders, led by forwards Jen O'Connell, Kelly Johnson and Kelly Sherman, were like a machine now as they set their sights on making something happen in the state tournament.

Then there were the Rams, led by Corle, Jen Raban and goalkeeper Jen Racioppi. They were competitive throughout the season, but could never reach that next level and they were going into the state tournament with a mediocre 8-8-1 record. Their coach was the uber-competitive Kathy Snyder, who made her reputation as a high-level basketball coach at Southern, winning the SCT in the sport in dramatic fashion in 1984. She had taken over Southern's field hockey program in 1986 and had consistently good teams, never a great one through 1995, but good ones.

Then you look at where these two coaches came from before they became coaches. Schwartz was Debbie Dietrich when she played competitively at Toms River North for the successful Becky Miller, who she coached with on North's 1987 NJSIAA Group IV championship field hockey team. And Snyder was Kathy Leslie when she played for the great Nancy Williams at Shore Regional High School in field hockey and basketball in the early 1970s.

I've always maintained that if Becky Miller and Nancy Williams were in the same room together playing tiddly-winks that they would go at it with every fiber in their bodies with the loser taking it very hard. Williams and Miller were the two most successful coaches in Shore area field hockey history with over 1,400 wins between them, but when they faced each other in the sport, it was a display of amazing talent, like in that 1987 season when both Shore and North had great teams and the squads played to a 1-1 SCT championship tie. Neither coach walked off that North field happy that day.

And so on this dreary, cloudy day with temperatures hovering around 60 degrees, East and Southern squared off on East's field for the right to move on to the next round of the state tournament.

Since Southern had not played a game in well over a week, Snyder needed to keep her team fresh. So while East was fighting tooth and nail to gain a share of that SCT title against Red Bank Regional, Southern players were playing ... their field hockey alumni. They played against Southern girls who donned the white, black and gold uniforms back in the day, some as recent as standouts Jodie Davis and Kirsten Sciallo, who had graduated just that past June and were now at Rutgers and Trenton State (now The College of New Jersey), respectively. I was told it was a fairly intense match later on, but that the current Southern girls had won that battle.

However, they may have dominated their former players, but these Rams were having trouble with the current-day Raiders, who were taking it right at them from the start. But with each Raider shot came a field hockey ball that either trickled beyond the end line, giving it back to Southern, or a shot that was stopped on pad saves by Racioppi. And no matter how much Snyder yelled for her players to move into the right positions to stop the relentless Raider attack, East players kept on coming.

East had nearly 10 shots on net in the first 15 minutes of the game, compared to one for Southern. The only thing the Raiders didn't have was a goal. And their worlds were about to be turned upside down.

Southern charged up the East side of the field and was able to put passes together once inside East territory. Raban cut away from the goal, and put a ball within the circle that Corle, with a defender draped on her, got her stick on and placed into the net behind East goalie Karen Fox for a 1-0 lead at the 17:26 mark of the half.

From there, East kept putting the pressure on. By the end of the first half, the shots on net were in East's favor, 12-3. No goals, though, and Southern players were more than delighted to be up 1-0 at the break.

At this point, I'm fumbling through notes of the prior games and saying to myself, "This isn't going to last. East is going to bounce right back into this one."

At least I thought they should. Throughout the season, Schwartz's gang had a flair for the dramatic in games, including that late goal against the Bucs. Figured, though, it was only a matter of time before the Raiders got rolling.

Problem was that Southern's defense was very good that year. As a matter of fact, defense was what made Snyder's legacy in whatever she coached, whether it was field hockey or basketball. She knew the way to neutralize a high-powered offense was to play ball control and slow the other team down enough to ruin their patience to push the envelope offensively.

And that's exactly what Snyder's Rams did in the second half -- neutralize anything and everything the Raiders tried to put together. The Raiders had 30 minutes to mount an assault and while they kept putting shots on Racioppi, they couldn't find the back of the net no matter how hard they tried.

Suddenly, it became obvious -- the Raiders may lose this game and make history in the process by being the first team to win or share an SCT field hockey title and then lose before the quarterfinal round of the state tournament. It just seemed automatic year after year for the SCT winner to move on in the state tourney, but yet, the Raiders were watching the minutes slip away down a goal.

With less than four minutes to go, the Raiders made a couple of pushes up field. The first one ended with Southern clearing the ball away just like they had in a number of previous attempts. The second charge had a lot more positive result for the Raiders. Johnson was able to penetrate inside the circle with her teammates and a scrum took place. Somehow, Johnson was able to get the ball to O'Connell, and she beat Racioppi to tie the match a 1-1.

