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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.

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