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Saturday, December 10, 2016

The silent 46


When you cover a high school boys basketball game, there are many ways you go about it.

Some scribes keep a running dialogue of the game. Some just jot down notes to the side and fill in a scorebook. None of this is wrong by any means at all. Just as long as you're accurate by the end of the night.

My style: I have two pieces of paper in a notepad I take with me. The first page is that of a scorebook score sheet where you leave room at the extreme left side to fill in numbers and names of each player on each team, visiting players on top, home players on bottom. You leave room for four boxes going down to jot the 2s and 3s and free-throws made and attempted per quarter.

The second page is a mish-mosh of stuff: At the top, I put the names of the two teams playing, draw a line down the middle. Under that I draw a "table of four" to mark down how many turnovers each team makes during the game per quarter. On the extreme right and left sides at the top, I leave room for what each team shot from the field (field goals made and attempted). I draw lines under the team name for each turnover that's made.

Underneath all that I leave 10 lines open so I can put down the uniform number of the players who take shots or free throws during the game, mark an "x" over the made free throws or put an x with an arc leading to the number "3" for the 3-point field goals made or leave the "x" out if there's a 3-pointer missed. If I put an "L" next to the "x" and arc, it means a layup was scored. An 'SJ" stands for short jumper made, a "J" stands for a jumper made and a "DK" is for a slam dunk. I will draw boxes with uniform numbers in them and draw two circles (sometimes one for one-and-one missed opportunities or three circles for a three-shot foul behind the arc) for when a player attempts and makes free throws, the made ones shown by me darkening the circle. The next row I draw in for the middle of my page is for the players numbers (the starters are always the first five) and I mark off rebounds (X for a defensive rebound, O for an offensive board). I draw a line down to separate the rebounds from the "S" for steals and the "B" for blocks. Over the numbers of the players, I draw lines for each foul that's committed by the player. And finally, the final line I draw is at the bottom to mark off the running score along with the time for the basket or points.

Yes, a lot is involved in covering basketball for me, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Of all the sports I cover on a scholastic level, basketball is, by far, my favorite.

But when it comes to the boys basketball game, it's a little fast to keep up and, quite honestly, I fall behind during games. I mark off the important stuff on my mish-mosh page, but never mark anything off on my points page. Sometimes, too much of a game passes by and I can't catch up in the first half until, well, halftime. They only allow you a minute to catch up in between quarters after all. Sheesh!

Why do I bring all this up? Because catching up was something I found to be a challenge on the night of Friday, December 10, 2010. Every year, I try to cover at least one Interlachen-Crescent City boys basketball game. Not only are they two of the smaller schools in this sector of Florida, but the two head coaches, Interlachen's C.S. Belton and Crescent City's Al Carter, are two of the best human beings you will ever come across in your lifetimes. They have a true admiration for one another and it's fun to watch the teams, even in years when their best basketball wasn't very good.

On this particular night, I got to drive out to Interlachen's gym for the game. The host Rams came into the game with a 7-1 record and a 1-1 record in the "unique" District 4-3A Southern Division.

(Why are they in a Northern and Southern Division? I'll explain -- there were nine schools in the district and it wasn't as if all the schools were around the corner. Crescent City was the southernmost school and Baldwin near the Florida-Georgia state line was the northernmost. Yeah, that wasn't going to swim for Carter, who knew a yearly trip to Baldwin would mean his kids weren't getting home from the game until 12:30 in the morning. So they took five schools from the lower end -- Crescent City, Interlachen, Keystone Heights, Bradford and Union County -- and made them the "Southern Division" and took the four schools from the northern end -- Baldwin, West Nassau, Jacksonville Bishop Snyder and Baker County -- and made them the "Northern Division.")

And while Interlachen had already played eight games, Crescent City was playing in game number two. That's right -- just one game under the Raiders' belts. Why? They cleared the pre-Thanksgiving part of the schedule out just in case Crescent City made the state football playoffs and there would be no conflict. Sounds great ... that is, if your football team is really good. That football team in the 2010 season wasn't that good. So in reality, the football players who made the transition to play basketball had a lot of rest time!

One player who didn't need all that rest was Crescent City's talented shooting guard Jerrell Oxendine. Oxendine had shared Palatka Daily News Prep Boys Basketball Player of the Year honors the year before with Palatka's James Williams, a decision that I never agreed with and argued that even though Palatka went 25-2 in the 2009-10 season, they didn't have a superstar-type player like a Jerrell Oxendine (who technically lived in Palatka, but whose parents chose to send him to Crescent City). Oxendine had scored 34 points in the team's opening-game win.

He was surrounded on the floor by a lot of moving parts, but nothing sensational enough to run alongside him for 32 minutes. On top of that, two of the Raiders' players, forwards Laron Moore and Rami Brown, were both out sick, limiting coach Carter's roster to nine players, making Carter put reserves such as Dallas King and Marquis Batts into the starting lineup. But Oxendine had familiarity with two guys in the lineup -- one was center Cornell Wilson, a good player who could give you some points and rebounds down low, the other Jaylon Oxendine, a freshman point guard and Jerrell's brother. It was Jaylon's show to run in the backcourt, but it was Jerrell's show to ruin Jaylon's attempt at running the show because most of the time, the ball was going to be in Jerrell Oxendine's hands.

The Rams had a pretty solid starting lineup with Wilmer Charles down low, pesky Daquan Greene and Jakeem Perry causing trouble defensively and Corey Treadway doing a little of this and a little of that.

But Interlachen's main guy was junior Tamarick Williams. As a freshman, he was our paper's player of the year and by now, he was very much the leader of this team. He could play the point guard, he can shoot the ball -- oh, could he shoot the ball -- and he could fill the lane as a rebounder as well.

This game wasn't really about Crescent City vs. Interlachen or Al Carter and assistant coach "Pooh Bear" Richardson vs. C.S. Belton and assistant Gerald Swayze.

No, this game was about two high-flying stars in Jerrell Oxendine and Tamarick Williams.

I did my proper duty of copying lineups down, then finding my way up to the top of the stands. From there, the officials made their way on the court, followed by the starters and shortly after that, the game was under way.

The Rams jumped out to a quick 9-4 lead, throttling the Raiders in their 3-2 zone defense, not allowing much movement toward the basket. But the Raiders got going as Jaylon Oxendine found Batts for a layup, then Jerrell Oxendine floated in a short jumper. The Rams answered right back when Treadway delivered a layup, then Williams drained a 3-pointer from the right side, building the lead back to 14-8 with 3:44 to go in the first quarter.

But like a good boxing match, the Raiders were willing to match the Rams punch for punch. Wilson put in a miss from Jerrell Oxendine, then Oxendine found a hole in the Rams defense, drove the lane and hit his layup, cutting the lead to 14-12. The teams traded baskets before Williams delivered another 3-point field goal, making it 19-14. Oxendine hit a layup to cut the lead to three, then reserve Antoine Atkins hit one of two free throws with 51.9 seconds to play in the period, making it 20-16.

The Raiders brought it back down, and with 39 seconds left, Jaylon found his brother in the corner for a 3-point field goal that he drained without much problem, cutting the lead to a point. The Rams had three opportunities to score before the end of the quarter, but Atkins missed twice and Williams missed once, leaving it 20-19 at the end of one quarter.

Already, this had the makings of an exciting game from start to finish. Jerrell Oxendine had nine points, Williams had eight. No disappointment thus far.

The Rams came out determined to stay in that 3-2 defense, doing their best to bottle up any movement the Oxendine brothers could do in this one, while trying to neutralize anything the Raiders' big men could do. Reserve Keon Sands was fouled and the Raiders player hit one of two free throws to tie the game, but the Rams had an answer -- Williams delivered a trey to make it 23-20 with 5:59 to go before the half.

The Raiders decided if they couldn't really get around that 3-2 zone defense, they'd just as soon be patient ... even if that meant neutralizing Oxendine's effectiveness. So Carter had the Oxendines slow the tempo down and just be patient finding the open shot. Jerrell Oxendine was able to get open for a long jumper that he hit to make it 23-22 with 4:43 left. After Williams missed on a 3-point shot, Wilson pulled down the rebound and fed Jaylon Oxendine. Somewhere in the Rams' defense, Jerrell Oxendine saw a seem, demanded the ball from his brother, then drove the lane to score the basket and get the foul on Charles. He missed the free throw, but the Raiders were ahead again.