And just like four days earlier on that Shore Regional field, East coaches and reserves on the sidelines reacted as if they just won the Academy Award for Best Picture. With 2:53 left in regulation tie, the Raiders had tied it and were now going for the jugular. Snyder knew it. She prodded her team not to give up so close to the end of regulation. And her Rams got the message. East kept coming, but Southern kept playing the air-tight 'D.'

The clock reached zero and the teams were now in a sudden-death fight for the next two 10-minute periods with the winner advancing on. If it were still tied after those 20 minutes, a flick-off would be needed between the teams where it was the shooter taking one shot at the goalie. I had not seen one of those in quite some time. I hoped it wouldn't come to that.

So East came out first, going from the south end to the north end of their field located on the side of their building next to the parking lots, Southern going from north to south. And once again, East had the better of the play as Southern scrambled to keep the ball as far away from Racioppi as the teams had been pared down from 10 to six field players for overtime. However, one ball rolled into the circle with O'Connell coming after it. But Racioppi was there to kick it out of the circle and out of trouble. Southern, meanwhile, mounted very little of a threat, sticking to a defensive mode for the first 10 minutes.

And after those 10 minutes were up, the teams switched fields. All this time, all I kept thinking was that the Raiders were eventually going to pop the ball into the net and the game would be over. It was just a matter of time. Really, it was. They had dominated this match and the shots on goal were proving it -- East 30, Southern 4.

Yes, four shots! How much more defense can a team play before forcing a flick-off where there's no guarantee that your goalie is better than the other team's goalie in that scenario? Snyder and the Rams were seemingly playing for that. How do you get out-shot that badly and still force a flick-off? It's preposterous.

But little did I know what was about to take place within the first 35 seconds of the second overtime. East got the ball first to start the overtime, but they weren't able to penetrate beyond the Rams' circle. A Rams defender got the ball. She was able to dodge a Raider player and then, seeing a hole in the East defense on the wide-open field now that there were eight less bodies on it, put a pass into the middle of the field for Corle.

Corle was able to put a stick on it and maintain possession with a Raider defender close by. She turned on the after-burners to make a charge for the net and Fox. She had this "I don't care, I'm forcing the action" attitude as she poked the ball up the field, hoping to at least bait Fox into coming out of the net and make some kind of play on the ball.

The strategy worked. Fox came out as Corle got closer to the net. The ball was into territory that neither player was in at that moment. The first one to the ball was going to make the difference. In a matter of just under a second, Corle got to the ball first and lunged to it.

She poked the rolling ball past Fox, who was just a split-second late. The ball trickled ever so carefully toward the net. No Raider defender was there to make the play. It crossed the goal line.

Game over.

And within a second or two of that ball crossing over the line and the final whistle blowing, Southern players ran at Corle and tackled her in celebration.

East players slowly walked off the field with stunned looks on their faces. How was it supposed to end like this? East had six times as many shots on net, yet the Raiders and Schwartz were walking off their own field a 2-1 loser.

To this day, it is still one of the most stunning results I have ever witnessed in any sport due to the onesidedness of the play -- the Halloween Day Surprise.

The teams shook hands afterward and Schwartz wished Snyder well in the next round of the state playoffs. As was my nature to do in a game, I always tried to seek out the visiting team first ... in this case, the winning team. Said Corle of the goal, "The main idea is to get the ball to me. I did what the coach asked me to do. But this win was a credit to our defense. If not for them, we wouldn't have won this game."

In typical Kathy Snyder fashion, she talked about how defense made the difference in this one, knowing she had a squad that believed they could beat East again, but would have to be patient in doing so. Then she brought up the win on September 23 that East coaches questioned.

"This was an important win for us," said Snyder, one of the four best female coaches I ever regularly dealt with in my 30-year career along with Miller, Schwartz and Crescent City Junior-Senior High School volleyball coach Holly Pickens. "We won a game against East on a goal that their coaches claimed was not a goal. I know they made comments about that game and that goal, but Jessica Corle, who scored that goal, said the ball went off her stick and I had no reason to believe Jessica was lying to me. And on top of everything else, it was not going to change a thing that happened."

And, of course, Snyder was at times critical of her team's play against East, but she couldn't walk away claiming all was bad. Her team survived long enough to win a game they probably shouldn't have won. But it wasn't the first time in her amazing career Snyder had this happen.

