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Friday, January 31, 2014

The 11-year wait that almost ended in a title

Eleven long years had passed between the most infamous game in South Jersey girls basketball history and this game I was about to cover on Monday, March 6, 1995, at Rancocas Valley High School in Mount Holly.

After coming up short of reaching the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV final the year before when it lost to Vineland, Southern Regional was in the SJ IV championship game after an 11-year absence. And the opponent on the other side of the court for this title game was Washington Township -- the same Minutemen program that beat the Rams in the 1984 SJ IV title game in overtime.

The problem, though, was when doing the preview for the game with longtime Southern Regional basketball coach Kathy Snyder, she didn't want to discuss the game. I knew this because the year before, she didn't want to talk about the game that ended the most wonderful season in her time with the program. The 1983-84 Southern team had talented players on it like Patti Gallant, Kathy Harlfinger and Judy Keefer, but had the star player of the Shore area in senior all-everything guard Jill Spaschak.

It was Spaschak that hit the "jumper heard 'round the Shore" on February 25, 1984 at the buzzer that lifted Southern to the 42-40 victory over Neptune in the Shore Conference Tournament championship game at Brick Memorial High School. Ten years later and almost to the date, I talked to Spaschak about that team, that game, that season, along with Snyder, who was Kathy Leslie at the time of the championship.

They were literal fountains when talking about that team. Once they started jabbering, you couldn't get them to stop. So many memories in those phone calls. By the end of their calls, I felt like I knew every single game they played that year and that I was in that Brick Memorial gym when Spaschak hit that game-winner. Unfortunately, I never got to see that Southern team -- that was my senior year in high school and I was focusing on just being a senior. So I had a lot of catch-up to do, though, I had done a feature story on Keefer when we were both at Ocean County College and she was just a delight to talk to.

However, there was one sore spot that was off limits. I didn't know it, but when I asked Snyder about the night of Saturday, March 10, 1984, she simply said, "I don't want to discuss that. It's still too painful."

And it was. It was the loss that ended that magical 28-2 Southern season. But it wasn't just any loss. This was a hurtful one. Southern led 24-0 Washington Township by as many as a dozen points early in the fourth quarter in the SJ IV title game at Overbrook High School. Then midway through the fourth quarter, Spaschak got called for her fourth foul, a mystery foul that she wasn't really near when the call was made. But mere moments later, she committed her fifth foul that disqualified her from the game. Again, she was nowhere near the site of the foul. How do I know this? It just so happened that Adelphia-Cable 8 was doing the game for future broadcast. And it was pretty darn clear to me that if there was a foul called, it wasn't on Jill Spaschak.

Southern, sadly, fell apart in that game, Washington Township tied it and ultimately won the game in overtime, 51-46. And the memory of that broadcast was the stuff that wasn't allowed to be said on the air. Game announcers Ken Turp and the outspoken Nick "The Quick" Werkman were reporting "angry." They were livid with the officiating that was being done and let their feelings be known in that broadcast of 30 years ago.

And I have to agree to this day, they were right. I wish I was in that Overbrook High gym that night, but I wasn't. And what I saw on TV was just deplorable. Every close call went against Southern and the whistles seemed to avoid Washington Township. In the Ocean County Observer's account of the game, Kathy Snyder was not once quoted in it.

That's how angry she was. And it didn't make her feel any better when she found out that one of the officials for that particular game was the roommate of one of the Washington Township head coaches!

Excuse me, but how the h-e-double hockey sticks was that assignment allowed to happen? Needless to say, the NJSIAA, looking stupid as expected over what happened, passed down a rule that said officials could not do the games of relatives, friends, roommates, etc., shortly after the incident.

It was a little too late for Kathy Snyder or that amazingly talented team of '84. And it took 11 years for that program to get back to the SJ IV title game.

But here they were, and the fact that it would be a talented Washington Township team on the other side was just pure coincidence. Then again, these Minutemen were ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press' state poll. They had a star senior guard named Jen Natale, who was closing in on 1,000 career points in this final. Their supporting cast was a strong one and they liked to run it up and down.

And that was playing perfectly into the hands of a master defensive coach like Snyder, who could turn any sports car into a bicycle with her team playing the right pressure defense and could slow the pace effectively offensively. And with a 21-2 record during the season, it's easy to say she had the kind of team that could slow the opponent down at any time.

