Pageviews last month

Sunday, November 23, 2014

CZ's underdog soccer-playin' Toms River East Raiders

The weekend after Thanksgiving, 1985 meant state high school football playoff games. Toms River South and Central Regional were playing away at Pennsauken and Willingboro, respectively.

And as much as I wanted to be at a high school football game, the boss didn't think me worthy of covering either game, giving those games off to our big guns, Chris getting the Central-Willingboro game and Greg, our assistant sports editor, doing the South-Pennsauken game.

However, my boss did think me worthy to send this just-turned 19-year-old out to the other side of the state for something that wasn't football.

State tournament soccer.

Yeah, I know -- it's not high school football. I'd rather have been up in the press box of a football game, but at 19 years old, I was a trooper who said yes to almost anything handed to me.

And it was the state tournament. I'm not going to resist it. I had finished up my first spring of covering high school girls soccer at the Observer, so I was somewhat well-versed on the sport. At that time, my whole idea of surviving the coverage was paying close attention to small details and recording how each goal was scored. Honestly, I wasn't well-versed in the true nuances of the sport, but I felt like I could get by.

Oh, and the team that was playing was Toms River East, and that gave me some advantages. One, it was my alma mater, two, some of the players on the team I knew from growing up in my neighborhood or having siblings that I knew when I went to the school, and three, the head coach was the loquacious Rob Czarniewski, the gentleman most everyone knew as "CZ."

CZ was the coolest coach going. I met CZ as coach Ed Polhemus' assistant coach during the girls soccer season the previous spring that saw East lose just two games and win the first-ever Shore Conference Tournament championship against Freehold Township. He was outspoken, but not to an overbearing point. And anything I needed, he could deliver for me. He was honest when it came to his team. He also walked into a terrific situation. CZ became the head coach of this East team after the team's previous coach, the very likeable Chuck Potter (also my junior year history teacher at East and one of my all-time favorite teachers at the school) left New Jersey to work at an Air Force base 75 miles outside of Kansas City.

Still, though, when the postseason began for East, they were a lower seed who would have to advance through the tournament with one road game after another. And three of the four wins to capture the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV came via overtime shootout, the last one against standout goalie Chris Gillis and Jackson Memorial in the SJ IV championship at the school I was going to at the time, Ocean County College. (Years later, Jackson coach Mike Costa wondered aloud to me if anyone had gone into the woods to collect the two soccer balls he punted in there after his team lost.) Talk about pressure!

But after getting through all that, the next obstacle in the way would be a huge one. Central Jersey Group IV champion Hightstown was the No. 1 team in the state, according to the Star-Ledger and were 20-1-2, loaded with a ton of talent, including scoring machines Jim Barlow and John Klena. And goalkeepers Al Meyers and Rob Radigan were very, very good. Hightstown didn't get to this point of the season by just being lucky.

East had its hands full. There was no question about it. Even with a talented team that included forwards Brenden McKibbin, Rich Albers and Joe Perselli, a defense anchored by the steady Teddy Gillen, Mike Ruhnke and John Brown in the back along with goalkeeper Joe Flaherty, I still felt like I was going to be watching the final game of the Raider season, even if East had compiled an 17-5-1 record. Not a chance, I told myself.

But I'm a trooper. I'm going to see this game out in western New Jersey regardless.

Now the site of this game, I was told, was Rider College in Lawrenceville. And I left early enough on this Saturday afternoon, November 23, 1985, to head that way for what was a 1 p.m. game. Back in that time, getting to the Trenton area meant having to deal with detours as the highways were still being worked upon to connect I-195 with I-95 and I-295 properly. It meant having to get off at the Hamilton Township exit, drive a couple of miles, then hook up with the I-295 loop. Finding the exit was not a big problem and by about 12:20 p.m., I was at Rider College for the big soccer match.

One problem, though: No matter how much I walked around the campus at the college, I saw no inkling of soccer players or fans. I found the student center with a pay phone and one person inside to answer any questions I had.

"Is there a high school soccer game today here?" I asked.

"None that I know of," the young man answered back.

Greeeeeeeat. Just what I needed to hear. It's 12:35 p.m., 25 minutes from the game starting and no idea where this game was being played. Then the young man who had some familiarity with Lawrenceville suggested a couple of places.

One of those places was Mercer County Park. That's nice, but I had no idea where it was located.

"It's actually right near the college if you go down this road," he said, telling me which side of the road it was.

I thanked him and said that I had nothing to lose. He didn't really know where else they could be playing soccer. So back to the 1973 Chevy Chevelle I drove to weave my way out of Rider and back on the main highway and down the road to find the sign that pointed me toward Mercer County Park. I drove into the park, parked and began to walk around to see if I can find any idea or thought of a soccer match.