She took the rest of what her team left behind for her to carry back to the bus. No more than a minute or so later, I walked up to Schwartz, who was still bummed about the loss and understandably so. Rarely did I ever see Debbie Schwartz get down after a tough loss, whether it was field hockey or softball. And this was the same case here. She wasn't smiling, but she knew her kids played hard enough and that the effort was there. It was just bad luck on her kids' part to not get a goal with so many opportunities.

"I don't think my girls had anything to be ashamed of," Schwartz said. "We did a great thing last week in winning (the SCT share). But after riding that wave and to start all over again, that was hard. But give Southern credit. Their goalie (Racioppi, who finished with 18 saves), played a great game in goal."

Very even-keel, the way I came to know Schwartz all those years regardless of the sport. We continued to talk about the game and the season. But no more than a minute after she had given Southern credit, a loud, blood-curdling voice came from the direction of the Southern Regional bus.

"Debbie Dietrich, get over here right now!"

I knew that voice from anywhere. And Kathy Snyder was angry about something. Schwartz's jaw just dropped when that got yelled at her, knowing the severity of that situation, especially when she was being called by her maiden name, having been married for six years at that point.

Calmly, Schwartz excused herself of what seemed like a volatile situation to walk over to where Snyder was.

So what was the Southern coach's anger about? Turns out that somewhere between the field and the bus, one of her players was pushed to the ground by one of East's backup goalies. A few months later, I confirmed with the "pusher" if it was true. Let's just say the girl, who also played for Schwartz's softball team, did not back down from the incident, claiming responsibility.

Let's also just say that girl was one of the few female athletes in my 30 years who reveled in a "bad girl" image that didn't last her long with Schwartz in either sport she played.

Southern would lose to Eastern Regional in the next round of the state tournament, and though the Rams finished with a 9-9-1, they had the satisfaction of knowing they beat the co-SCT champion Raiders two out of three times that season. It wasn't until 2002 when Snyder and the Rams would reach an SCT final, losing to her mentor Williams and Shore Regional in the title game.

Most of my memories of Kathy Snyder, who passed away in January 2014, will always be on a basketball court with her Southern Rams. But that state tournament match on Halloween Day 1995 will be how I remember her as a field hockey coach.

East's season came to a screeching halt at 12-5-3. That team was a lot of fun to cover, but suddenly, it was over for them. Schwartz would remain the team's head coach until 1998 when she gave it up to concentrate solely on softball, her sister-in-law, Julie Clark, taking over as head coach. The Raiders never reached those same heights under Schwartz in her final two years as coach as they did in '95 when everything clicked when it did.

That is, until Southern Regional came onto East's field with a point to prove.

Amazing what happens when Class A South rivals meet.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The friendliness of strangers and those you know

Friday, October 30, 2009 started as just a normal day at the Palatka Daily News. Like I had done so many times before on a Friday during the high school football season, I set up our scoreboard page, which is very involved because of the three-day television box of events since we don't have a Sunday or Monday publication.

And then after I left the building, I was on my way to Pierson Taylor High School for the annual rivalry game between provincial schools Taylor and Crescent City, separated by 15 miles along US-17.

So as I headed on US-17/SR-100 like I normally do in Palatka heading over the Veterans Bridge flanked over the St. Johns River and headed south, I was in an easy feeling. The ride I made to cover Crescent City football on its home field was 22 miles from the office. Now it was a 37-mile ride which meant I had to leave the building at 5:55 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game. You could tear down US-17 at more than 60 mph, but you couldn't do it the entire ride.

Starting out early was kind of important.

Heading down US-17, I did something that I hadn't done in quite some time. I pulled out a cassette tape out of the middle container of my car and popped it into the tape player. This was a first in some ways since I had not really needed cassette tapes to keep me occupied since I had gotten my XM radio during Christmas 2005. In other words, the cassette player was not needed anymore, sad but true.

The tape I pulled out was "The Best Of Warren Zevon," which I had in both cassette and compact disc version. October 30th marked the seventh anniversary that my sister and I had seen Mr. Zevon live in the Ed Sullivan Theater on "The Late Show With David Letterman." And it was sort of a sad occasion since he was no longer going to perform, having found out he was suffering from inoperable cancer just weeks earlier. The entire night was him as the guest.

And so on the seventh anniversary of this show, I popped in the cassette. The ride through Crescent City was a little rough, but not quite as rough as the ride through the southern end of Putnam County on US-17. The ride is a disgrace with lots of cracked roads that have never been fixed in all these years and still haven't been fixed. In 2009, the Putnam County commission agreed to a 6-cent increase in our gas purchasing, which meant we'd pay a little extra, but that money was going to go toward fixing the roads. Damned if after all these years that the road I normally travel on still haven't been fixed.

