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Friday, May 30, 2014

Wanting to so believe Donovan was much better

When I walked onto the Shelter Cove Park soccer field on Thursday, May 30, 1985, I so wanted to believe that Monsignor Donovan had a shot of beating big, bad Toms River East in the semifinal round of the Shore Conference girls soccer tournament.

The year before, Donovan's Griffins were unbeaten going into the Ocean County Tournament title game, but on a stifling and brutally warm night, their conditioning did not match that of East's Raiders and thus the perfect season ended in a 2-0 loss.

So one year later, I wanted to believe in my head that Donovan's Griffins, the No. 5 seed of the Shore Conference Tournament, the only tournament to play in after this tournament had pretty much ended the OCT and the MCT (Monmouth County Tournament), had a legitimate chance of taking down the No. 1 seed Raiders in this game. The teams had waited a year to play one another and both had very good seasons leading up to this game. East was 15-1-1 and downright talented. Donovan was 17-1 and, well, also very talented.

This game was also two days after I had covered Donovan's abbreviated 1-0 SCT quarterfinal-round win over unbeaten Lacey in Lacey, a game that was stopped in the third quarter when lightning flashed around the field and then the rain began to pound down on it.

In this battle of the Griffins and the Raiders, the Griffins were the good guys, the team dressed in white. They had some very nice senior players and good leadership. They had Barbara Indiero and Terri Bottone on defense. They had Barbara Callaghan in the midfield. They had Maureen McShea in goal. And they had Stephanie Harmon, one of my all-time favorite players, up front.

More importantly, they had one of the truly genuine nice guys coaching the team in Bill Slocum, who had taken over the program in 1982. This particular team was his first group of four-year players under him. If there was anything I needed from him regardless of the hour, he'd get it for me. He was great with a quote and he was just a good guy to talk to. It was my first year of covering high school soccer, so I needed some allies to help me and oh, did I get some good ones between Slocum, Toms River South's Jim Maguire, North's Jean Konyhas, Point Pleasant Boro's Bob Kulessa, Jackson Memorial's Mike Costa and Lacey's Paul Groben.

Donovan was not only about its talented senior class. It had a dynamite underclassmen group, too, led in the sophomore class by sweeper Colleen Hanhart and in the freshman class by three stars in the making, midfielder Liz Rehak and forwards Jilene DeFilippis and Kim Brickner, who was beginning to carve out a nice career for herself at Donovan.

I really wanted to believe Donovan was the better team on this sunny afternoon at Shelter Cove. But to get to the final, the Griffins were going to have to take out the best team in the tournament, let alone the best team in the county.

East's Raiders were tough. Nails tough, actually. You could knock this team down, but just be known that when you did, you'd be knocked down numerous times afterward with no guarantee you'd come off the field in good shape. These Raiders were talented. Their senior contingent was led by one of its best athletes ever, Denice McKenna, my neighbor for most of my childhood. I watched her grow up playing sports and I knew how talented she was. She was going to head to Rutgers to play soccer there. Another senior was a close friend of McKenna's, Karen Carlisle, a forward who had a strong nose for the ball. And then there was the girl with one of the best smiles I've ever covered in sports, senior goalkeeper Nancy Hearne, the unheralded rock in the back of the Raider defense.

The Raiders had two sophomores who were key components up front in Stacey Komisar and Bonnie Krall, who lived in the same neighborhood as myself and Denice. And Chris Carlisle, Karen's sister, was a freshman with a whole bunch of potential. The defense was mostly junior- and sophomore-based led by stopper Sue Lauterborn and sweeper Leda Fenton, both juniors. Fullback Barbara Applegate, a sophomore, was also a key component in the back.

The orchestra leader in all this was the program's lone coach from the start, Ed Polhemus. Now keep in mind that this man was my gym teacher for my four years at Hooper Avenue Elementary School in the mid-to-late 1970s. He can throw a whole bunch of catchphrases and cliches at you and you thought nothing of it. He'd take his whistle that he carried with him and whip the necklace part of it very hard into gym mats not far from where you were sitting and you'd think nothing of it.

That was Mr. P. But as a journalist, I had to deal with him on a regular basis. Most of the time, he was pretty forthright with stuff. And most of the time, he was pretty assured nobody on this planet had a soccer team that was good enough to beat his group of young ladies. Given the opportunity, he may have been correct. However, this was 1985 ... and back then, girls soccer was played in the spring while most of the state played it in the fall. (Fact: The sport began at the Jersey Shore in the spring of 1976, then it became a varsity sport everywhere else in the fall of '76, so in reality, the rest of the state got it wrong! But that's just my opinion.)

That whole season, Polhemus kept giving plaudits toward his team and whatever I was writing up about the other teams in the county – Lacey and Donovan in particular – he was using that as "motivation" to tell me (and probably his team) that they weren't being appreciated much.

OK, whatever. I knew how good his team was. I think anyone who covered the sport knew how good his team was. Anyone who had a good knowledge of Shore area soccer knew how good his team was. I always felt ... even in my first full year of covering high school sports ... that it's best at times to share the wealth.

Then again, maybe I'm just a good liberal-minded person. Polhemus, though, didn't see it that way. And though he wouldn't admit it, I can see he may have been a tad bit perturbed at me. So after vanquishing the first two opponents in the 16-team SCT as the top seed, you would have had a hard time convincing me that Polhemus had little motivation of getting his girls up for Callaghan, McShea, Harmon, Hanhart, Brickner and the rest of Donovan's Griffins.

Unfairly – and admittedly a generation and a half later – East was painted as the "bad" team, the team with the black hats. I knew how motivated they were, but that was between all the white lines. I knew a number of the young ladies on that East team and they were far from being "bad guys." It was a terrible dilemma, I admit. And again, I was so believing this was going to be Donovan's day. Not because I felt maybe Donovan was the better team. It was more because I wanted to see what Ed Polhemus was like humbled. After all, this man should have trademarked the phrase "The only team that can beat us is ourselves." That's how confident he was with this 1985 group of Raiders.

Personally, I wanted to see Harmon have a big day against the Raider defense. Why? Because I had just written a story the day before about her agreeing to become a Rutgers Scarlet Knight player. We talked chapter and verse and by the end of that 1985 season, I knew everything about Stephanie Harmon. She will always be one of my all-time favorite people as well as players. We had a good friendship after she graduated. When I had my graduation party from Monmouth College on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend in 1988, I invited her as one of my guests to my house. Stephanie and I will always recognize one another.

And to me, there was no question about this particular game – the winner was going to continue on to the final and beat the Monmouth County representative and make history by taking the first SCT championship. That's how talented both East and Donovan were.

The team captains shook hands after discussing rules with the officials before the game and we were ready for some soccer.

And in the first quarter (they played 20-minute quarters back then), Donovan's team came out of the gates like a house on fire. They tested East's defense. Brickner got a shot on goal, as did Harmon. They either flew past the net or Hearne made the save on the shot. For the first five minutes, Donovan was playing this game in East's end of the field.

Then the five minutes went up. And it was East's time to take over.

For the rest of the first half.

East's offense got its act together and was starting to click on passes and testing the Donovan defense. But nothing was penetrating McShea. And the game remained scoreless going into the final five minutes of the first quarter.

Then my neighbor delivered the Kick Heard Throughout East Dover.

McKenna was able to gobble up a pass from Komisar. She dribbled in toward the Griffin box and from 20 yards out, delivered a booming high kick that McShea, no short person whatsoever at 5-foot-9, could not get a hand on. It soared past her underneath the crossbar and East had broken the ice before the quarter ended at the 16:07 mark. Then again, I'm not sure Hope Solo or Brianna Scurry would have stopped the shot. This was a laser that had the right power and the right height behind it.

Donovan's defense and McShea looked stunned. Afterward, Slocum would say, "The first goal was a beautiful shot. When they scored that goal, the momentum of the whole game changed."

The Raiders continued that momentum and took it into the second quarter. It was there that the Sisters Carlisle took over. The younger Carlisle had weaved her way into the Donovan box and passed off to her sister. It was not a one-timer-type shot, but boy did it have some gas behind it. She nailed the shot to the right of McShea and it was 2-0 with 12:16 left before halftime.

And just like that, whatever ego the Griffins had was suddenly wounded. Worse, they could not get anything going offensively in the first half because East's defense was playing soccer to a level that I believe the U.S. women's national team could relate to. It was that good. While Brickner would be elusive and maybe a little bit of a surprise to the Raiders, they had Harmon and DeFilippis in check the entire first half.

The big part of that was the play of a defender I didn't mention before. Her name was Michele Adamkowski. She was a fullback on the other side of the field from Applegate and a very good one in her junior season. She was given the assignment to hound Harmon like nobody's business. For most of this game, Adamkowski was Mary's little lamb because everywhere Harmon went, Adamkowski was sure to go.

I think I even nicknamed Adamkowski "Mary's little lamb." She was one of the best marking defenders I've ever covered in girls soccer.

On this day, I was at this Shelter Cove Park field to cover Stephanie Harmon's triumphant afternoon and how she helped propel Donovan to the SCT championship game.

Turns out, Michele Adamkowski did a better job of covering her than I did.

Unless Slocum and his players had a better plan, this was not going to end well.

And sure as anything, East came out of the blocks the same way they ended the second quarter – on the proverbial roll. Whatever Applegate and Adamkowski couldn't do as defending backs, Lauterborn was there to help mark and if the ball came toward Fenton, you could be assured the 5-foot-10 sweeper was knocking it away toward midfield. East's defense was looking smooth and there was no signs in this third quarter that Donovan was changing that.

Then came the surprise – the third goal. It came with 12:44 left in the third period. Linda Anderson, another veteran midfielder, moved the ball into Donovan territory, then gave off to Fenton, who was allowed to move up the field. Maybe Donovan's defense was stunned to see the sweeper that far in toward the goal, but it worked. Fenton nailed a shot from a few short yards away past McShea and it was 3-0.

That's how I knew East was really really having a good day – when the sweeper scores! Leda Fenton wasn't a goal scorer, but yet, she picked this moment to put this game away. Or that's how it seemed.

