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Sunday, June 1, 2014

The headache that was Central-North in the '98 OCT

Let me kick off this blog by saying that for the most part, I'm a pretty media-friendly kinda guy. I believe in inclusion and others wanting their opportunity to peer in to something I'm at. There are not a lot of events that I can think of over the years in which the less media, the better.

However, there are some days in which less was best. And as a co-director of the Ocean County Softball Tournament from 1992-99, I was into making sure everything went as scheduled. I didn't believe in hitches considering it was yours truly who put together the tournament schedule year after year. The smoother the ride, the better the tournament was going to be.

And that brings us to the events of Saturday, May 30, 1998. It was the semifinal round of the tournamnent and thus far, the tournament had somewhat gone as scheduled. Top-seeded Toms River North had gotten there. So did No. 2 seed Jackson Memorial and No. 3 Point Pleasant Boro, which had disposed of No. 6 seed Toms River East on East's own field. The next time East would not make it to the semifinal round would be in 2014. And defending champion Central Regional had won as the visiting team over No. 4 seed Southern Regional in its quarterfinal matchup.

So we were left with seeds one, two, three and five going into this beautiful Saturday afternoon at Toms River High School East, the host site of the '98 tournament. And as always was my rule of scheduling the tournament each and every year, if you were the No. 1 seed, you got the prime-time, nighttime game on what we called Quarterfinal Saturday. So on the previous Saturday night, May 16, North closed the all-day affair with a 6-2 victory over No. 8 seed Pinelands Regional in a game that made history as hard-throwing right-hander Lauren Anderson struck out 19 Wildcats, a new OCT record. (This would be a record Anderson would hold for herself for 15 years until Toms River East's Jordan Weed did the unthinkable by striking out every single batter she faced in a seven-inning perfect game against Manchester.)

And Anderson, North's burly junior right-hander, was enjoying a season for the record books. By now, she had already obliterated the Ocean County strikeout mark of 265 set in 1996 by Southern Regional's Dana O'Hearn and was going after the state record. And she was doing it with, more impressively, with two pitches really -- a catch-me-if-you-can fastball that very few girls could touch and a riseball that had the velocity of the fastball, but just more frustrating.

North coach Becky Miller had a jewel on the mound. Regardless of how this season would turn out, Anderson was a first-team All-State pitcher. And her catcher was a rock behind the plate -- the steady, left-handed hitting Teresa Andreani. She, too, was in the middle of an All-State first-team season behind the dish, hitting well over .500. North also had some good role players as well, starting with junior center fielder Kristin Fazio and continuing with a bunch of seniors -- third baseman Lisa Miller, first baseman Adrienne Russell, right fielder Barb Ihrig, shortstop Diana Cordero, designated hitter Megan Clarey and left fielder Robyn Rusin.

On this afternoon, North was to start first in its quest for a second straight OCT championship. And the team it would have to accomplish this against was the fifth-seeded Golden Eagles of Central Regional, the defending champion and the team that ruined everything the year before for Anderson and the Mariners in the championship, the greatest OCT final ever. It was in that 1997 final on the same East field that Central led 1-0 going to the top of the seventh, only to have Andreani stroke a triple and come home two outs later on a two-strike pitch to pinch-hitter Kim McTamney to tie it, then have a chance to win it with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the seventh only to have Andreani turn in a freaky but memorable double play to send it to extra innings. The game was decided in the bottom of the ninth inning when Central's first-team All-State star center fielder, Cheryl Zellman, hit what is still to this day called "the shot heard 'round Ocean County," her memorable inside-the-park home run over center fielder Toni Lynn Trombino's head off Anderson to win it, 2-1.

And going into this game, you didn't have to ask Anderson, Andreani or anyone who was on that East field the year before how much motivation they had. They had business to attend to.

Central, meanwhile, was revamped. Of the four returnees on that team, only senior shortstop Toni Penniman had any pop in her bat. Other than Penniman, everyone up the middle was new -- catcher Meredith Parliman, center fielder Becky Barrett, who was the starting left fielder the year before, second baseman Amanda Smith and pitcher Laura Mikulicka, a freshman thrown into the fire by fourth-year coach Joe Winkelried, who by now had seen his Central teams win two OCT championships and a memorable NJSIAA Group III title, the first state title in county softball history, in 1996.

