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Sunday, November 15, 2015

The flick that ended Central's field hockey season ... and the aftermath

My first year of covering high school field hockey was the 1985 season. Dan Brennan, who had done the job in my first full year of working at the Observer, had left the previous January for the Star-Ledger and now the job was mine the next fall.

I learned a lot in that first year of covering the sport. I had some great coaches to learn about the sport, from Toms River East's Gail Halbfoster to Toms River South's Barbara Hughes to Point Pleasant Boro's Judy Goldstein to Toms River North's Becky Miller to Central Regional's Madeline Dutton.

They made my education quite a bit easier. And I got to go watch games during my off-time from work and school, like Friday, November 1, 1985 at Winding River Park across from Community Memorial Hospital when Toms River South hosted Point Boro and I took the family dog to the park just so she could get away from the house. For one moment that day I thought South's Toni-Marie Izzie wanted to take Andie (the dog) with her home.

I was ready for the postseason that year, which included that second annual Shore Conference Tournament, which South and Point Boro were playing a first-round match in, and the state tournament. Toms River North, led by sensational sophomore scoring machine Kim Bush, and a talented senior group that included Missy Bernacki and Val Trotman, were eliminated in the quarterfinal round of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tournament.

By Friday, November 15, 1985, the only team left in the state tournament from Ocean County was Central Regional. Coach Dutton's Golden Eagle was upperclassmen heavy and were doing well in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III Tournament. And they made it to the championship game on this day against a team with a top-notch reputation in the sport, Camden Catholic, coached by Chris Palladino and led by leading scorer Erica Richards.

The game was to be played at a neutral site, in this case Hightstown High School, which really was an unusual site for a final. Why, you may wonder? First, Hightstown High is technically a Central Jersey-based school, located in Mercer County. I guess field hockey compared to other sports and locations for games and teams for that matter was just "different." Of course, at a school I've never been to before, I had to get directions to the school the old-fashioned way ... by calling the Hightstown Police Department. They gave me what I thought was easy directions.

Then again for this just-turned 19-year-old mind, easy wasn't as easy as it sounded. I took Route 571 through western Ocean County up to Route 537 and onto I-195, the belt road across central New Jersey which had not been finished connecting into the Trenton area at that time. But I was to get off at the exit on Route 539 that led me into Hightstown. I knew there was a road that needed to be taken that would take me straight to the high school.

But finding the road was a challenge. The problem was I didn't have all afternoon to drive up and down every road. Turns out someone gave me the wrong road name at the police department and when I got into Hightstown, a local was able to lead me to a road called Leshin Lane. So back in the other direction I went until I saw the sign for Leshin Lane. Made a right turn and this long road led me to the high school.

So it existed. And I can see the teams warming up in the back on this clear, beautiful fall afternoon with temperatures in the mid 50s.

Dutton's charges were led by a talented senior class -- Kathy Laing, Barbara Lange, Sue Bondalich, Kerri Quinn and the ringleader of the senior players, center-forward Cory Golembeski, a very beautiful young lady with an outgoing and sometimes flirtatious personality. Dutton made her responsible for calling in Central Regional's wins and losses that season. She was a joy to take information from over the phone. She also came from a strong sports background since her dad, Gerry, was the athletic director at CRHS.

But the talent was even better in the junior class, starting with defenders Betty Hester and Mandy Dafeldecker and going to forwards Jackie George and Janet O'Rourke and goalkeeper Dawn Cosnoski.  The Golden Eagles were 15-4 and actually looked like the favorites to win the title compared to the 10-3-3 Irish, who were the defending SJ III champions.

In 1985, I didn't know many of the moms and dads of the Golden Eagles team, but one mom was very outgoing and friendly, a strawberry blonde named Jayne. She was Mandy Dafeldecker's mom and she had the personality to invite an entire room to a party even if she didn't know you. You easily can be attracted to that. You don't meet too many Jayne Dafeldeckers in the world. She brought her whole family to the game -- her husband Bob and her two other daughters, Amy, a freshman at CRHS, and Amber, a 10-year-old.

My job in covering field hockey was like that of covering soccer -- just walk up and down the field to cover the action from close range. Hey, it was worth the workout each and every time I covered a field hockey match (or soccer for that matter).

It was clear from the start that Central meant business. Six minutes into the match, they forced the issue and when Golembeski took a rebound off goalkeeper Liz Callahan and blasted an in-close shot past her, the Golden Eagles were on their way, up 1-0.

Today was going to be the day that Central was going to make history for the program. But slowly, the Irish were gaining momentum and at the 13:30 mark, they tied the match when Richards took a pass from Nancy Wright on the right wing and ripped a shot that Cosnoski had no chance of stopping. Simple textbook field hockey passing and scoring and it was 1-1.

And the Irish weren't finished with their assault. Not one bit. Moments after tying the match, they were heading down the field looking to flex their muscle. Somewhere in the circle, the ball got tangled under the feet of a Golden Eagle defender. No one ever really pointed out the Central player who got tangled up with the ball, but nonetheless, the official on the game put her arms up in a crossed position and I knew what that meant.

Central was in trouble for a kick that wasn't delivered by Cosnoski and a penalty flick was called. Palladino called upon Richards to calmly slip the ball into the back of the net and make it 2-1. Done deal. Camden Catholic was on its way to another SJ III title.

Someone forgot to tell Cosnoski that this was Camden Catholic's day, though. I can still see Richards pushing the ball to the right of Cosnoski and the goalie reacting with a right hand save away from trouble. Central fans and players celebrated the goalie's stop and the game remained tied at 1-all.

Turns out this was going to be a game of wild swings. One moment, Central was dominating, the next it was Camden Catholic and then again it was Central. The first half alone was exhausting with all the swings. And the last swing in the first 30 minutes belonged to the Golden Eagles. Central put pressure in Notre Dame's semi-circle and O'Rourke put a well-placed pass on the stick of George, who put it the ball past Callahan, making it 2-1 with eight minutes left in the first half.

That was how it would stay up until halftime. By the half, I was just minding my own business and counting up stats until I felt the back of my head assaulted -- a soccer ball hit me unexpectedly. When you don't expect those, they can hurt. I turned around to see who the culprit may be ... and there was this sheepish grin on the face of 10-year-old Amber Dafeldecker with a soft-spoken "Sorry," following it. The Dafeldeckers, turns out, were a true soccer family and if there was an open space, someone was kicking a ball around within the family.

I smiled back ... but man that hurt. The head is the part of your body you don't take lightly or for granted. It was hard to be forgiving for that moment, but ultimately, I did. Meanwhile, Central was just 30 minutes away from winning an SJ III title and moving on to the Group III semifinal.

The second half was a back-and-forth battle for control in the first 15 minutes. But at the midway part of the half, the Irish found the run that would tie the match up as Karen Walsh set up Wright for a short-range blast past Cosnoski.

And that was it for the second half. Neither team mustered a major threat to take the lead and so after 60 minutes of hockey, we were tied. And we were heading for overtime and the "golden goal" moment for either team. The next goal would win the SJ III title. Central came out of its huddle with Dutton fired up and ready to go. So did Camden Catholic. I had a feeling that with the way this game was playing out, it was going to be a perfectly placed and set up goal that would decide the championship. I was prepared for it.

Ten minutes of the first overtime and Central Regional attacked. And attacked. And attacked again. The Golden Eagles had nine -- yes, nine! -- penalty corner opportunities, including an insane seven in a row. You'd think one of these would end the game, right. Nope! Callahan and the defense was up to the task of knocking the ball away each time.

So we switched up sides and played another 10 minutes. If it was still tied after that 10-minute period, we were going to the dreaded one-on-one penalty shot session that no one, including myself, liked. But it was the way for advancement and so it was advisable to get this game done before that happened.

The second overtime was a little more even as both teams challenged back and forth. Then it happened -- just two minutes into that second extra session, the Golden Eagles were called for "intentional blocking" in their semi-circle with the Irish on the attack, which meant that someone trapped the ball under them and didn't allow the play to take place. It could have been Cosnoski or Hester or Dafeldecker. Who knows who got called for it, but nonetheless, it was called by the official on the field.

Suddenly, the Irish had another penalty flick to make. And Richards was called upon again to take the shot, even though she was stoned on the first attempt in regulation time by Cosnoski. But it's funny how these things work -- one moment, you miss on a great shot, and then the next moment, you put an absolute clunker on goal ... and get lucky.

Richards got lucky. It wasn't a great shot, but Cosnoski was expecting something waist-high like the last time. Richards hit a groundball that eluded the Central goalie and trickled into the net.

It was over. Camden Catholic players stormed the field. Central players came off stunned, some in tears. The Golden Eagles' season was over. I hated the fact that the game was decided on a call like that. Maybe the intentional blocking happened, maybe it didn't. But I didn't think the ball was blocked or kept away from play for that long personally. To this day, I thought it may have been too quick a whistle. You always try to let the teams play unless the call was that egregious and then you have to make that call.

Dutton, who I couldn't thank anymore for helping me throughout the season, would tell me afterward about the two penalty strokes in the game, "The first penalty shot was uncalled for. The second was a right call. It was a good game. It was just a shame that it had to be a referee's game. I wish it would have been decided by the girls playing the game."

I think her sentiment was agreed by all that played. But the way it was quoted -- that top part of the quote about the two penalty flicks -- was awkward. However, that was what I heard and I may have made the mistake of misquoting her.

All I knew was that I had to get back into Toms River and get to Toms River South for a Friday night football matchup between South and North that Friday night. It wasn't much of a football game as South decked North, 31-15, and the only "highlight" was a heated argument after the game between South coach Chip Labarca and North coach Jerry Clarey, Labarca pissed off because of some kind of film exchange snafu between the schools. It was all happening in front of me and then-Asbury Park Press writer Al Ditzel. The only person we were able to talk to was outstanding South tight end Dwayne King afterward. It was ugly that night.

Got back to the Observer building right there not far from South to type in both of my game stories for the day and leave since we didn't have a Saturday paper. The stories went into the paper and I didn't think anything of what I wrote.

Now it's Monday, November 18, 1985, and the last county field hockey team left playing, Toms River North, is hosting Shore Regional in the Shore Conference Tournament championship, which has been put on hold for the moment due to Shore's success in the state tournament. Shore was amazing year in and year out. It's halftime of this exciting match, which North would win, oh by the way, on penalty shot one-on-ones. That's a whole different story for a whole different time.

I got called over to the fence by a familiar voice. It was Cory Golembeski. So I walk over, say hi, and then get hit with this.

"You made our coach and team look like a bunch of assholes!" 

That was her way of telling me what her coach said was twisted and misquoted. All that aside, how did I make the team look like a bunch of assholes? I certainly wasn't trying to. I certainly would have apologized for it. As a matter of fact, her coach in my 14 years covering the sport at the paper never mentioned the quote because she would have. Trust me ... she would have.

And I hate to admit it, that would be the last time I played nice with Cory Golembeski since she practically walked away from me after that. I don't play that game -- you want to say something to me, let's talk it out. Don't walk the hell away. All this just floored me.