It was probably about 1,000 feet, but in the distance, I could see teams warming up. And I recognized East's black and silver colors. And as I got closer, I could see the very tall, beard-wearing sight of CZ.

Yeah, I was in the right place at long last. The teams were mere minutes from kicking it off. It took me mere minutes to jot down rosters for both teams thanks to East's managers, said my hellos to CZ and assistant coach John Crowley and then settled in to walk up and down the sidelines for the game between the Raiders and Rams.

And just as I suspected, Hightstown was really good. The Rams tested East's defense early and put as much pressure as they could on Flaherty, whose brother John I graduated with at TRHSE. But Flaherty was there to make the stops before the situation escalated out of trouble. And McKibbin had a golden opportunity in the second quarter, but his head ball was stopped by Meyers, who made 10 saves in the first half. Albers and Perselli also had golden chances, but Meyers put an end to those threats.

Through 40 minutes of soccer, it was scoreless. Maybe these Raiders had a chance after all. Maybe I was underestimating them on this beautiful Saturday afternoon with temperatures hovering near 60 degrees. The more this game went on, the more confidence they were gaining against the so-called best team in the state.

I can still see the Raiders breaking the huddle after the halftime talk with their coach and CZ looking at me with an "OK, let's see how this goes" look to him. CZ admitted to me that he had been preparing for this season since the summer and that his Raiders were as prepared as they were going to be. Maybe he had this laissez-faire attitude about him, but that told me he had confidence in his club regardless and that they had confidence in him back.

But mere minutes into the second half, things got a bit dicey for the Raiders. Barlow got free of East defenders and had a strong shot from about 15 yards away. The ball went over Flaherty's head and for one moment, it looked as if the Rams had taken the lead.

However, to show you what kind of a day it was at this park, the ball banged off the crossbar and got cleared away by Gillen.

Wow! That was all I could think at that moment. East really dodged that first serious bullet on this afternoon. Still, there was no threat in sight for the Raiders as the third quarter (games back in that time were played in four 20-minute quarters) was winding down in this scoreless battle.

Then the Raiders put a little pressure on Hightstown's defense. And it was near the end of the third quarter that the entire mood of the game changed. One of Hightstown's defenders was able to get to the ball and tap a short pass back to the second-half goalie, Radigan.

This would prove to be a mistake for the defender had no idea that McKibbin, who was a pest to the Rams' defense all day, was hanging around near the net. McKibbin pounced on the delicate pass to Radigan and intercepted it. Once gaining control, he put a shot past the outstretched Radigan that just found the inside of the outside post at the 16:47 mark of the third quarter.

East players on the bench jumped up jubilantly, while CZ and Crowley remained relatively calm. They knew there was still 3:13 left in the quarter and a whole 20 minutes after that and these Rams would be there to make things tough.

What the coaches didn't know was once that goal was scored, the entire team felt confident enough to protect a 1-0 lead. Mere moments after that goal, McKibbin had ideas of another goal, but his shot was just wide of the net.

With 20 minutes left, the Raiders were nursing the 1-0 lead. Then nearly five minutes into the last quarter, East struck again. McKibbin made a kick toward the net that was heading for a Raider teammate. Radigan made the decision to come out toward the player and was able to get a hand on the ball.

But as if bad luck was following Radigan and the Rams, there was Mike Browne trailing the play. Without a defender nearby and Radigan out of position, Browne pounded his shot past the goalie and into the net to make it 2-0.

The stunning turn of events in the last 10 minutes had East players, coaches, families and friends who were there to cheer the Raiders on believing that another trip to the state Group IV final at nearby Trenton State College was in the immediate plans.

After all, at 1-0, the game is still in the balance. At 2-0 and with the Raiders' defense hitting on all cylinders, there was no way I believed Hightstown was crawling back into this game. Klena, who scored 29 goals that season, had very little impact against Ruhnke, John Brown and Gillen, easily one of the best defending midfielders I've ever covered in the sport and who would go on to perform nationally in soccer.

With under a minute left, the outcome was obvious. But the Rams were making things interesting. They put enough pressure on East to make the Raiders commit a tripping penalty within East's scoring box. That meant a penalty shot and Barlow was called upon to deliver the kick. He was true with a shot to the left of Flaherty -- the only thing that did get by the senior keeper -- to make it 2-1. And with 40 seconds left, anything could happen.