At the other end, Perry missed and the Raiders brought the ball back down. Jaylon Oxendine found Batts for a layup and the Raiders had a three-point lead.

You could sense the shift taking place. The Raiders were finding their patience was paying off. Belton called a timeout to settle things down. The problem was that he couldn't shoot the ball for his players. The Raiders tightened up on their traditional man-to-man defense and the Rams went ice cold the rest of the half. The only basket they hit the rest of the half was a 3-point field goal from Williams. They added a free throw by Treadway with 7.1 seconds left before halftime, but found themselves down 31-27 at the break.

Normally, I gather my notepad and check the fouls situation since there seems to be a sickness in Putnam County basketball that whoever runs the scoreboard -- whether at Palatka, Crescent City or Interlachen -- just can't find the buttons to press to tell the crowd who got a foul and what number foul it was on the player. Turns out I was looking at this game and seeing a lot of fouls being accrued thus far.

Crescent City, remember, dressed up nine players for the game. Just nine. They didn't exactly have a lot of wiggle room here and they had eight team fouls. Interlachen had five at the break and they weren't in much trouble. But the way they stopped scoring before halftime certainly was alarming to both Belton and Swayze.

I went back to where I was sitting. I still had about five minutes left before the break ended to count up the numbers I had jotted down. The Raiders had 23 rebounds and ending a lot of Rams possessions in one (shot)-and-dones. The Rams had 14 rebounds and if not for the slashing-and-dashing Williams, they'd have just seven at the break.

As for the individual battle, Oxendine was leading Williams, 16-14.

The Raiders had turned it over 10 times in the first half, including eight times in the second quarter when they took the lead! I'm sure Belton had a premonition they had the ball a lot thanks to Raiders miscues, but couldn't do anything correctly.

That should have left him with a sense of staying in the 3-2 zone. But as the second half began and after Charles hit one of two free throws to make it a three-point lead, something changed. All of a sudden, the Rams were chasing after people defensively. They had gone from playing in a fairly effective 3-2 defense into man-to-man. That may have worked down low to neutralize anything they may have tried, but it did one other thing.

It gave Jerrell Oxendine the green light to set Rams defenders guarding him on fire.

As Carter would tell me years later about the switching of that defense that night, "Jerrell was never going to be denied that night."

After two possessions in which Oxendine had no part of the final shot each time, he made his presence felt on the third possession. After Batts missed a 3-point shot from the corner, Jerrell Oxendine pulled down the rebound, hit the putback and was fouled by Treadway. He completed the three-point play to make it 34-28 with 6:24 left in the quarter.

The Rams battled back, though, as Williams scored on a putback of a Charles missed shot, then after a Jaylon Oxendine missed trey, Perry hit a layup to make it 34-32 with 5:17 left in the quarter.

Again, it was a game. But in a matter of 38 seconds, the Raiders pulled out as Jerrell Oxendine beat his defender to the basket and scored on a layup, then King got a pass from Jaylon Oxendine and beat his defender to the basket for another layup, making it 38-32 with 4:21 to go.

Jerrell Oxendine and Treadway traded one free throw made each before a putback of a Treadway miss by Charles cut the lead to four. But a Jerrell Oxendine layup in which he beat his defender off the dribble was followed up on the next Raider possession by an Oxendine putback of a Batts shot that made it 43-36. And after a Charles miss at the other end, Oxendine took his defender on one-on-one, then stuck a 20-footer in his face to make it 45-36 with 2:04 left.

The next 31 seconds were left with fast-paced, back-and-forth basketball that man-to-man defenses allows you to play. Nothing but missed shots in the next five possessions. Finally, the Raiders ended the madness when Batts rebounded a Jaylon Oxendine missed shot and scored to make it 47-36, the biggest lead of the game for either side. Then off a missed shot by Atkins, Wilson rebounded again and the ball found Jerrell Oxendine's hands. Seeing an opening, he once again had too much quickness, beat his defender to the spot and weaved through the big men down low to deliver another layup to make it a 49-36 lead with 1:14 to go in the quarter.

One thing, though, the Rams were able to do in this game was draw fouls ... lots of fouls! They had the Raiders at seven fouls in the quarter and that didn't matter because the fouls the Rams were getting were on shots, so that meant automatic trips to the free-throw line. In the last 67 seconds of the quarter, Williams drew a pair of fouls on a slowly frustrated Jaylon Oxendine and hit three of the four shots, cutting Crescent City's lead to 49-39 going into the final quarter.

The fast-paced action of the third quarter did not allow me to accumulate the numbers I had on my stat sheet as the one minute I had wasn't enough to get the job done. Now I was left with catching up at timeouts and trying to figure numbers in between free throws if they were allowing me to do so.

I know this much though -- Oxendine had a big third quarter, though I needed to translate that from the stat sheet to the score sheet. And Williams had an OK third quarter, but his team may have lost a little bit of energy with the missed shots (I did know from the little pockets of time I could count the Rams were an abysmal 3-of-19 from the field that period). Williams, I did figure out, had five of his team's seven points in the period, giving him 19 going into the third quarter.

I had yet to get to what Oxendine had done since the Raiders had scored more points and I needed to focus on that stat sheet and not the score sheet.

Williams began the fourth quarter by drilling his fifth 3-point field goal of the game, but first in the second half, making it 49-42. Once again, though, Jerrell Oxendine had an answer, taking the ball to the hole and scoring on the one-on-one defense that obviously had little or no effect on him, making it 51-42. Then after his third steal of the game, Jaylon Oxendine was fouled, hitting one of two free throws, making it 52-42.

These Rams were down 10 again, but like they had over the years and even after this game, they showed no quit. Charles scored and was fouled by King. He missed the free throw. Then after a Raider miss at the other end, Perry drained a trey to make it a five-point lead with 6:52 to go.

Then the game got crazy: Jerrell Oxendine scored on a layup, followed at the other end with a layup by Treadway, followed back the other end by yet another layup and score by Oxendine. This one-on-one covering of him was a sham -- he could've beaten college kids on drives to the basket, let alone trash-talking 16- and 17-year-olds who did just that ... talk a good game. Carter would tell me that the young man who was talking trash to Oxendine in the second half once the Rams went into that man-to-man defense only motivated his star player. Still -- and as Belton would point out after the game and years later about this particular game -- his team was too slow to react to Oxendine's drives and give the much-needed help defense that was needed to stop the guy wearing No. 3 on his uniform.

The Rams turned the ball over again on Jaylon Oxendine's fourth steal of the game and he drove to the basket. He missed the shot, but there was his brother to play cleanup with the rebound and score to make it a 58-49 lead with 5:48 to go.

Belton called a timeout. He started to light into his team the way he knew how to get the guys motivated. Meanwhile, I spent the time I did have counting up what I had missed in the third quarter ... and some of the fourth quarter. I couldn't get it all done, but I was slowly catching up.

Right out of the timeout, the Rams got aggressive and got the ball to Williams. He was fouled by Jaylon Oxendine, who took exception of the foul and was hit with a technical foul on top of that, giving him four for the game. Williams hit both free throw attempts and the Rams had the ball back. Williams was again fouled, this time by backup Sands.

But Williams missed both attempts and the Raiders rebounded. Jerrell Oxendine demanded the ball, took the ball to the hoop and was fouled by Perry, who had the task of having to take Oxendine on the one-on-one in the second half. Yup ... he apparently was the trash-talker and suddenly, he wasn't in the game anymore since that was his fifth foul. Oxendine calmly sank his two free throws to make it a 60-51 game with 5:27 left.

The Rams would have the ball three straight possessions and could do nothing, including two more missed free throws by Greene. At the other end, Batts would follow up another Jaylon Oxendine miss with a basket, making it 62-51 with 4:32 to go. Greene followed up a missed Williams shot to make it 62-53, but Wilson responded with a layup to push the lead back to 64-53. Then a pair of steals took place, the last one by Williams for a layup made it a nine-point game, but time was running out.