She made All-County and since I had to supervise the picture taking in the Observer office, she came in, we didn't say a word to each other, she left and that was it. We never saw or talked to one another again.

The end of Central's season was sad and maybe a little controversial. But it only made for motivation in 1986 when that group of Central juniors the year before, led by Cosnoski, Dafeldecker, George, Hester, O'Rourke and Jen Kleva, won the SJ III title, made an amazing comeback in the Group III semifinals against North Hunterdon down 2-0 in regulation time with mere minutes to go to tie it in regulation, then won it in overtime to get to the championship against Northern Highlands at Rider College, losing in the championship, 3-1.

Dutton won Coach of the Year honors for the 1986 season and numerous players made the All-County team that year.

But the 1985 season got things rolling for that '86 club. Central made it easy for my "education" in the sport. I couldn't help but thank Dutton for that.

It was an enjoyable first full season covering the sport in every way, shape and form.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Two "seperate" sectional softball championships

For the first 13 years of covering District 18 Little League, it was all about baseball.

Never was it about softball. Not for one moment had I thought about covering Little League softball. This, from a man, who had covered high school softball since 1985. I enjoyed that level of softball because the players were much more mature and they could make plays on a field. On the Little League level, all I could picture was groundballs turning into Chinese fire drills and flyballs turn into misadventures. Oh, and the pitching -- I saw that as a nightmare for any catcher to handle.

But in 1997, I got my first taste of Little League All-Star softball, thanks to a group of 12-year-old ladies from Manchester, which had taken down Point Pleasant Beach in the district title game. Manchester had moved on to the Section 3 best-of-3 championship, losing to North Wall, 9-8, in the first game on July 19. That set the scene for Game 2, which was held at Red Bank's Thompson Park on Sunday, July 20, 1997, on a hot, steamy day.

When I arrived at the park, which last I was at six years earlier to watch Cindy Beltran and Brick Memorial take down Red Bank Catholic in the Shore Conference Girls Soccer Tournament, I found the field the teams were playing on, doing my customary thing of parking as far away from the field of play as possible, especially just over a month after having to replace a windshield thanks to parking too close to Toms River North's field during practice and Gia Cascio fouling a pitch off right into it. Wasn't making that mistake ever again.

I had spoken to Manchester's manager, Nick Florez, a couple of times over the phone, so this was the first time I was meeting him. He was smiling, keeping a positive, upbeat attitude, and ready for action. He had his lineup ready so I grabbed it out of his hand and jotted it down. Katie Bongiovanni was getting the ball to try and save Manchester's softball season.

I wish I could tell you North Wall had the same kind of discipline when it came to a lineup, but I'd be lying to you. But there was a reason for this: North Wall manager Stephen Cilento was waiting on one player. He was starting this game with nine players and it wasn't all his fault -- this game had originally been scheduled at 1 p.m., but then moved back to 7 p.m. because of the potential hot weather, but something happened, and I don't remember what it was, that pushed the game back to 1 p.m. ... and back into the heat of the afternoon.

Cilento knew he was in trouble without four players who thought the game was going to be at 7 p.m., then changed at the last moment to 1 p.m. And though Kristi Duncan gave him an arm to start the game, it wasn't the effective arm he needed to compete in this one. Cilento told me he had called players up that morning to see who could make it or who couldn't. Nine showed up, and a 10th would get there as soon as she could. That player was Ashley Runyon. After Saturday's win, Runyan went with her father to Medford, which is a good hour and a half away from Red Bank, figuring the game would be a 7 p.m. start.

Now the scrambling began. And Cilento was going to do everything he could to make sure Runyon, one of North Wall's effective pitchers, would be there for a majority of the game.

And if stalling was one of those tactics, so be it.

The first thing Cilento did to start the game was protest -- yes, protest the game! He thought it was unfair to change the time of the game from 7 p.m. back to 1 p.m. like the District 19 administrator had done. So the protest was lodged and then we played ball.

Well, no not really. Before leadoff hitter Shawn Casey could stroll to the plate to start the game, Cilento had a problem. He had Kristi Duncan on the lineup card pitching and Phillips in left field. That wasn't how it was supposed to work, so another two minutes passed by before both teams understood North Wall's lineup.

So finally Casey stepped in against Phillips -- the so-called real pitcher. She singled. So did No. 2 hitter Lauren Nemeth. On the next pitch, the pair pulled off the double steal. Kiersten Elia struck out looking, but Bongiovanni walked to load the bases. On 2-2 to Autumn Florez, the manager's daughter, Phillips uncorked a wild pitch, allowing Casey to freely come in to make it 1-0 and move the other runners up a base. Ultimately, Florez walked, setting it up for No. 6 hitter and right fielder Nicole Webb. On the first pitch to Webb, the ball went behind Jessup to the backstop. Jessup, though, hurried to the ball and threw to Phillips at the plate to put the tag on Nemeth for a big second out of the inning. Webb worked the count to 2-2 before she struck out swinging.

A possible big inning looked wasted, but 29 Phillips pitches got Manchester a run. And after all the delays, which also included a switching of catcher Annie Goss and right fielder Traci Jessup when Goss supposedly hurt her arm, the top of the first inning was over in 24 minutes.

We didn't know it at the time, but advantage to North Wall there.

Bongiovanni walked Traci Jessup with one out in the bottom of the first and two wild pitches landed her at third. But a cool customer in the circle, Bongiovanni struck out Jenna Winokur and Noelle Scally to get out of the jam.

Tara Dube began the second inning by beating out an infield hit and when shortstop Elyse Zanni threw the ball away for an error, Dube had second base. Another Zanni error, this time on a Corrine Stinemire grounder put runners on first and second. A wild pitch moved both runners up a base, but Krista Dube struck out.

That brought the top of the lineup back up. Casey put down a beautiful bunt single to score Tara Dube and continued on to second when the throw came to the plate. Nemeth beat out an infield single on the left side of the infield to score Stinemire, making it 3-0.

The fun was only beginning for Manchester. Elia blooped a single just inside the right-field line to bring in Casey to make it 4-0 and the runners advanced a base on the throw to the plate. Unraveling, Phillips uncorked a wild pitch to bring in Nemeth to build the lead to 5-0. Then in a gutsy call -- and North Wall not paying attention -- Elia stole home as Jessup was throwing the ball back to Phillips after walking Bongiovanni.

Bongiovanni stole second and took third on a bunt single by Florez, putting runners on first and third. Another wild pitch, Phillips' fifth wild pitch of the game, to make it 7-0. Webb reached on an error by Phillips to put runners on first and third.

It wasn't looking good for Phillips and North Wall, but another break was about to come their way. Another wild pitch turned into a save as Jessup tossed to Phillips at the plate to nail Florez for the second out. And Dube struck out to end the inning.

Manchester was on its way to a 10-run mercy-rule win at 7-0. Bongiovanni, though, had a rough second inning, loading the bases on an error she threw away to put Holly Thompson on third, and walking Goss and Zanni to load the bases with one out. But she struck out No. 9 hitter Phillips looking and got Cilento on a comebacker to keep it 7-0.

All the while, though, Runyon was on her way to Thompson Park. Two innings in the book. A solid third inning for Manchester would all but rule out any effectiveness Runyon might have and force that all-important Game 3 on Monday night.

A strikeout by Stinemire and a popout to Jessup by pinch-hitter Nicole Egan started the third for Manchester. But Casey singled to left, making her 3-for-3 at this point. I could easily see this young lady becoming a high school standout. She was tall and lanky and had a sweet swing and could do almost anything Florez asked her to do on the field.

And the next thing Florez asked her to do was steal second, which she did. Nemeth then blistered a single to right field to bring in Casey, making it 8-0. Elia popped out to second baseman Cilento to end the inning.

For positive thinkers, all Manchester needed was two runs and six more outs in the field and this one would be over. Plain and simple. Get those outs and those runs and Game 3 would decide the championship in well over 24 hours on the same field.

But before the bottom of the third began, North Wall players, family members and friends suddenly looked out toward the entrance to their side of the field.

Runyon had arrived. There was some pep over on that side of the field. North Wall was determined not to be mercy-ruled at this point. And the bottom of the thir began with Jessup walking. A grounder by Winokur to second baseman Krista Dube was botched for an error, putting runners on first and second. Then a walk to Scally loaded the bases.

It was 8-0, yet you could see the tide beginning to shift here. And on an 0-1 pitch, Thompson lined a shot to the left-center field gap to score Jessup and Winokur and advance Scally to third. It was 8-2.

The comeback was on.

Runyon was sent up to hit for Duncan and within one pitcher made her grand entrance in style ... she was plunked by a pitch, loading the bases again. Goss had a tough at-bat, fouling off a pair of two-strike pitches before drawing Bongiovanni's sixth walk of the game to bring in Scally and make it 8-3. The bottom of North Wall's lineup provided relief for Bongiovanni as she struck out Zanni and Phillips, but a wild pitch in the at-bat to Phillips allowed Thompson to score.

On a 1-1 pitch, Cilento hit a groundball that turned into a very costly error by first baseman Casey. The two runners scored and Cilento continued on to third.

The ship was taking on water and it was 8-6 as Jessup struck out swinging, ending the inning. Suddenly, North Wall went from trying to avoid being mercy-ruled to thinking it could win this game.

Cilento had stalled long enough to get Runyon in the circle to start the fourth as Phillips moved to left field and Duncan came out of the game. At first, Manchester wasn't fazed by the pitching change. Bongiovanni was hit by Runyon, certainly not in retaliation of what happened the half-inning earlier. Autumn Florez beat out a bunt single and both runners moved up a base on a wild pitch.

It set up the most bizarre play of the hot afternoon. On a 1-1 pitch, Webb bunted for a base hit in front of the plate. Runyon simply pocketed the ball, but Webb kept going to second ... not realizing that Autumn Florez was still standing on second base. Webb wound up in a rundown and yet somehow, got bailed out when Bongiovanni bolted for home plate and made it in safely. Florez advanced to third on the plate, but one thing was suddenly beginning to stand out.

No Nicole Webb. Where the heck was Nicole Webb? I'm pretty sure I accounted for everyone on this play. Absolutely sure. And North Wall apparently did, too. Turns out Webb turned the other way back to the dugout thinking she had been tagged out when in reality, she hadn't been. Because she was now in the dugout, the home plate umpire had no other choice but to call her out. And when Tara Dube struck out and Stinemire was out trying to bunt for a base, so went Manchester's last great opportunity on the day. To this day, I still have marked off the words "crazy play" under Webb's fourth-inning scorebox. Still can't believe what happened.

A 9-6 lead didn't seem like it was going to hold up. Winokur reached on an error by Krista Dube and two wild pitches and walk to Scally later, Nick Florez knew Bongiovanni's day was over. He sent Bongiovanni to shortstop, Stinemire to third from shortstop, his daughter from third to behind the plate and Nemeth from behind the plate to the circle to keep the uprising down. He also switched out Krista Dube from second base to right field and Webb from right field to second.

