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Friday, March 14, 2014

The drama that was Manasquan-Point Boro girls basketball

The Jersey Shore gave me and most anyone growing up there plenty of sports rivalries to talk about over the years: Brick and Brick Memorial, Central Regional and Lacey, all three Toms River schools against one another and Southern Regional against all three Toms Rivers.

It was a great time to be a journalist cutting his teeth in the business. But one rivalry stood out above the rest in my opinion.

Point Pleasant Boro against Manasquan. The two schools had fierce sports backings and when the two got together in sports for divisional matchups, it was "must-see-in-person" stuff, especially in sports the two schools were evenly matched up in ... even in football where the Big Blue Warriors and coach Vic Kubu had the edge over coach Al Saner's Panthers.

But for all the years the two schools faced one another in athletics, never had they faced one another in the state tournament. That's because the so-called borderline between Central Jersey and South Jersey was the Monmouth-Ocean border. So the two schools -- separated by all of four miles -- were also separated by an imaginary line with Monmouth-based Manasquan playing in Central Jersey and Point Boro playing in South Jersey.

That all changed, though, on Tuesday night, March 5, 1991, when the Panthers and Big Blue won sectional Group II championships in girls basketball. Suddenly, they were paired up in a game that really counted.

The Big Blue of coach Dick Johnson was used to getting this far in postseason play. This Central Jersey Group II title was Manasquan's fourth in a five-year period and the program won back-to-back overall NJSIAA Group II championships in 1986-87 and 1987-88. And Johnson's team, which was 22-5 at this point, had a number of solid contributors, led by 5-foot-9 senior forward Janet Beaver, 5-5 junior all-everything guard Dara Hahn, 5-8 junior forward Jen Kackos, who did a lot of the dirty work under the boards for Johnson's team, and 5-2 senior point guard Meaghan Mahoney.

At Manasquan, the Big Blue never rebuilt ... they reloaded.

And though to say the two schools are "rivals" would not be accurate at that time on a basketball court. The Big Blue had upended coach Peter Cooke's Panthers 14 straight times -- 14 straight! But that all changed on  January 31, 1991 when Boro finally broke through the stranglehold with a 55-51 win at home behind 19 points from senior point guard Wendi Pearce and 18 points from younger sister and sophomore guard Christie Pearce.

Ah, yes -- the Pearce sisters, the best sister combination I've ever watched in athletic competition. Both made things look easy in whatever sport they played in and basketball was no different. Wendi Pearce was the undoubted leader of this Panther club and she ran the offense like a conductor runs a symphony minus the baton.

And a lot of the times, the plays were going to her younger sister, who by now had done something that no Ocean County girls basketball player had done before -- reach 1,000 career points by her sophomore season. I was there when Pearce got her 1,000th career point almost two weeks earlier in a Shore Conference Tournament first-round loss to Toms River South. Other than an inconsistent jump shot -- or at times a non-existent jump shot -- Christie Pearce had all the tools to be an amazing basketball player. If you gave her an opening to the basket, she was taking it and if you put the ball down on the floor, forget it ... she was swiping you like a cat burglar in the dark.

A taller Sterling team found out a lot about how good Christie Pearce was and how much she matured in a year when the Panthers and Sterling played in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II title game in Pennsauken on March 5. She scored 25 points, pulled down 12 rebounds and had seven steals in that 53-30 blowout of the two-time defending NJSIAA Group II champion Silver Knights, exactly one year after Point Boro was hammered by Sterling, 86-46, in the SJ II semifinal round.

But the Panthers, who were also 22-5 going in, didn't get to this point by just the two sisters alone. They had some good supporting cast talent behind them in shooting guard Meaghie Campacci, a sophomore who had transferred that year into Point Boro, sophomore Karen Brzyski, who at 5-5 had to play a power forward position, and senior Krissy Lubas, who at 5-8 was relegated to be the team's center. And if Lubas got into any foul trouble, Cooke was not afraid to call on two taller players to go in -- 5-10 junior Tara Haugh and 5-9 junior Melissa Devlin.