The Rams picked up another steal and Treadway was fouled by Jaylon Oxendine while rebounding a missed Charles shot. That was five fouls and Oxendine was gone from the game. Treadway hit his two attempts to make it a seven-point game with 3:23 left.

But it was Jerrell Oxendine back to the rescue. He picked up a foul on Treadway and buried both his free throws to move the lead back to nine with 2:57 left.

Seven seconds later, though, and with the Rams close to desperation mode, Williams put up a shot and missed, but Treadway came up with his second offensive rebound and was fouled by Sands. With the Raiders in the double bonus now with over 10 fouls, it gave Treadway a chance to get the Rams closer. But he missed both shots. Zack Swayze, the assistant coach's son coming off the bench, came down with the offensive rebound and was fouled two seconds later by King. It was King's fifth foul and he was now gone from the game.

Swayze hit the two free throws to make it a 66-59 game and Carter was starting to look concerned. He looked down his bench where Jaylon Oxendine and King were now mere spectators and the thought of two putting two guys into the game that hadn't played the entire time was starting to become a worry. If one thing did do the Raiders in that year, it was the lack of a bench, even as they were winning 18 games that season.

Eventually, though, Trenton Long and Scott Curry had to enter the game in these last two-plus minutes, just so they could protect the other guys on the court who had multiple fouls.

One player, though, that wasn't in danger foul-wise was Jerrell Oxendine. Now the point guard, he had full autonomy of what to do. And once again, his defender had no chance of stopping him. He took it to the hole and hit a layup, making it 68-59.

Once again, the Rams rushed the ball back the other end where Williams was fouled by Sands ... and yes, it was Sands' fifth foul. Sands' "sands" had run out in his personal hourglass for this game.

Carter called a timeout this time to assess the situation. Since he had to figure out which five players he was going with after his third player fouled out in a two-minute span, he needed the full timeout. It was at this point where I could finally catch up on everything. I was pretty much there when a guy a few rows down from me called up to me.

It was Bryant Oxendine, Jerrell and Jaylon's dad. He wanted to know how many points Jerrell had.

"I'm still counting because of the pace of this game, but I'm almost there. At the next timeout, I can tell you."

Williams had the ball in his hands to shot free throws, which gave me the rest of the time to finish out what I was almost done tabulating. He hit one of two free throws and the lead was 68-60.

The Raiders had the ball back and whatever pressure the Rams put on them wasn't working. Once again, Jerrell Oxendine found a hole and rushed through it to the basket. He was fouled by Charles and went to the line. He missed his one-and-one opportunity (the Rams never got to 10 fouls in the half), but Wilson came down with his 16th rebound of the game. He missed, but Oxendine was fouled on the loose ball.

Belton called another timeout. This was the last opportunity to tabulate everything ... which I finally did and was up to speed. I counted up Oxendine's numbers and was be surprised at what I just figured out. I counted again.

"Mr. Oxendine!" I yelled to the dad. He looked back at me.

"He's got 44 points!"

This mouth-open look came across his dad. I think he knew his son had a big game, but to hear 44 points was simply remarkable. In Putnam County, you have to be special to get that many points in a game. As long as I covered basketball at any level in my years, I never covered a game with someone scoring 40 or more points. These points may have come in aggressive ways, but they were silently piling up as the game went on.

Anyway, Jerrell Oxendine hit his two free throws to make it 70-60 with 1:12 left to play. This game was pretty much over.

But someone forgot to tell the Rams. The Rams rushed the ball down the court and Williams took a 3-point shot, only to be fouled by Long. That meant three free throws for Williams, but the Rams' star could only muster two out of the three, cutting the lead again to eight points.

Oxendine looked for another opening in the Rams' defense. He was being denied this time. That was OK -- he found an open Wilson, who beat his defender on the block to score the layup and make it a 72-62 game with 55 seconds left.

And when Williams missed a 3-pointer, that should have been it as Wilson claimed his 17th rebound of the contest. But Wilson missed a layup, Batts got the rebound and got the ball to Long, who was blocked by Charles. Williams grabbed his 10th rebound of the game and got the ball to Treadway, who was fouled by Wilson. But Treadway could muster one free throw out of two tries, making it a nine-point game at 72-63 with 28.3 seconds left.

When looking back at the game, another problem the Rams had was their free-throw shooting -- they were a poor 10-of-20 from the charity stripe. That's a lot of open circles that could have put them back in the game, prompting Belton to say afterward, "I'm almost ready to use hypnotism with these guys."

Oxendine tried his 33rd shot of the night. He missed and Curry missed the follow-up shot. Ralph Minter, another reserve, rebounded and got the ball out to Williams for one final shot -- he drained his sixth trey of the game, giving him 32 points in the end on 9-of-24 shooting.

The buzzer ended with Crescent City scoring the 72-66 triumph over the county rival. I confirmed my totals with the Raider books, who also had Oxendine for 46 points on 18-of-33 shooting. About the only person that may have stopped Oxendine on this night was Michael Jordan, and he may have been given a run for his money. Oxendine barely missed a double-double by pulling down nine rebounds.

The one Raider who did have a double-double was Wilson, who had 10 points and those 17 rebounds. Batts finished with eight points and seven rebounds. Overall, the Raiders pulled down 51 rebounds compared to the 34 Interlachen had. As for the Rams, Williams had 32 points, 10 rebounds and three steals. Treadway had 13 points and here steals and Greene put up seven points and six rebounds.

At the end of the game, Oxendine explained his success that night with confidence:

"I knew I was quicker than Interlachen's guards. No matter who they put out on me, I always felt like I could get the first step."

And he did, accumulating the most points any Putnam County player had scored in a game in years. In team-oriented Putnam County, a game with someone scoring 30-plus points is something. But in this particular season, Jarrell Oxendine was head and shoulders above everyone else -- even in a season in which Palatka High went to the FHSAA 4A state semifinals in Lakeland. He was our paper's player of the year without hesitation, averaging 25 points a game, including a 34-point performance in a memorable final home game against those Palatka Panthers on a February Saturday night in which the Raiders pulled out an amazing 94-92 win in front of a crowded Raider gym.

The Raiders and Rams, though, were never good enough to overcome a good Bradford team and Bradford would represent the "Southern" division of the District 4-3A tournament championship game.

Oxendine went from graduation that June to Lynn University, but he never truly liked the atmosphere in South Florida, so he transferred closer to home at Flagler College in St. Augustine, where he carved his own niche. He played overseas after graduating and helped assist St. Augustine High School's basketball team before finding a professional club in 2016 with the Orlando Waves in the American Basketball Association.

That night in 2010 was unique and will forever always be for the way Jerrell Oxendine put points up in an aggressive manner, yet the way he piled points was so quiet that I didn't know he was doing it that affectively until the game was nearly over.

Sometimes, you never know until you have time to see how that stat sheet tallies up.



Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The very "different" player of the year photo


By the time I was 22, I was feeling my oats in this business they called print journalism.

Four years into it and I already felt like my creative juices were flowing at long last. The fall of '88 sports season had wrapped up. I had my normal two sports to put together for Ocean County Observer All-County teams. There was gymnastics and there was field hockey.

Field hockey was the one sport in which my boss would always do the same layout each year -- he'd dedicate most of the front page to sprinkling mug shots of players on the side going vertically with their names and schools under them and have one "feature" shot that would go right at the top in the middle of the layout as our "player of the year."

I liked it, actually. And I began to put together the All-County team for this past year with numerous young ladies who would represent Ocean County on the 13-girl squad first team. The four really good teams that year were Point Pleasant Boro, Central Regional, Toms River East and Toms River North. North had most of the players on the All-County team -- and they had the one young lady who was, in my opinion, the player of the year. Now, keep in mind, we didn't designate a player of the year back in those days at the paper, but if we highlighted them and led off the All-County story (a looooong drawn out story, too) with them, the feeling was that the reader pretty much understood what I was driving at -- she's the best player that season.