Thompson was the first hitter Nemeth would face. She hit a grounder toward third baseman Stinemire, who raced in, but didn't have a play as Thompson beat the play and Winokur scored.

Now it was 9-7. And it was about to get worse. A wild pitch allowed oth runners to move up a base. Then on the next pitch, another wild delivery. Scally scored and when the throw to the plate was completely missed by Nemeth, Thompson came around third and scored to tie it at 9-all.

Once up 8-0, the lead was absolutely gone. And it got even worse than that. Runyon singled on the next pitch and when left fielder Elia completely whiffed on trying to pick up the ball, it went all the way as far as it could reach. Runyon didn't stop until she crossed the plate. And though Zanni was hit by a pitch and got to third via two more wild pitches, Nemeth struck out Phillips and Cilento to get out of the jam.

And Runyon was now into a groove as she got Krista Dube, Casey and Nemeth in order, the last two on comebackers. In the bottom of the fifth, Jessup walked and Winokur and Scally singled to load the bases. An error by Autumn Florez on a throw to the plate off a Thompson grounder made it 11-9. Runyon put the final nail in Manchester's coffin with a two-run single to right field. A wild pitch and a passed ball helped score the final two runs.

The final blow to Manchester came in the top of the sixth inning. Elia drilled a triple to the left-center field gap and Nick Florez sent her around third to try to score her. But Phillips threw a perfect pass to Runyon, who threw home to Jessup to get Elia out. Though Autumn Florez walked with two outs, Runyon delivered the final out when she got Webb to ground out to third baseman Winokur.

North Wall players celebrated vociferously. Though the day did not start well and manager Cilento did everything within his power to stall long enough before he could get a regular pitcher to put in the circle, it ended splendidly.

Nick Florez looked at his group of 11- and 12-year-olds who played super ball the first 2 1/2 innings only to give it all away in the last half of the game and saw the tears and sadness in their faces. He reminded them of everything they did to get to this point. And he wasn't making any excuses, including Cilento's obvious "tactics."

"I told them they had it made it very far, winning the districts and finishing second in the section," Florez said afterward. "I told them they could hold their heads high for that. I told them that losing is a part of being a champion and that it's a part of life."

Nick Florez said the right things. He needed to for a group of young ladies who were stunned and hurting. To this day, I still believe he was the perfect manager to help eventually send those young ladies off to Harry Ferone to coach them on the high school level. Six years after that tough-luck loss, a good amount of that team -- Casey, Nemeth, Bongiovanni, Florez, Stinemire and Webb -- capped off a 26-2 season by winning Manchester High School's first state championship in the sport, beating Caldwell, 1-0, in the bottom of the seventh inning.

And on the mound that day -- a talented blonde-haired right-hander with big blue eyes named Nicole Webb ... the same Nicole Webb I was looking for on the softball field that hot July afternoon in 1997 when she was a month away from turning 12 years old. And Stinemire was the catcher that night at Toms River High School North in that win against Caldwell.

I got to see the culmination of that moment while I was unemployed in June 2003. Even on that afternoon at Thompson Park, I knew there was something special about those young ladies from Manchester.

It was an honor to see them when they were first developing into standout softball players -- even if it was as they were looking like the kind of softball players I tried to avoid watching.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Eleven innings of lunacy in Lakewood

One year before, I had been in Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series. One week before, I had been in Philadelphia for the annual Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

Now I was in Lakewood, N.J. for the District 18 Junior Little League All-Star first championship game between Toms River, the winners bracket representative, and Toms River East American, which had to make the painful excursion through the losers bracket just to get back to this first championship and even if the team won this game, it'd have to return to Lakewood the next night and play another championship.

By now, East American had to be tired after playing game after game after game just trying to escape out of the elimination bracket and get to this final. But then again, this was no ordinary team out there.

This was the East American bunch that brought me to Williamsport, Pa., the summer before. This was that intimidating team led by Colin Gaynor, Jeff Frazier, Chris Cerullo, Chris Donnelly, Danny Gallagher and Jeremy Dandorph just to name a few that had an amazing summer and got not only a district, sectional and state title, but an Eastern Regional title as well.

And not only was this almost the same bunch of kids who played on the small diamond the year before, they had a newcomer on the team in former Lakewood Little Leaguer Jason Campanalonga, whose family moved into the East Dover section of Toms River. His dominance on the mound accented an already great group of guys.

But East American had lost a game in the very first round of the double-elimination tournament and had to go through the maze of games just to make it back here. A tough task, but if any team could get out of that hole, it'd be this bunch.

On the other side of the ledger stood Toms River, the crosstown rivals on Mapletree Road, the Little League that not only I played at, but helped coach with my dad in the 1970s and '80s. By now, Toms River East had stolen the thunder from Toms River. And it was this group of 13-year-olds who had the same scenario the year before -- one win against East American and they were district champions. This Toms River team didn't want that to happen to it two years in a row.

The three big guns on this team were leadoff hitter and second baseman Mike McTamney, shortstop and pitcher Brett Hardie and tall, gangling starting pitcher and first baseman Ryan Gianoulis, who was getting the ball to pitch this championship game against Campanalonga and East American.

The manager of the East American team was Greg Huyler, who had been a member of the the Senior League level for a few years. I had known him, but didn't really know him as well as his cohort and assistant on the team, John Karkovice. John is a terrific baseball man and an overall terrific guy. Years earlier, my dad and I had coached his stepson on our regular season team, though I never knew that until years later when John's wife, LuJo, came aboard as a writer at the Ocean County Observer where I had now been for 13 years. The conversations she and I used to have still resonate in my mind to this day. John is also the older brother of former Chicago White Sox catcher Ron Karkovice, so there was lineage in a major way.

On the other side, an old familiar face was the manager of the Toms River team. John Puglisi had been at TRLL since the early 1980s and I sat next to him on that August afternoon in 1987 up in the press box at the TRLL Senior League field as he did the public address and I did the official scorekeeping while also covering Toms River's Junior League All-Star state championship win against the Roberto Clemente League of Newark for my paper.

John and I knew each other well.

The date was Tuesday, July 16, 1996. I get to Lakewood's Senior League field, which was located on the corner of Lexington and Ninth Streets. That's where the "bigger" field is located. The "smaller" field is located on Ninth and Clifton. So for the Senior or Junior League All-Star tournament games, I'd park down the road in front of a big complex that never quite got finished back then, a half a block away from the field. Heck, I knew my car was safe there.

When I got there, there were two people there that weren't familiar to me. I soon found out these two men were dong their first district or any tournament game. I sure hoped these two were honed on what needed to be done.

If you've never been to the old complex on Ninth Street in Lakewood, here's all you needed to know – it was abuzz of activity. On one side of the complex was where all the Hispanics lived. The young Hispanic kids would walk down the street, blasting a boombox along the way. Yeah, that's how I knew they were there. On the other side was where the Hasidic Jews lived. It became an everyday sighting whenever I got to Lakewood: a devout Hasidic Jew dressed in black and black hat with his wife and their ... umm ... kids. Lots of kids usually. Little did I know that later on in this game, that side of the neighborhood was going to be heard from.

So the game started just after 7 p.m. and right off the bat, Toms River has a threat going against Campanalonga. With one out, Hardie walks. Then Rob Seiders walks. But a flyout by Gianoulis and a forceout off the bat by Steve Kerrigan to third baseman Cerullo, who stepped on his bag, ended that threat. I was so used to seeing Chris Cerullo as an outfielder on the Little League All-Star team, I was not prepared to see him as an infielder, but apparently he was one of those young men who could make that adjustment from the postage stamp Little League field to the regulation-size field for Junior and Senior Leaguers and beyond.

Like Campanalonga, Gianoulis ran into trouble in the bottom of the first when he walked Gaynor and hit Gallagher with a pitch with one out. But Cerullo and Andrew Diaz both hit infield foulouts to keep it scoreless.

Toms River put up another threat in the second when Jamie Miller was hit by a Camapanalonga pitch and one out later, an error by Campanalonga on a John Lewis sacrifice bunt for which the pitcher threw it away into right field put runners on first and third with one out. But "Campy" got Matt Martin to strike out swinging and got McTamney, the leadoff hitter, to foul out to Cerullo.

The East American struck in the second. Kevin Blaney walked with one out, and was replaced on the basepaths by Todd Cuchie, who was going to come into the game in right field for him. Donnelly sacrificed him to second. That brought up Dandorph – all less than 5-foot of him and one of the heroes of the '95 run to Williamsport. He slashed a single into left field to bring in Cuchie to make it 1-0. Things got more interesting after Frazier walked and Hardie mishandled Gaynor's grounder for an error to load the bases. But Gallagher hit a shot that Hardie handled to end the inning.

Two innings in and Gianoulis had thrown 44 pitches. Campanalonga had thrown 41.

Neither were long for this game. Neither could get a clean inning. And in the top of the third, Toms River asserted its muscle against East American's starter.

Hardie reached on a hit batsmen and was forced at second off a Seiders grounder. Gianoulis sent a shot into the early evening sky that looked like it might get out, but bounced in front of the fence for a double, putting runners on second and third. On a 1-1 pitch, Kerrigan laced a single to left field to score Seiders to tie it at 1-all.

And it could've gotten worse. One out later, Chris Leddy singled to left-center field to score Gianoulis. However, Puglisi had Kerrigan coming to third base, but Frazier, also one of the East American pitchers, threw a dart to Cerullo at third and nailed the runner by a few feet to end the frame.

In the bottom of the third, Cerullo was hit by a pitch and proceeded to steal second and third within the next five pitches to Diaz. But with the tying run on third, Gianoulis struck out Diaz and Campanalonga and got Cuchie to ground out.

Three innings in the books and the darkness was starting to take hold of the two-block long complex. It was 8:15 p.m. and I was braced for what might be a three-plus hour game. Neither team's pitcher could find any kind of rhythm going. Normally during the Lakewood Little League regular season, Junior and Senior League games had a curfew because the Hasidic population wasn't too happy that the lights were still shining on their windows across the street and down the block. I came to find out from the two Lakewood Little League guys doing their first game as league reps for the district that the curfew was 9:30 p.m.

No, that didn't sound so good in reality, but during the district tournament season, any game on that field was given until 11:30 that night. That, I came to find out, would be a blessing on this evening.

Even though both teams would retire the other team's side in the fourth, the game was about to come to a literal crawl.

The fifth for Toms River started when Hardie doubled to center field just out of Frazier's reach and four pitches later, he advanced to third on a wild pitch. Seiders hit a comebacker as Campanalonga watched Hardie back to third. The next batter was Gianoulis. He hit a grounder toward Dandorph. The infield in, Dandorph threw low to catcher Gaynor and Hardie scored to make it 3-1.

East American, the team with all that success and amazing run in 1995, was now down two runs and down to their last nine outs. But after an eight-pitch fourth inning, Gianoulis found the sledding tough. He covered first brilliantly on a grounder to first baseman Leddy to beginning the inning to get Gaynor. Then he ran into trouble with back-to-back walks to Gallagher and Cerullo. A costly error by third baseman Martin loaded the bases with one out. Campanalonga took a 1-2 delivery from Gianoulis deep into the night. But it didn't get out. Seiders caught the ball and Gallagher tagged up to score, making it a one-run game. Cuchie then flied out to end the threat.