Central had what North wanted -- a title. North may have had that title in the OCT final the year before had the Mariners not picked a terrible time to stop hitting. Anderson threw a no-hitter against Shawnee in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV final that year ... and lost! Then a depleted North (because of a senior prom that happened to fall on that particular Friday the team played) fell to Allentown, 1-0, in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals.

On top of all that, Toms River East won the Class A South title in 1997.

North had come away with zippety-do-dah in '97. So 1998 was practically the year of retribution. North had already come away with the Class A South title handily, losing just once to Jackson Memorial that season. And once again, North picked an inopportune time not to hit and lost to in the SJ IV tournament.

But the Mariners had found their way to the SCT title game by this point and had a rematch with Middletown South at Wall High School three days away. It was a chance for North to avenge the only other loss it suffered that season, a 2-0 setback to South's Eagles on the opening day of the season at South.

First, though, was Central. It didn't matter that the names on the Golden Eagle lineup were in many ways different than the ones that beat the Mariners the year before, North wanted its extra pounds of flesh from the OCT title game loss the year before.

And so I checked in with my co-director of the tournament, East coach Debbie Schwartz, the day before the game. She tells me all is ready to go.

Then she throws this curveball at me.

"NBC in New York is coming down to film the game."

Ohhhhhh?! Really? This was the first I'm hearing about this. I guess somehow, somewhere, news trickled up to New York City to WNBC that not only was North really good, but so was the pitcher.

"Oh, OK," I answered Debbie back.

So I had to do some inventory on this in my brain -- I had not only WNBC coming in to track North/Anderson on this day, but I also had to deal with my friends at Adelphia Clear Cable and work with two camera people there as well as the talents who would call the game, Tripp Rogers, George Jeck and Ed Sarluca. For one moment, there was a happiness that we had this kind of coverage for an OCT title-game rematch between North and Central.

But that lasted only a moment. Fear started creeping into my mind. East's field is a very different field from most fields you will ever come across. It's a ravine where you can look down from the parking lot and school at the field below. There are bleachers far away from the plate and there's a fence to separate the dugouts from behind the backstop. But go further down the field and while the right field side is protected, left field is not. Anyone can accidentally walk onto the field, though, I had no fear that would happen at anytime during the tournament.

The two Adelphia cable camera people were situated on each dugout during the games. They were only going to be here for this one game since Jackson Memorial and Point Boro were not in the cable viewing area. And I had dealt with Tripp for two years with this tournament. So I knew to deal with he and anyone else from our area's cable company.

But WNBC was another matter. Word had spread that the network cameras were going to be there to get film of the game, interview Anderson and get out of there afterward. They, obviously, were staying for the whole game and I had no clue as to where they were going to set up their cameras. I'm worried about them blocking the view of anyone who wanted to see the game.

I started thinking this was all a set-up and that Central had no chance to win this game today. If the Golden Eagles pulled off the upset of Anderson and the 21-3 Mariners, I sensed the day was going to be an absolute waste of time for the New Yorkers because they weren't there to talk to Winkelried and Central Regional afterward.

Nope. This day was all about North and Anderson and WNBC and the headache I was about to attain from this cluster.

I arrived at East's field at about 3:45 p.m. The first semifinal was at 5 p.m., the second one going off at 7:30. All was quiet. North had shown up and soon after, Central arrived. It was routine basic things to go through for me, the public address guy for the event as well. Been there, done that. I got a barometer of the day. The low-key Winkelried and assistant coach Lynn Fisher were going about their business on one end as I collected their starting lineup. Walked over to the other side of the field where longtime North coach Becky Miller and assistant Mary Ellen Tutzauer were and they had their lineup ready.

By 4:35 p.m., the crowd around the field had begun to swell. Big crowds were something I had dealt with before. That was no big deal. Tripp, George, Ed and the camera crew had arrived to set up at a table not more than 20 feet from where I was situated for the game. I always knew never to bother them since they seemed to have things under control. Then soon after all that, the WNBC people arrived. I remember them asking the dimensions of the field and I handed it off to Debbie since this was her field and she could give them better insight.

It was 4:45 p.m. and the two umpires for the game had arrived. Dick Beer, a veteran whose strike zone was notoriously wide and as big as some zip codes, was behind the plate, while Bob White, another veteran, was doing the bases.