In that fall of 1988, I knew exactly who our player of the year was in the county -- it was North's senior veteran goalkeeper, Linda Kurtyka, who the year before was the goalie of the Mariners' NJSIAA Group IV state championship. Thing was, this 1988 North team had so many different personalities on it -- from the quiet Katie Vignevic and Christy Emmert to the outgoing Marie DeFrancesco and Lori Garrabrant -- it was easy to know them individually. And they were really good as players, which made it easy to cover them.

But North couldn't go far that year without Kurtyka, the fast-thinking, fast-moving goalkeeper with the amazing reflexes. She was deserving of the "honor," even if we didn't officially hand one out. North's defense in 1988 was good, but not quite as good as the state championship team the year before. And she bailed her teammates out often, especially in the postseason.

Still, though, she had to deal with the bitter loss in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV title game against Shawnee when she lost out on a 50-50 ball with 18 seconds left in regulation time that the Shawnee player got to first and flicked behind Kurtyka and into the net, sending the game into overtime and eventually penalty one-on-ones in which a backup Shawnee goalie swatted everything away in a 2-1 victory on North's field. For a long time, I had a picture of one of the officials, who did many a North game as well as other field hockey games in Ocean County, trying to console a teary-eyed Kurtyka, who was beaten on two goals in the one-on-ones.

The loss was heartbreaking considering the winner of that game was most likely going on to win the state Group IV title, which Shawnee ended up doing.

So assembling the All-County team was fairly easy that year. But I wanted to do something completely different from the regular "action" shot that I'd get on the phone with the young lady or her coach and tell them to get their uniform, equipment and hockey stick and just meet our photographer at the field for a picture session.

I had seen other newspapers -- including our rival Asbury Park Press -- do some fancy feature shots for their All-County or all-area teams. If they could do them, why couldn't we? Just because we were still in the dark era with black and white pages and photography should never impede on your creativity.

I wanted to do something different with Linda. Why? You just have to know the person to understand what you want to do. When I first met Linda Kurtyka, she was a freshman on the North girls soccer team that her head coach, Jean Konyhas, told me would be special. I didn't truly get to know her, though, until her sophomore year. It was a game at Shelter Cove Park, home of Toms River East's girls soccer team. North, behind the midfield play of Kurtyka, beat East on that spring Saturday in 1987, and would take the A South championship that year, ending East's run of outright A South championships at three straight years. As I was leaving the parking lot at the park, I see Linda walking by. My eyes caught hers and there I saw it for the first time -- the smile that melted the entire town of Toms River.

Twenty-year-old guys like me didn't care that Linda Kurtyka was 16 ... a smile like that does wonders.

For the next year and a half, I got to know her ... and even do sparring verbal "jabs" on the phone to sometimes break her out of that shy state she was in. I pretty much knew her and her mom and dad, Claudia and Kurt. They were all great.

The thing was, I wasn't sure how or which direction I wanted to go in with this feature picture. Different ideas rolled through my head, but knowing Linda, I wasn't sure they were going to go swimmingly with her. Then I remembered a picture I had seen earlier in 1988. It was a poster of Oakland Athletics sluggers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, dressed up like Jake and Elwood Blues from Blues Brothers fame with oversized baseball bats, embracing their "Bash Brothers" persona. At first, I thought, "I don't know about this." But the more I looked at it, the more I began seeing Linda in that suit and tie hiding behind those pretty brown eyes with a pair of shades.

I smiled. I knew this was going to work.

I called Linda up to tell her she was going to be the feature shot for the All-County team -- and to wish her a happy birthday since I had not seen her after the loss to Shawnee. That game was on November 11, 1988, she turned 18 just nine days later.

Next, I told her my plan for the picture and though I can hear some hesitation at the other end, I can feel her warming up to it to the point that she liked it. Done deal! In some cases, I had to win her trust.

It's now Monday, December 5, 1988. I knew she was going to find a suit (she had a father and two brothers after all), a dress shirt, a tie and shoes for the occasion. The only thing she didn't have for the picture was a hat. This is where I have to go and do the work.

All day on that Monday, I called around to various stores in Ocean County that might have a Stetson hat. Must have tried over half a dozen. None of them had what I was looking for ... none!

So much for Ocean County helping an Ocean County guy. My next option was stores in Southern Monmouth County. I tried one store there. They didn't have what I was looking for. Finally, I hit paydirt with a dress store that sadly no longer exists. It was Wilkins in downtown Manasquan. They finally had the hat I was seeking. Told them I'd be there sometime after 6:30 p.m. They were open until 8, so I had time.

On my drive from my Toms River house to Manasquan, I made a stop over in the Silverton section where the neighborhood newspaper store and Quik-Chek were located. I parked near the pet store where my family purchased food and other stuff over the years there. As I get out of the car, I see two people I know -- one is Marie DeFrancesco and the other is Heather McVeigh, close friends and North seniors. I'm getting out of the car on this cold night in the upper 40s as the sun begins to set and say, "Hi" to them and congratulate Marie on making All-County and that she has a mug shot she needs to take at the paper this week and to be there. Once I have that conversation, I walk into Quik-Chek to get some gum and a drink and I'm on my way out to my car and heading to Manasquan.

By now as I approach the car, I see Heather and Marie again, except this time, I see Marie outside and Heather inside and Heather has Marie locked out of the car.

"Umm, is everything OK, Marie?"

"Yeah, yeah. She's being difficult. She's going to let me in."

"OK, have a good one."

I turn on my car and just as I'm ready to pull the car into reverse, I can hear Marie angrily going, "Let me in!" Then a moment later ... she spits on the windshield. For a moment, I cringe watching this, but then I start laughing when as soon as that spit landed on the windshield, Heather, whose father, Bill, I knew for years as a Toms River High School East teacher, then as head girls basketball coach, flicks the windshield wipers on to wipe it away.

I'm pretty sure Heather allowed her buddy back in the car and that they got along rather well after that. But it's just one of those silly, stupid things you still have sitting there in your head generations later, knowing these two were going to be mothers someday. Oh, those kooky kids that graduated from the Class of '89!

So I go on my way down Hooper Avenue until it turns into Route 549 for where I jump onto Route 70 in Brick, for which I will take into Monmouth County until I can find my way toward downtown Manasquan. I had been to Manasquan High School a couple of times, but never to downtown Manasquan. Nightfall had come completely and I was parking in a diagonal spot facing the bank of shops on one side of Main Street. I honesty didn't know how many stores I had to walk around until I found it, but it turns out it was only three stores down. Great luck on my part.

I walk inside, introduce myself as that guy who asked about the Stetson hat and one of the ladies working the store went to the back. When she got back, she had this big box for which inside was the hat in question. I opened the box, took it out of its holding place and put it on my head. I looked at myself in the mirror of this beautiful hat and I said, "That's what I'm looking for!"

It cost me $34 with tax. Yeah, it was expensive then, but hell, I liked it so much that this hat was going to not only help in the photo, but was going to be in my possession for as long as I wanted it. After all, I bought it, I wore it! I got it home, put it on my bed and headed to work that night.

The picture was slated for Wednesday, December 7. I got the box with the hat in it, put it in my car and made the trip to nearby Toms River North. I had called Linda the previous night to confirm we were still going on with the picture. She said yes and that I'd meet her in the North trainer's room of Dan "Doc" Czarniewski.

I arrived about a half hour after school had let out on that day and inside were a couple of student-athletes getting ankles taken care of by Doc. I'd known Doc for quite sometime since I also knew his brother Rob, a longtime soccer coach at Toms River East. There sitting on a table waiting for myself and our photographer, Tom Spader, to arrive was Linda. She was dressed up for the occasion in a suit that was twice her 5-foot-6 size and a tie that looked like it took work to get on.

And as I go toward her, my eyes caught something below eye level that was moving. I looked down.

It was a dog ... it was Doc's dog, a beautiful, brown-haired, large creature that was just sitting on the floor behaving. The dog was going to be a part of the photo as well, suggested to me by Linda, who had some thoughts of her own in this particular picture.

