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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.

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