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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."