Oh, was this going to work to Anderson's advantage! One year earlier in the OCT quarterfinal, she had Beer behind the plate against Manchester and more than took advantage of the wide strike zone in a 10-0, one-hit shutout in which she struck out 10 in five innings. And just four days earlier, Beer was behind the plate when Anderson set the county record for strikeouts in a game when she whiffed 30 Lacey Lions in a 1-0, 15-inning SCT quarterfinal-round game in which Lacey and pitcher Jen McGovern gave everything it had until it couldn't anymore.

To say Beer's strike zone was generous to Lauren Anderson was like having no cops on a 70-mph freeway -- she could get away with missing by more than a few inches on the corners and she'd more than likely get the call.

When I saw Dick Beer walking onto that East field, only one thought came to my mind -- this is going to be a nightmare for Central Regional and somewhere during this game, Winkelried is going to explode over a questionable call. But I think he knew what was going to happen and anything he would have argued would have been a moot point.

By 4:50, we were ready for the introductions and the playing of our national anthem. It was nearly 5 p.m. and I see North take the field. I put on North's song that they would come out to in the top of the first inning.

The next thing I know, I'm being approached by Debbie.

"We can't use the balls," she says.

"What?!" I answered vehemently.

Then Beer walks over.

"We can't use these balls," he said.

"Why?!" I questioned.

"They need to be the light green-yellow ones. These are no good," he said.

Basically, what Dick Beer did was enforce a rule that wasn't enforced yet and wasn't going to be enforced until 1999. As a co-director, I was given these balls by former tournament director and Lakewood High coach Dave McKelvey. Had been given the balls for years. They were the snow-white kind with the blue stitching. We played with them and no one -- I mean no one! -- ever complained about it, even as teams were switching over to those fluorescent, fancy new balls.

I mean, c'mon -- a white ball and a green-yellow, in my opinion, isn't going to make a difference no matter how hard it's thrown or comes at you! They're both, at last check, very light colors.

To this day, I still believe he had no right to throw this at me, especially when that rule to switch to the green-yellow ball wasn't supposed to be wide-spread until the 1999 season. All that '98 season, I had never heard that umpires could force a team to throw with the green-yellow ball and now suddenly, we're being held up by this guy standing on his own principle.

And I can see me turning various shades of anger red as I'm arguing with him over this stupid-ass rule that made him lord, king, God, conqueror. But magically appearing less than a minute later were two softballs of the green-and-yellow variety. Being the dignified diplomat, Debbie had gone over to where she was parked and pulled out the softballs just so we can get play started.

Still can not believe to this day we held a game up for almost two minutes over such an asinine issue as the color of a softball. You have to be kidding me?!

But forward we went. Meghan Barrett beat out a bunt single on the Mariners in the first, but otherwise, Anderson struck out Becky Barrett and Penniman to end the first inning.

Meanwhile, Mikulicka was holding North down in check in spite of hits by Andreani in the first, Russell in the second and Fazio in the third.

Both the freshman and the junior flame-thrower were going strong through three innings. Anderson had five strikeouts in the first three innings. After Anderson had picked up her sixth strikeout in a 1-2-3 fourth, the Mariners came up again in the bottom of the inning.

Andreani began the inning by hitting a flyball to left field. At first, it looked like Meghan Barrett had a beat on the ball, but suddenly, she realized this was going to be trouble and when she reached out to get it, she dropped it. Surprisingly, there was Andreani only on first after the error, figuring she'd have gotten to at least second. Anderson then singled to left to put runners on first and second and Kira Cegerenko ran for her. Then Russell walked on four pitches to load the bases for Ihrig.

Ihrig worked the count to 3-2. Then the next pitch was outside and suddenly North had a 1-0 lead.

Now a 1-0 lead is something you can bounce back from, especially against a hard-thrower like Anderson.

Cordero was next up and she hit a comebacker at Mikulicka, who knew to throw home to force out Cegerenko. But then what happened next really cost Central.

On a throw back on a pitch to Clarey, Mikulicka mishandled the ball. With the ball still live, Russell scampered home with the second run.

A costly mistake. Now it was 2-0 and the hole became even bigger to dig out of. Mikulicka eventually won an 11-pitch battle with Clarey with a flyout, then got Rusin on a comebacker.

But the damage was done. And seemingly, the strike zone began to get a bit bigger. Though veteran third baseman Tricia Friedman singled up the middle in the fifth, Anderson struck out three in the fifth to bring her total to nine.