The brains of the outfit was senior point guard Jodie Davis, who was Snyder's eyes on the court and could pretty much control what was happening on a basketball court. She was paired in the backcourt with another senior, Kirsten Sciallo. Jamie Bogdol was an effective forward. But the scoring brunt was handled by a 6-foot-1 16-year-old sophomore center named Candice McCallum, who by now, I had figured out that her first name was spelled with an 'i' in it so to remember that her play was like 'ice.'

The things you gotta do sometimes.

I knew I was in for a good game. But it was early in the afternoon, I got a phone call from work. The dayshift editor, Helen, had left me a message from Tom "The Candy Man" Kelleher. In all my years of working at the Observer and all those years I covered events where Tom was also there to hand out his trademark candy and sing his patriotic songs, never did I have to give him a call about anything.

Seems he heard that I was covering the game this night. He first thought one of our stringers at the time that he had known a lot better than me for years was doing the game. Well needless to say, word got to him that I was going out to Mount Holly to cover the game and just about five hours before the game, I was calling him at his Toms River home.

"Yeah, I heard you're doing the game tonight."

"Yup. That'd be me going out there."

"Can you pick me up and take me with you?"

I had to think about it. But it didn't take long for an answer.

"Suuuuuure. Give me your address and I will be there about 5 o'clock."

The game was a 6:30 p.m. start, and I knew it would take almost an hour to get out to Rancocas Valley. So I left my folks' place at 4:45 and headed toward near Indian Head Road where Tom lived. In all these years I was friendly with the man, I never knew where he lived, but he lived in a very modest house. He came out after I knocked on the door and he was dressed up like he always was, wearing his "Candy Man" hat, his blue metal-button jacket and buoyed by his waist-strapped pocket holder that nothing but Jolly Ranchers, gum and Tootsie Rolls.

Believe me when I say this -- this man was a dentist's dream.

So we head out on Route 571 and turn onto Route 70. From there, it was into Manchester and out of there. When the turnoff toward Pemberton came upon us, I made a slight right turn and it was one winding road after another until we found Route 38 and ultimately, we found the street that Rancocas Valley High was located.

By the time we got there at 6 p.m., I had left him to go do his thing and I went to do my thing. I knew he wasn't going to cause me any problems on this night and he knew I had a game to cover. I jotted down both teams' lineups and set up my statistical sheet and shot box soon after while sitting up top in the bleachers looking down at midcourt.

And when I heard who was singing the national anthem -- it was Tom -- I found myself saying, "Man, he works people quickly, doesn't he?" He did a stellar job as usual on the anthem.

This Washington Township team looked like it wanted to run. But defensive tempo does dictate a lot of things and on this night, Kathy Snyder's team wasn't going to allow that to happen.

And the Rams had one weapon that the Minutemen had no idea how to keep in check. That was the tall and lanky McCallum, Washington Township had a center to try and neutralize her named Melissa Pickering. She was no match and Snyder, Davis and McCallum knew that. Basically, what Davis or Sciallo did was throw high lob passes for McCallum over Pickering and McCallum laid those shots in for easy baskets.

While McCallum was having a blast in taking advantage of the defense the Minutemen were playing against her, Davis was effectively slowing things up and making sure that she was getting her center with passes in a positive position down low. Two times, the Rams built leads of seven points on the Minutemen in the second quarter and just as halftime approached, Davis delivered one more lob pass for an easy McCallum bucket to finish her 15-point first half. And Southern led at halftime once again by seven points.

Yeah, the No. 1 team in the state was losing by seven points to slow-'em-down Southern, 25-18. They were not wilting under the Washington Township pressure, turning it over just nine times in the first half. They were winning the rebounding war, 12-7, and were shooting almost 58 percent from the floor (11-of-19).

I had to make sure I was really watching this. Apparently, word never got to Washington Township's coaches (who were different from to the debacle of '84) that Southern liked slowing things down.

First I checked in with Tom to see if he was alright. This man, who was over 80 years old at this point, told me he was doing fine. Then I found a payphone in the hallway and called my boss.

"Observer sports, may I help you?"

"Mike, it's me."

"Oh ... hi me! How's it going out there?"

"You're not going to believe me when I tell you this, but Southern is up seven at halftime and Kathy Snyder has brilliantly coached the first 16 minutes."

"I see that. How's Tom doing?"