Though Manasquan's starting lineup was not as tall as Sterling's -- the frontcourt being Beaver, Kackos and 5-9 sophomore Sharon Ormsbee -- they were certainly more active. As a matter of fact, going into the final, Johnson, finishing up his 15th year as Manasquan's coach, claimed that his team was not active enough in the 55-51 loss to Point Boro just over a month earlier and that they needed to penetrate the Boro defense a little more this time around.

With this being the backdrop -- and the two coach's admiration for one another (yes, the two admired one another and at one time, Cooke was the freshman coach for Johnson's team in the early 1980s) -- the game was set two days after the sectional championships on Thursday, March 7, 1991.

And the site for this rivalry between two schools situated four miles apart, the NJSIAA chose ... Hamilton East-Steinert High School in Mercer County, practically the other side of the state and about 45 minutes away for both competitors.

Couldn't get spacious Brick Memorial or Red Bank Regional to host the game or even Brookdale Community College or Monmouth College to host. Nooooooooo! Instead, the NJSIAA -- which would give Southern Regional and Toms River North a waiver to play the NJSIAA South Jersey IV championship game in back-to-back years at Toms River East instead of a far-away gymnasium in 1996 and '97 -- forced the schools to travel out of their way to near Trenton to play this important game.

Turns out the reason why they couldn't do this back in 1991 was the state semifinal sites were set compared to a sectional championship and the sectional title game sites were more "flexible" than a state semifinal site.

Whatever. The game was getting played at Steinert no matter what.

The good news before the game was that the night before, I had hit four out of six numbers on one of my Lotto tickets and I was going to the 7-Eleven that I bought the ticket beforehand to collect $68 in winnings. Yay me! It is one of only three times in my entire life that I got four numbers on a Lotto ticket. So some of that money was invested into gas at a staggering 91 cents a gallon. (Oy vey, the good ol' days!)

The game started at 6:30 p.m. because the Group IV semifinal matchup was to take place after the Group II semifinal sometime after 8 p.m. Good thing my game was early so I can get back to the newspaper office and write the story without the fear of dealing with a deadline. After all, this was the only show in town with spring sports not starting up until April 1.

I had left from the 7-Eleven at around 4:30 that afternoon and after getting my gas, it took me almost an hour to get to Steinert High, not located far off of I-195 near the Trenton area. Both teams had already arrived and I had set up on press row for the game. They had a very large table for the writers to cover games, something that I woefully miss having for Florida-based basketball games. What they give you at those games is pathetic and most of the time, I have to go cover the games sitting high up in the bleachers at the midcourt line.

Well before the game, I talked with both Johnson and Cooke. While Johnson was a confident, assured coach who had been there, done that with his team and had said his team was as prepared as it was going to be, Cooke, whose repertoire was somewhere between tough talk and sarcasm, had a little bit of doubt. But in his eighth year as the Panthers' coach, he had them as ready. He had even said the night before, "We're certainly not confident after losing to a team 14 straight times. If anything, we're the underdog, which is what I think we deserve to be."

And Cooke was right -- when you constantly lose to the same team over and over and over again, then beat them after losing over and over and over again, you have something to prove and that one win was not a fluke. His leader, Wendi Pearce, was my best quote on his team, so how she did in this game would give me an indication of how well my story may write itself out.

For a game that was 45 minutes away from both schools, the gymnasium was packed with enthusiastic fans from both schools. Point Boro brought an entourage of some of my favorite people in town I knew over the years. And the student fan base that came dressed up for the occasion in black paint was loud and boisterous. And they had someone in mind to pick on the entire night.

It was Beaver, the tall blonde who played with the intensity of a guy. Point Boro male and female students were going to have a field day for the young lady even as undeserving as the ribbing was.

As for the game, the Big Blue knew what they were going to do -- they were going to play the two Pearces in a triangle and force the other three starters to try and beat them on this evening. And though Point Boro wanted to go uptempo, the defense it was facing and the tall Big Blue players were not going to allow the Panthers to do so. And so the game became a low-scoring affair. But the Big Blue struggled, too, as the Panther defense stole everything the Big Blue put on the floor. Coming into the game, the Panthers had come up with 59 steals and had forced 88 turnovers in three state tournament games.

