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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.

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