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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.

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