Manasquan was going to be no different to Point Boro than all the others.

And sure is day is light and night is dark, everytime Beaver touched the ball, she was "warmly" greeted by Boro fans who had no problem grilling her all night long. You can see on her face her frustration when a play went wrong, but other than the few occasions, she held her composure.

By the time we got to late in the game, the Panthers and Big Blue had traded leads 11 times and had 10 ties in this one. Manasquan carried a 38-35 lead with just over four minutes to go, but the Pearces had started to figure things out. If they could not get to the basket, at least collect fouls against Manasquan and get to the free-throw line. And so Wendi Pearce was able to draw the fourth foul on Kackos, who was having a terrific game. She calmly nailed two free throws to make it 38-37. Campacci was able to cause a foul on Hahn and hit one of two free throws to tie it. Then after a turnover, Christie Pearce was fouled by Beaver and gave the Panthers the lead at 39-38 with 2:57 to go.

The Big Blue, were going to be deliberate, though. Guarding against getting out into a foot race with the Panthers all night -- a battle they knew they would lose the moment the Panthers got any hint of that -- they whittled the clock down to under two minutes, then under one as Johnson called a pair of timeouts in that period. With 56 seconds left, Christie Pearce picked up her third foul against Hahn. Amid the frenzy of the loud Point Boro fan base, Hahn missed the first free throw, but was able to bury the second to tie it up at 39-all.

Now it was up to Point Boro to finish the deal and send themselves to the state Group II championship game for the first time under Cooke. From the timeout, the Panthers set up the play and put it into the hands of Wendi Pearce. But Pearce had nowhere to go, Manasquan cutting off all the alleys to the basket. As time ran out, she was forced to throw up a high-arcing 3-point shot. It missed the mark and the game was now headed to overtime.

The Big Blue got the ball off the tip to start the overtime and cashed in as Mahoney grabbed a rebound off a missed shot and put the ball back in for the 41-39 lead. After a Boro miss, the Big Blue had the ball again, but Campacci came up with a steal and fed Wendi Pearce. The assured standout then took the pass from Campacci and buried a 15-footer to tie it at 41-all, sending Boro's fan base into a frenzy.

Mahoney then came up big again when she took the ball to the basket on the next Big Blue possession and got Devlin in the air for her fifth foul, forcing her out of the game. She hit two free throws to give Manasquan the lead back at 43-41. But Christie Pearce found an opening and drew a foul. She hit two free throws to tie it up at 43 with less than a minute left in the overtime.

Another timeout by Johnson set up what he was hoping was the final shot and go-ahead basket. And so the Big Blue worked the ball around until they got it to Beaver. As Boro fans mockingly shouted at her, Beaver hit a short jumper just over Lubas and suddenly, Manasquan had a two-point lead with 19 seconds left.

I can still see Cooke to my left working the white board with assistant coach Bill Moore for what was the final play. I knew one thing -- it was going to be a Pearce once again taking the final shot. From the huddle, the Panthers inbounded under their own basket and brought it up the court. The ball landed in the hands of Christie Pearce, who during the season averaged almost 21 points a game. She had struggled all night against Manasquan's specialized defense against her, but now she had the chance to tie it and send it to another overtime. She took it to the hole as the clock counted down.

She floated a shot up that missed the mark. The ball was still loose as time clicked away ... four, three, two. Suddenly, it landed in Campacci's hands. She had a pair of far-taller Big Blue pursuing her. She put a floater up that would've threatened to touch flying ducks if this were outside.

And as the clock hit zero, the ball swished through the net.

Double overtime and another three minutes put up on the clock. No matter how this was going to end, this was already the best girls basketball game I had ever covered.

Both teams were getting exhausted, but more importantly, a lot of key players in this game were on the verge of fouling out. Once again, the Big Blue won the center tip and 16 seconds in, Hahn took a shot. She missed, but the aggressive Kackos, who would finish this one with 19 points and eight rebounds, yanked down the offensive rebound and was fouled by Christie Pearce. It was her fifth foul of the night and that meant disqualification.

It also meant the best player on the court -- for that matter, the best female athlete I have ever covered -- was out of the game. Kackos nailed both free throws to give the Big Blue the lead again at 47-45.