Campanalonga had thrown 88 pitches through five innings, and though Toms River made him work in the sixth with plenty of foul balls, he got him out in order on 17 pitches in the sixth.

East American, meanwhile, nearly cost itself a chance to tie the game in its bottom half. Donnelly walked and was pinch-run for by Mike Angelo, a player even smaller in size than Dandorph on that '95 team. But one pitch into the at-bat for Dandorph, Gianoulis picked off Angelo. Dandorph struck out, but when the ball got by catcher Kerrigan, Dandorph raced to first base to get the inning going for East American. Dandorph immediately stole second base on the first pitch to Frazier, who grounded out to allow Dandorph to get within 90 feet of home plate.

At this point, Puglisi didn't want anything to do with the 6-foot tall Gaynor, an intimidating sight for opposing teams. He walked him intentionally, knowing he was putting the go-ahead run on base. He was going to take his chances on Gallagher, who was 0-for-1 with a hit batsmen and walk. On a 2-2 pitch, he got a frustrated Gallagher to pop out to third baseman Martin to end the threat.

The pickoff really, really hurt. I thought East was going to pay for that. And with one inning to go and down 3-2, the first Windsor Avenue Gang, as I called them then, needed Campanalonga to throw an effective seventh inning – one that didn't involve him throwing 17 pitches. He got the job done and retired the top three hitters in order in just nine pitches in the top of the seventh.

By now, it was 9:40 p.m. And East American was down to its last three outs. Cerullo was going to have to get it started against a tiring Gianoulis, who had done his best to keep East American's bats in check while throwing a staggering 125 pitches.

Yes, in the year 2015, he would have been gone by pitch No. 95 with the new Little League "arm-friendly" rules that state kids could only throw that many pitches before being removed. But Gianoulis went back out there to finish what he started.

Cerullo began the frame by walking, the eighth walk by Gianoulis. No one was warming up. This was his game to finish. On the very next pitch to Diaz, Cerullo stole second, his third of four steals on the night. Diaz hit a grounder that Martin muffed for an error, putting runners on first and third with no outs. Gianoulis went after Campanalonga, but by now, you could see him starting to tire badly. The count got to 3-2 and on the next pitch, low and outside for ball four, you could see Gianoulis had nothing left in the tank.

The bases were loaded and worse, there was no outs. It was then that Puglisi pulled the plug on Gianoulis and brought in a kid he could rely on, Hardie, to finish it out.

It didn't take Cuchie long to get acclimated to the new guy on the mound. On an 0-2 "mistake" pitch, Cuchie lined a single to right field to score Cerullo to tie it at 3-3. Karkovice, coaching third base, held up Diaz.

Still no outs. Next up was Donnelly, who came back into the game after Angelo got picked off. He battled Hardie for almost five minutes at the plate, fouling off four straight 3-2 pitches. Finally, Hardie won the battle by striking him out.

One out. Next was Dandorph. On his first pitch, he hit a slow roller to the pitcher, who fielded and tossed to Kerrigan to get Diaz for the second out.

Now the game was left up to the reliable bat of leadoff hitter Jeff Frazier, a gamer who did it time and time again as a 12-year-old in 1995. The count got to 2-2. On the next pitch, Frazier put a grounder in play on the left side of second base. Unfortunately, the ball also met up with Cuchie's lower torso. There was nowhere to jump or get out of the way.

Wrong place, wrong time for Todd Cuchie. A putout to the shortstop for being the closest guy on the play.

In an already amazing game, a wacky finish in regulation only set the stage for the second act. By now, Hreniuk had sent another Lakewood Little League official to the phone to confirm all was good to continue this game. By now, it was 10 p.m. The curfew was 30 minutes over and just mere moments after the seventh inning ended, a Hasidic Jewish husband and wife came upstairs to complain to the two Lakewood representatives and District 18 assistant director Hreniuk that this game was violating the ordinance/code of how long a game was supposed to be played. They had no idea that during the summer tournament time, that got moved back to 11:30 p.m.

They went back downstairs stunned, almost not believing this ordinance or code even existed. But to be on the safe side Hreniuk had this representative go to the phone to explain what was going on to the Lakewood Township Police Department before anyone else could complain to them. Supposedly, that rep explained on the phone – located in the snack stand between the two fields at the complex – the situation and that the game had to continue. Apparently, the cop said it was all fine and the game, which was already into the top of the eighth, proceeded on without incident.

Or so we thought.

Campanalonga was still throwing 114 pitches into this one. A Dandorph error on a Gianoulis grounder got the top of the eighth started. A passed ball two batters later moved Gianoulis into scoring position, but he'd be left there after Miller struck out and David Leddy, now in the game for his brother Chris, flied out to left fielder Diaz.

The bottom of the eighth against Hardie began with Gaynor being hit by a pitch, the third East hitter to reach off a hit batsmen. Gaynor stole second and after back-to-back popouts by Gallagher and Cerullo, Diaz walked. Still not wanting to give Campanalonga anything good to hit, Hardie unintentionally walked him on four pitches to load the bases and put the fate of this game on Cuchie. But Cuchie hit a harmless grounder that David Leddy swallowed up and stepped on second to end the threat.

We were off to the ninth inning. I came to find out as this game went along that Hreniuk, who I had known for nearly 15 years at TRLL, was not even supposed to be doing this game for the district. He was supposed to be going to a concert that night involving the band Styx at the Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel. However, mere hours before the show, it was canceled: John Panozzo, the longtime drummer of the band who had been fighting his own demons through years of alcoholic abuse, died that day from gastrointestinal hemorrhaging at the age of 47. So with nowhere to be that night, he volunteered to represent the district at the final.

Though Martin singled off Campanalonga, Toms River's sixth hit of the game, he would be left there at first as Campanalonga got McTamney to pop out to him and Hardie to ground out to Cerullo.

Once again, a pickoff played a role against East American in the ninth as Donnelly singled to lead off and was lifted for good by Bryan Jedrusiak, who was promptly picked off first by Hardie. One out later, Frazier walked, but he got left at first when Gaynor skied out to center fielder Miller.

The 10th inning began with a strikeout by Campanalonga of Seiders. This was going to be his last inning on the mound, regardless, because he was only allowed to throw 10 innings as the rules stated then. Gianoulis then laced a double to right field to put a runner in scoring position.

But no more than the moment the screaming and cheering stopped after the double, I could hear a car alarm go off, not too far from where my car was situated. I knew it wasn't my car, an '82 Olds Firenza that could barely get me from place to place by now. It had no alarm inside it. So the rest of the 10th inning was spent with the batters hitting and a car alarm going off like a blaring siren in the night. Kerrigan struck out looking. Miller struck out, but a bad pitch by Campanalonga bounced past Gaynor to the backstop, allowing Miller to get on and Gianoulis to get to third.

And all the while, the car horn kept being the backdrop to the game: "Hoooooonk ... hoooooooonk .... hoooooooonk ... hoooooonk ... "

Enough of this already! Where the hell is the owner to the freakin' car?!

David Leddy came up, but he was no match for Campanalonga as he struck out on three pitches, Campy's fourth strikeout of the inning and his 14th strikeout of the game. His night at a staggering 170 pitches was over.

Yes ... 170 freakin' pitches. These days, a manager could be up for charges of child abuse for throwing that many pitches. Still, Campanalonga was a big boy whose arm could handle the work. Well, at least that night it could.

With one out in the bottom of the 10th, Cerullo singled to left field, his first hit of the game after he had reached on two walks and a hit batsmen. He stole his fourth base on the next pitch, putting himself in scoring position to end this. Diaz walked to put runners on first and second with one out. Hardie struck out Campanalonga, coming after him with a fastball on a 2-2 delivery. That brought up Cuchie. He walked to load the bases.

The game was now on the shoulders of Jedrusiak, who stayed in the game to play first base. With the bases loaded and two outs, Karkovice had to force the issue.

He called for a bunt. On an 0-2 pitch no less! But Jedrusiak never got the sign – the pitch came in high as Cerullo came charging down the third-base line. He was going to score the run that would finally end this marathon. Instead, though, he found Steve Kerrigan with a ball and he was ready to tag him out.

On to the 11th. And finally the car alarm stopped. But less than a minute later, it started again. "Hoooooonk ... hoooooooonk .... hoooooooonk ... hoooooonk ... "

With no more Jason Campanlonga to go out and burden the pitching weight, Huyler and Karkovice turned to Cerullo to pitch. Campanalonga went to first, and Jedrusiak went from first to third. And Cerullo needed only 14 pitches in the inning to end the 11th in 1-2-3 order.

And the alarm finally stopped. Yaaaaaay!! Then less than a minute later – "Hoooooonk ... hoooooooonk .... hoooooooonk ... hoooooonk ... "

By this time, everyone was agitated by that damn car alarm horn. Finally, the frustrated Lakewood PA announces in between innings, "If the car alarm is not turned off, the game will be stopped."

You never saw one side of a field's fans react in absolute horror the way East American's did. A couple of parents shrugged their shoulders in disbelief over what was happening and yelled back up to the press box, "It's not us!" 

Thankfully, moments later, someone with the knowledge of car alarms finally found the old man whose car alarm that made all that noise and fixed it the rest of the night. Never had the sound of fans cheering for their kids been so beautiful before.

As Hardie was warming up, an exhausted Karkovice came out of his dugout to head back to the third base coaching box, practically wearing out a path the whole evening. Not only was this game running late at just before 11 p.m., but he had to be at work in an hour since he was working an overnight shift.

He looked up to us in the press box and said, "Call my work place. I'm going to be a little late."

He wasn't the only person concerned. I had a 12:30 deadline, but still had a 25-minute trip back from Lakewood to the Observer building. I had brought with me the company's handy Tandy-180 machine to write the story and send them through a pay phone via couplers.

I sure hope this one would end soon and with an outcome. Remember, no inning was to go beyond 11:30. That was it. So I figured we had two good innings left in this one.

The bottom of the 11th wasn't looking so good. Jedrusiak returned to the plate and struck out. Dandorph flied out to Miller for the second out, bringing the top of the lineup back up.

Frazier, who was 0-for-4 with two walks against two Toms River pitchers, was hit by Hardie on a 2-2 pitch, the fourth East American hitter plunked on the evening. And with a speedy Frazier on base, that meant Karkovice could give him green lights brighter than any that shined on a traffic light in Lakewood. He stole second on the first pitch to Gaynor. Then a wild pitch put him at third. Just like that, the winning run was on base.

Now it was up to Gaynor. The count got to 2-2. Hardie came in with his 97th pitch in relief of Gianoulis. It was a fastball that jammed the handle of Gaynor's bat. Gaynor put a swing on it and somehow managed to put the ball just over Martin's head and into left field.