We were going all out. I told Linda that we were to meet Mr. Spader over by the North field hockey field where the goals were still up. We took the walk through the parking lot and toward the field. Thankfully, not a whole lot of people were staring or even outside wondering what was going on.

Minutes later, Tom arrived. The photo shoot itself took about three to five minutes, but in the end, he snapped off two pictures that worked brilliantly. The first was of her wearing the sunglasses on. But for the sake of the All-County team and showing faces, we ultimately ran the picture of her in the outfit without the sunglasses, posing alongside the post with the dog on a leash as her protector.

I wish we had run the picture of her with the sunglasses because it fit perfectly to the whole Blues Brothers theme that I had in mind. But in many cases, you never think everything out perfectly.

Once the pictures were snapped, Linda asked our photographer if she could get the negatives for the picture for which he said he would.

The All-County field hockey story came out on Sunday, December 11, 1988, and there was that picture of Linda Kurtyka dressed up like a Blues Brother in front of the cage and the dog facing away from the camera. By the way, the picture with the sunglasses on has the dog facing the camera completely.

Too bad you have to show faces for these type of stories. But one thing did stand out in both stories -- that Linda Kurtyka smile.

The next Wednesday, Linda told me she had to be at Toms River East for some sort of event, so I told her I was taking my sister somewhere with me and that I'd meet her over at the school with the negatives. I parked next to her car and she got out. And nonchalantly, I kiddingly struck up a conversation line that would indicate we'd known each other for years.

"Hey there! I got your birthday gift right here," I started. "Here are the negatives. Thanks for the good time!"

Whether I caught her off guard I don't know, but she snapped right back, "Oh, you wish!"

Three months later on Friday, March 17, 1989, I was invited back to the Kurtyka household to do an in-depth, long interview with her as part of a feature story I wrote on her and her soccer and field hockey years at North. (I did the same thing exactly three weeks later in interviewing another talented Class of '89 senior in Central Regional High School softball standout Kelly McGowan.) I spent two good hours with her as she was preparing for her final season at Toms River North before heading to North Carolina State and play for the Wolfpack on scholarship.

In those four years, I got to watch someone grow from a shy girl with a pretty smile to this beautiful, talented and mature young lady ... and yeah, the same smile.

When I looked back on this particular "feature" picture years later, there were so many young ladies, especially in that particular Class of 1989, I could have used to do this particular Blues Brother-style picture.

But no one had that "thing" more than Linda Kurtyka did.

Why? She had style. She had that smile. And she was bad-ass, but mature enough to keep it on a playing field. If she put her mind to it, I believed Linda Kurtyka could succeed in whatever she wanted to do. And she's doing that and being creative in her line of work in Southern California these days.

Of all the young ladies I ever covered in my 30-plus year career, Linda Kurtyka will always be my favorite.

She made it easy for a 22-year-old journalist with creative juices to allow an idea or two to happen.

Oh, and I still have the hat all these years later.



Wednesday, September 28, 2016

September 28, 2011: From a dead car in the morning to elation after midnight



For as long as I live, the entire day of Wednesday, September 28, 2011 will forever live in my mind.

But to set this up, I have to go back a couple of weeks beforehand. So here it goes:

It was just over two weeks earlier. I had already stated an interest with the NFL team I cover home games with since 2003, the Jacksonville Jaguars, that my one road trip would be to Charlotte, N.C. to see the Jaguars face off with rookie Cam Newton and the Panthers and their new head coach, Ron Rivera. That was planned for Sunday, September 25.

The only thing I had not done yet was call Dan Edwards, the Jaguars' marvelous media coordinator, to get those passes. Figured I'd put that off a day.

Well any thought of those plans happening would get shot out of the air by one simple phone call. My sister called me and hit me with this news:

"Mom's coming down to Florida to visit cousin Marcia and she's expecting to fly back from Orlando with you."

"When is all this taking place?" I ask.

"She's going to be there until the 28th. You are going to take her with you that Sunday home."

Well that was that for that. No trip to Charlotte. The way things went with the Jaguars that 2011 season, it wasn't worth the trip in the end anyway.

So instead of Western Carolina, I'm now making new plans for a trip to South Florida for September 24-26. I had already asked my boss, Andy, off for that day since I didn't want to have to rush home from Charlotte and get right to work at 7 p.m. on that Monday. So I was cleared.

My next job was to call my friend outside of Fort Lauderdale, Doloria, who had spent some time with me in December 2010 in Palatka. Told her I was heading her way and if she wanted to hang with me. She was glad to see me again since we hadn't seen each other for ninth months. All that Saturday morning and afternoon, I traveled to South Florida. It was about 4 p.m. when I got to Doloria's place in Davie. Her son, who was 22, was there and I was happy to meet him for the first time.

We took off not far after that and checked in at a hotel in Jupiter, not far from my cousin Robin's place. We went out to dinner and I called Marcia to ask her if we could come over. It was late by now and we agreed we'd all meet at Marcia's the next day.

That Sunday, I get to hang with Doloria near the pool of the hotel, even though it was a slightly overcast day. By 6:30 that night, she and I were on our way to Marcia's. I've made the trip to my cousin's house enough times to know where it is, even as darkness was becoming more obvious with the daylight savings time coming.

We arrived at Marcia's where my mom was along with Robin. I gave my mom a big hug and then introduced her to my friend. I had not told them she was African-American, but I didn't think it would matter anyway. I just wanted to see a response.

I never got one because they treated her like she was one of their own. We got to hang out all night and catch up on things. We had a good time with dinner and dessert. Doloria and I took off for the hotel at just after 11:30 that night.

The next morning, the 26th of September, I had to take Doloria back to her place, which was a 45-minute ride one way. When I was done with that, I had to meet Marcia at her place to pick up my mom to take back with me to Northern Florida. She had packed most of her stuff with my mom and I picked her up to go at about 2 p.m. We were on our way to a restaurant in Stuart to meet my ex-girlfriend, Beth, who was living in West Palm Beach with her husband.

We get in, catch up on old times, and I can see Steve was a little uncomfortable with his wife's ex-boyfriend and his mother there. I think he was trying hard to impress, but he didn't have to. Hey, he got my ex in the end. He had nothing to prove, really.

We spent about 90 minutes in the restaurant and left around 3:40 p.m. when my phone goes off.

Marcia's calling me, telling me my mom forgot her watch.

"Meet me right off I-95 by the Sunoco station," she said.

So I did. About 15 minutes later, she arrives with the watch and once again, we say our goodbyes.

Now I'm heading north up I-95 and I have two options: My mom and I could go see my late girlfriend's mom and brother, who still live up in Vero Beach and she'd get to see her 3-year-old son, Nio, who she was pregnant with when I first met her in 2007. I got no answer on the phone from her brother at all, and I wasn't up to springing surprises on the family one bit.

That idea went out the window. My next option was calling my step-grandmother Gladys, who lives in Clearwater. I get her on the phone and tell her I have mom with me. She was delighted to see her and I put her on my phone with her. It was around 4:45 p.m. and the exit for Vero Beach was coming off -- State-Road 60. You go east, you get into Vero Beach and to the ocean. You turn left, you get the Vero Beach Outlets and just about nothing for 75 miles other than the Florida's Turnpike exit for Yeehaw Junction.

I figured I'd get to her place by about 8 p.m., but well over 100 miles seemed to take forever, especially after getting out of that nothingness of an area known as Central Florida and hitting every single traffic light on the way to Tampa. We had to make two bathroom breaks along the way.

By the time I reached Tampa, it was 8:40 p.m. and I still had the Campbell Causeway to drive on to get to Clearwater. By the time I reached her development where she lived, it was 9:10 p.m. Thankfully, she was still up and about and watching the first game of a three-game, season-ending baseball series between the Yankees and the Rays at Tropicana Field.

She was delighted to see us get there. She would catch up on times with my step-grandmother since she hadn't seen her since 2007 when her stepbrother Lewis got married. He came over for a while, and after that, his wife Eileen came over. We ended up leaving sometime before midnight, but I'm glad we got everyone together for a few hours that evening.