Midway through the third quarter, the constant badgering and coverage by Adamkowski was starting to get to Harmon, who had put home 20 goals that spring. She had been quietly stating her case to the officials about the harassment she was taking. Finally, she had enough of it. And it was not that far from where I was standing on Donovan's side of the field watching this artistic defensive display.

I could clearly hear the one official tell Harmon, "You asked for it, you got it," and then pulling out a yellow card, which meant she was having to come out of the game for the moment.

Donovan's attack was frustrated. Their best player was on the bench cooling off from a yellow card and with one quarter left, the only thing that was left was the final score. East was already up 3-0 and I saw no way of Donovan getting back into this one. If Donovan had scored three goals in a quarter during the season, it most likely wasn't against a team of East's caliber.

But something began to happen as the fourth quarter began. The faster, younger Donovan players were finally finding holes in the East defense and starting to exploit them. Just 2:13 into the final quarter, Brickner made a move and ultimately got tripped up by Applegate in the box.

That meant a penalty kick. Slocum called on Rehak to deliver the kick. She powered her kick past Hearne's right side and the shutout was gone. Donovan had its first goal in two years against East. Now the Griffins had to continue what they started. Brickner and DeFilippis were filling in nicely, trying to make life tough on the East defense. Hearne had to make a few saves in the fourth quarter to keep the Griffins at arms length. And they did a god job of milking the clock down because all of a sudden, East's offensive attack was non-existent. Donovan's defense had finally tightened up and from the midfield stripe to about the East 25 was where all the action was taking place in the fourth quarter.

Hanhart delivered a kick into the East box. That caused chaos and within that chaos, the whistle sounded.

East was detected for a handball. And because it was in the box, that meant another penalty kick. Rehak got summoned again by Slocum to deliver the kick. She went to the same spot as she had before with a kick to Hearne's right side into the net and was successful.

Now it was 3-2. And there was still three minutes left in this one. When the quarter started, East seemed to be in cruise control. Now the Raiders were one or two more runs toward their net from panic mode. Donovan continued to pounce, trying to find the tying goal. Each time, though, the Griffin forwards and midfielders got turned back.

Each kick away from the net by an East player only meant precious time kept ticking off the clock. Finally, Donovan had no more time left. And as the referees blew the final whistle on a scoreboard-less Shelter Cove Park field, East players jumped up and down in happiness and elation, players hugging one another.

They survived. They were the ones going to the SCT final.

Donovan's players slowly walked off the field in the same funeral procession-like manner I saw them walk off in their other loss that season to Point Pleasant Boro during East break. At the end of the game, Adamkowski, who I barely knew who she was before this game, would say this was her "best game defensively."

Hearne said, "This is the most dominant game we played this year. Michele played a super game against Stephanie. The whole defense did the job."

And that was it, really. If Adamkowski doesn't stop Harmon in her tracks on this afternoon, there's a chance East might not be going to the SCT final. Stopping Harmon was the whole key to stopping the Donovan attack and though Rehak had two penalty shot goals, they were goals that weren't scored on the field. In that regard, East was dominant defensively.

It didn't pass by Polhemus, either.

"Today, the sharks were hungry," said Polhemus, not passing up a chance to make a point with yet another cliche. "We allowed them only two penalty kicks and nothing from the field. I think the defense is the best the Shore area and I think Nancy Hearne is the best goalie in all of the Shore area."

East's defense, I hated to tell ol' Eddie, was the main reason for Nancy Hearne's success back there. They didn't allow a whole lot of shots that season and on this day, they didn't allow a whole lot of shots either.

And while East players were more than happy to chat afterward, Donovan's players walked off the field dejected, the seniors walking away from their final game with a 58-13-2 mark in four years under Slocum. Unfortunately, they didn't win a title of any kind in those four years.

"I'm disappointed for my seniors who are leaving," said Slocum, looking like he lost a puppy dog by this point. "I've grown very close to them and now it's over. They brought a lot of respect to the soccer program."

They had and gave Donovan soccer fans two wonderful soccer rides in '84 and '85. But each time, the Griffins lost to the better team in East, which had now vanquished Point Pleasant Beach, Jackson Memorial and Donovan en route to the championship game against surprising Freehold Township.

East would go on to win the SCT championship the next Tuesday night, June 4, by a 1-0 count at Wall High School, ending a great 17-1-1 season.

As I left the Shelter Cove Park field, I got a request from a Donovan student who had played Senior League Baseball at Toms River Little League for my dad and I. His name was Mike Gottschalk. We chatted about the game afterward and what he was up to. I had to drive all the way up Route 571 to take him back to his place, then turn around and drive toward the back way to the Observer building. As I was coming in, Brickner was leaving the building. Apparently, I had forgotten that I told Slocum if she could come in for a mug shot that week (we had All-County stuff going on within the next few weeks), it'd be great. I never expected her to show up right after a devastating 3-2 SCT semifinal loss, but it was nice that she took care of business afterward. And in spite of playing a tough game where she gave her all, I do admit she took a very nice mug shot for our photographer.

My first year as a high school girls soccer writer is one I will never forget, especially with some of the friendships I cultivated with players who were one and two years younger than I was. Being 18 at the time had its benefits, I do admit. Sadly, an injury kept McKenna from ever playing at Rutgers. And a falling out with coaches, she said, ended Harmon's chance of playing for Rutgers. Callaghan, Hearne, Adamkowski and Fenton would all wind up as teammates on the fledgling Monmouth College soccer team, so I'd run into my East girls quite a bit while I was a student there between 1986-88.

In the end, East had a dominant team. The Raiders were no doubt deserving of the acclaim they captured that season.

But admittedly, I still would have liked to see Donovan win that day at Shelter Cove Park.

I wanted to believe they were so much better.

They just weren't in the end.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The epic 3-hour tug of war

By the end of this Tuesday night, May 25, 1993, I had already contemplated a first-time Ocean County Tournament championship matchup between bitter rivals Central Regional and Lacey Township. That's how this night was going to end at Point Pleasant Boro High School, I thought.

As the co-director of the 13th annual OCT, I felt it was all but a foregone conclusion. Central Regional was flying high at 20-1 and couldn't possibly be stopped. And at 14-7, Lacey was catching fire at the right time -- and they also had gotten a break since second-seeded Southern Regional had been shown the proverbial door by Jackson Memorial, the seventh seed, in a stunning quarterfinal round upset just four days earlier.

Still, both Central's Golden Eagles and Lacey's Lions had to win their semifinal matchups. And the way I had set up the bracket, the Golden Eagles and fourth-seeded Toms River North were up first. When I set up the bracket, I had always put the No. 1 seed as the showcase prime-time game of what was "Quarterfinal Saturday," the day all four quarterfinal-round matchups were to take place on Boro's field. That had been three nights before, though, because of a conflict, Southern and Jackson Memorial had to move their game up a day to Friday. And in the "spotlight" game, Central had beaten feisty No. 8 seed Monsignor Donovan, 5-2.

So Central and North, which had beaten Toms River East in a dramatic, back-and-forth 10-9 game in the quarterfinal round, were set for their semifinal, which had a 5 p.m. start. The second semifinal between No. 7 Jackson Memorial and No. 3 Lacey was to take place starting at 7:30 p.m.

The Golden Eagles were the defending champion of the event, having beaten East the year before in the final, 5-0, on the same Boro field they were playing on this time around. And they were loaded -- pitcher Tara Menschner was in the middle of a great junior season, junior Erika Applegate had made the transition smoothly from third base to catcher, shortstop Dana Kennett was a seasoned veteran in her second year as a sophomore. Junior Denise Reiser was a steady center fielder and first baseman Amber Dafeldecker was the anchor as a senior, one of two seniors along with veteran third baseman Tara Gardner.

Central was coached by the venerable Norm Selby, who along with assistant coach Gloria Garibaldi had guided the Golden Eagles to five previous OCT titles, two NJSIAA South Jersey Group III championships and an overall Group III title-game appearance in 1986. The Golden Eagles, as I called them, were "Team IBM" because everyone was uniformed the same way, all the young ladies wearing hats, being proper and none standing out over anyone else.

That was "the Central way."

But North, which was the anti-Central, chanting out lines while they were athe plate and not having every player (if any) wearing hats on their heads, came into the game riding a modest seven-game winning streak. Another venerable coach, Becky Miller, the winningest softball coach in Ocean County history, had mostly seniors and juniors rounding into form. The senior starters were all different: from the quiet and stoic Kim Scourzo at first base and Stefanie Rusin in left field to the outgoing Jaclyn Cherubini at second base.

But the star attractions of this team were the junior class ... just like Central Regional. Leadoff hitter and center fielder Kristin Smith got the Mariners rolling, then shortstop Lesley Gertner and third baseman Kelly Gorga made up for the steady left side of the infield. Anna Solosky was not a strikeout pitcher by any means, but she was accurate and the first part of being a successful pitcher in baseball or softball is being around the plate. And catcher Bonnie Shapiro went about her business catching Solosky and being a defensive stalwart in her second year as the team's starting backstop.

And so after the introductions and the national anthem was played, we got rolling at 5:05 p.m. Both teams, though, were going to be up against it in the early going since because Boro's field was looking to the west, fielders were looking directly into the sun, making for a dangerous first few innings. Yes, it was a bit of a challenge to say the least, but let's say no one got hurt.

At least not because of the sun's position. More later.

North immediately put the pressure on Central in the first. Smith and Cherubini beat out infield hits and Gertner walked to load the bases. No outs and North was looking good. Gorga came up and she didn't waste time -- she went after Menschner's first offering. It was a screaming liner up the middle, waist-high.

That was perfect for Menschner, who snagged it as quickly as a lizard's tongue to a fly, then threw to Gardner at third to double up a stunned Smith. Scourzo bounced a comebacker to Menschner and North's rally went by the board.

But that top of the first set the tone for what was about to be witnessed the rest of this game.