Mikulicka kept North in check in the fifth, Anderson struck out two more Central hitters in a 1-2-3 sixth, and as I always did in the middle of the sixth inning, I would play a song that was the No. 1 hit on that day in a year. For this sixth inning, it was Lesley Gore's "It's My Party," which was the No. 1 hit 35 years ago on this particular day.

Well, it wasn't feeling like Winkelried's party and he really didn't feel like crying if he wanted. But because the speakers from the PA were wedged in and out of the dugout and pointed toward the inside of the dugout and whatever crowd assembled on the first-base side and was coming in loud and clear, this gut-wrenching yell was all I could hear.

"Turn thaaaat doooown!"

Yeah, I must have been adding on to a headache he was already battling in facing Anderson with a strike zone half the size of Texas and in front of these New York-based cameras and on a local cable broadcast that would show the game later in the week. I did turn it down ... it was the least I could do for him after all this.

Russell and Ihrig singled to start the sixth inning, but Smith turned a beautiful double play, tagging out pinch-runner Gia Cascio, then throwing to first baseman Dawn Wilson to get Cordero. And Clarey grounded out to third baseman Friedman to end the inning.

On this day, Laura Mikulicka may have beaten a lot of teams. She allowed two runs -- both unearned -- on six hits, walking the two hitters in the fourth, while striking out three. She did her job in spite the costly walks and that fielding flub that led to a run.

But against Lauren Anderson in 1998, you needed perfection. That's about the best way I could describe it.

Penniman started the seventh with a single, the third hit of the day for the Golden Eagles. That, it would turn out, would be the last Central hurrah. In the next 13 pitches, Anderson would strike out Wilson, Parliman and Friedman ... no coincidence, either, all looking! A Texas-sized strike zone never looked this beautiful to anyone.

In the end, it really didn't matter. North had its win, Central met them for the final "nice game" handshake with those same WNBC cameras that seemed to be a nuisance to some following Anderson down the handshake line. It wouldn't be until the next day that I saw the feature on Anderson on WNBC and they spent maybe 45 seconds to a minute on her. Maybe there was a longer feature on her that I missed the night before, but even to this day, I'm like, "What the f*ck?! You spent all afternoon there probably shooting a ton of tape and then using so little of it for the feature?! Why did you bother!?"

Made me glad I wasn't in that media form. Needless to say, the crowd dispersed for the Central-North game and the Adelphia crew packed up and headed out as Jackson Memorial and Point Boro took the field to warm up and then get their second semifinal off the ground. Though the Panthers had a very good team and solid pitcher in Kristin Handwerk, they were no match to Jackson's Jaguars. Four errors in the field didn't help the cause and behind a 3-for-4, four-RBI effort by leadoff hitter Roseann Rocca and a 2-for-4, two-RBI effort by cleanup hiter Erin Leonard, Jackson Memorial crushed Point Boro, 10-0, in six innings.

It would not be until mere moments before the Jackson-Boro game did I have a chance to interview coach Miller afterward. That game felt like a long day to begin with. And because of the early exit of Boro against Jackson Memorial, I was out of East just before 10 p.m.

Three days after that win in front of not only local Adelphia but in front of those New York-based NBC cameras, the Mariners finished their season in style by beating up on a hapless Middletown South team that made eight errors in an 8-1 victory, then took out feisty Jackson in the OCT final the next day, 4-1. Anderson, like the Mariners, finished the season 24-3, a legitimate 0.41 earned-run average (North advertised the ERA as 0.15, but I had rightful doubts) and struck out a county-record 367 hitters that season. As expected, she and Andreani were first-team All-State players at their positions.

North would make it back with Anderson to the '99 OCT quarterfinals, where once again, she and the Mariners beat Central, this time on Central's field since the whole concept of Quarterfinal Saturday had dissolved into the wind for one reason or another. North lost at Toms River South against cross-town rival East, 2-0, in the OCT semifinals. Though Anderson had a very, very good '99 season, the cast had changed for her senior season and they simply did not have the diversity, the characters or the mojo the '98 team had. Central, meanwhile, would reach the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III final in '99, then win the SJ III title in 2000 while also claiming its eighth and last OCT crown in the title game against Pinelands Regional.

And I never saw Dick Beer umpire another game after that day. Never saw another WNBC camera at a high school softball game either as I left for Key West after the '99 season.

But, oh, do I remember the headaches I attained from both on that late May day in '98.