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.