After Solosky set the Golden Eagles down in the bottom of the first, the Mariners came up again in the top of the second. Megan Russell, the lone sophomore in the North lineup, beat out the third infield hit North collected in less than two innings. Talk about finding a spot in the defense! That brought up Rusin. On a 1-2 pitch, she hit a ball that began sinking slowly toward the right field line. Right fielder Stacy Sperling, another Central junior, kept coming in and coming in and coming in. But she couldn't get to the ball. Somehow, the ball found a rock on the Boro outfield grass/dirt and skipped away from Sperling. Russell scored and Rusin didn't stop until Miller put the breaks on at third base to complete Rusin's triple.

Already down 1-0 and with no one out and a runner on third, this wasn't looking good for Menschner or her Golden Eagle mates. Somehow, she reached back to strike out Shapiro swinging. Then she caught Solosky looking at strike three. And Smith hit a comebacker to Menschner. Another potentially big inning was thwarted, but North had struck first for the 1-0 lead.

Meanwhile, Solosky, as she seemingly did all season long, went about her business. She gave up a hit to Menschner in the second, but she set down nine of the first 10 batters she faced.

And the Mariners were about to add to their lead in the fourth. Up first was the left-handed hitting Scourzo. The count was worked to 2-2. Then Menschner grooved one in Scourzo's wheelhouse.

Scourzo unloaded. The ball took off over Reiser's head and must have hit another rock in the Boro outfield. It skittered away and by the time Reiser had caught up to the ball, Scourzo was on third and heading for home with an inside-the-park home run on the spacious Panther field, making it 2-0.

We were now halfway through the game and the Mariners were halfway to upsetting Central and advancing to their second championship game in three years. But these Golden Eagles didn't get to 20-1 by accident. They were about to change the game in the bottom of the fourth in their full second go-round against Solosky.

Second baseman and junior Jill Hirshblond was to to begin it. She beat out an infield hit. This brought up Applegate, who was one long hit away from turning the game around.

And she delivered. On a 1-1 pitch, she drilled Solosky's offering to the right-center field gap, easily scoring Hirshblond, who had gotten to second on a wild pitch. Applegate kept running until she stopped at third with a triple. That brought up Dafeldecker, who hit a hard one-hopper at Solosky in the second inning for an out. She got the count to 1-1 before she got a hold of the next pitch.

It was a screamer that Solosky's knee had no chance at getting out of the way. Thankfully, it didn't crack the bone. Applegate scored easily and Dafeldecker had first base while Solosky was writhing on the mound in pain. For over three minutes, a hush fell on the Point Boro field. The Mariners really didn't have a backup plan on the mound. Solosky had thrown every inning of every game for North that season. It was reminiscent of the moment four years earlier on the Wilbur Thompson Field turf when Toms River East pitcher Kim Tompkins had been nailed with a deflected line drive to her face by Toms River South's Emily Dupignac in that OCT final.

On that night, Tompkins was able to get up and finish. And so, too, did Solosky. She received a nice ovation from both sides' fans and threw some warmup tosses. She was ready to go. Down the road a few days later when discussing this game, Garibaldi told me it wasn't the first time Dafeldecker had nailed someone with a line drive up the middle.

"You should see the bruises on my legs from her line drives," Garibaldi told me about pitching practice to her team, especially her hard-swinging first baseman.

The inning went on and Central was on the prowl. April Rose, the Central left fielder and two-year starter as a sophomore, singled to right to put runners on first and second. Menschner hit a grounder at Gorga, who stepped on third for the first out of the inning. This brought up Reiser. She hit a lazy flyball to Smith in center. But as she caught the ball, I can hear the North coaches and players who were on the bench to the right of me on the first base side of the field yelling to Smith to get the ball to second base. When she did and Cherubini caught the ball, there was no one there. Apparently, Rose had thought there was two outs instead of one.

In a battle of teams that were evenly matched, mistakes had to be held to practically nothing. And Rose's error in judgment ended a rally, though the game was tied at 2-2.

Both Menschner and Solosky settled down from there. Each had 1-2-3 fifth innings and Menschner retired Gertner, Gorga and Scourzo in the sixth. In the bottom of the sixth, Central was poised to take the lead. With one out, Applegate delivered a double and moved to third on a groundout by Dafeldecker. It brought up Rose, who fought Solosky in a nine-pitch at-bat. But Solosky would eventually win the battle by getting Rose to ground out to Gorga, keeping the game tied.

Menschner had retired seven batters in a row going into the seventh, but No. 6 hitter Russell beat out yet another infield single. Rusin put down a bunt in front of home plate, but Applegate could not get her hand firmly wrapped on the ball and her error put runners on first and second with no outs. That brought up Shapiro, who was 1-for-2 at this point. On a 3-2 pitch, she delivered a single to left field. When Rose could not handle the ball properly, Miller waved Russell home to give North a 3-2 lead as the runners moved up a base.

Once again, a Rose mistake had cost Central Regional. Hopefully, it would not cost the Golden Eagles the game at this point. Menschner still -- and once again -- had to wriggle out of no-outs, runners-in-scoring-position trouble. She struck out Solosky swinging, bringing up Smith. Smith hit a line drive right back at Menschner, who used cat-like reflexes again to snag it despite the sun still being in her way and bag Rusin at third for the double play to end the inning.

Three outs to go for North's upset win and a trip to the championship. At this point, North had done everything it could do to win the game and all Solosky had to do was protect the 3-2 lead.

But again, Central didn't get to 20-1 by accident. And Selby's bunch was primed heading into the bottom of the seventh. Menschner began the seventh with a base hit up the middle. Danielle Kennett, Dana's twin sister, ran for Menschner. On the second pitch of the at-bat with Reiser, Selby had Kennett steal. She beat Shapiro's throw to second, putting her in scoring position with no outs.

But Reiser popped out harmlessly to Cherubini. Going into this game, Reiser, who was normally Selby's leadoff hitter, had been suffering through the throes of a horrific slump. So at this point, she had been moved down to the seventh slot in the order. With Reiser's at-bat wasted, it brought up Gardner, a quiet, unassuming player just like older sister Jean, who played for Central and had graduated two years earlier. Gardner worked the count to 3-2, then got a pitch that got enough of the plate. She was able to lace it out to left field. By the time Rusin got to the ball, Selby was sending Danielle Kennett home. She made it in easy ahead of the throw to the plate as Gardner sped to second.

The game was deadlocked again and now Central had a chance to win the game. But Solosky caught No. 9 hitter Sperling looking on strikes for the second out, then Dana Kennett popped out harmlessly to Solosky.

It was free softball for two teams that played an entertaining game up to this point. But it wasn't a surprise since Central outlasted North, 2-0, exactly four weeks earlier in a tight one. A game like this was possible. Still, Central had a little better talent than North did position by position. Now a championship game berth was going to be decided inning to inning and as my watch read 6:55 p.m., I can see both Jackson Memorial and Lacey players warming up away from the field, waiting their turn to get on the field.

Little did they know they were going to have to wait awhile in this one. In the top of the eighth, Cherubini singled to lead off, but like Rose did earlier in the game, forgot the situation and was caught off first base on a popup by Gertner, which got turned into a double play. Solosky, meanwhile, retired Hirshblond, Applegate and Dafeldecker in order in the eighth. Menschner had done the same in the ninth, setting up for what was going to be an exciting bottom of the ninth inning.

Rose hit a grounder toward Gertner, but it took a bad hop on the shortstop and went into the outfield for a base hit to lead off the inning. After Menschner flied out to right fielder Russell, the struggling Reiser came up. She got enough of a 1-2 Solosky offering to poke the ball into left field for a base hit, stopping Rose at second. Two pitches later, Solosky uncorked her second wild pitch of the game, putting both runners in scoring position with one out. Gardner walked to load the bases, setting the stage for Sperling to win the game.

With the count at 1-2, Sperling poked a ball to the right side of the infield. It seemed to stay up there for minutes, but Cherubini reached as high as she could without jumping and snared the soft liner in her glove.

That was the difference between Central Regional settling matters and Sperling being the hero and the game continuing on. Three inches one way or the other or higher and Central was going to the title game. Now it was up to Dana Kennett, who like Reiser previously in the leadoff position was struggling. Instead of waiting Solosky out for her pitch, Kennett got anxious and hit a flyball that Smith gloved on the first pitch to her to end the threat.

In the top of the 10th, Shapiro started by poking a ball that landed just inside the left-field line. She didn't stop until she got to second with a double, setting North up. Solosky popped out to Dafeldecker for the first out. That brought up Smith. She put a bunt down to Menschner, who threw to second baseman Hirshblond covering first for the second out. This sent up Cherubini, who had stolen Sperling's moment of glory and now had a chance to become a hero herself.

It didn't happen. She took a strike and Applegate caught Shapiro napping at third base, picking her off to end the rally.

This game had a lot of everything. Solosky set Hirshblond, Applegate and Dafeldecker down in order again in the 10th.

In the top of the 11th, Cherubini blooped her third hit of the game into right field to lead off. This brought up Gertner and the next interesting moment of the game. She blooped a single to left-center field, a one-hopper off the glove of Rose. But Reiser was there to gather the ball and when she threw to Dana Kennett, imagine the shortstop's surprise when she saw Cherubini suddenly caught just off second base heading to third. Kennett slapped the tag on Cherubini trying to get back to second for the first out. Two flyouts ended the 11th. And when Solosky retired the side in order in the bottom of the inning to make it eight straight set down by the right-hander, it was on to the 12th.

It was up to me, the public address announcer for the tournament, to announce that this was the longest OCT game in history. It was almost 7:40 p.m. The second semifinal should have started by now. But to both teams' credit, they were patient. After all, they, too, were seeing history unfolding in front of them just like the fans who were there from the start for both Central and North.

First up was Russell. She hit a wicked shot toward Gardner at third, who could not handle the blistering liner. The ball went off her glove and wandered into foul territory. Russell raced to second on what was scored a double. Rusin walked and Shapiro beat out an infield hit, quietly her fourth hit of the game, to load the bases with no outs. That brought up No. 9 hitter Solosky. She got the count to 3-0 before Menschner put one over on her opposite number. Then Solosky took again. Ball four, outside. The reliably accurate Menschner suddenly could not find the plate after her third walk of the game and North had a 4-3 lead and once again ... no outs. By this point, I'm asking how many times Menschner can escape these mini-fires that keep getting set.