Frazier scored. The 4-hour, 4-minute marathon was complete. Through comebacks, near rallies, actual rallies, complaining neighbors and an annoying car horn, East American had won a pretty impressive game, 4-3, to see another day in the tournament.

I rushed downstairs to interview Karkovice and Gaynor. It was 11:15 p.m. I knew I wasn't going to be heading back to work, so off to a Howell-based dinner not too far from the field I went. I banged out my story in about 35 minutes to Al, my boss, through the couplers. The night was over and I got home sometime after 12:45 that morning.

And all it meant was that I had another Toms River-Toms River East American final to cover that next night back at Lakewood. But Frazier was in control of this one, allowing one earned run on six hits with three walks and seven strikeouts in 112 pitches (yeah, that wouldn't happen either in 2015) as East American won the district title with a much more normal 5-3 win in far less time.

These East American kids grew from that victory. They cruised from there to a Section 3 title and then a state championship at the South Vineland complex on July 31. From there, East American didn't let up and once again, won the East Regional championship, sending the team onto Taylor, Mich., for the Junior Little League World Series. Sadly, it fell apart once the team got to Michigan as it lost to two foreign teams in the event.

That team was just as much fun as it was in '95 – and a little more mature. Unfortunately for this Windsor Avenue Gang, two state championships as Senior League All-Stars in 1997 and '98 ended badly in the Eastern Regional Tournament.

Still, that game in the first District 18 championship is the game I will remember about that team.

Not just the fact they fought from behind, but the fact all these distractions seemed to get in the way and they still managed to focus and win.

Thankfully, I can report I haven't encountered a screwier Little League game quite like that since then.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Getting thanks ... and giving thanks

I am no angel.

I will be the first to admit that, especially in my younger days when I first began in this business. I was tough, tougher than a high school sports writer should be.

How can that be? In my interpretation of "tough" I would not only point out a young child's mistakes, but tell how that child's mistake made a difference in that game or event. I was tough, even for Little League Baseball levels I was tough.

For example, in 1986, I was doing a follow-up to Toms River Little League's All-Star district championship a day or two after beating defending champion Lakewood and standout player Joey Kessler. One of the players I talked to was team catcher Jamie Allee, who explained that part of the motivation of wanting to beat Lakewood came in the team's loss in the previous championship of the double-elimination tournament was after Kessler hit the game-deciding home run, he congratulated him on the "nice" shot and Kessler told Allee, "I know," almost in an arrogant-sounding way.

So I wrote it. And a week after that article came out, I'm with Butch Belitrand of Lakewood Little League and the co-manager of the team's fabled 1975 World Series championship team over at Georgian Court College (now University) where the teams were staying for the annual state Little League All-Star Tournament. He's on the phone with someone helping out the tournament, a Lakewood Little League parent. He tells this parent that he's with me at the college at the moment and that parent goes, "Let me talk to him."

He asks me to take the phone. "It's Mrs. Kessler. She wants to speak to you."

So with a smile, I grab the phone and say, "Hello."

These were the first four words I heard out of her mouth: "I hate your guts!" 

That smile got wiped off my face and confusion came to me at that moment. Interestingly, after she got that part off her chest, she calmly explained why she said that and I calmly listened to her and I actually apologized if I caused any problems with the family. She was OK with that and we never had a problem again. Even more interestingly, during the tournament, I saw Joey Kessler, who I got to know that year and the year before as a member of Lakewood's district and sectional championship team. We were cool and even he admitted he said that two-word sentence to Jamie Allee while smiling.

I always find it amazing that most parents didn't go Mrs. Kessler on me. I've heard ad nauseam for years, "The kids aren't getting paid to hear about the mistakes they made. You shouldn't be hard on them."

My reaction: I get that, but it's a mistake in a game ... it's not a mistake in life. For one moment, he or she messed up. My job is to report what happened, not coddle kids. If you make the varsity of your sport or an All-Star team, congratulations on the honor. But I have a job to do and yes, I not only have to report on your successes, but your failures, too.

My job doesn't require me to be a full-time cheerleader. Get it? Good.

And so a few days after New Year's Day 2013, I'm just hanging out in my apartment when the mail came. Inside the mail that day was a card from someone who I covered in high school field hockey 25-plus years ago.

Her name is Kim Bush. I had been warned of this coming by Kim Bush herself when she asked for my address on Facebook. Maybe she had some something interesting to share with me field hockey-wise or a story of an athlete or child of an athlete I once covered in her current home state of North Carolina. I was game for whatever it was she was sending.

Then again, maybe she wanted to share her feelings about my coverage of her back when she was breaking Ocean County and Shore Conference marks at Toms River North between 1984-87.

I wasn't always very nice. To start this story, I guess I have to go back to the fall of 1985 and what was my first full year of covering high school field hockey for the Ocean County Observer. In 1985, she was a sophomore and a scoring machine on North's team that was filled with senior talent with the leaders being Missy Bernacki and Valerie Trotman. They were the best team in the county that year. And along the way, she was filling the nets behind opposing goalies.

Lots of goals. And that was the problem. It wasn't that she was scoring at a crazy pace. She was scoring against teams that could barely tie their shoelaces let alone attempt to compete on a field hockey field. And sadly for North, while cross-town rivals Toms River East and South provided the competition in Shore Conference Class A South, the rest of the division that included Brick, Jackson Memorial, Southern Regional and Brick Memorial wasn't as good.

OK, they were awful.

And while she was off and running toward the county record for goals scored in a season set exactly one year earlier by Toms River South's Chris Forrester of 34 goals and while most people may have ogled at the mind-boggling numbers she was putting up, I wasn't. Stopping short to say that a blind person could score against the "lesser" teams on North's schedule, I did my best to make the numbers she was putting up less impressive than they were. Then again, I also had opposing coaches who weren't amused by the four- and five-goal games Bush was putting up against the "lesser" teams.

North regularly flattened those teams and I made the argument -- not regularly, mind you -- that the starters could have come out of the game earlier than normal in those games, maybe saved up for a tougher battle against South or East.

Let's say I know of one person who wasn't all that thrilled by what was being reported in our newspaper -- that was North coach Becky Miller, who would tell me from time to time that I was being hard on her team in very different terms. Maybe I wasn't all that amused by the Kool-Aid put in front of me, but I was going to be different in my terms. And believe me, this wouldn't be the first and only time we'd tussle in my 15 years at the paper between the sports she coached, field hockey and softball.

By the end of the season, North won the Class A South title, but more importantly, won the Shore Conference Tournament in a shootout over a Shore area power, Shore Regional, on North's field on November 18, 1985.

This was where everything changed. During that shootout, Bush was asked to take a penalty one-on-one attempt against Shore's goalie. She came in on her and put a move on the netminder that had her wondering which way did she go. Before the goalie recovered, the ball was in the back of the net.

She scored. So did Bernacki and Trotman. North won that shootout, 3-0, and won the SCT title (now if the teams are tied through regulation and overtime periods, it's left a tie and co-championships for both clubs).

The goal was Bush's 34th of the season, tying the county record. North was the toast of the field hockey world and Bush was easily the player of the year. With a new cast around her that included members of her own Class of '88, she went down in goals, but if you call 29 goals going down terribly, you have some amazingly high standards.

That only set up what I consider a magical 1987 season. Most of the group around Bush were seniors like she was and seasoned veterans like Mary Bendel, Krista Saponara, Sue Gerbino and Vickie Trotman, Val's sister. There was a talented junior class sprayed in with the seniors such as goalie Linda Kurtyka, all-around midfielder Dawn Ostrowski and forwards Katie Vignevic, Lori Garrabrant and Christie Emmert.

Once again, Bush was scoring like nuts and once again, I was the one pointing out that she was scoring a lot against the weaker sisters of the poor within their division. And in the SCT final that year, Shore Regional, which had reached an unbeaten streak of 44 games coming onto North's field again, played North to a 1-1 tie. No shootouts anymore like two years earlier ... just a co-championship.

And like before, I was challenging Bush and North to be better. They had to prove it in a place the Mariners had never proven it in the two years Bush was a star -- the state tournament. North was in the sectional semifinal round, but because snow had fallen on the Tuesday of the game, North could not get its field ready to play until that Friday, November 13. Then they took care of Cumberland, which had knocked the Mariners out of the state tournament the year before, in the semifinal matchup, setting up a memorable South Jersey Group IV title matchup with Shawnee the next morning, Saturday, November 14, at North.

The teams battled to a 1-1 tie through regulation. That left overtime. The teams played one overtime period to no avail. So now it was up to a second 10-minute overtime. North was able to get a penalty corner and from there, Ostrowski fed Bush at the top of the circle. She steadied the ball, then wound up and fired a laser.

The sound of the ball hitting the wooden part of the bottom of the goalie cage behind Shawnee's goalkeeper still resonates on that North campus all these years later. If the surroundings are quiet, you can hear it vividly.

North had won it on arguably the greatest goal in Ocean County field hockey history. All that win did was fuel North from there to a 4-0 SJ IV semifinal win at a muddy Bordentown High School field over Notre Dame High of Lawrenceville, then on a cold 25-degree night at Trenton State College, the Mariners completed a state championship 21-0-3 season by taking down Morristown, 2-1, in the Group IV title game as Bush scored her 35th goal of the season, breaking Forrester's mark from three years ago.

When it was all said and done, Kim Bush had completed arguably the greatest field hockey career in Ocean County history. To this day, she and Christie Pearce (Rampone) ... yes, THAT Christie Pearce (Rampone) ... are the two greatest field hockey players I ever covered. North got plenty of glory on that All-County team in '87 with six kids on the 13-girl team earning first-team honors and Miller was our paper's coach of the year.

But instead of talking to Miller about the season solely, I wanted to hear from the player who made the machine run, the one who set all those records and had a drive that was completely different from your average field hockey player.

The player who I unfairly made a pinata because a lot of goals she was scoring came against a lot of weaker opponents. In the end, she more than proved her worth as a great player. But this particular night in December 1987, I had to wait for Kim Bush to get home -- she had been over at the Winding River Skating Rink.

I would get her in about an hour. It was somewhere around 10 o'clock that night. We started talking about the North season and she gave me wonderful insight into what was going on and the kind of coach Miller was. She relayed one story about how she would be the one in the huddle all chatty and reminding her teammates how important a certain match was, serving as the motivation, then co-captain Bendel putting her two cents worth in by just saying, "Let's gooooo!" 

"That was it? That's all she said?"

"Yeah. I'd do all the talking and she'd finish it that way."

Kim Bush was on her way to Ohio State University to play field hockey there. You don't win Big Ten scholarships by only scoring five goals against the Bricks and Jackson Memorials of the world. You make impacts, both on and off the field. And after about 90 minutes on the phone, I got to know more about Kim Bush than I had in the previous three years total.

I smiled, but I was also sad. And apologetic. Why did I do this to this sweet, young lady and make it that much harder on her when she didn't have control over the schedule her team played or her coach maybe taking her out sooner than later when the game was well in hand? Scoring over 100 career goals should gain you a lot more praise than disdain, but yet this 21-year-old had done things to try and torch that amazing reputation.

