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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.

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