Worse, North's top of the lineup was coming back up. Somehow, Menschner had not used up all her lives in this one. She induced Smith, Cherubini and Gertner into not one, not two, but three straight popouts to Dana Kennett.

Seems like this time, the flag was finally pulled over to the North side of the field after a two-hour, 40-minute game of tug of war. Central had no more chances after the 12th. This was it.

And after Gardner grounded out to Gertner, Sperling beat out an infield hit. Kennett continued her horrible night at the plate with a groundout to Scourzo at first. But that allowed Sperling to move to second base with two outs. Now the role of savior was put on the shoulders of Hirshblond, Selby's niece. On a 1-1 pitch, Hirshblond reached out and poked the ball toward left-center field. It landed on the ground ... not in a glove. Sperling raced home. Hirshblond hurried to second.

Tied again at 4-4. Was this game ever going to end!?

It could if Applegate, who was 2-for-5 in the contest, could find the same kind of land in the outfield as Hirshblond did. One hit and the game was over. But on a 1-1 pitch, Applegate hit a slow roller to Gertner, who gathered the ball in and fired to Scourzo to beat Applegate by a step.

Central once again kept the game going. And I was starting to seriously wonder if we were going to have a second semifinal. It was 7:55 p.m. Again, Lacey and Jackson Memorial were waiting patiently to take the field for warmups and get a game going.

I'll be honest -- for one short moment as the game crossed into the 13th inning, I was starting to think myself that I and co-tournament director and Boro softball coach Ric Malta may have to tell both teams to go home and come back the next day. We were literally on an inning-by-inning watch in making that decision.

So onto the 13th we went. My Scoremaster scoreboook -- and by the way, it's the best in the business among scorebooks -- had run out of space by the 12th. I had to start with the 13th inning to the right of my totals add-up lines. I had room for the 13th and 14th inning. After that, I'd have to start on another page, which in all my years of keeping scorebooks I had never done before. And I didn't want to have to go to another page.

With one out, Scourzo drew a four-pitch walk from Menschner, who was still having some trouble with pitch location. Russell hit a grounder at Kennett for what should have been at least one out at second base. But Kennett, who had played stellar defense to mask the 0-for-6 game at the plate, finally cracked by fumbling the grounder for an error, Central's third of the game, to put runners on first and second with one out. Rusin hit a comebacker to Menschner, who automatically knew what to do with it once she fielded it, throwing a strike to Gardner at third to get Scourzo for the second out.

Once again, it looked as if Menschner was going to get out of trouble. And once again, I started having to contemplate that whole "Shall we even play the second semifinal?" question. But to the plate came Shapiro, who seemed to have Menschner's number all evening long. She got the count to 3-2. Then as if there was magic in Shapiro's bat, she looped a single to left field in front of Rose. With two outs, the runners were going when ball met bat, so Rose's throw to the plate was not in time to get Russell. The other runners moved up on the throw home.

North had the lead again, this time at 5-4. The inning was still going on and Solosky was up. Up to this point, the best Solosky could do at the plate on an 0-for-4 day with two strikeouts was work out that bases-loaded walk in the 12th inning to break the 3-3 tie. But unlike the previous five at-bats, Solosky wasn't taking a pitch. She poked the ball past Menschner and up the middle. On a night Menschner was snagging just about everything, she couldn't get that one. As the ball trickled into the outfield, Rusin and Shapiro were both scoring.

And though Smith hit a comebacker to Menschner to end the inning at long last, North had attained the biggest lead of the game. Solosky took a 7-4 lead into the bottom of the 13th inning and seemed relaxed.

You can also tell that Central, for as determined as it was, was deflated. And it showed in that last at-bat. Dafeldecker, Rose and Menschner all went after Solosky's first pitch to them! The results: a line drive to Scourzo, a flyout to Russell and a groundout to Gertner, respectively.

At 8:10 p.m., three hours and five minutes after the game had started, it was over. North had survived, 7-4, and was on its way to its third championship game ever. North players were elated, high-fiving and hugging one another. The Mariners were also exhausted after surviving that game. But Miller and assistant coach Jane Donald shared the moment with the team and were packing up heading back to North jubilant over the exciting victory. The way they were playing at that point, they didn't care who they got in the final -- they were a confident enough bunch that they were going to win the county final regardless.

Said Miller afterward, "I haven't coached in a game like that in recent history." She had been North's coach for 23 years by then. It'd be hard to match the drama and excitement that was the Central-North semifinal game. Anyone there that night would have agreed.

When looking back on that game 21 years later, what won it for North wasn't necessarily the clutch hitting. It was the fact that North had 55 chances in the field -- 39 putouts and 16 assists -- without making one single error. Yes, North won with its defense, something the Mariners were never great at, but yet on this evening, they put it together.

Meanwhile, Central quietly packed away its equipment and headed back to the bus after losing the epic battle, stunned by the end result. I can still see the teary-faced look of Menschner and Applegate after this one. They wanted this one. They wanted it badly. They knew they had a chance to make history and become the first back-to-back champion in OCT history.

That would not happen for any county team in the event until Toms River East pulled the trick in 2007-08. Days later, Selby agreed that this battle was one of the greatest games in county history, even if he had to bite the bullet of the fact his team was at the wrong end of that history. A hit here, an error there, a walk somewhere else and the course of history may have changed in that 1993 season.

But there was still business to attend to. Jackson Memorial and Lacey had to still take the field for the second semifinal. And after waiting for both teams to get off the field, then taking warmups and going through introductions, we got the second semifinal started just before 9 p.m. And I will never forget the leadership shown that night of home-plate umpire and legendary wrestling coach John DeMarco of moving the game along.

That second semifinal saw Jackson Memorial pull off yet another upset, beating Lacey, 9-5, in a game that ended just before 11 p.m. Jackson Memorial used a five-run third inning to pull off the upset, the highlight being a two-run, inside-the-park home run by another catcher who made a name for herself that night, Becky Dushanek.

But that upset win that put coach Al Aires' Jaguars into the final for the first time ever was hugely overshadowed by a game that I still to this day believe is one of the greatest games I've ever witnessed in my career. North had been rolling, but the win over Central was the impetus it needed to keep the good times going. A week later, North and Central would face one another again, this time for the Shore Conference Tournament championship at Harry Rash Field in Wall. It was a rarity to see two Ocean County teams ever play for this championship, but here they both were playing for all the Shore marbles.

And to prove the win the week before was not a fluke, North won the SCT crown with a 2-1 victory over the Golden Eagles, not quite as dramatic as the game seven days earlier, but just as well-played. And one day later, North finished out a 12-game winning streak to end the season by thumping Jackson Memorial, 13-2, in the OCT title game on the same Point Boro field in five innings as Gertner earned Most Valuable Player honors. Solosky captured the Most Valuable Pitcher award, Scourzo was named the OCT's top fielder, and Shapiro, who was 8-for-15 in the tourney, was the event's top hitter, propelled by that five-hit game that made her the second player in OCT history to accomplish that feat after Toms River East's Sherry Mesplay in a 10-8 quarterfinal-round loss to Brick Memorial in 1983.

By finishing 22-4, North had its best season in the sport since 1983 when Debbie DeBenedetto, Katie Birmingham, June Moran and Co. also won 22 games. That North team, too, won the OCT and SCT titles on back-to-back days.

Though Central ended the season 22-3, all it got from that season was the Shore Conference Class B South championship. It made Central hungry for the 1994 season, which resulted in a 27-2 record and an SCT title in Selby's final game as head coach.

Meanwhile, North, even with its strong junior class, never could duplicate that ending to the '93 season in 1994. With Shapiro not returning for her senior year, North just seemed like an incomplete team that year. The Mariners did well in winning the Class A South title that season, something they didn't do in the '93 season. But they lost to Central in its SCT rematch in the quarterfinal round and fell in the bottom of the seventh inning to East in the OCT semifinals.

That Tuesday night in 1993 will always stand out, though. North was deserving of winning that OCT game that night and going on to win the OCT the next week. The way the Mariners gutted out that game against Central matched the personalities of the Mariners that year. Most any other Mariner team, in my opinion, would have lost to Central Regional in extra innings.

That '93 North team was special.

It took a special game like that 13-inning, three-hour tug of war to define that team.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The afternoon sportsmanship got tossed aside

In recent years, I had covered events down in the deepest bowels of South Jersey.

When Lakewood High School won its NJSIAA South Jersey Group III championship, it was in Bridgeton against Bridgeton High School. I had been to Sicklerville in 1987 when Toms River Little League's Junior League All-Star team won its South Jersey championship, but the fans there really weren't playing a part of the game. And on a February night in 1990, I drove to Vineland High School for an NJSIAA swim meet between Toms River East and Vineland. But it wasn't really much of a dual meet as Vineland had no troubles in beating the Raiders. It was a mostly quiet, uneventful night.

I never suspected being surrounded by a group of fans who spewed hatred and ridicule. I had heard about some schools that had this issue down in the deep southern part of the state, but so far, I had never come across a school treating any of our Ocean County area schools like crap.

But that all changed on Tuesday afternoon, May 22, 1990. That afternoon, I was scheduled to make a very, very long-distance trip from Toms River to the town of Seabrook to cover the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV softball semifinal matchup between East's Raiders and the Cumberland Regional Colts.

I had never been to Cumberland before. So I had to look the town up on a map and it seemed fairly reasonable that I could get there without much trouble. The plan was pretty basic: I'd take Route 571 to I-195 and then get off at the exit for the New Jersey Turnpike. From there, it was a trek down to Exit 2. A couple of turns and I would be in Seabrook in no more than let's say a half hour.

The trick, though, was making sure I hit every direction perfectly. I was told by the cops down in Cumberland County that the school was located right on the main highway. So getting off at what was the Swedesboro Road (Route 322) Exit on the Turnpike, I would follow Route 322 until it got to a fork in which it would go toward Route 45 one way, stay on 322 another way and head south on Route 77 another. It was Route 77 I needed. I took that road for almost a half hour going through lots and lots of open farm space until getting to Seabrook and sure as anything, the school was in the distance to the right of me. Made a right turn onto what was called Love Lane and headed toward the parking lot.

