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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.

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