Naaaaaah! Once East kicked off after the goal, the Raiders efficiently ran the clock out and were celebrating the 2-1 win with an unusually calm demeanor. But that was the confidence this team had -- maybe they were the only ones who thought they would win that game that sunny afternoon in Lawrenceville. And maybe it was the quiet, even-keeled demeanor of their confident coach that had something to do with it, too.

"We just come to the games to have fun," he said.

Yeah ... fun! Imagine that?

"It's a lot easier when you're the underdog," CZ continued after the game. "You can just go out there and play. We've been the underdog in every game of this tournament and most likely, we'll be the underdog for the state final."

He may have felt that way, but the way they played against the so-called No. 1 team in the state, these Raiders could have played Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer and the 1970s North American Soccer League New York Cosmos.

They would find out later that it would be Westfield they would play for the state final  on TSC's Astro-turf field on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, November 27, 1985. And as if they didn't miss a beat from the Hightstown win, the Raiders captured the state Group IV championship, 3-1, over Westfield as Albers scored twice and assisted on a goal by Ruhnke. Flaherty made seven saves to preserve East's first state overall state title in any sport since the school was born in 1979.

It was a nice going-away present for CZ.

Going away present?? Yeah, as I found out first-hand after the win over Hightstown that afternoon and he had told no other media person, this was a one-and-done year for him. CZ was never comfortable being a head coach of a program and he was gladly giving up the head coaching duties to Crowley.

"I told the boys this just today," he told me on that November 23, 1985. "In the beginning of the season, my assistant coach, John Crowley, and I made an agreement to switch the head coaching position. So next year, I'll be John's assistant coach."

That's when I knew I had gotten the trust of someone that I got to cover for them to allow me to break news, even on the high school sports level.

I made my way back to Toms River to type in the story that late afternoon and gladly told Chris, who was also our boys soccer guy, "It's yours now ... but if you need someone to go out there for the state final."

That was to light a fire under his behind. It did. He got to cover East's state title win over Westfield, while I was glad to recover from working another Tuesday all-nighter at the Viking News to put out another weekly edition of the paper.

I would get to see my share of state championships over the years, so trust me, I wasn't discouraged. But this state semifinal game was something special. Though not enthused to cover the game at first, it turned out to be a memory that still lasts in my mind to this day.

Then again, a calm and collected coach like Rob Czarniewski, whose style made his players play calm, cool and collected, made it easy to want to watch the game and be there to report on it.

Thanks, CZ!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

In 30 seconds, it was over

Tuesday, November 8, 1994.

It wasn't just another Tuesday. This was Election Day, the biggest day of the year politically no matter what branch of government. And in Ocean County, New Jersey, there were plenty of seats up for grabs that night.

I loved Election Night. No, not because I'm the political junkie that I am. It meant that if I had an assignment to cover at the Observer, I could cover my game in the afternoon, write it up and head on home before 10 p.m.

And this Election Day was no different. It was normally on Election Day that state tournament field hockey was going on. And, normally, one of our county teams was playing for the right to move on to a South Jersey final.

Lacey, the defending NJSIAA South Jersey Group III, was facing off with Pennsauken in the SJ III semifinal at Lacey. My boss, Mike, was my "backup" as a field hockey writer. We had rode together the year before to Trenton State College for the NJSIAA Group III title game between Lacey and West Essex, a game that ended in a 3-0 West Essex victory.

Since that game was being played on Lacey Township's field, it was agreed he would be there closer to the office so he can get back, write his game story and then lay out the section, which we needed to be done with by around 10 p.m.

I had the longer ride that day. My drive was across Route 70 to the town of Voorhees where Eastern Regional, the defending state Group IV champion, was to face off with Toms River North in the SJ IV semifinal. Though Lacey was a very, very good team, I really wanted to see North play. The Mariners were coming off winning a dramatic Shore Conference Tournament championship in overtime against those Lacey Lions in an all-Ocean County final just 11 days earlier. And now, here North was in the SJ IV semifinal with the chance to move to the championship, a game they had not played in since 1990.

Unlike a team led by stellar named seniors the year before, this North team of longtime successful coach Becky Miller was guided by players who had a chance to make a name for themselves for the first time, players like twin sisters Connie and Tracey Sadowski, forward Megan Wagner, unheralded midfielder Arathi Malliah and new goalkeeper Dawn Albruzzese.

North came in with an impressive 18-2-2 record, a record that would make most people's jaws drop.

That, though, paled in comparison to the gaudy 16-0-2 mark Eastern Regional took into this championship game with it. The Vikings, the second seed of the event behind another unbeaten power, Shawnee, were a very skilled team with a few standout players like forward Jessica Fraser, midfielder Dana Reynolds, goalie Meghann Vitt and solid defender Jessica Jaworski, the daughter of former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski.