It would be the last conversation I had with her since she decided not to play soccer that spring, saving herself for the following fall in Columbus.

And so a few days after I had come home from a vacation to see my family -- the last time I saw my mom coherent -- as well as my best friend, Ted, I had gotten this card in the mail. I had no idea what was on it, but I knew who it was from. I just prepared for something, maybe good, maybe bad.

So I opened the card and there's one thing that the front of the card read.


Then I opened up the card to read what was on it. When I was done reading it, I was taken aback.

"Dear Mark,

 I wanted to take a moment to say 'Thank you!' As I reflect on my days as an athlete, I feel so fortunate to have had you covering our field hockey team at TRN in your articles.

I teach a class titled "social issues in sports" and I do an exercise with my students where they look at newspapers and Web sites to analyze who is getting the media coverage. As you can imagine, it typically isn't women and if it is, they are portrayed sexually or in a negative way or as a wife supporting their husband athletes most times. When we do this exercise, I tell them how way back when I was in H.S., my team had major coverage in our local and even state papers.

I want to thank you for this. You have no idea how much seeing and reading about ourselves boosted confidence in the lives of young women. It inspired us to play hard and in my case, I had very little self confidence and those articles that you wrote helped lift me up and allowed me to slowly believe in myself. You still do this today with your blogs.

As I think back in my life, I honestly believe you played a major role in helping me be successful as an athlete and person. I wanted to say thank you!

Best wishes! K.

To say I was stunned would be an understatement. Now understand, I wasn't writing bad stories about her every single time out ... just times when she was racking up goals against bad teams. She was more than worthy of the praise she deserved, especially that cold Sunday, November 22, 1987 at Trenton State College. Not too many athletes get to walk away saying they won a state championship in their final high school game and she could.

I will be the first one to tell you that to me, it's a job. I take pride in my job and whether you like what I write or not is simply up to you. Most of the time, I don't judge how you think of my work.

Very few, though, ever take the time to tell me what my words meant to their lives, yet 25 years after she won a state field hockey, she was thanking me when I didn't think I deserved it for what I put her through -- at least that's what I felt -- in those certain moments.

But she took the time to do that. Who am I to quibble over her words of praise? It took me a long time to respond or think about how to respond because I didn't feel deserving of the praise. But after all this time, I've come to grips with it.

It's the nicest thing anyone has ever taken the time to write to me about in 31 years in this business. And I never got to say these words, but now I can say it in this way:

Thank you, Kim. You were a joy to cover, as was your team that 1987 season. Even if it didn't come out the way it should have come out all those years ago, you were special. Still special as you balance a career and motherhood in your 40s (gasp!). I enjoyed everything that involved you and was about you. I was the lucky one.

I'm still tough in my late 40s as I was as a young teen or in my early 20s first starting out. But I'm fair. And I understand more than I did then.

And I get blessed from time to time to get those special people to cover, even when they thank you for making them feel special, even if you didn't feel like you were doing that all the time.

Maybe I was fair and not as tough as I portray myself. I'm glad someone saw through it.

I may have grown a halo for all I know.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Twenty-five years later, I call it "good gambler's luck"

For two familiar and fierce rivals, both Toms River High School East, the tournament's defending champion, and Toms River North, who shared the Shore Conference Class A South title with East that season, sure looked like they were in unfamiliar territory when they reached the semifinal round of the 1990 Shore Conference Softball Tournament.

Though East was the sixth seed of the tournament, the Raiders looked nothing like the 26-2 team that won it all the previous year. Their dominant senior class had graduated and the only remnants left from the team were second baseman Christine Grice, center fielder Jeannine Zarrillo and all-everything, first-team All-State third baseman Michelle Carlson, who was now being asked to take on the role as a sometimes pitcher as well as guarding things at third.

This seemed like a daunting task to third-year head coach Debbie Schwartz and her new assistant, former East shortstop Dawn Dziedzic, who had taken over the role when Diane Morrissey left to start a family after that amazing '89 season. But somehow, they made it work, winning a share of that A South title with North and then reaching the Ocean County Tournament championship game before losing to the "other" Toms River school, Toms River South. East had also managed to beat North in the quarterfinal round of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tournament before losing to a rowdy bunch from Cumberland who made life miserable for Carlson that afternoon on Cumberland's field, the game ending in a near fist fight between some of the fans and East catcher Kelly Arnold, who was ready to take on the fans, the players, the coaches or anything that resembled Cumberland.

All the while, East was doing it with a makeshift lineup the second half of the season and the pitching pair of Carlson, who pitched mainly because she had the experience and could do it when asked by Schwartz, and junior Lisa MacBean, a nice pitcher, but who was also hit or miss depending on the performance. Let's just say mentally, Carlson was ready to come into the game at a moment's notice.

Somehow, though, the 19-8 Raiders managed to get to this point by beating Point Pleasant Boro on Boro's home field even though East was the higher seed (Boro won the Class C title outright, giving the Panthers the home game) and then stunning No. 3 seed and host Ocean Township in the quarterfinal round.

But if you think East's trip to the semifinal round as a sixth seed was a surprise, what did that make North's trip to the same game as a 10th seed? North stunned Middletown South, a perennial favorite in the event, in the first round, then shocked No. 2 seed Shore Regional in the quarterfinals.

The Mariners were 18-8 going into this game, losers of two of three games during the season to East and a 7-6 loser to Toms River South in the OCT semifinal. Still, these Mariners were a terrific upgrade from the '89 team under longtime coach Becky Miller, now in her 20th season in charge of the program and who once had a young player on her team over a decade ago named Debbie Schwartz (Dietrich then).

While East seemed to be a holdover team from '89, North had a team that was primed to be even better in 1991. Their senior leaders were shortstop Lauren Farrington and outfielders Shari Ritchkin and Carmen Crofoot. But the better players the Mariners had were in the junior class, starting with pitcher Heather Richards, who had become the full-time hurler of the team that season. Catcher Kim Niedzwiecki had the role of being Richards' backstop and the two of them had known each other a long, long time, the same way I knew their dads at Toms River Little League a long time. Center fielder Jen Gentle may have been only 5-foot tall but she was smooth and quick and third baseman Jen Carlisle had been an anchor all season at the hot corner.

So when East and North came together at Southern Regional High School's softball field (when it was located near the front of the building along the side running across Route 9), one of these teams was going to represent Ocean County in the SCT championship to be played a few days later at Lakewood's Wilbur Thompson Field against the winner of the Middletown North-Wall semifinal, which was being played this same day at Red Bank Regional High School.

And I still didn't believe both these teams had made it this far.

Normally at Southern back before the school built a new field in the back of the building, I'd hang out right behind the backstop for a softball game there, usually sitting on the ground along the right side mere feet from the on-deck circle, located next to the first-base dugout. After all, there weren't too many "favorable" spots to cover a game at Southern, but that was the main one in my opinion.

On this day, the first-base dugout was being occupied by East, North on the other side of the backstop. So any conversation I heard on the day -- or I started from time to time -- was with East. And before this game, I had talked to Schwartz about who was starting. It was going to be MacBean throwing. So I immediately knew the backup plan in case MacBean's personal GPS was off that day:

Schwartz would have to move Carlson from third base to the pitcher's mound, move Theresa Madden, who was the "heir apparent" to the job at third once Carlson graduated, into third from right field. But that was only half of what was going on. Arnold had a bad ankle and Grice had not made a smooth transition from second base to shortstop in this particular season, so Schwartz had to sacrifice behind the plate. Though Vicki Kube, a sophomore, wasn't quite the standout Arnold was behind the plate, Schwartz moved her into the game to hold down the fort and made the decision of putting gimpy-kneed Arnold at shortstop and moving Grice back to second base, while Dee Boudah, who had transferred from Central Regional to East that year, got sent from second base out to right field. The only set pieces that remained where they were involved Zarrillo in center, Jenn Wrightson in left field and Kathy Dragonetti at first base.

To this day, I still don't know how Debbie Schwartz kept her sanity throughout all that.

So in the first inning of this SCT semifinal on a beautiful, sunny Saturday, June 2, 1990, the big question was how MacBean would do in the early innings. If she had gotten through the first couple of innings, I felt (and probably Schwartz and Dziedzic felt, too) that she would be fine and it'd be business as usual.

It wasn't to be. MacBean found herself in a major jam. MacBean had walked Gentle and Farrington and an error loaded the bases. With no outs, MacBean proceeded to walk Richards to force home Gentle.

Four batters in and no outs, that was enough for Schwartz. I don't even think Richards had made it halfway down to first as Gentle was crossing home plate when Schwartz popped out of the dugout and called timeout. Down 1-0, she wasn't going to let this one get out of control. So each aforementioned move was made, including Carlson, who reluctantly took the ball from Schwartz and had to clean up the mess caused by MacBean. Jen DeNitto, North's sophomore first baseman, grounded out, but another run scored and a wild pitch by Carlson brought in Farrington to make it 3-0.

Carlson was able to get the last two outs without any more damage being done. But a 3-0 hole in the bottom of the first seemed daunting against Richards, who was getting better and better as the season went along. She and Niedzwiecki had a superb pitcher-catcher relationship going on and that was a big part of the reason the Mariners caught fire when they did. A win would've put North into the SCT final for the first time since 1983.

For the first two innings, Richards held the Raiders down in check and got a great backhanded play at shortstop by Farrington on a Dragonetti grounder in which Farrington threw her out by half a step.

In the bottom of the third, the Raiders answered back. Madden reached on a bunt single and a groundout moved her to second. Grice then singled her home, making it 3-1.

Still, Richards had things in place. No matter what East did at the plate, North seemed to have an answer. Then in the top of the fifth, the Mariners threatened to run away with this one.

Carlson had done a very good job of keeping the Mariners in check, but the left-handed hitting DeNitto delivered a two-run double to right-center field and she later scored on a Carlisle groundout.

With nine outs to go, the Mariners were ahead, 6-1, and since the Raiders did very little to convince me they had anything in them to mount a comeback, I was preparing to write this story as an ode to the Mariners looking good on this day and the Raiders not so much in what was looking like Michelle Carlson's last high school softball game. She was on her way to a second straight All-State first-team honor at third base and was the best softball player I had ever covered in my time at the Observer, something that 25 years later still rings true when I talk about the best softball players ever. No one, in my opinion, could turn a game around, whether it be a fielding play, a clutch at-bat or something she did on the basepaths, more than Michelle Carlson.

And that reality that this might be her last game was slowly sinking in. But just as East was coming to the plate in the bottom of the fifth, I can see Dziedzic rallying the team around her. She was only 22 years old, but she had a dynamite hold on the team even at that age. She started getting in each person's face to do a little better ... but mostly, as she would tell me later on, to simply "hit the ball and make something happen." East had not done that for most of this game. And though East did not score in the bottom of the fifth, you could sense they weren't going to go down in a lethargic manner.