Now I wasn't going to tell my mom I had some issues with my automobile, a 1998 Toyota Corrolla, which had just got over 200,000 miles six months earlier. After pushing that car as far as I could, I wanted to take the back way to Palatka, even if it took an extra hour to get there. We traveled up U.S.-19 into Crystal River, then veered off onto SR-44. It was a turn after that onto SR-491 through Beverly Hills until connecting onto SR-200. Once I got back into Ocala nearly two hours later, we hopped on I-75 to Exit 358, where I knew my normal way around there to SR-326, then onto US-301, and onto SR-20 where finally sometime around 3:30 in the morning, we arrived back at my apartment in Palatka.

I had her sleeping on the sofa in the living room and I was in my bedroom. That morning and afternoon, we went out to a pair of places in town, the last was my place of employment, the Palatka Daily News. Unlike seven years earlier when my mom and dad came to town to visit, it was during the day and she got to meet Andy, my boss, Larry, and my publisher and personal savoir, Rusty. She got to see I worked with very good people while I was there. We stopped over at Publix where we picked up the dinner for the night -- I made us grilled salmon with green beans and corn.

Then I showed her the television clicker and told her I would be home sometime around 12:30 in the morning. It was an easy night for a Tuesday and I left to come home at around 12:45 a.m. But as I pulled into my parking lot at my complex with my tail going in first, I started to hear a noise in my car.

I didn't think anything of it at that moment and just came in to see mom was up. She had done little unpacking since she was only going to be with me for a day. We had to be out the door by 9:15 for a 2 p.m. flight out of Orlando.

It is 8:15 in the morning, Wednesday, September 28, 2011. My task at hand was to get mom to the airport after we first picked up her phone that she forgot her charger for on the trip down to Florida at the nearby Radio Shack. Those folks were nice enough to allow her to keep the phone overnight. If my sister or dad needed us, they could get her on my phone since I had left it with her.

Getting things packed wasn't that difficult a task. I made coffee that morning and around 9:10, we were to get on our way for the 2 1/2-hour trek to Orlando International Airport. Got everything settled, turned the ignition on.

Nothing! All I heard was the rattling sound of something in my car that sounded like a belt was out of place. I opened up the hood of my car ... and it was. The belt to my fuel pump was snapped. I didn't have many options other than a rental car at that particular moment.

The only place in town I had business with and knew would get the job done for me was Enterprise. But I had to wait. It wasn't until about 9:45 when we could be picked up, make a side trip to get mom's fully charged cell phone at Radio Shack, then be on our way to Enterprise to pick up the rental. It seemed as if it would take forever to get the business of the rental over with. But they were only going as fast as they could as they figured out which car I was going to take for the day.

We got to the rental desk at about 10:15. We didn't leave until 10:50, which now put me behind a serious 8-ball, trying to get my mom down to Orlando as fast as I could. One obstacle that was in the way was gas -- they don't give you more than just over a quarter of a tank to begin with, so you are on your own to fill the tank up. It was 12:30 in the afternoon and I had just arrived at the gas station off of I-4 in Deltona to get some gas in. I put in about $5 since that would take care of the rest of the trip to the airport.

By the time she finished going to the bathroom and I had picked up something to drink for us, we were out of the station by 12:40. It was still another 10 miles to the exit for the Greeneway toll road and another 35 minutes to the airport.

To this day, I still don't know how cops didn't catch me going 85 mph in a 70 zone. Once we got to the airport, I was able to get her to where she needed to check in. I told her to call me to make sure all was fine as I found a place to park after she got in.

Five minutes later, the phone rings.

"It's OK," she says. "The flight's been delayed an hour."

There was a sigh of relief. I met her outside the gate she was supposed to go through. We hugged, kissed, told each other we loved them and I left her to go through security and wait for her flight back to New Jersey.

I had done what I was asked to do -- get her to the airport and on her way home. I jumped back into my car and decided to take a leisurely trip back to Palatka. Heck, I had the car for the day and it wasn't as if there was a huge day of work ahead of us. Wednesdays are rarely ever busy because of how religious it is for activity that night where I was living.

After getting gas at the closest Mobil in Orlando, I took SR-436 onto I-4 and back off onto US-17 to take it all the way back up to Palatka. By the time I arrived somewhere between 5:30 and 6 p.m., I had contacted a guy named Troy, who happened to see what was going on under the hood earlier that morning when I first had my issue. He was willing to come look at it and evaluate if he could fix it or not. He looked at it after I got back and figured it shouldn't be a problem. Told him I'd see him in the morning.

I had picked up something to eat from Publix that night and headed to work sometime after 7 p.m. Mom had already let me know she got back safely, so all was good.

My job on the night was normal -- make sure our Scoreboard page was set up properly to put our weekly football picks grid on the page and to pick up the two local events that were taking place.

But my mind was somewhere else. It was the final night of the Major League Baseball season. What was a tradition to end the season on a Sunday, now it was ending on a Wednesday night, away from the frenzy of Sunday NFL play. The Rays, my favorite American League team, had done an amazing job of cutting the deficit from nine games behind the Boston Red Sox in the search for the American League wild card to tie them after taking the first two games of their series with the rival New York Yankees.

Early in the night, I had already gotten my two events on the evening: Palatka High's volleyball team had beaten Interlachen in four sets, and the Palatka High boys golf team took second in a three-team competition with Nease and St. Augustine at Ponte Vedra's Valley Golf Course.

That gave me plenty of time to finish up my end of the scoreboard page as we waited on the outcome of this Rays-Yankees game. And it didn't look good in the second inning when Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira sent a ball in orbit for a grand slam, giving the Yankees a 5-0 lead. He added another home run in the fourth and when Andruw Jones went yard in the fifth, the Yankees had a 7-0 lead.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox had taken a 3-2 lead in the top of the fifth inning and needed a win and a Rays loss to get the AL wild card.

Those scores would stay like that for a number of innings. I had already started thinking about a Red Sox-Rangers first-round series. It was about 11 o'clock, and normally at that hour, you start getting into the final stretch where the deadline is 12:30 a.m.

While that was all taking place in the American League, the National League picture had become clearer with the Philadelphia Phillies taking out the Atlanta Braves in 13 innings, 4-3, over an hour after the St. Louis Cardinals had shut out the woebegone Houston Astros, 8-0, to steal the National League wild card away from the frustrated Braves. My boss, a diehard Braves fan, was not too pleased by that outcome.

Now the game was in the bottom of the eighth. The Rays, who I grew to love as my AL team once I started covering games in that ballpark in 2007 and enjoyed conversations with their outgoing and knowledgeable manager Joe Maddon, still the best manager or coach I've ever interviewed in all these years, were down to their last six outs. It wasn't looking good still.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi had started Dellin Batances and had used six relievers by the time they got to Boone Logan. Johnny Damon singled and Ben Zobrist doubled him to third. Casey Kotchman was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Out goes Logan and in came Luis Ayala. He walks Sam Fuld to bring in Damon. It's 7-1. Sean Rodriguez is hit by a pitch, scoring Zobrist. It's 7-2.

And I'm wondering all the while, "Why the hell does Girardi not have Mariano Rivera up to pitch? The Rays still need this game to make the playoffs!"

But no Rivera. Ayala is still pitching. After a strikeout, B.J. Upton lofted a sacrifice fly to make it 7-3. There's two outs and runners on base for All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria. On the first pitch, I could hear the crack of the bat, look at the ball flying on TV over the fence and realize, "Oh my goodness ... it's 7-6!! Just like that!!"

At the same time this is going on, I turn back to ESPN to see the bottom of the ninth in the Red Sox-Orioles game. Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon is on the mound to close out the game and the Red Sox playoff berth. Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds strike out, leaving the Orioles down to one out left.

That brings up Chris Davis, the team's third baseman and a midseason acquisition from the Texas Rangers. Davis laces a double to right field.

There's something. Then No. 9 hitter Nolan Reimold takes one deep to right-center field that bounces over the fence for a ground-rule double to tie it up at 4-all. At the least now, there's extra innings after the blown save.