The softball field was not that far from there.

On this day, the Raiders came into the game with a 16-6 record and had won a share of the Shore Conference Class A South championship with rival Toms River North. But late the previous week, it was East beating North to get to this game on what was a bit of a cloudy day until later when the clouds disappeared and it was nothing but blue skies.

East's team was pretty much a mix of veterans and younger players getting a chance to make a name for themselves after the seven seniors on the 26-2 team graduated the year before. The mainstays of the Raiders were Christine Grice, who had moved from second base to shortstop, center fielder Jeannine Zarrillo and the leader of the bunch, all-state standout Michelle Carlson, who was now mostly a pitcher than she was a third baseman. But that was by necessity. Lisa MacBean, who had taken on the role as East's other pitcher, was not ready to be an everyday pitcher the way Kim Tompkins was the year before when she pitched every single inning of every single game in the 26-2 season.

And so for this game, coach Debbie Schwartz, already the winner of 56 games in three seasons, sent Carlson to the mound to keep Cumberland's lineup in check. In her sophomore year when she was at Central Regional High, Carlson won eight games as the team's No. 2 pitcher as the Golden Eagles went 27-3 and won the Ocean County Tournament and NJSIAA South Jersey Group III championship. But unlike that 1988 Central team Carlson pitched for once in a while, the Raider lineup was not quite as good behind her as those Golden Eagles were. These Raiders were good, but had a difficult transition year after the 26-2 season. Things were not going to be as easy as they were the year before and one of the team's biggest problems was fielding. They simply were not good defensively.

But if having that obstacle was enough, Carlson and her team was about to face the 19-1 Colts who were the top seed in South Jersey Group IV. They had a good team, but the highlight was a pitcher named Meg Knudsen, a junior who wasn't afraid to throw that speedball by you ... make you look like a fools, boy, as Springsteen would sing.

Here was a case of a young lady who was dominant on the mound and taking her opponents to task without much trouble.

Still, I had seen this before. In 1988 when Carlson was at Central, the Golden Eagles faced big, bad, hard-throwing Shannon Devlin and Mainland Regional in the SJ III title game and when Sue Bitten hit a groundball to Mainland's shortstop, who was actually the team's weak link, and she threw the ball away for an error to allow two runners to come home, that was all Central needed as regular pitcher Angel Slack and a flawless defense defeated Mainland's Mustangs, 2-0, for the championship.

Oh, yeah, the good ol' days. Now I was asking for Toms River East, which couldn't field its way out of a paper bag a good amount of that season, to replicate what I saw on Hammonton High School's field just two years ago. Oh, and the Raiders were supposed to make contact with the hard-throwing Knudsen.

I watched East take its warmup and maybe it was me, but I never felt like during the early 1990s that East's defense ever felt comfortable after taking warmups. On this day, I felt as if they weren't ready for this game. And whether it was nerves, I'm not sure.

One thing was about to be sure – Knudsen was about to get into the Raiders' players heads. She was popping catcher Deanne Barber's glove. And East players weren't making much contact.

Then came the bottom of the first inning. Leadoff hitter Karrie Loatman hit a groundball that third baseman Teresa Madden, the heir apparent to Carlson at the position, let swallow her up for an error. That's not a good sight when the first play against the team you're covering is an error. Carlson then uncorked a wild pitch to put Loatman on second. Kim Connors walked and Sharon D'Agostino put down a sacrifice bunt to get the runners into scoring position.

This brought up cleanup hitter Paulette Thomas, the big bopper in the Cumberland lineup. She hit a groundball right at Grice at shortstop, who was willing to concede the run from third base. However, she could not gobble up the groundball, allowing Loatman to score on the second East error. But to Grice's credit, she got the ball in a hurry and fired to catcher Kelly Arnold at the plate. Arnold got Connors in a rundown and Madden made the tag. But Thomas moved to second on the play.

That brought up Knudsen. If you think the Raiders were going to pay for the two errors they made, you'd be right. Knudsen lifted a floater out to right-center field that landed just feet in between Zarrillo and right fielder MacBean to score Thomas, making it 2-0.

Turns out that would be enough for Knudsen, who was owning the Raiders' lineup by now. Left fielder Jenn Wrightson singled in the second inning, but that would be it for a while. East could not get a rally going in this one.

Meanwhile, the Colts added to their lead in the second when Barber sent a Carlson pitch flying to the gap for a triple and scored on a safety squeeze bunt by Tara Marino. In the third, D'Agostino scored on a Knudsen groundout and Thomas scored on the front end of a double steal attempt.

By the fourth, Schwartz had made the move by taking out Carlson, putting her at third, moving Madden to right field and bringing in MacBean to pitch. And though she had control issues in this one (four walks), MacBean threw a great three innings, allowing no runs on no hits with two strikeouts. After the game was over, Schwartz told me, "We had an inkling to start Lisa, but you can't second-guess yourself. We stuck with Michelle because of the experience. But after Lisa came in, I think we played them fairly even."

Truth was, they did! Cumberland had zero runs from the fourth inning on.

So did East. Knudsen was just pounding the strike zone and East hitters – even the experienced ones like Carlson and Zarrillo – were just having a tough time with her.

Still down 5-0 in the sixth, the Raiders finally had a rally. Lee Ann Guido was sent in to pinch-hit for Madden and she singled. There was this look of shock on the other side of the field from where I was standing. And Arnold singled to put runners on first and second. And this also meant the middle of East's lineup was set to try and make something happen.

But Carlson flied out. Zarrillo did the same thing. That left it up to Wrightson. She hit the ball toward shortstop Erica Byrd. And wouldn't you know it – just as Byrd was fielding the ball, she got hit coming in for the grounder by Guido going to third.

You know how that one was going to end up ... yup, an automatic out for interference.

Whatever rallying cry was left for the Raiders was all but gone.

But while all this was taking place in the later innings, I started noticing something happening over by the third base side of the field. The third base dugout is where Cumberland resided for the game. And I can pear out directly at Carlson, who had made the move to third base to start the fourth inning. She wasn't feeling all that comfortable out there. This is a young lady who played the position and the sport better than anyone I've ever covered in 30 years. Yet, something was up and I noticed it immediately.

By the fifth inning, I had figured out what was going on.

The Cumberland fans and some of the players were starting to get inside Carlson's head, agitating her. And they weren't saying things on a competitively friendly scale. No, they were saying nasty things and they were calling her words that I can't even repeat here.

The sportsmanship of this game had taken an ugly 180-degree turn by now. And when the fans start acting like lowlifes who think they can say or blurt out whatever the hell they want to say about a high school kid – yes, a high school kid! – society is in huge trouble. Amazingly, they only did it when Carlson, one of the state's best players, was out in the field. When Schwartz was over at the third base coaching box, those parents and kids shut their yaps in a hurry.

For the last couple of innings of this game, I just couldn't understand why such vitriol and hatred was spewed out an 18-year-old's way. East had a bit of a swagger to it, but they sure didn't bring it onto this Cumberland field that day. By the end of the afternoon, Knudsen had set the Raiders down like toy soldiers, accumulating 13 strikeouts and allowing the three hits, while walking three.

Cumberland moved on to the SJ IV final with the 5-0 win. Fortunately for East, it still had the OCT final that Friday night at Lakewood against Toms River South and the Shore Conference Tournament was still ahead .

Still, there was supposed to be one more bit of business. That was the shaking of the other team's players' and coaches' hands. It's a simple gesture done after a so-called "good" game.

But one look at Carlson's near teary-eyed face pretty much stated the case for Schwartz and first-year assistant coach Dawn Dziedzic and what they were going to do after the game.

They delivered the ultimate "F*ck you" to Cumberland and didn't bother to shake their hands. None of them ... no players, no coaches, nobody. They simply told the coaches they weren't doing it. They had had enough with the players' name-calling of Carlson and they were sick and tired of the parents who acted like they were spoiled high school kids who could do whatever they wanted to do.

Oh, the storm that was brewing just from that decision. The hatred and name-calling got louder from the Cumberland fans. East still wasn't acquiescing to this group of losers. And somewhere in the middle of all this, something was said by one of the parents of the Cumberland players.

That set Kelly Arnold off. One thing I learned about the future all-state first-team catcher was you don't say something you are going to regret. Arnold was over from the first-base dugout toward the fence that separated her from the Cumberland fans. She was about to fight each and every one of them and quietly, I was hoping she was going to climb over that fence to get to them.

It took Schwartz and a couple of players to finally calm her down because on a heat scale from 1 to 10, Arnold was at 37. That's how upset and pissed off she was.

As for the decision Schwartz made, she said, "I've never seen a more unsportsmanlike team in my life."

She then got worried that she was going to have to explain everything that took place on that field to East athletic director Bruce Mulford, who had just taken on the job that school year after being at South for years. I told Debbie that if she needs any help in backing her story, I would gladly be there for her.

Was Debbie Schwartz justified to not shake any hands of Cumberland players or coaches afterward? Some people would say no and to be bigger than the situation.

I will say they are wrong. You had to be there to see the ugliness of that afternoon. The fans were unruly and inhumane. And the players barking things out from the dugout? Yeah, I heard them, too! It is up to the coaches to keep their players and their fans in line. Remember, they are all supposed to be aligned and one with each other. The coaches did not do that. They did a poor job of managing the situation. So yes, Debbie Schwartz was right to not shake hands after the game.

And I will admit that if not for that fence, I was about to write my first homicide story in my young career because at that particular moment, I was pretty convinced that Kelly Arnold was going to kill someone on that side of the field.

There have been only two times in my career where I felt a situation ready to get badly out of control. I covered a Palatka-Interlachen High boys basketball game in January 2007 when things got out of control after the game and players and fans were involved in numerous scuffles that thankfully, the cops who were there broke up in mere moments.

And then there was this softball game. There were no cops at this one. They had left, oblivious to what happened in those final few innings. Two words I've used over the years about the people that day at Cumberland Regional ... backwards and idiots.