Carlson had steadied the ship in the top of the sixth, but the Raiders were still down 6-1 and had six outs to go. Nothing told me all year long that these Raiders had the same swagger in them as the '89 team did when that club made numerous comebacks. It was one year earlier in the SCT quarterfinals that East was down 3-0 with six outs to go to upset-minded Lacey, but scored twice in the sixth then two more times in the seventh to take the win and ultimately win the title two games later.

That East team in 1989 was special. This East team didn't have that spark, that fire in them and yet, they managed to be 19-8 going into this game. To this day, this is one of the best coaching jobs Schwartz ever did with East.

The sixth started innocently with a Grice groundout to Farrington. But then it was Arnold's turn to test out Farrington. Farrington made a throwing error. The window was cracked open, giving East a sliver of hope. If Arnold had stayed in behind the plate as catcher, she could have been courtesy-run for, but now since she was the shortstop, she could only be substituted once before having to be taken out a second time. So Schwartz called on Rosemary Carlson, Michelle's sister, to run for Arnold and stir something up.

This brought up Michelle Carlson. Suddenly, Schwartz looked and saw the answer to all her immediate problems in front of her.

Carlisle was not even playing even with the third base bag. How could Carlisle suspect a bunt would come with one out and a five-run lead with five outs to go? So Schwartz put the bunt sign down for her multi-talented senior. It was perfect. Carlisle came a long way to get to the ball and by the time she gripped it to throw it, she realized that may not have been a good idea.

The ball eluded DeNitto and rolled down the right field line. Rosemary Carlson raced all the way around to score and her sister ended up at second. It was 6-2 and East still had a long way to go. But at least this was a start.

Suddenly, I can sense the excitement that had been lacking for innings on the East side from inside the dugout. And maybe that rattled the cool, calm and collected Richards, who uncorked a wild pitch, advancing Michelle Carlson to third. She then walked Zarrillo, who just took second on fielder's indifference. North wanted outs and up four runs, it didn't matter to hold on Zarrillo.

Then came the biggest play of the inning. Wrightson was up. On a 2-2 pitch, Richards struck her out, but Niedzwiecki couldn't hold on to the third strike. The ball didn't roll far from the North catcher and even if Carlson thinks about scoring on the play, you get the out at first and if Carlson scores, it's 6-3 and you're closer to the inning being over. But Niedzwiecki got the ball and saw Carlson start down the third-base line.

What Niedzwiecki didn't realize was that Carlson was in control of the situation and when Niedzwiecki threw a one-hopper past Carlisle at third and down the left-field line, she had successfully baited her into an error that allowed her to score and put runners on second and third and still one out.

Suddenly, it started to get a little warmer on the left side of me. You could see the concern on North players faces in the dugout. Miller remained calm and collected, but it wasn't feeling comfortable anymore. She called timeout and gathered her infielders, Richards and Niedzwiecki together to get them all on the right page. North was still in command, however it was 6-3 now and the Mariners still had five outs to get. I was starting to wonder if they really were losing a grip on the steering wheel.

Then as North players went back to their normal positions, Schwartz once again noticed that Carlisle was playing back, even with runners on second and third and one out. Guess she didn't figure Dragonetti was much of a bunter.

Oh, was that proven wrong. Dragonetti put down a perfect bunt between Richards and Carlisle. Carlisle threw her out, but it scored Zarrillo to make it 6-4 as Wrightson moved up to third. That brought up Madden, one of the team's best bunters. However, Schwartz had Madden swing away and she placed a single to right field to score Wrightson.

It was now 6-5. North was barely holding on by its fingernails. The Mariners needed something. Stacey Hartley was asked to pinch-hit. She took a shot at right-center field as well when she placed bat on ball. Gentle came rushing in and made an outstanding diving catch to take a hit away from Hartley and perhaps keep Madden from tying the game at 6-all.

I marked that moment down with an asterisk next to the out in my scorebook. Figured that if North held on to win the game, I would be looking at Jen Gentle's amazing diving catch as the play that saved the day.

North, though, couldn't do anything against Carlson, who gave up three hits, walked three and struck out four in her seven-inning relief stint.

The Mariners went back out onto the field and though Gentle made that great play to end the inning holding on to a 6-5 lead, you could sense from the body language the players didn't quite have a bounce in their step whatsoever. Instead of "Let's get three outs and celebrate our place in the final," it felt more like, "How are they going to torment us more in this inning?"

Still, Schwartz told me after the game she really didn't know how her players were going to react after Gentle's catch had ended an inning promising to be bigger than it turned out to be. They would have to start all over again. But how?

I can tell you this much -- it didn't start well for the Raiders. Boudah hit a simple grounder to Carlisle, who threw her out. Then Grice hit a harmless popup that Carlisle snagged in foul ground for the second out.

East's season was now down to gimpy-kneed and visibly hurting Kelly Arnold. She was the last hope for the Raiders. The count got to 1-2. One more strike and it was over. But on Richards' next pitch, Arnold hit a slow roller toward Farrington. Arnold gave it everything she had down the first-base line and managed to beat Farrington's throw to first to keep the game going.

Schwartz had a dilemma. She couldn't use Rosemary Carlson again because she substituted her in and out of the game for Arnold off the bench. And there was no one left on the East bench with any speed that Schwartz could use. So Arnold had to leg it out whether she liked it or not. Nonetheless, the game was still on and Michelle Carlson was back up. But Richards wanted no part of Carlson in this moment and walked her to move the injured Arnold into scoring position with one out left to get.

This brought up the Raiders' other best power hitter on the team, Zarrillo, who had a breakout season after being the team's No. 9 hitter the year before. On the first pitch after the walk, Richards uncorked a wild pitch and both Arnold and Carlson moved up a base, now both in scoring position with two outs.

Everyone in the ballpark knew Zarrillo had the green light to go and nail whatever pitcher Richards was throwing her. Everyone ... except Schwartz.

Once again, the answer to her problem was right in front of her in the third-base coaching box. Carlisle was playing back this time, expecting a rocket to her. So with the hopes that Schwartz could get snake eyes on a once-in-a-lifetime roll, she called Zarrillo's attention and gave her the sign to not hit the ball very hard. The count got to 2-2. Richards threw one right down the middle and East's cleanup hitter shortened up on the bat.

She put a perfectly placed bunt into the chasm between the third-base line and the pitcher's mound. No way were Carlisle or Richards going to have a play on the ball. Arnold limped home and Carlson made it to third unscathed. In an unthinkable manner, East tied the game at 6-6. If Zarrillo bunts the ball foul, the game was over on a third-strike foul bunt and North was going to the SCT final.

That was how much of a gamble that call by Schwartz was. But the way she had to move her entire defense around the second half of the season, you could understand why Schwartz had this "nothing to lose" attitude.

North was shell-shocked. The win was within one out's grasp. And now the Mariners had to recover to get the final out and look to the top of the eighth inning. But great coaches know when to kick a team down when they are already there searching for an answer on how to get back up.

On the very first pitch to Wrightson, Schwartz did it again -- she called for another bunt! And once again, Wrightson put bat on ball and put it into that same chasm left open by Carlisle playing behind the third base bag. I could still see Michelle Carlson's arms held high in the air as she scampered the last 20 feet home untouched and into the waiting arms of on-deck hitter Dragonetti as the rest of the team mobbed her and the hugs and high-fives became intense on the right side of where I was sitting.

And as I watched the Raiders players, Dziedzic and Schwartz celebrate a victory that seemed so far from happening, I turned to witness Heather Richards' hardest toss of the day. She took her glove as she crossed over the third-base line dejectedly and whipped it against the front of the dugout, visibly upset of what had taken place the last two innings. For five innings, this was North's ticket to the SCT final as a 10th seed. There was no way the Mariners were going to blow this game, yet in the final two innings, Schwartz, Carlson and the rest of the Raiders took a number of gambles to not only get back into the game, but to eventually win it.

For one day, it felt as if the Ghosts of '89 were back in sight to pull East out of a difficult situation. And I'm sure the bus ride home to Toms River that Saturday afternoon was one none of the players will ever forget.

East was going to the final for the second straight year and hours later, we found out the Raiders were going to play Wall in the final after the fourth-seeded Crimson Knights outlasted top-seeded  Middletown North by the same 7-6 score. Imagine that.

East had beaten Wall in the SCT semifinals the year before, but this was not the same East team and it certainly wasn't the same Wall team either from '89. Wall embarrassed East into 12 errors in an 11-1 win just three weeks earlier. An on the day of the game, one that reportedly included a fight between team members, the Raiders took a beating like they had never taken before. East couldn't do a thing right on that Wilbur Thompson Field in Lakewood and Wall did everything to near perfection in a thorough 18-3 humbling in the championship ended via the 10-run mercy rule.

To this day, it's the only time I ever saw Michelle Carlson cry. It was the most frustrating way to have a career end the way it did, yet she and her teammates had the memory of making the final in the most dramatic and unlikely fashion just days earlier.

And 25 years later, I still can't explain those last two innings or the ending for that matter other than "good gambler's luck."

Sunday, May 31, 2015

"Strep throat" ... and the end of East's season

Friday at the Ocean County Observer was my day off. Didn't have to cover anything and I was on my own.

But on this Friday, May 31, 1985, I really wasn't off. Both semifinals of the fifth annual Ocean County Softball Tournament were taking place on this day and long before I got involved with running the event, I was just an 18-year-old reporter covering the event.

I had a choice of games on this day -- No. 3 seed Central Regional at No. 2 Toms River South in a game that looked to be promising in excitement and No. 5 seed Lakewood at No. 1 Toms River East. It would have been easy for me to schlep over to South to cover the Central-South game featuring two coaches that would become icons in the sport and friends of mine, Central's Norm Selby and South's Jim Christiano. I liked both men and would not have minded doing that game.

But I had seen enough of both teams that first spring at the Observer. I wanted to see East-Lakewood over at my alma mater of East. East I had seen just one time that spring and that was in a loss to Shore area power Middletown South at East, a game I still remember to this day because East coach Rick Dispoto said that he had videotape that South pitcher Vicki Phillips was "crow-hopping" and that the umpires simply missed calling that throughout the game, a 10-4 loss.

The Raiders were the No. 1 team in Ocean County the entire season. They were 18-4 and had a nucleus of standout players such as junior first baseman Kathy van Halem, junior catcher Annette Simone and senior shortstop Dawn Dziedzic, who was on her way to Georgian Court College. Leading the way on the mound was senior Stephanie Hillmann, a rock for three years and who had won 47 games, then a best for a career in the program. Two of the four losses were to Brick Memorial, including in the Shore Conference Tournament. The Raiders also had that loss to Middletown South (who would win the SCT that year) and to Vineland in the state tournament.

By now, the OCT, which was held later in the season, was the only tournament left for the Raiders. State tournament was gone. So was the SCT. And for this group of talented Raiders, who had just the Shore Conference Class A South title secured, this title seemed delectable.

And the Raiders should have had a walkover with these Lakewood Piners. Even as good as Lakewood was, it was still a young team with two of its better players being second baseman Shayna Busto, a freshman, and shortstop Carol Walters, an all-everything shortstop having a breakout year, first on the basketball court as the point guard of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III championship unit during the winter, and now with this Piners softball team.