Eastern had an unbeaten game streak of 29 going into this one. North had its hands full. All I wanted as I drove west on Route 70 toward I-295 and to the next exit and left turn off the exit toward the high school was for the game to be just that ... a game. Eastern's state title in 1993 had put the school on the state map as a power.

But there was one concern I had going toward the school -- how bad a shape was the team's field looking. In 1990, I had driven to Eastern Regional for the SJ III championship match with Central Regional and the field was horrendous, balls bouncing around like a pinball machine because of the unkempt field. Central lost that title game, 3-2. I couldn't imagine it being any worse than that November day four years earlier.

So I arrived and immediately I recognize the field is not in the same place it was four years earlier. That was a plus. Then I noticed the field immediately in the back of the school. It was in pristine condition -- no bounces, no uneven ground. It was beautiful, almost like artificial turf.

Wasn't sure at that particular moment whose hands this was playing into, but I figured I was about to watch a very competitive match. Or at least I was hoping it would be competitive.

For the first 10 minutes, it was back and forth with neither team's defense yielding to the other's offense. There was a fair share of whistles and stoppage of play. Heck, I got to understand the sport after so many years, the whistles every five to 10 seconds were secondary by now.

Then at the 14-minute mark, Eastern Regional struck and struck hard. Reynolds took a blast from outside the circle that avoided Albruzzese and into the net for a 1-0 lead. However, the Mariners got a break when the referees waved off the goal. In the sport, you need a teammate or someone from the other team to touch the ball if the shot comes from outside the semi-circle. They ruled no one from either side touched the ball and the goal was disallowed.

A big break, it turned out, for North.

But I can see Eastern beginning to gain momentum. And it was at that time the Vikings moved the ball in a smooth transition from defense to offense once again. The ball found its way to Fraser. She got it, made a move on Albruzzese and put it behind her in the net at the 18:23 mark to give the host team a 1-0 lead.

North, though, was determined to make something of the game before halftime. They collected four penalty corners in the last 10 minutes, but could not punch the ball in behind Vitt. As the whistle sounded, North players came off the field to the sideline intent to listen to what their legendary coach would say to them in the break. The Mariners were only down 1-0, and had they given up another goal, the tenor of this game may have changed dramatically.

There's still so much you can do down a goal in any sport, be it field hockey, soccer or lacrosse. What Miller was preaching was patience. She knew her team could play with this unbeaten team from southwestern New Jersey after 30 minutes.

On the other side, Eastern was huddled around its coach, talking about second-half strategy, looking confident. When you play that many games without a loss, you, too, feel invincible.

But something told me as North players passed right by me on the sideline that they had a confidence that didn't let them down. I saw some girls smiling heading back to the sideline.

Something told me they were ready for a big second half. All they needed was a break.

And so the second half began and North was starting to feeling its oats. The play was getting better on the field and part of the plan was Miller substituting in players freely in the second half. One move saw Miller put in Christine Busch. I wasn't sure what Miller had in mind, especially with Busch scoring one goal all season, but whatever it was, she felt she could contribute in some way.

The Mariners had come into this game without one of their better scorers, Erica Bergen, who had suffered an ankle injury in North's SJ IV quarterfinal win over Triton that was bad enough to keep her in street clothes. Now Miller was summoning one-goal Christine Busch in to make something happen, not confusing her by any means with the most famous Bush to ever play for the Mariners, Kim Bush, who scored 34 and 35 goals in seasons in the 1980s, the last one being North's NJSIAA Group IV championship win in 1987.

Almost nine minutes into the second half, the Vikings seemed comfortable. But they were about to get a test. North collected its ninth penalty corner of the game. The ball came out to Tracy Sadowski, who avoided one of Eastern's "flyers" on the corner, moved closer to the net and put a shot on. Vitt made the save, but the ball was still free. It found its way onto a stick that was about to redirect it into the net behind Vitt to tie the match at 1-1.

And whose stick was it? Yeah ... Christine Busch. That Christine Busch with one goal all season. That tied it up and the North fans who made the trip across the state were starting to believe. All postseason long, the Mariners' defense was starring. The goal Fraser scored was the first goal all postseason the team gave up. In winning the SCT title, the Mariner defense never gave up a goal.

Which was why at 1-1, I felt good about North's chances now. They seemed to have gotten through the early, rough patches of this one. And the teams played some intense field hockey for the next 20 minutes, neither again giving in to the each other.

And as the clock operator walked alongside the one referee counting down to zero, overtime was in sight.

