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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.

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