"Oh, he's staying out of trouble and hasn't gotten us thrown out yet. This is a plus."

"Good, well let me know what happens when it's over."

 I felt good about Southern's performance after one half. But I was cautious, too. I had seen this script in a game the year before against Toms River North in which Southern slowed it down to the tune of leading 8-6 at halftime ... only for North to make the proper adjustments and win the game in the end, 32-18.

And that was what was going on in Washington Township's locker room at halftime. They knew they were conceding too many points to McCallum, so to cut the head of the monster off, they were going to have to pressure Davis and Sciallo.

That was exactly what happened. And the Rams couldn't buy a basket even if it was on sale at the concession stand. For the first 6:50 of the third quarter, Southern went scoreless. And Washington Township began to exploit the Rams. Defensively, they forced the Rams into nine third-quarter turnovers. And that led to the Minutemen scoring the first 12 points of the quarter to take a 29-25 lead.

McCallum rebounded a Bogdol free throw miss and scored to make it a 29-27 game. But Natale drove the basket to score on a layup to make it 31-27. The basket marked her 1,000th career point and the game was stopped for the moment. It also allowed Southern to regroup while the short ceremony was taking place.

The teams traded baskets to start the fourth quarter, but the Minutemen began to start pulling away. Southern, though, hung in there and those who made the trip across state for this one, stood up and yelled loudly for the gold-and-black-clad Rams.

It wasn't going to be enough -- Washington Township went 8-for-9 from the free-throw line and eventually pulled away for the 49-41 victory and the SJ IV title.

Washington players and coaches were excited that they survived this one to capture a sectional championship. Southern's heads were understandably down afterward. Unlike 11 years earlier in one of the more controversial games in history, Snyder was subdued. She gave credit where credit was due -- to Washington for adjusting and eventually winning the game.

She gave her team credit for the kind of game it played. She called her team's performance in the first half "picture perfect" and that "they could've done anything they wanted" in that first half. But the writing was on the wall and Washington Township showed why they were No. 1 in the state.

McCallum finished the night with 29 points and nine rebounds and was continuing to build her own legacy as a Ram after just two years. Davis handed out eight assists in what was her final basketball game at Southern. "We tried our hardest. They can be beaten and I think we had a chance of doing that," McCallum said. "I just wish we could have that chance again."

I got my interviews done and collected Tom with me. For the next hour, we drove back across New Jersey talking about the game a little and about the rest of that school year. Girls basketball was over for the year in Ocean County. He had a whole bunch of plans for the spring season.

Less than an hour later, I dropped him off at his place and I proceeded to head home to write the story on one of our Tandy 180 machines at the dining room table of my folks' place. I don't know why it took me an unusual amount of time, but I ended up getting the story done sometime after 11 p.m. that night.

Once I confirmed with Mike I had the story, all was good.

Southern Regional's girls had a hard pill to swallow that night. So close, yet it slipped away when Washington Township decide it wanted to make the lives of Davis and Sciallo miserable. They both graduated, but Southern and Snyder persevered. In 1996, the Rams lost to Class A South rival Toms River North for the SJ IV championship, but one year later, Snyder had her elusive sectional title by beating North in the SJ IV final. By then, Snyder was finishing up her 18th season as head coach. McCallum would finish with close to 2,000 career points and remains one of the two best tall girls I ever covered in the sport along with Consuelo Lezcano of Keys based-Marathon High in Florida.

As for Tom, it was an honor to take him to do his labor of love and what he did best. Sadly, though, I only saw him at a ball game one more time ... it was that spring I saw him for the last time. He was in failing health the last few years of his life and he couldn't go out anymore and do what he did best -- make others happy. He passed away in December 1998 and there are days I miss seeing him at anything I cover now.

Snyder continued coaching the Rams into the 21st century, long after I left the Observer, until her sudden passing on Friday, January 24, 2014 at the age of 58. She and longtime Toms River North two-sport mentor Becky Miller are still the greatest female sports coach I ever covered in nearly 30 years. It was an honor to finally see her win that SJ IV title over North in '97.

It would have been nicer to have done it against the No. 1 team in the state two years earlier. But it wasn't meant to be. Still, this SJ IV final against Washington Township on that Monday night in March 1995 didn't end the way it sadly ended 11 years earlier.

And it only made the wait for Snyder's elusive SJ IV championship that much more bearable and special when it did happen.

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