But it wasn't ending there -- leadoff hitter Robert Andino singled to left field just out of the reach of Carl Crawford. Reimold was waved home to the plate. Crawford -- who had signed a deal to leave Tampa Bay to play for the Red Sox -- fired to the plate, but he was not in time to cut down Reimold.

The Orioles had done it! They had done it for themselves and for the Rays. Now it was up to Tampa Bay to take care of business.

But down 7-6 in the bottom of the ninth, it wasn't feeling good. Still, where the hell is Mariano Rivera?!? He should be out there finishing this!!!

Cory Wade was the newest pitcher to come into the game for the Yankees to close out the game. He got Zobrist to pop out and Kotchman to ground out. There was one more obstacle in the way -- Dan Johnson. Three years earlier, he had come up in a pinch-hitting role against Boston and hit a September home run against Papelbon to help lead the Rays to the win and ultimately clinch their first American League East title.

Now he was being called on in a pinch-hitting duty to do something again. The count got to 2-2. Then Wade grooved one inside the strike zone. Johnson crushed it. It was only a matter of whether it would stay fair or not.

It did. Home run! Tie game!! Oh, my goodness, this really is happening!

An hour really goes by and nothing happens. It's now just after midnight -- 30 minutes before deadline -- and the game is in the bottom of the 12th inning. The Yankees were on their 11th pitcher of the game, Scott Proctor. He struck out Upton swinging, bringing up Longoria. He worked the count to 2-2. Somehow, I knew something was going to happen, whether it'd be a double, maybe a home run. I felt like it was "time" for something amazing to happen.

Sure enough, on the next pitch, it did.

When Longoria's bat met ball, I thought it was a line foul at first. But the way the ball was travelling,  a low line drive, I figured at best it would be a one-hopper off the wall. However, visiting that ball park a number of times, I always noticed that short cutout in the wall between left field and the left field foul pole. Never thought in a million years it'd come into play.

But when that ball disappeared over the fence on the right side of the foul pole, I ... literally ... lost ... it!

I'll never forget Dwayne Staats' call of that shot: "Two-two and a line shot down the left field liiiiiine ... THAT BALL IS GONE! AND THE RAYS WIN IT! A LINE DRIVE HOME RUN BYEVAN LONGORIA AND THE RAYS STORM THE FIELD!!"

"YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!! PLAYOFFS, BABY!!!"

They could have heard me in Crescent City and I didn't care. The Rays had pulled off the absolutely impossible and helped finish off one of the greatest collapses in Major League history. The Red Sox had a 99.4 percent chance of making the playoffs as of the beginning of the month. Now they were going to sit home and watch the playoffs as the Rays got the wild card.

All my Facebook friends who thought the Red Sox were a lock to make the playoffs went suddenly silent. For a long time, too.

It was a very good night to say the least. The Rays had ended what was an absolutely horrible start to my day. It made it worth getting through in the end. And something I won't ever forget in my life.

The next day after that, I took the car back to Enterprise, they drove me home, I met Troy, who drove me to one of our local auto supply stores to get a belt for $46. But he didn't have the tool to get the belt in. Thankfully, one of our Daily News carriers, Don, knew a lot about cars. He and his son would eventually come over on Saturday morning, October 1, to get that belt on because they had the tool that poor Troy didn't. And for my gratitude they got the problem fixed, I took both Don and his son to our local eatery, Angel's, for lunch because they asked that.

And Troy would be happy -- even though he was frustrated for not getting the car fixed, I was a man of my word and bought him an 18-pack of beer ... just like he asked. He did everything he could up until fixing it.

Unfortunately, my mom wouldn't do so well after I got her on the plane in New Jersey. She had a stroke in November 2011 and it was also figured out she had ongoing dementia, which would ultimately claim her life in February 2014.

For as long as I live, I will never forget that Wednesday when baseball ended its season without any football interference. To this day, many call it the greatest day of baseball ever.

I'd agree with that. After what I went through in the morning when I had one job to do and barely did it, it was well worth the ending.






Saturday, July 16, 2016

How simple turned into anything but on one hour of sleep



Most nights at the Palatka Daily News are hectic. There's always something to do and rarely is a deadline reached before 11:30 at night. And even when you do get done early, there's a chore or two that has to be done after deadline. In my case, that chore is posting stories and pages to our Web site, something I've done for nearly a decade.

And quite honestly, it's a hindrance for usually, that leaves me out of the loop to accomplish anything the next morning. Sleep has been my never-ending battle. I could be done and home by 12:45 in the morning and I'd be too wound up to fall asleep for a few hours. I mean, c'mon ... how many people get home from their 9-5 job and go to sleep by 6? If you do, then you're just an unusual bird.

If I get home, it's normally between 1-2 in the morning and I'm not asleep until 5 and wake up somewhere between 10 a.m. and noon. And like I mentioned above, that causes issues if there's a morning event to be covered or a picture to be taken. Usually, I'm out and either my boss has to do it since he's up that early or we ask someone to get the results for us or email the picture themselves and I'll call later for them.

But during the summer when there's very little on the ol' local schedule, I have to bite the bullet on occasion. And that was the case on Saturday, July 20, 2013.

The normal Friday night routine taking place at work, my boss, Andy, and I got the paper done and out in plenty of time and from there, we went over next week, especially the fact he was taking that next week off for vacation. He gave me his camera to use for the event I was going to be at on Saturday morning. Not only was I going to shoot the Melrose 15-and-under Babe Ruth All-Star team's North Florida game earlier in the morning against Jacksonville Argyle, but if I was dissatisfied with the pictures, I could take pics of the game if Melrose won -- and that'd be a rematch with Tallahassee for the first championship in the double-elimination event. Earlier in the week, Tallahassee needed two late runs to beat Melrose, 2-1, forcing Melrose to fly through the losers' bracket winning game after game after game to get to this point again.

So he left and I was left at work to do my normal business with posting stories and pages on the Internet for our online readers to get access for, and then I headed out sometime around 2 in the morning to go home and get sleep.

At 3 in the morning, my goal was to get three hours of sleep, take a shower and head out the door by 7 to travel west for 76 miles on State Road-100 to get to Lake City where the tournament was held at a park I'd never been to before.

Couldn't fall asleep. Here we go.

Four o'clock. Nothing. Four-thirty. Still nothing.

Finally at 5 a.m., I put my head down and figured whatever happened happened.

I was up by 6. One hour of sleep. That was it. I wasn't jeopardizing my day. Beside, this could be a quick trip for me -- the kids from Melrose could lose that game with Argyle and before noon, I'd be on the road again heading back to Palatka and back to bed the rest of the day.

So I took my shower, packed the camera and my scorebook into the car and headed west on SR-100 for the looooooong trip through Keystone Heights, Starke, Lake Butler and every small, hole-in-the-wall town you can imagine in between until I finally reached the Southside Sports Complex. It's a huge complex with numerous baseball and softball fields. It was just a matter of finding the Melrose kids and the field they were playing on.

Once I recognized the white-topped Melrose team players, I was on my way to the field, going upstairs to copy down lineups for both teams which I normally do and then just head downstairs to take accounts of the game. For this game, I stayed close to the fence on the first-base side of home plate, capturing the events on both film and scorebook.

Argyle's Knights jumped out to a 4-1 lead and held it until the bottom of the sixth. Then Melrose made its comeback when, with the bases loaded, Jase Foshee beat out an infield hit, then a costly error by Argyle first baseman Brady Shuey plated two runs to tie the game at 4-4 going into the seventh.

Melrose executed a flyball double play and a popout got the team out of the seventh, setting up the bottom of the seventh. Austin Bass led off by being hit from a pitch from reliever Alex Newton, now in his fourth inning of relief. Darius Oliver singled him to second, so a rally was going on.

The rally looked squelched, though, when center fielder Will Pillsbury made a nice diving catch on a flyball by Tyler Thompson and Pillsbury doubled off Bass at second. But Hunter Davis singled Oliver to second and on an 0-2 pitch, No. 9 hitter Kele Blankenship lined a single to left field that sent Oliver home and Melrose to the 5-4 come-from-behind victory.