Now during the SCT, North played a pair of overtime games, including the 1-0 championship win over Lacey. So the Mariners were prepared for what was to happen next. In the overtime, four field players are taken off each team, so it's a literal seven-on-seven. Normally, you put your six best stick-handlers with speed out on the field to try and make things happen. And with eight less players, the game really becomes more wide open.

North was used to it. Eastern Regional was not. The Vikings did not have a postseason tournament to play in and when a game ends in a tie in the regulation, that's it. There's no overtime. So Eastern's players were getting ready for something that was really foreign to them. The wide-open field would work to a skilled, faster team's advantage.

In this case, I knew North had the advantage. So about eight minutes after the regulation game ended, the 12 field players and two goalies hit the field for overtime. There were two 10-minute sessions to be played and if it was still tied, penalty strokes would be taken.

Eastern won the toss and decided to take the ball to start the overtime. The ball was passed on to Reynolds who was able to move up the field. She seemed to have a clearance toward a pass to a teammate, mainly Fraser. But she lost the ball.

The ever-reliable Malliah took the ball. And with Eastern heading down the field quickly to start, the Vikings did not make a quick transition back. An Eastern player was called for stick interference, giving North the ball. Eastern was still transitioning back to defense when Malliah made the quick decision to take the ball immediately and fire a pass.

That pass went to Tracy Sadowski, the heart and soul of the team's offensive side of the field. Using her speed, Sadowski broke away from her nearest defender and found herself in a one-on-one with Vitt. And as if to see her make the first commitment on the ball, Sadowski put a pass by Vitt toward an open player.

That player was Megan Wagner. Since no Eastern defenders were quick enough to get back, all Wagner had to do was re-direct the pass with her stick.

The next sound I heard were high-pitched squeals of girls celebrating in front of the Eastern net. The goal took just 30 seconds ... yes, 30 whole seconds. In 30 seconds, North was going to the SJ IV championship game for the first time in four years.

And just like that in 30 seconds, Eastern Regional's unbeaten season and streak dating back to the 1993 season were over. Some Eastern players were stunned, others just balled their eyes out.

The win against Lacey in the SCT final was amazing. The win against unbeaten Eastern was even more incredible. Miller was stunned. All she could say immediately was, "It was a picture-perfect goal. It was beautiful. We'll take it."

If you thought Busch scoring her second goal of the season to tie a state tournament sectional semifinal was amazing, the winning goal was even more of a surprise. Like Busch, Wagner had scored only one goal the entire year up until this game.

Two players who doubled their goal total on the season in the team's biggest game of the season up until then.

"We try to develop a philosophy where everybody that is sitting on the bench knows they have to be ready to go in when we need them to. I think with having Erica hurt, that was a prime example that we had to go in and fill her shoes," Miller said.

And just as Miller finished that sentence, up and over her head came the bucket filled with water and ice. She reacted like most anyone getting dumped with the contents of a water cooler. But she wasn't caring at that moment. She and her players earned their trip to the SJ IV final against top-seeded Shawnee, who had taken care of Jodie Davis- and Kirsten Sciallo-led Southern Regional, 1-0, in the other semifinal with Shawnee outshooting the Rams, 29-4, but scoring its goal on a penalty stroke by opposing goalie Danielle Vile against Sciallo.

I finished my interviews and walked back into the high school to go to the bathroom before heading back to Toms River. For the next two to three minutes, I started back-tracking to this game. Eastern Regional was the defending state champion, yet North made it look way too easy to score that overtime goal. That boggled my mind.

Three days later, North would be making the trip back out west, but not as far this time. Shawnee proved too much for the Mariners and beat them in the SJ IV final, 2-1.

I found my way back on Route 70 and drove through the boring part of the ride. The darkness was soon approaching at about 4:35 p.m. as I got to the intersection of Route 70 and Route 539 in Whiting. And as the traffic light turned green, I will always have this memory etched in my mind as I put my foot on the gas and headed out again on 70.

For one moment, I looked down in my car to check on something, though I don't remember what. When I looked back up, I swear to you all I saw were the eyes of a streaking deer go by. I could clearly see the eyes and nothing else. I will never be able to confirm if a deer blurred past my car no more than 10 feet from it. But I can still 20 years later see those eyes.

I arrived at the Observer building on Robbins Street at about 5:10 p.m. and began pounding away on the keyboard to write the story and what I had witnessed that afternoon. I got the Southern-Shawnee score from Southern coach Kathy Snyder, who was still in amazement over her team's performance despite being outshot, 29-4. And Mike told me that Lacey had dispatched of Pennsauken, 1-0, to move on to the SJ III title game.

After helping out with my scoreboard page on an early deadline, I was out the door by 9:30 p.m. and back home on Election Night. 