Less than six months later, I was back at Cumberland, but this time for a field hockey matchup in the SJ III semifinals between Central and the Colts. And once again, I could hear some of the stupid, idiotic and threatening comments from Cumberland fans. This time, though, Central Regional won the game, shook hands with the Cumberland players and coaches and got on the bus quickly back to Bayville.

And in 1996, I was back at Cumberland for the SJ III softball semifinal between Central Regional and the Colts. The memories of the bad blood from 1990 were all but gone. And so was the Colts' intimidation from that afternoon six years earlier. Central beat Cumberland on its field en route to winning the SJ III title and ultimately, Ocean County's first-ever state championship softball crown.

Still, it's been 24 years and I can remember the hate being spewed at an all-state player that afternoon. I can still remember the near riot that took place afterward when the East catcher tried to take on every single Cumberland fan and had to be held back. I can still hear the outrage from Michelle Carlson's mom as tried to make sense of why so many people had something against her daughter.

A lot of questions that will remain unanswered until the day I die. Sadly, it ruined everything I knew about sportsmanship.

Tuesday, May 22, 1990 was the day I saw the bad side of high school athletics. Other than that one incident that was quelled in a matter of moments at Interlachen High in 2007, I have never witnessed or heard anything like that again.

I hope no one ever experiences it in their lives either.




Friday, May 16, 2014

Stopping the unbeaten season, Southern style

The 1989 Ocean County softball team was being told on two levels.

There was the level that involved a lot of good teams like Toms River South, Southern Regional, Lacey, Toms River North and Central Regional.

And then there was the level that involved one team and one team only that spring – Toms River East.

Yes, the Raiders were having that kind of a spring. I knew the Raiders were going to be improved over a 14-win season in coach Debbie Dietrich's debut the year before. And she had most of her top players who had been with the program for a year or two on varsity back, led by the senior battery of catcher Kathy Hawtin and Kim Tompkins and a great group of senior role players such as first baseman Jen Brown, shortstop Cristy Iorio, left fielder Sally Ballantyne, right fielder Kathy Higley and designated hitter Cheryl Stump.

They were a dynamite bunch of softball players who were lacking that one thing that would take them over the top – a winner. East, up to this point, had never won a game in the state tournament and only got as far as the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals. And as for the Ocean County Tournament, the Raiders had just one final in their history, a 7-5 loss in 1987 to surprising Lacey when the seniors were sophomores.

And so everything was set with the exception of that "winner."

Enter junior All-County third baseman-pitcher Michelle Carlson. She was going to continue the Central Regional dynasty that saw the Golden Eagles go 27-3 and win the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III championship, get to the SCT semifinal round and win the OCT title for the fourth time in the decade in dramatic fashion over Monsignor Donovan in 1988. She was more than likely going to become the Golden Eagles' number one pitcher with the graduation of Angel Slack.

But everything changed on an October day in 1988 when Carlson's family moved out of Bayville and moved to Toms River ... to the East side of town, no less. Trust me, back in 1988-89, you couldn't have smelled a "conspiracy" of the most talented player in the county leaving a program and going to another one that certainly had more promise than Central's did at that point.

For months, I'm sure Michelle Carlson herself heard the whispers. For years, I know Michelle Carlson Neveling had to explain the move. But in 1988-89, no one involved with Central was all that happy. All coach Norm Selby would do was "wish her well" on the move, though on the inside, I'm sure he felt hurt.

But I believed her when she said it was a move not for advantage. And what was Central's loss soon became East's gain.

And moving Carlson into third base was a pretty big move. That meant junior Christine Grice, who was to take over that spot, could be moved to second base. And with Tompkins about to pitch every single inning of every single game, win or lose, Carlson could concentrate on playing third base.

It was no surprise that to start the 1989 season, East was blazing. The Raiders were off to an 18-0 mark and was one more win from winning the Shore Conference Class A South championship for the first time outright since 1985.

The clinching win was to take place on Thursday, May 18, 1989 down in Manahawkin against Southern Regional. The Rams were no slouch that season, either, and had just pulled off a stunning upset victory in the OCT quarterfinal round against Central Regional at Lakewood's Wilbur Thompson Park. They came onto their field with a 10-7 mark and 6-5 record in A South, not overwhelming records.

Still, coach Dick Manzo's Rams had talent. They, too, had a dynamite senior battery of catcher Dana Veesart and pitcher Greta Jannsch. Shortstop Berri Tuttle and second baseman Kris Susco were capable players up the middle and center fielder Lora Davis, another senior, was an outfielder leader. The Rams had a good team, but they did not possess East's overall talent.

To me, this was going to be nothing more than a division-winning formality. East would win the game thoroughly, get back on the bus and head back up the Garden State Parkway without much fanfare. After all, they had a state tournament game to host the next day against South and had an OCT semifinal at Lakewood against Lacey the day after that.

Only one team had ever started an Ocean County softball season unbeaten after 20 games. That was the 1976 South team of coach Nancy Warren that went 20-0 before losing in the NJSIAA Group IV semifinals to Middletown (now North) High School. East, it was thought, would be soon joining that South team on the list.

I had my position for the game like I normally had: Behind home plate on the open field to the right of the backstop not too far from Southern's on-deck circle and near their dugout. These days, Southern plays its games in the back of the school, but in the 1980s and '90s, their field was in the front of the building where you can see traffic go up and down Route 9.

East's top of the lineup  – Carlson, Grice and Iorio – got the first crack at Jannsch, a tall, lanky right-hander with an even-keeled temperament who had put her time in (three seasons) as Southern's pitcher. Little, if ever, did you see Jannsch ever show emotion, the same thing for her counterpart Tompkins, waiting for her turn to pitch to Southern's lineup.

As for Jannsch, she got a flyout from Carlson, a popout from Grice and a comebcker from Iorio. That half-inning alone set the tone for what I was about to see that slightly overcast afternoon.

With one out in the bottom of the first, right fielder Dana Loughran, a sophomore, walked. Veesart flied out to Ballantyne, setting up cleanup hitter Jannsch. The Southern pitcher got the count to 2-2 against Tompkins. Then Tompkins grooved one that found a lot of plate.

East center fielder and talented junior Jeannine Zarrillo never, ever, ever, ever had a chance. The ball flew over her head, an emphatic shot off of Jannsch's bat. I saw a lot of Zarrillo's back on that play as Loughran came home and Manzo didn't hesitate sending Jannsch home to finish out the inside-the-park home run to give Southern a 2-0 lead.

On a field with a fence, that ball would've cleared it by a good 20 to 30 feet. It was crushed. The shot woke up the mundane feel of this game early on.

And for one of the few times this 1989 season, the Toms River East Raiders were trailing.

I figured East's answer would come quickly. And I was right. Hawtin walked to lead off. Jannsch, though, settled down to strike out Brown and Higley. But the left-handed hitting Stump singled Hawtin to second. And Ballantyne delivered a double down the right-fieled line to score Hawtin and send Stump to third, cutting the lead to 2-1.

Yeah. Here came East. Just as I thought. I was in fear for what the joy of Jannsch's home run might do to Southern's softball team as well as Jannsch herself. This East team was one of the very few softball teams I ever covered that not only believed in jumping on you, but putting the dagger in your heart as quickly.

And now Zarrillo was coming up. She was not your ordinary No. 9 hitter. She had power ... but on a team that possessed great hitting up and down the lineup, it was Zarrillo who was put in the No. 9 slot to be the chain link to Carlson and the top of the lineup.

Southern did not look at Zarrillo as anything special, though. They set up in the normal depth that a No. 9 hitter is treated. But, oh, were the Rams about to be stunned.

On a 3-2 pitch that featured a couple of two-strike foul balls, Zarrillo got a hold of what was Jannsch's 47th pitch of the game already. She drilled it.

The ball seemed to go as far as the one that went over Zarrillo's head that Jannsch hit. Now it was Davis having to be the chaser. Davis took a good angle to the ball. Somehow, her timing was right on when the ball was to land – she put her glove up and made the incredible over-the-shoulder catch to end the inning.

East's side had stunned looks on its face. Southern's side yelled in excitement over the amazing catch Davis just made. Southern still led after the inning, 2-1.

That seemed to fuel the Rams. First baseman Jodi Grant drew a walk from Tompkins. Tuttle struck out, but Melanie Berry, the Rams' left fielder, drew a walk. Susco struck out for the second out, but at the top of the order, Davis singled to load the bases for Loughran. Somehow, Hawtin figured Davis was far too off the base and as a senior, she had the green light to go after a baserunner if she felt she ventured too far away from a base.

This was the case with Davis, who after a pitch, found herself scurrying back to first as Hawtin threw a rocket to Brown in the hopes of picking her off.

And she did, all right ... just not the way you want to pick someone off. She put a perfect strike off Davis' helmet. The ricochet from the throw bounced back toward the pitcher's mound, but before Tompkins could retrieve the ball, Grant had scampered home on the errant throw to make it 3-1.

The Raiders would wriggle out of more trouble, but it was apparent Southern Regional had meant business. And maybe East was playing a flat note on this afternoon.

Manzo, though, was being cautious. He put his full trust in both Jannsch and Veesart to call a very good game. In the third inning, Iorio reached second on a forceout and an error by Tuttle, but Jannsch struck out the dangerous Hawtin to end the threat. In the fourth, Brown singled and pinch-runner Teresa Madden moved to third on back-to-back groundouts to second baseman Susco by Higley and Stump. But Jannsch got Ballantyne to groundout to Grant to end that threat.

Meanwhile, the Rams and Manzo were getting frustrated in the middle innings. Jannsch walked and third baseman Sharon Olkowski and Grant singled to load the bases with no outs in the third. But Tompkins, never known as an overwhelming strikeout pitcher, dug deep to strike out Tuttle again and Barry, then got Susco to groundout to Grice. In the fourth, Loughran singled with one out and one out later, Jannsch walked and Olkowski recahed on an error by the dependable Carlson to load the bases again. But Grant hit a flyout to Zarrillo and that threat went by the board.

The game was becoming one of missed opportunities. In the top of the fifth, East launched another rally. Carlson singled with one out and moved to second on a fielder's choice grounder by Grice that she beat the play at second. A wild pitch, one of the few mistakes Jannsch made on this day, moved the runners up to second and third. But Iorio hit a comebacker to Jannsch, who checked Carlson back to third then threw Iorio out for the second out, and Hawtin fanned again to end the inning.