On the next possession, Brzyski decided to take over where Christie Pearce left off. She took the ball to the hoop and caused a foul on Kackos. It was her fifth foul and a huge ovation came from the Boro crowd as she came off the court. But Brzyski could only hit one free throw. However, on the miss of the second free throw, it was 5-2 Campacci to the rescue again. She played like she was half a foot taller, missing the first shot, rebounding, missing the second shot, then rebounding again and connecting on the third shot to give the Panthers their first overtime lead, 48-47 with under two minutes to go.

At the other end, Hahn, who had 19 points, delivered a basket, to give the Big Blue the lead back at 49-48, only to have Haugh respond at the other end to make it 50-49.

Something was telling me this was not going to a third overtime.

It stayed like that until Beaver collected a missed shot by Hahn and scored on the putback and was fouled by Lubas in the process. With 57 seconds left, she finished out the three-point play to give the Big Blue a 52-50 lead. All night long, Manasquan just flustered Point Boro on the boards at both sides of the court.

The Panthers had set it up to get the ball to Haugh, who had scored at that end on the previous possession. Sounded like a good idea. She, however, missed the short jumper and Ormsbee was fouled on the rebound. Having not scored a point all night, I figured like most everyone else that Ormsbee would be nervous. But she sank the first free throw to make it a three-point lead. Then she missed the second ... but Hahn was there and was fouled with 31 seconds left.

Hahn calmly hit her two free throws and the Panthers were in trouble down five. But Wendi Pearce wasted little time at the other end -- she drove to the basket for the layup to cut the lead to three points with 21 seconds left.

The Panthers called one last timeout and set up to try to steal the ball back. They couldn't this time and Hahn was fouled by Campacci with 17 seconds to go. One free throw would cause damage to Boro's hopes.

But Hahn missed both. Haugh rebounded and the Panthers had one more chance to tie the game. The ball ended up in Haugh's hands again and from behind the 3-point arc, she let fly as time wound down.

The ball hit the front end of the iron. Ormsbee rebounded it and the clock ran out.

Just like that, it was over. The Panthers fell short by three points of moving on to a Group II final date with Harrison, one that Manasquan would win two days later for a state championship.

I didn't have to encapsulate what I just saw. I knew this was an epic that I was glad to be a part of as a reporter. But after adding up the statistics of this one, it was my duty to do the interviews, first Johnson, who was proud of his kids, but didn't think either side deserved to lose it, saying of Boro, "I just felt really bad about (them losing)."

And he was genuine. I talked with Cooke, who was also proud of his players afterward. "It was a dead-even game," he told me. "We just came up short a little bit. We had a good year. Nobody can take that away from us."

No, no one would. A lot of teams would've killed for a 22-6 season and a state sectional title. But it was over. And I wanted to find Wendi Pearce to talk to her. But I couldn't. She was balling her eyes out, knowing she gave everything she had, but it wasn't enough. Manasquan's defense had bottled both she and her sister, holding Christie Pearce to only 12 points on 2-of-14 shooting from the field. It was Brzyski who led the Panthers in scoring on this night with 13 points.

I had left at the same time as the Boro bus pulling out of the parking lot ahead of me. But moments after the bus began to roll, it stopped.

Someone came off of it. I recognized who it was. It was Wendi Pearce. She ran off the bus and to a dark side that no one could see her heaving. Whether she was still upset or maybe a bit under the weather, I can see what was going on. She eventually got back on the bus and the team and I headed back to Ocean County separately.

I got back into the office to write the story, help with the newspaper and then went home just after deadline.

That night will always stand out. It was an amazing evening of basketball. Dick Johnson was right -- neither team deserved to lose this one. Five years later, Boro won the SJ II title again and this time, the Panthers completed an unbelievable run to a state Group II championship. Both Wendi and Christie Pearce were long gone by then, displaying their soccer (and basketball for Christie) talents at Monmouth University.

But on that night in '91, both teams threw everything out there in a game that had 16 lead changes and 12 ties.

And two rivals played in it, mere miles from one another and playing on the other side of the state.

This drama was really that good.