I will forever enjoy working on Election Day/Night at the Observer. I was always assured an early night.

And on this particular day, I was given a great finish with two unlikely scoring sources playing hero.

Yeah, I really enjoyed this Election Night.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Halloween state tourney shocker on Raider Way

If not for the fact the teams were Shore Conference Class A South rivals, the opening round of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association South Jersey Group IV field hockey match between 10th-seeded Southern Regional and No. 7 seed Toms River East should have been a romp.

As a matter of fact, that sole reason was the only one I could muster as to why I even remotely thought that the Rams had a chance to knock off the Raiders on their home field in this match on Halloween afternoon, Tuesday, October 31, 1995.

The Raiders were playing their first match since scoring the tying goal with 1:17 left in regulation time to tie Red Bank Regional and hold on in the overtime sessions for the 2-2 tie and a share of the Shore Conference Tournament championship on Shore Regional High School's field. The Raiders were on such a roll, you'd think they were invincible.

But Southern Regional had no reason to believe that. The Rams played the Raiders twice during the regular season. There was the match on October 9 when the Raiders took command and never let go in a 2-0 win on Southern's field. However, there was also the match on Saturday, September 23 at East that the teams played. With a minute to go in a scoreless tie, the Rams were threatening the Raiders and Jessica Corle, Southern's main scorer, tipped in a shot that was taken from outside the circle to give her team the 1-0 victory. East coaches, though, disagreed with the goal, claiming the shot came from outside the circle and was never tipped or touched, which would mean it would need someone within the circle to touch it.

The Raiders hadn't forgotten that game on their field. And neither did the Rams as they were about to face off in this state tournament opener in what would be the very last year that field hockey had the fall spotlight for girls sports to itself before girls soccer was moved from the spring season to fall. With numerous girls soccer players throughout the Shore playing the sport, this was an "end of the line" kind of season for quite a few programs.

The two programs were competitive because of their head coaches. East's head coach was Debbie Schwartz, who I had known for years thanks to her success coaching softball at East. She had taken over the Raider program in 1992 after Gail Halbfoster retired from coaching and immediately began to turn East into a top-notch team at the Shore, culminating with that co-SCT championship against Red Bank Regional. The Raiders, led by forwards Jen O'Connell, Kelly Johnson and Kelly Sherman, were like a machine now as they set their sights on making something happen in the state tournament.

Then there were the Rams, led by Corle, Jen Raban and goalkeeper Jen Racioppi. They were competitive throughout the season, but could never reach that next level and they were going into the state tournament with a mediocre 8-8-1 record. Their coach was the uber-competitive Kathy Snyder, who made her reputation as a high-level basketball coach at Southern, winning the SCT in the sport in dramatic fashion in 1984. She had taken over Southern's field hockey program in 1986 and had consistently good teams, never a great one through 1995, but good ones.

Then you look at where these two coaches came from before they became coaches. Schwartz was Debbie Dietrich when she played competitively at Toms River North for the successful Becky Miller, who she coached with on North's 1987 NJSIAA Group IV championship field hockey team. And Snyder was Kathy Leslie when she played for the great Nancy Williams at Shore Regional High School in field hockey and basketball in the early 1970s.

I've always maintained that if Becky Miller and Nancy Williams were in the same room together playing tiddly-winks that they would go at it with every fiber in their bodies with the loser taking it very hard. Williams and Miller were the two most successful coaches in Shore area field hockey history with over 1,400 wins between them, but when they faced each other in the sport, it was a display of amazing talent, like in that 1987 season when both Shore and North had great teams and the squads played to a 1-1 SCT championship tie. Neither coach walked off that North field happy that day.

And so on this dreary, cloudy day with temperatures hovering around 60 degrees, East and Southern squared off on East's field for the right to move on to the next round of the state tournament.

Since Southern had not played a game in well over a week, Snyder needed to keep her team fresh. So while East was fighting tooth and nail to gain a share of that SCT title against Red Bank Regional, Southern players were playing ... their field hockey alumni. They played against Southern girls who donned the white, black and gold uniforms back in the day, some as recent as standouts Jodie Davis and Kirsten Sciallo, who had graduated just that past June and were now at Rutgers and Trenton State (now The College of New Jersey), respectively. I was told it was a fairly intense match later on, but that the current Southern girls had won that battle.

However, they may have dominated their former players, but these Rams were having trouble with the current-day Raiders, who were taking it right at them from the start. But with each Raider shot came a field hockey ball that either trickled beyond the end line, giving it back to Southern, or a shot that was stopped on pad saves by Racioppi. And no matter how much Snyder yelled for her players to move into the right positions to stop the relentless Raider attack, East players kept on coming.