Jannsch again came up as tall as her 5-foot-8 frame.

In the bottom of the fifth, Southern threatened again. Barry walked with one out and Susco followed with a bases on balls. It was Tompkins' eighth bases on balls in the game. Though that was a big-time problem for Tompkins when she was younger, she had figured out the strike zone by the time she was a senior. Just not on this day, though.

A forceout of Susco at second base put runners on first and third with two outs, setting up yet another bizarre moment of the game. Loughran lined a shot to right field for what should have been a single to make it 4-1. Enter Ballantyne, who picked the ball up on a couple of hops and fired the ball to Brown at first.

If you were scoring at home, the out went 9-to-3. Manzo had no speed demons at all on on his roster and Loughran being thrown out at first from right field by nearly two steps was clear evidence. The wind seemed to suck the air out of Southern's sails again.

And once again, East threatened to take command of the game in the top of the sixth. Jannsch got two groundouts to start the inning, but Stump singled and Ballantyne and Zarrillo walked to load the bases. The tying run was on second,  the go-ahead run on first and it was getting later in the game.

Oh, and Carlson was coming to the plate. It was a tense time to say the least. I mean, any moment now, the Raiders are going to take command of this game ... right?

But on a 2-1 pitch, Carlson hit a grounder at Tuttle, who swallowed the grounder up and threw to Susco at second for the force to end the inning.

Another dodged bullet.

Maybe, by this point, East was getting tired of all the blown opportunities. The Raiders had left nine runners on base through six innings. The Rams had left 11 through five. The difference, though, was a simple two-run single or costly two-run error. It would take a break for East to get back into it.

In the sixth, though, the Rams made sure the Raiders weren't going to have that break anymore.

Veesart singled. Jannsch, who finished on the mound with three walks and four strikeouts, would get her second hit of the game, a single, and that got followed up by a single from Olkowski to load the bases with no outs. Once again, Tompkins was in trouble, but she struck out Grant and Tuttle, the latter hitter for the fourth straight time (Tompkins finished with seven strikeouts total), leaving it up to Barry.

After not putting a bat on the ball all afternoon long with two walks and a strikeout, Barry made contact. It was at Grice, who flubbed the grounder and as the ball went into no-man's land, Veesart and Jannsch scored to make it 5-1. Susco followed that up with a groundball that hancuffed Iorio at shortstop for another error that brought in Olkowski to make it 6-1.

The damage was done. By this point, I knew the zero in the loss column for East was all but gone.

But East being East that year, the Raiders weren't going to make it easy. Grice beat out an infield single. One out later, Hawtin put down a sacrifice bunt that Jannsch could not properly handle and threw away for an error to allow runners on second and third. Brown hit a foul ball that Grant kept venturing into foul territory. She made the catch, but because she stepped into dead-ball territory on the wide-open Southern field, the out was allowed, but Grice was told to trot home and Hawtin advanced to third.

That foulout, though, was nothing more than a footnote on this incredible afternoon. Higley hit a routine flyball to center that Davis tracked down and caught for the final out, sending Southern players into a frenzy afterward.

Southern had the 6-2 win in a game that saw East strand 10 runners and Southern 12. Southern's season would not be comparable to what East's Raiders would do the rest of the way, but for one afternoon in East's best season ever to that point, the Rams players, especially Jannsch and Veesart, had something to celebrate.

"They have (the A South) title pretty much wrapped up," Manzo said afterward.

"Yeah, but it takes that word unbeaten off of them," Veesart answered.

That it did. Southern had done what 18 other opponents could not do on this day. East's players, Dietrich (now Debbie Schwartz) and assistant coach Diane Morrissey quietly packed up their equipment and headed back to the bus to go back. I hung out with the happy Southern team and interviewed Jannsch, Veesart, Davis and Manzo, who had now claimed two huge victories in the last six days ... and this, I find out, came after he shaved off his mustache he had worn over his lip a long, long time.

He was dunked with water by Veesart, then gave his catcher a hug soon after. He pointed to a loss just 24 hours earlier to Jackson Memorial, 11-10, that may have straightened things out for this day.

Long after East had packed up and left, Southern athletic director Kim DeGraw-Cole came by to offer her congratulations to Manzo, and put a big hug on her coach as if he had just won a major tournament title. She knew what a win against a great East team meant.

Turns out this would be the biggest highlight win of the '89 season for the Rams. They lost to South in the OCT semifinals and did not go far in the other two postseason tournaments, though Jannsch and Veesart would be honored by the Observer as All-County players.

As for the East team, turns out 20 years after that loss that I found out what happened once the players entered the bus. According to Iorio, now Cristy Cenci, Dietrich was about to roast her players for all the runners that were left on base in that game only for Iorio to stop her and remind her that the team did get out to an 18-0 season. Iorio, in some ways, may have saved the rest of the season from having a cloud fixated over the team's head from that loss.

East would beat South in dramatic fashion for its first-ever state tournament win the next day and the day after that, beat Lacey, 8-3, to advance to the OCT title game for the second time in three years. East, as a matter of fact, would go 8-1 the rest of the year after that loss to Southern, falling 2-0 to Washington Township in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV semifinals. East would beat South, 9-8, with a run in the bottom of the seventh in Lakewood for the OCT title and its first-ever championship of any kind. And six days after that win, East won the Shore Conference Tournament title for the first time in emphatic fashion, 10-0, over Red Bank Catholic.

That win over RBC, coincidentally, was on the same Southern Regional field that it had lost to Southern on just 20 days earlier. East finished the year out 26-2 and with one of the greatest seasons in Ocean County softball season as Hawtin and Carlson would both earn All-State first-team honors at catcher and third base, respectively.

The 1989 Raiders seemed like they couldn't do any wrong that year.

But they weren't perfect.

The afternoon when Greta Jannsch threw well enough to win and hit a home run in the process was proof enough.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The very good ADs I've worked with

I have always said that the most frustrating job that I've come across in my 30 years in this business is dealing with high school athletic directors.

To me or any of my sportswriting brethren, their job is to make sure they get schedules to us and if there are any questions about rescheduled events due to rainouts or other weather-related issues, they have the answers in front of them. And if there was a firing or a new hiring, he or she needs to give the details as to what happened and be ready with a comment or three or four.

That's pretty much it. Other`than that, it's business as usual. They tend to what they have to do and I get on with what I need to do. But over these last 30 years, I've dealt with some real winners as ADs, the ADs who feel like they need their egos stroked to make themselves feel better or those ADs who were so nasty that you felt scorned for calling them.

I've had my share of such athletic directors, it'd make your head spin:

n One AD once told me when I called him late at night over a controversy at the end of a Shore Conference Tournament girls soccer match that involved his school in the tournament he was in charge of that he "was asleep and wasn't going to answer any questions." (1990)

n Another AD who you could never get over the phone after his day at work ... and it was questionable if you ever got him at work, but when it came to a baseball game he lost as head coach and he didn't like your story you did on the game ... preferably the lead ... he was so upset, he ripped you apart in a letter to the editor on the editorial page a few weeks later. (2007)

n An athletic director who I literally asked a question to at a sporting event and he literally walked away (1986).

n An AD who I called up early in my career about a scheduling conflict, then started drilling me as to why I was asking him these questions, then berating me. He passed away less than a year later in 1985.

n Oh, and the creme de la creme of ADs. He's Tom Procopio of Pinelands Regional, who in the early years of his tenure as the school's AD could not have been a nicer human being about anything involving the athletics department and Pinelands. That was until that day in February 1993 when our wrestling writer, John Earle Livingston, asked Pinelands' then-wrestling coach, Bill Savage, about his kids wrestling in an upcoming postseason tournament and the coach mentioned that a couple of kids would not be involved and when pressed by Earle, Savage answered that they were suspended by the school. Why? Because they admitted to egging the basketball coach's car.

Next thing you know, the story gets into the newspaper, Savage practically spends an entire day at the principal's office away from doing his job and the once-affable Procopio becomes a mean, horrible, unlikeable person who would not talk to anyone in our sports department ... yes, including me. He was the reason I personally hand-delivered envelopes with sheets in them pertaining to the rules of the annual Ocean County Softball Tournament for the last six years I helped run the event. I simply had no trust in sending the envelope to the man himself and if I sent the envelope to his coaches, I'm sure that my name would be sullied. And I'm pretty sure he asked other ADs why I was even involved in running the tournament.

I've always said that a good amount of the ADs I've ever dealt with in my 30-year career believe that God walks behind them. They've either been egotistical about their work or they come off like crotchety, old men.

Does the term, "shut up and do your job" mean anything? Yeah, a good amount of the ADs I ever dealt with were bad to terrible decisions to ever lead an athletic department. I am not afraid to say that ... it's why they've gotten a horrific rap from me over the years. And I don't want to hear about their day. As I said before, you got a job to do with me ... service me when I ask you to and service me with a goddamn smile. I don't give you grief ... you don't give me grief at all!

But I can't say that for every AD ... just a select and sadly memorable bunch. They won't make this list. That list is of the 10 best athletic directors I have ever dealt with in my career in my stays in Toms River, Key West and now Palatka. Because the really good ones need being reminded of why they were good at doing their jobs.

So here is that list:

10. Len Rivers (Lakewood): The longtime football coach at a number of outlets, including Lakewood High School in the late 1980s/early 1990s, took over as the school's athletic director. And if there was anything I needed from the man, he would easily get it for me. You see, Len Rivers was old school. He did the job in textbook manner -- in other words, he would answer your questions, he would try to do whatever he could to promote Lakewood High athletically and he was not afraid to engage in a conversation about any of the athletic programs, even if he wasn't well-schooled in them or if they weren't great. And at this particular time he was AD, most of the programs at the school weren't all that good. But he was very supportive of them all and remained positive in the face of possible negativity. He was a good man that I truly miss seeing.

