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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.

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