East had nearly 10 shots on net in the first 15 minutes of the game, compared to one for Southern. The only thing the Raiders didn't have was a goal. And their worlds were about to be turned upside down.

Southern charged up the East side of the field and was able to put passes together once inside East territory. Raban cut away from the goal, and put a ball within the circle that Corle, with a defender draped on her, got her stick on and placed into the net behind East goalie Karen Fox for a 1-0 lead at the 17:26 mark of the half.

From there, East kept putting the pressure on. By the end of the first half, the shots on net were in East's favor, 12-3. No goals, though, and Southern players were more than delighted to be up 1-0 at the break.

At this point, I'm fumbling through notes of the prior games and saying to myself, "This isn't going to last. East is going to bounce right back into this one."

At least I thought they should. Throughout the season, Schwartz's gang had a flair for the dramatic in games, including that late goal against the Bucs. Figured, though, it was only a matter of time before the Raiders got rolling.

Problem was that Southern's defense was very good that year. As a matter of fact, defense was what made Snyder's legacy in whatever she coached, whether it was field hockey or basketball. She knew the way to neutralize a high-powered offense was to play ball control and slow the other team down enough to ruin their patience to push the envelope offensively.

And that's exactly what Snyder's Rams did in the second half -- neutralize anything and everything the Raiders tried to put together. The Raiders had 30 minutes to mount an assault and while they kept putting shots on Racioppi, they couldn't find the back of the net no matter how hard they tried.

Suddenly, it became obvious -- the Raiders may lose this game and make history in the process by being the first team to win or share an SCT field hockey title and then lose before the quarterfinal round of the state tournament. It just seemed automatic year after year for the SCT winner to move on in the state tourney, but yet, the Raiders were watching the minutes slip away down a goal.

With less than four minutes to go, the Raiders made a couple of pushes up field. The first one ended with Southern clearing the ball away just like they had in a number of previous attempts. The second charge had a lot more positive result for the Raiders. Johnson was able to penetrate inside the circle with her teammates and a scrum took place. Somehow, Johnson was able to get the ball to O'Connell, and she beat Racioppi to tie the match a 1-1.

And just like four days earlier on that Shore Regional field, East coaches and reserves on the sidelines reacted as if they just won the Academy Award for Best Picture. With 2:53 left in regulation tie, the Raiders had tied it and were now going for the jugular. Snyder knew it. She prodded her team not to give up so close to the end of regulation. And her Rams got the message. East kept coming, but Southern kept playing the air-tight 'D.'

The clock reached zero and the teams were now in a sudden-death fight for the next two 10-minute periods with the winner advancing on. If it were still tied after those 20 minutes, a flick-off would be needed between the teams where it was the shooter taking one shot at the goalie. I had not seen one of those in quite some time. I hoped it wouldn't come to that.

So East came out first, going from the south end to the north end of their field located on the side of their building next to the parking lots, Southern going from north to south. And once again, East had the better of the play as Southern scrambled to keep the ball as far away from Racioppi as the teams had been pared down from 10 to six field players for overtime. However, one ball rolled into the circle with O'Connell coming after it. But Racioppi was there to kick it out of the circle and out of trouble. Southern, meanwhile, mounted very little of a threat, sticking to a defensive mode for the first 10 minutes.

And after those 10 minutes were up, the teams switched fields. All this time, all I kept thinking was that the Raiders were eventually going to pop the ball into the net and the game would be over. It was just a matter of time. Really, it was. They had dominated this match and the shots on goal were proving it -- East 30, Southern 4.

Yes, four shots! How much more defense can a team play before forcing a flick-off where there's no guarantee that your goalie is better than the other team's goalie in that scenario? Snyder and the Rams were seemingly playing for that. How do you get out-shot that badly and still force a flick-off? It's preposterous.

But little did I know what was about to take place within the first 35 seconds of the second overtime. East got the ball first to start the overtime, but they weren't able to penetrate beyond the Rams' circle. A Rams defender got the ball. She was able to dodge a Raider player and then, seeing a hole in the East defense on the wide-open field now that there were eight less bodies on it, put a pass into the middle of the field for Corle.

Corle was able to put a stick on it and maintain possession with a Raider defender close by. She turned on the after-burners to make a charge for the net and Fox. She had this "I don't care, I'm forcing the action" attitude as she poked the ball up the field, hoping to at least bait Fox into coming out of the net and make some kind of play on the ball.

The strategy worked. Fox came out as Corle got closer to the net. The ball was into territory that neither player was in at that moment. The first one to the ball was going to make the difference. In a matter of just under a second, Corle got to the ball first and lunged to it.