But anyway, I was starting to feel the tires under me and really wasn't liking the sound. Then the sound would kind of go away and I'd be focused in on the road and the music playing.

Then it happened – not even one mile after I had crossed into Volusia County from Putnam on US-17.


Suddenly I was wondering why my car was riding funny and it didn't take long after hearing a guttural hollow sound for me to figure out the obvious ... I had a flat tire. The car started to decrease in speed ... from 55 mph to 45 to 35 to 25 and lower than that. Still, I was determined to get this car to a parking lot and not on the side of the road. There was plenty of gas in the car and I slowed the car down enough to take it yet another mile and a half before I got to a fern-producing plant in the small town of Seville.

Now I'm going to take you back further – back to August 29, 2009. For the second year in a row, I had done 10 stories on some of the smartest kids in our county that had just graduated from the local high schools and were ready to be published in our paper's Lifestyles section. The payoff for doing that was ... well, there was a payoff. My publisher, Rusty Starr, was pretty awesome to work with and he said he appreciated my work and wanted to reward me for it since it was off-to-the-side work I did away from sports during the summer season, especially when Andy, my boss, would be on vacation.

So I got a check for $500. And my commitment to the check on this day was to fix my car. I figured the brakes couldn't cost me that much. Nope, was I ever wrong. I took the car to St. Augustine to a place called Brakes-4-Less. They found more than what was the average brakes problem with the car and were willing to fix the problem ... for $397!

Yeah, I felt raped right there. But the brakes needed to be done and she ran very well, thank you. But that left me $103 to take care of the back two tires on my car that were going bald. Unfortunately, there was nowhere in town that I could take the car to get two quality tires put on for $103. My last resort was a hole-in-the-wall tire shop on King Street off of US-1. The guy was willing to put two tires on for $30 each, but they weren't going to be tires I could ride long with.

I told him to go ahead and do it and made the promise to change the tires when that time came.

Funny how all of a sudden you a) forget you have to change the tires on the car that are only there to help you temporarily and b) don't really have the money at that moment to change those tires. Living alone has a lot of benefits to it, but one of those isn't bill paying.

And now it's 6:40 p.m. on the 30th of October and I'm expected to get to a football game by 7 p.m. and I'm stuck there. Nope, this wasn't looking good.

But no more than 30 seconds after the car hobbled its way into that fern-producing plant, I look behind me and a car pulls up. Now I'm thinking, "What did I do wrong? There's just something I did wrong and this person is going to tell me."

Turns out that the car was occupied by three people – an African-American lady in her 30s and her three young children. They were right behind me after they had picked up a pizza at Domino's in Crescent City for dinner.

"You need a ride?" she asked.

I told her, "Yeah. And I need to be at this place soon."

Then she asked me where I was going and I asked her, "Do you know where Taylor High School is?" 

She said she did, though it was a little out of her way since she lived in Seville. But she was willing to take me the rest of the way. I gathered what I needed to get me to the game, which included my notepad, my binoculars for the press box, two pens and my press pass. Once I got the car locked up, I hopped into the back seat of their van.

For the next eight miles of this trip, two of her children were arguing with one another, slapping each another in the process. With my patience with children, it's amazing that I didn't snap. But I was not going to do it ... I was grateful for this woman to come into my life at that moment and pick me up in my time of need and take me to the game, even if she apologized for her kids' behavior. It didn't bother me for one moment.

She knew her way to Taylor High and I told her if she just dropped me off in the parking lot, I'd appreciate it. Without saying a word, though, she went above and beyond the call of duty: She took me as far as she could toward the football field at Taylor High. She dropped me off at an open gate at the field ... an unoccupied gate, no less. I couldn't thank her enough and wished I had something to give her. She told me to forget about it and it was her pleasure to help me out.

I smiled and left her to go back to Seville.

Now it was a simple walk through an open gate in which I didn't have to show any press credentials and I was heading upstairs to the press box. It turns out that I had missed Taylor's opening drive of the game, but the team's statistician was upstairs in the press box and he gave me what I needed play by play. I was also lucky that of all the visiting press boxes I've ever been to since coming to Putnam County in 2003 that Pierson Taylor's was the best, hand's down. I picked it up from there and the rest of the game went rather easily.