The heartbeat of the team, though, was the battery of junior Laura Zitney and senior Faith Nafziger, the 6-foot-2 gentle giant in the pitching circle. She was also a part of the SJ III basketball championship team nearly three months earlier, so she, like Walters, was on a roll. Another big senior contributor was left fielder Sherrill Mimes.

The Piners of head coach Dave McKelvey and assistant Robert Sattan were just 10-9. I had not seen the Piners all season and was figuring this would be it for their season. Until this season, the Piners and Raiders were in the same Class A South conference, but in 1984, Lakewood was dropped down from A South to B South, so this would be the only meeting between the teams this year.

And I figured this might get ugly. East, the 18-4 team with plenty of experience, the only thing missing was a tournament title, should beat Lakewood, right? I was preparing for an East-South OCT championship to be honest.

So I arrived at East for a 3:45 p.m. game at about 3:20. East played its games on the field on the east side of the school, over by the gymnasium parking lot. There wasn't a whole lot of grass in the outfield, but this was the field they played on. The Raiders played there until 1994 when they moved to the back of the school.

I sat in the unoccupied bleacher seats on the first-base side of the field, right behind Lakewood's bench. I copied down Lakewood's lineup as the Piners were out on the field warming up. Got done jotting down the names and moved back to the bleachers. I was going to get the East lineup in a few moments.

No more than about two minutes later, coach Dispoto walks over to where I was. Now I had this man as my geometry teacher at East my sophomore year, so we knew each other fairly well. He had his lineup in hand already and wanted me to have a copy of it. I appreciated it.

But before I could look down at the lineup, he already hit me with the bombshell of the afternoon.

"Stephanie Hillmann will not be pitching today," he starts. "She has strep throat."

I found it rather peculiar that he would report such a thing to me, but I guess he knew I would ask him where East's No. 1 pitcher was afterward anyway. But as I wrote down the lineup sans the senior pitcher, all I kept wondering was how much her absence may affect this team.

Better yet, I was thinking, "Strep throat? Why now?! Two games left in her career and NOW she gets strep throat?"

So instead of Stephanie Hillmann in the circle, Dispoto had to turn to sophomore Mari King, one of the two twin sisters on this team with Luanne King. I knew the King sisters were gamers and would prove so over the next couple of years. But even Mari King had to be asking herself why she was throwing this particular game and not playing the outfield like she normally would. She had little work as a pitcher after all, so if the idea was to keep Lakewood's lineup off-balance, then I can see the point of going with her.

And the first test under partly cloudy skies on this day at East came in the top of the first inning. Michelle Atkinson worked out a one-out walk, but King got the dangerous Walters to fly out and Nafziger to foul out to catcher Simone.

All was OK after the first inning. In the bottom of the first, Dziedzic, East's leadoff hitter, worked out a walk and after she was forced out on a Kelly Sprague grounder, Walters made an uncharacteristic error on a Mari King grounder to put runners on first and second. But van Halen fouled out to right fielder Lori Ann Haytes that saw Sprague advance to third and Luanne King fouled out to first baseman Andrea Saladino to keep East off the board.

Test No. 2 for Mari King came in the second inning. She got Mimes to foul out on East's wide-open field, but Lynn Miller and Busto walked. King struck out designated hitter Angie Gately, however Saladino walked to load the bases for leadoff hitter Zitney. Zitney worked the count to 3-2 before King put the next pitch past her for strike three.

It took 29 pitches that inning, but another bullet was dodged.

The Raiders answered the call for help by King in the bottom of the second. Simone hit a flyball that center fielder Atkinson just muffed, dropping for an error, to begin the inning. Third baseman and another senior, Linda Newman, dropped down a sacrifice bunt to Nafziger to move Simone to second. A wild pitch and a walk to Boo Helmlinger put runners on first and third for No. 9 hitter Kim Beers. Beers bunted and Miller charged from third base. Her throw bounced on East's hard turf right past Saladino for an error allowing Simone to score and sending Helmlinger to get to third. Dziedzic put down a beautifully placed bunt single that Lakewood swallowed to load the bases for Sprague. She hit a sacrifice fly to center fielder Atkinson to bring in Helmlinger to make it 2-0. However, an error on the play by Atkinson -- who seemed to make every flyball feel like an adventure -- allowed the two East runners left on base to advance.

It was a big moment for the Raiders and Mari King, who could help her own cause. King fouled off three two-strike pitches to her at 3-2, then popped out to Saladino to end the threat.

A 2-0 lead should have made East players excited and made Lakewood's players think the worst was yet to come. But that wasn't the case. Lakewood had dodged a worse bullet and seemed energized as its players got back to the bench (there were no dugouts at the time on this particular East field, just benches).

However, the top of the third didn't start so well for Lakewood as Atkinson walked and was gunned down trying to steal second base by Simone. But Walters walked and Nafziger singled, Lakewood's first hit. Mimes came up and delivered an emphatic single to center to bring in Walters.

The ice was broken even though King wriggled out of trouble with a foulout and groundout. And though Nafziger made things complicated with a pair of two-out walks in the bottom of the third, she would get a strikeout to end the threat.

So King and her teammates went back out there in the fourth latching on to a 2-1 lead. The first batter she was to face was No. 8 hitter Gately. On a 3-1 pitch, she walked her. It was her seventh walk in just over three innings and Dispoto had seen enough.

He sent King out to right field where she would normally be playing near her sister in left. And into the game came junior Jeannie Snyder, a righty who had actually seen time in the circle, but only in a 12-8 victory over a weak Jackson Memorial team.

And all the while, I kept thinking why Snyder hadn't started the game. Heck, she had the experience from a start. It couldn't hurt, right? But Dispoto must have figured she couldn't throw as many walks as Mari King did.

He was about to be proven wrong. Snyder proceeded to walk Saladino. Then after getting a flyout, Snyder walked Atkinson to load the bases. Walters hit a sharp grounder at van Halem, who had only one play and that was step on first base for the out, scoring Gately to tie it at 2-2. But Nafziger walked to load the bases for Mimes. On a 1-0 pitch, Mimes smacked a shot to the left side. It was a matter of inches between Dziedzic's glove and the ball as it found the outfield. Saladino and Atkinson scored and Lakewood had the lead at 4-2.

East was trailing 4-2 and its savior was anywhere but this field on this day. I'm hoping Stephanie Hillmann will be all right.

The Raiders made it interesting in the bottom of the fourth as Dziedzic reached on a forceout, advanced to third on a two-base throwing error by Nafziger and scored on a squeeze bunt by Mari King. With Sprague on third base as the tying run, it came down to van Halem. But as seemingly was the case all afternoon, Nafziger found the right pitch to throw -- and got van Halem to harmlessly foul out to Saladino to end the inning.
OK, East at least was down a run and just picked up a run. Should be no trouble to keep scoring. The Raiders had Nafziger on the ropes all game long, yet the three runs were inadequate and seemed even more inadequate considering they were going to Plan B and now C to keep the game close.

A big play came in the top of the fifth with Busto on third and two out and Zitney at the plate. She hit a groundball in the hole at shortstop. Dziedzic ranged over and threw to van Halem with everything she had to get Busto on a great play to end the inning. But in East's bottom of the fifth, the Raiders were thwarted of a rally as with one out and Luanne King on second base, she was called out for leaving the base too soon on a steal attempt of third. This was a crushing blow with the game still a one-run affair going to the sixth.

An error by Snyder on an Atkinson dribbler got the ball rolling for Lakewood in what would be a fateful sixth. A wild pitch moved her to second and Walters, the county's leading home run hitter, walked. After Nafziger popped out, Mimes singled to left. With the ball booted by Luanne King, Atkinson came home to make it 5-3.

This, it turned out, was the beginning of the end for the Raiders. Another Snyder error off a bunt by Miller loaded the bases for Busto, the freshman who didn't know any better how big a game this was by now. On a 1-0 Snyder delivery, Busto ripped a shot to the gap in left-center field. All three runners on base scored on the triple and when Gately singled to score Busto, the Piners were now ahead 9-3. Dispoto had gone back to Mari King, then to Sprague to get out of the sixth.

The flood gates were open. And the one person who could keep Lakewood at a distance was nowhere near the field at that point.

Lakewood piled on in the seventh inning with four more runs as Miller and Atkinson delivered two-run singles in a four-run inning. And though Luanne King singled home her sister in the bottom of the seventh, that would be the last hurrah. Helmlinger hit a harmless grounder that Busto gobbled up and threw to Saladino to finish it out.

Lakewood 13, East 4. The team with an 11-9 record took down almighty East and left the Raiders wondering "what if" for a third straight year. In 1983, East was the OCT top seed but was upset by Brick Memorial in the quarterfinals. The next year, the second-seeded Raiders lost to No. 6 seed Southern Regional in the semifinal round of the tournament.

This year, the Raiders were supposed to knock down the door. It didn't happen. And East players exited their field for the last time that year, and for the seniors, especially the steady Dziedzic, who I had known for over a year, the last time in their careers. Dziedzic would come back to be head coach Debbie Schwartz's highly successful assistant, but even to this day, I can't help think about that Friday afternoon in 1985 when her senior season was officially ended via someone else's "strep throat."

Dispoto was left in an unkind situation of having to go with a backup plan he didn't anticipate going to that simply didn't work that day. I always felt bad for his circumstances that day.

McKelvey and Sattan, meanwhile, breathed sighs of relief, while Piner players were just elated they'd have another game. And this would be the first time Lakewood's program would play a championship of any kind.

"This is not the most talented Piner squad I've had, but it's the most enthusiastic and there's a lot of togetherness," McKelvy said to me after the win."

Five days later, Lakewood arrived to a packed Winding River Park to play South in the championship. The Piners probably should not have been in the game, but they were tied with South's Indians, 2-2, going to the bottom of the sixth inning when South took the lead and Erica Moncrief's three-run double helped put the game away in a five-run inning and eventual 7-2 triumph.

Sadly for Lakewood, this would be its one and only OCT title game. Since its last win against Jackson Memorial in 1991, Lakewood has not won an OCT game. McKelvey, who ran the OCT from 1988-91, stepped down as Lakewood's coach after the 1994 season.

As for East, it would be two years later in Dispoto's last season as head coach, 1987, that the Raiders finally made it to the title game, losing, though, to Cinderella story Lacey, the 10th and last seed of the tourney that year, 7-5. In Schwartz's second year as head coach in 1989, East would win the first of its county-record nine OCT titles by edging South, 9-8, at Lakewood High.

We may never ever know what happened to Stephanie Hillmann that day. And I still have a hard time thinking of some of those talented upperclassmen who never had a chance to play in the OCT final for East, their best opportunity to get there against a team they should have beaten snared away when the one person who could get them there came down with strep throat.

It was a surreal Friday afternoon at Toms River East that day in '85.

Lakewood's players and coaches sure benefited by who wasn't there standing in their way.