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.