She poked the rolling ball past Fox, who was just a split-second late. The ball trickled ever so carefully toward the net. No Raider defender was there to make the play. It crossed the goal line.

Game over.

And within a second or two of that ball crossing over the line and the final whistle blowing, Southern players ran at Corle and tackled her in celebration.

East players slowly walked off the field with stunned looks on their faces. How was it supposed to end like this? East had six times as many shots on net, yet the Raiders and Schwartz were walking off their own field a 2-1 loser.

To this day, it is still one of the most stunning results I have ever witnessed in any sport due to the onesidedness of the play -- the Halloween Day Surprise.

The teams shook hands afterward and Schwartz wished Snyder well in the next round of the state playoffs. As was my nature to do in a game, I always tried to seek out the visiting team first ... in this case, the winning team. Said Corle of the goal, "The main idea is to get the ball to me. I did what the coach asked me to do. But this win was a credit to our defense. If not for them, we wouldn't have won this game."

In typical Kathy Snyder fashion, she talked about how defense made the difference in this one, knowing she had a squad that believed they could beat East again, but would have to be patient in doing so. Then she brought up the win on September 23 that East coaches questioned.

"This was an important win for us," said Snyder, one of the four best female coaches I ever regularly dealt with in my 30-year career along with Miller, Schwartz and Crescent City Junior-Senior High School volleyball coach Holly Pickens. "We won a game against East on a goal that their coaches claimed was not a goal. I know they made comments about that game and that goal, but Jessica Corle, who scored that goal, said the ball went off her stick and I had no reason to believe Jessica was lying to me. And on top of everything else, it was not going to change a thing that happened."

And, of course, Snyder was at times critical of her team's play against East, but she couldn't walk away claiming all was bad. Her team survived long enough to win a game they probably shouldn't have won. But it wasn't the first time in her amazing career Snyder had this happen.

She took the rest of what her team left behind for her to carry back to the bus. No more than a minute or so later, I walked up to Schwartz, who was still bummed about the loss and understandably so. Rarely did I ever see Debbie Schwartz get down after a tough loss, whether it was field hockey or softball. And this was the same case here. She wasn't smiling, but she knew her kids played hard enough and that the effort was there. It was just bad luck on her kids' part to not get a goal with so many opportunities.

"I don't think my girls had anything to be ashamed of," Schwartz said. "We did a great thing last week in winning (the SCT share). But after riding that wave and to start all over again, that was hard. But give Southern credit. Their goalie (Racioppi, who finished with 18 saves), played a great game in goal."

Very even-keel, the way I came to know Schwartz all those years regardless of the sport. We continued to talk about the game and the season. But no more than a minute after she had given Southern credit, a loud, blood-curdling voice came from the direction of the Southern Regional bus.

"Debbie Dietrich, get over here right now!"

I knew that voice from anywhere. And Kathy Snyder was angry about something. Schwartz's jaw just dropped when that got yelled at her, knowing the severity of that situation, especially when she was being called by her maiden name, having been married for six years at that point.

Calmly, Schwartz excused herself of what seemed like a volatile situation to walk over to where Snyder was.

So what was the Southern coach's anger about? Turns out that somewhere between the field and the bus, one of her players was pushed to the ground by one of East's backup goalies. A few months later, I confirmed with the "pusher" if it was true. Let's just say the girl, who also played for Schwartz's softball team, did not back down from the incident, claiming responsibility.

Let's also just say that girl was one of the few female athletes in my 30 years who reveled in a "bad girl" image that didn't last her long with Schwartz in either sport she played.

Southern would lose to Eastern Regional in the next round of the state tournament, and though the Rams finished with a 9-9-1, they had the satisfaction of knowing they beat the co-SCT champion Raiders two out of three times that season. It wasn't until 2002 when Snyder and the Rams would reach an SCT final, losing to her mentor Williams and Shore Regional in the title game.

Most of my memories of Kathy Snyder, who passed away in January 2014, will always be on a basketball court with her Southern Rams. But that state tournament match on Halloween Day 1995 will be how I remember her as a field hockey coach.

East's season came to a screeching halt at 12-5-3. That team was a lot of fun to cover, but suddenly, it was over for them. Schwartz would remain the team's head coach until 1998 when she gave it up to concentrate solely on softball, her sister-in-law, Julie Clark, taking over as head coach. The Raiders never reached those same heights under Schwartz in her final two years as coach as they did in '95 when everything clicked when it did.

That is, until Southern Regional came onto East's field with a point to prove.

Amazing what happens when Class A South rivals meet.