Still at halftime and with Crescent City's lead well in hand at 28-7, I needed a way to get back to the office. It's nice I made it to the game, but without a ride back, this was going to be a challenge. So I called the one person who could bail me out of trouble because he lived in southern Putnam County at the time.

My boss, Larry Sullivan, my managing editor since 2009. I explained to him what happened and he more than understood the situation. So he told me he'd be there after the game, but just give him a call at the end of the third quarter to be on his way, which I did.

The game ended in the Raiders' 49-14 romp of their rival Wildcats as star running back Andre Addison, who would be the county player of the year in the sport, dashed for 197 yards on 13 carries and scored four touchdowns, while he went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. They finished with 435 yards of offense as a team, including 280 yards.

And once I finished doing my interviews with Addison and Crescent City mentor Al Wisnoski, who was nearing the end of his five-year run as head coach, I headed back toward the parking lot.

Larry was not there yet. Thankfully, I called him to find out where he was and he told me he was almost there. About five minutes later, he arrived to pick me up at the front of the parking lot ... the same front that I had told the lady who drove me to the game to just drop me off at, but yet continued to the field open gate.

We took off and I asked him to stop at the fern plant to take a look at the condition of the car and tire. About 10 minutes later, we arrived in the dark. Larry took out his flashlight and put a light to it. The tire was an absolutely mangled mess. I was going to have figure out what to do with the tire and the car in the morning. I wasn't looking forward to it.

I grabbed whatever necessary stuff I needed from my car and we drove back to Palatka ... all 29 remaining miles in which we got back and I started writing my story and Larry went to check on the work that Patrick, our photographer, had done that night at Palatka for the Panthers' game with West Nassau before he turned around and headed back to south Putnam. I thanked him again, he said, "You're welcome" and he was on his way.

Writing the story and putting together the boxscore of the game were pretty easy to do, as was helping with the layout afterward compared to what the rest of the weekend might have been like in my head. When the night got done and we were off the board, I left the Daily News building at around 2 in the morning and walked the two miles back to my apartment, something I had done numerous times before.

The walk didn't kill me. I went to bed about an hour later.

It's Saturday morning and I get a phone call. It's Don, one of our carriers at the paper. I've known Don since the day I started at the paper in 2003. I told him about the misadventure with my car the night before. He was sympathetic about it, but I didn't expect anything. Now Don has news for me on this Saturday late morning.

"There's a new tire on your car," he said.

Before I left Friday night, Don thought he could do something about the tire. And it turns out he knew a guy at a tire place in Crescent City that could fix the issue. So he and that guy traveled to Seville to the fern-producing plant and saw the car there. Don told me that he and the guy had never seen a tire look that terrible before. I had told him it was in bad shape the night before.
So what they did was get a new tire, go back to the plant and put the tire on the car and take the horrible one off. They said it was easy.

And to my absolute shock, I came to find out that Don and his son Larry were going to be in Palatka on this Halloween Saturday and they were going to pick me up. "OK!" I said.

They arrived an hour later and the three of us headed down US-17 to Seville where the car was still sitting in that parking lot, now clear daylight. Sure as anything, the tire was gone and a new one was in its place. I had felt a joy of relief.

I started my car up and she was still running smoothly, but as I began to move the car back, something didn't feel right. I stopped it and got out of the car. The tire may have been new ... but it was flat! 

Yes, flat! Not quite like a pancake, but flat!

It seems when the tire got replaced, the guy who got the tire from the shop failed to make sure that there were no punctures or leaks. So Don came up with the idea to follow him to the nearest gas station in Seville, which at this point was two miles away. I figured the two-mile trip wasn't going to do much damage to the tire. We got there and put money into the air dispenser to fill the tire up, knowing it may not last long.

Don was able to give me the $35 for the faulty tire that he paid for it (knowing he'd get it back) and I took the car north to Palatka, fully aware that I had no choice but to replace the tire. I got into town and took it over to my buddies at Tire Kingdom. They took care of the tire and put a new one on for a little more money, but I was glad to take care of it. A few days later, I managed to replace the other back tire that was showing tread and ready to pop at any time on a long road trip.

The albatross cheapie tires were gone. And my car was riding smoothly again.

But I couldn't have gotten through that weekend without Don's help. Or Larry's help to pick me up. But more importantly, without that African-American woman with the three kids who was willing to take a stranger to a football game out of a random act of kindness.

I never saw that woman again, but she was a Godsend when I needed one. She got the "circle of kindness" rolling just 20 minutes before a football game I was supposed to be at.

Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good.

It's fair to say I was lucky that night.