9. Rich Russell (Coral Shores): The only athletic director from the Florida Keys to make this list, Russell was an assistant football coach and the head baseball coach when I was there between 1999-2002. And Russell had a reason to be pro-Coral Shores. First, he was a proud 1975 graduate of the school. Second, where we were located in Key West, it takes nearly 90 miles to get to his school. And trust me, it's a haul considering the speed limit there. But again, a positive man who always kept it real. Any question of the schedule, he had an answer. And he did it with a very monotone voice that I got used to. It was deep, but it was trustworthy. And even after I was gone from my time in Key West, I was still able to help him with getting a couple of his athletes on an all-state team. He knew I could help him and he knew the words I could say to persuade who needed to be persuaded. And he always was appreciative of the efforts I went to single out a kid for something positive over the time I was in Key West. Those are things you never will forget.

8. Bill Larkin (Point Pleasant Boro): Bill Larkin could be gruff at times. That I could understand. But considering the two previous athletic directors at the Boro weren't very good at "public relations" in their job, getting any information from Mr. Larkin was an absolute bonus. And the man was personable to have a conversation with. I definitely could not do that with the other two guys in that job previously. If I had a feature story I was doing on one of the athletes that I  needed to get a quote from Larkin, he'd give it to me without question. He knew his athletes there, from the scrubbiest of scrubs to the biggest of them all -- and that was Christie Pearce Rampone, the best female athlete Ocean County ever saw and I ever covered. And when myself and Boro softball coach Ric Malta were taking over the county softball tournament in 1992, Larkin allowed us the access to his field ... even if it was not always in the best of condition. And the sign of a good AD? He would usually have Ric's back when it came to some coach or AD complaining about the tournament. Just as long as you were honest back to him. Both he and longtime athletic trainer Tim Spenard would be in Tim's training cart taking in games, no matter what outdoor sport. It was a pleasure to work with him.

7. Bob Grace (Point Pleasant Beach): Situated across the canal is the smallest high school in Ocean County. And when he took over as Point Beach's athletic director in the early 1990s, Bob Grace had worked at huge schools. So he knew he needed to be prepared for life in a small town high school. And if something didn't read right about little Point Pleasant Beach High School, he'd be the first one defending it, though he would never call you to tell you about it. He had that kind of a memory to ask you or remind you of what was written. Rarely was there ever any harm being done to his school in print, but at least I knew he was passionate about his job, his school, the kids under his jurisdiction in athletics and the community. That aside, he is one of the friendliest athletic directors I've ever been involved around. And when I did a column celebrating my 10th year in the business in 1994, he wrote me a letter congratulating me -- and calling me "Mark Blementhal" as the byline appeared in my first-ever bylined story in 1984. I have to admit it added a special touch.

6. Bernie Reider (Jackson Memorial): He is a legendary wrestling coach from the 1970s at Jackson Memorial and he had to take over the role as the school's AD after the death of the man in charge in 1985. But unlike the other guy who previously held the post, Bernie Reider could not have been a better gentleman to take over the role. Anything I needed ... anything ... he got it for me. He had a whole bunch of sports going on and he had a lot of different types of characters coaching in those sports, but yet, Bernie Reider handled it with a gentle touch, never had a negative thing to say unless you said something that sounded negative and then he'd quietly explain the situation. I had that happen to me after a Jackson wrestling match in the Shore Conference Tournament in 1989 when a kid just inexplicably didn't show up to wrestle and one of his teammates was beyond mad at his teammate and I wrote about it. It wasn't coach Al Aires who called me ... it was Bernie Reider, telling me it was not such a positive thing to write and that I didn't know the whole situation. Well I told him I was doing my job and how important his absence was to his team's not winning and we had a good conversation from there. Bernie Reider was like the understanding uncle you could turn to when things got crazy in the world. Too bad there weren't as many Bernie Reiders out there that I could deal with in my time in this business.

5. Ralph Carretta (Jackson Memorial): When Bernie Reider stepped down as AD, it was going to take someone very, very special to fill the position. Enter Ralph Carretta. I knew nothing about the man when he came into the job in 1993. But to my surprise, he was well-versed with all the sports at JMHS. And when I needed something from him, this man who looked a lot like character actor Dan Hadaya was there to get the information. He is one of the easiest conversations I've ever had and at a time when most of the ADs were acting like, well, crotchety old men for no reason at all, here was Ralph Carretta able to schmooze and make sense of a lot of things. He took on a lot of the same character-type coaches that Reider dealt with and he did it just as well. Were there complaints about how things got handled by him from the other coaches privately to me? Sure. They liked Bernie a whole lot. Bernie Reider was going to be a tough act to follow. But all of them knew in the end, Carretta had their backs. And he had my back in one very memorable episode that I will never stop thanking him and another AD on this list for. That's later on.

4. Ron Whitehurst (Interlachen): Ron, like Rich Russell at Coral Shores, is a proud alum of the school he works for now, Interlachen High. And before he got into teaching and then coaching, he was a businessman. I think that certainly helped him become a little more acclimated into the job of athletic director when Doug Feltner stepped down in late 2009. He rarely complains about things involving his school. He's one of the most positive sports coaches you will ever come across, whether he was coaching volleyball, weightlifting, football and, still, softball. Whitehurst is a big ol' teddy bear type that can be brutally honest with you about subjects. That's just him. But I've never met as big a math and numbers geek like myself than him. And he knows his kids by uniform numbers better than anyone I've ever met. He can ramble off stats off the top of his head like no one I've ever known before or most likely after him. The man always seems to have an answer at the top of his head for anything I have. And oh, can the guy tell a story. Personable to say the least and he never holds a grudge. All those are the mark of a great AD -- even if he's a recent guy who took on the job and may not have had the training to be an AD before he got the job. He's just been a natural at it.

3. Terry Goodwin (Peniel Baptist): In looking at it, Terry Goodwin is the same guy as Ron Whitehurst, but has the advantage over him because he's simply done it five years longer. He played athletics at Palatka South and Palatka High and at nearby St. Johns River Community (State) College. He's also a youth pastor. Goodwin has a good understanding of how a small school like little Peniel works. He rarely has a bad thing to say unless it has to do with the status of a program, simply for numbers reasons. That's how small Peniel is. But you won't find a better role model at a small school better than Terry Goodwin. He always remains positive with the program even if it has gone through some dark times. He has always said that whatever bad takes place that things will get better. And in the 2013-14 school year, those positive thoughts were rewarded in a great way. The volleyball team he coached reached the state tournament for the first time in nine years and won a state tournament match against Tallahassee FAMU, the first state tournament win in any sport in Peniel's history. And in the spring, the softball team stunned state Top 10-ranked Lecanto Seven Rivers Christian for its first-ever district tournament championship. The man wears a lot of hats at the school, as an assistant in baseball and the head coach of the boys basketball and volleyball programs. But in spite of his being active, he never ceases to amaze in the job he does in juggling everything he does at Peniel. He's the real pillar of strength at that school.

2. Bill Lundy (Toms River East/Toms River North): Now trust me when I say this -- Bill Lundy is not the most affable person you will come across when it comes to his job. Over the years when he was the AD at two of the three Toms River schools, he and I would get into "discussions" over things that showed in the newspaper or the "attitudes" of his coaches. But when it came to explaining things that had to do with his job, no one in my career was better at it than he was. It was as if he was born to do this job. He knew the ins and outs of the AD job and that's why he was really, really good at it. He also knew how to smooth over rough edges with others within his job. I can remember the day after the controversy involving the girls soccer match I mentioned above. He helped to chair a committee on what to do with the situation and that  afternoon, he explained the whole process, from start to finish. That's how good he was at the job -- he could explain anything and do it in layman's terms. He was very good at rules interpretation. So I was never afraid to come to him to ask anything that came to any sport and how the Shore Conference handled matters. He was a terrific communicator and that was needed when I dealt with numerous ADs who simply weren't.

1. Kim DeGraw-Cole (Southern Regional): I will make this statement and I hope no athletic director takes it negatively -- I wish every AD was like Kim DeGraw-Cole. When I first met her in 1984, she was a co-athletic director with a guy named Ben DeFonzo, but pretty soon, the job became hers and though you might wonder why it was a co-AD situation in the first place, I soon found out she could handle the job on her own. She always remained positive and became the face of Southern athletics for over two decades, most of which happening while I was at the Observer. There was one moment where she said if I had reported on something (which turned out to be false in the end anyway) she would never talk to me again, but I told her I just don't do that without proof of something. We had a great reporter-AD relationship that lasted all 15 years I was at the paper. And if she wasn't around to have an answer to a scheduling issue, she always made sure April, her assistant, would have the answer. Always proper in handling things the same way Bill Lundy was. And she did it while wearing a number of hats. She was also the Shore Conference Tournament director for both field hockey and basketball. In 1995 while co-running the softball OCT with Toms River East coach Debbie Schwartz, we were still without the new lights on East's field. We had to break up the quarterfinal round of the tournament into two doubleheaders. The second of those was on a Tuesday. So to help with the situation, I called up both she and Jackson Memorial AD Ralph Carretta and asked both of the ADs if they can have their teams ready to start at 3 p.m. instead of the normal 3:30 p.m. and we'd start the second game (Central and Toms River East) at 5:30 so it would give us a fighting chance to get both games in before losing daylight. Again, DeGraw-Cole didn't bat an eye and neither did Carretta. And both games got in that day. To this day, that pair will never know how much it meant to me to get those games in under difficult circumstances.

But Kim DeGraw-Cole was also into inclusion as well -- if she knew you, chances are she wanted you to help her in something. That even included me ... she knew my prowess of doing the public address for the Ocean County Tournament, and so I got to do the PA for the SCT field hockey championship games between 1990-93 and the 1993 SCT softball final between Central Regional and Toms River North and again in 1994 when Allentown played Central  in Norm Selby's last game as Central coach, one his Golden Eagles won, 7-0. And no AD I've ever known was more behind her head coaches than Kim DeGraw-Cole was. Legendary and late girls basketball coach Kathy Snyder always spoke highly of her boss. Most every coach was proud to work for her.

I was most proud to work with her. She absolutely made my job easy and a joy. As I said, if every AD was like Kim DeGraw-Cole, this job would be easy every single day.