I got a couple of celebration shots (including the one above) and figured, I was good to go the rest of the day on pictures. I went back to my car and safely placed the camera in the trunk so no one would see it. It meant, though, I was going to have to stick around for a championship game, but one more game wasn't going to hurt me.

At least, that's what I said at 11:30 on this extremely warm morning. Oh, how I was going to be very, very wrong in the end as the temperatures soared into the low 90s.

Argyle, heads hung low, left the field as its summer came to an end, and onto the field came Tallahassee, which would occupy the first base dugout where I was sitting. Let's say their fans (consisting of moms, some dads, siblings, friends) were "warming up" their vocal chords. I would've gone upstairs in the press box, but I actually thought the sunshine wasn't such a bad thing (and for the record, I did have suntan on, so it wasn't going to be a day I'd regret).

In terms of league size, Tallahassee was three times bigger than Melrose, maybe four. The team from the state capital could draw from a large base since Tallahassee doesn't have a Little League and it's all Babe Ruth-based. Melrose is as far back in the woods in north-central Florida as you can get. Melrose has to draw from various communities -- Interlachen, Interlachen's surrounding small town communities, Keystone Heights and Starke. Interestingly, the town of Melrose is unique in it literally lies in four counties: Putnam, Clay, Alachua and Bradford. I couldn't imagine what it was like to build a government way, way, way back when.

Tallahassee was the favorite to win this game, but Melrose was not to be sold short. They had some guys on the team that could hit the ball a country mile, especially in the middle of the order in No. 3 hitter and left-hander Brett Sellers, also the team's best pitcher, and catcher Adam Kozlowski. Kyle McCole and Foshee were the table-setters at the top of the lineup and Oliver and Bass were nice contact hitters who kept the lineup line moving.

And if Melrose could get through this day with a victory, there was a good chance it may have a good arsenal of pitchers ready for Tallahassee the next morning. The drama just needed to unfold.

So at 11:51 on this Saturday morning, Tallahassee starter Russell Rauh threw a ball to McCole and the game was under way. On the next pitch, McCole singled to center field. Foshee popped out to catcher Bo Seccombe, bringing up Sellers. Sellers worked the count to 3-2 and then fouled the next pitch off to the backstop. He didn't miss that pitch by much.

He wasn't going to miss the next one at all.

Sellers launched a rocket that center fielder Carl Carlson slowed down from in mid-run. It landed about 20 feet over the center field fence and Melrose had a 2-0 lead.

Melrose manager Dale Yarbrough, a quiet man who let his assistant coach Patrick White do all the talking to me for the games leading up to this day, handed the ball to Foshee to get the job done and at least push the tournament into a Sunday winner-take-all matchup. He gave up a one-out single to Trevor McElroy and one out later, Seccombe hit a ground-rule double to put runners on second and third. But he got first baseman Anthony Milton to fly out to end the threat.

But the bottom of the second wasn't going to go so well. Seton Bentz led off with a double just inside the left-field line and the next batter, Merrick Zweydorff, doubled to right to bring him in. But Foshee got Rauh to foul out to him, then a comebacker off the bat of Chris Jerry caught Zweydorff off guard and he would be run at and tagged out by Foshee for the second out.

Looked like Foshee was going to get out of trouble all by himself. But he was only fooling himself as Carlson, the team's leadoff hitter, lofted a flyball to right field that Kozlowski, starting in right field, had difficulty finding. By the time he did locate it, the ball bounced off his glove and away from him for what would be a two-base error. And with Jerry running with two outs, he scored to tie the game at 2-2.

It was a foreshadowing of things to come.

McElroy grounded out and Melrose left the field disappointed, but still in a 2-2 tie.

In the top of the third, Foshee reached on a fielding error by second baseman Zweydorff with one out. Sellers was hit by a pitch to put runners on first and second. Kozlowski struck out. But Oliver beat out an infield hit that did not kick into foul ground, staying fair and loading the bases for Bass. On Rauh's first pitch, Bass singled to left field. Foshee easily scored, but left fielder Seton Bentz launched a one-hopper that Seccombe grabbed and tagged out Sellers to end the inning, keeping Melrose ahead by just one run.

There was still a long way to go, but Foshee had seemed to right the ship. Then came the fourth. Zweydorff started the inning by reaching on an infield single. Rauh walked and Jerry sacrifice bunted the runners up a base. Carlson did the rest of the work by delivering a single to center field to bring in both runners and give Tallahassee a 4-3 lead.

And anytime any of the Tallahassee hitters did anything good, the mostly African-American contingent of women who sat around me started getting all Tag Team 1993 -- "Whoomp, there it is! Whoomp, there it is! Whoomp, there it is!" This would go on for a few more innings in regulation play. And, of course, anytime a Melrose player would do something, that would be answered on occasion by their fans going, "Whoomp, there it is! Whoomp, there it is!"

Was MTV Jams on shortly after the game or going on as we were playing? I wasn't prepared on this day to turn the clock back 20 years.

Anyhow, Foshee left Carlson stranded with a strikeout and popout to end the fourth.

Down 4-3 now going to the top of the fifth inning, Jerry came in to relieve Rauh, part of Tallahassee's plan to not go with any one pitcher a long amount of time just in case there was a second championship game and arms were needed on Sunday. But after Jerry got Sellers to groundout, Kozlowski launched a moonshot on a 2-1 delivery that Carlson went back for, but just missed reaching over the fence to take away what would be a home run.

Melrose showed resiliency to tie the game up and cue the fans chanting, "Whoomp, there it is! Whoomp, there it is!" right back at the Tallahassee fans, leaving some fans with a smile.

It was on. Yarbrough took Foshee out and put the big boy in ... yup, Sellers was asked to protect the tie until Melrose could scratch a run out and win it. But with two outs, Sellers got into trouble in the fifth when Bentz walked, stole second and moved to third on an infield single by Zweydorff, who would take second on fielder's indifference. But Sellers settled down to get reserve Glenn Davis out on strikes off a foul tip into the catcher's glove of Kozlowski, now behind the plate.

Thompson led off the top of the sixth against Jerry with a single and pinch-runner Hagan Masciale advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Hunter Davis. But Blankenship, the hero from the first game, flied out and McCole struck out to end the sixth.

Melrose had a good opportunity to go ahead in the seventh, putting runners on first and second with two out. But Bass hit a shot to third baseman Max McKinley, who snagged it and stepped on the base to end the inning.

It was now 1:55 in the afternoon, but for the past 25 minutes, dark clouds were beginning to make the sky ominous. And just as Tallahassee players grabbed bats to face Sellers in the bottom of the seventh, the skies opened up and thunder and lightning soon followed. I headed immediately up to the press box to wait things out there. The rain came down hard on the field ... and 50 minutes later, the field was left in a muddy quagmire.

The Lake City Babe Ruth personnel there were determined to get this game over and done with. Frankly, I wanted them to get the darn thing done -- I didn't want this game to finish here, go back to Palatka, come back the very next morning and play what would be half an inning. That wasn't on my mind of scenarios I wanted being played out. And with funds being tight, I wasn't wanting to entertain taking out a hotel room overnight. So if they could get this game rolling again, I'd be OK with the outcome, regardless of who won. I'd figure that part out much, much later.

So I asked an official from Lake City when he felt the game would start up again. He said most likely between 5 and 6 o'clock. That was fair. They needed the time to get the field done. So I headed up to US-90, the main road that slices through Lake City and found Gator's Dockside, a popular Florida restaurant chain. I sat down, ordered their nachos supreme and watched a little baseball on their television as I took my time eating.

After eating, I called back to the same official I talked to at 3:45 and he told me things were going slower than anyone thought. The game was more than likely going to kick back up closer to 5 p.m. From the comforts of my car, I turned on the motor, cranked the air conditioning as high as I could and closed my eyes in a lounged seat position. Problem is you can't get the full effect in a full parking lot where cars come and go. I stayed in that position for maybe a half an hour and by 4:40 p.m., I was on my way back to the complex.

As I arrived, they were still working feverishly to get the field done, so I went up in the air-conditioned press box where there was a couch behind the seats overlooking the field. Knowing my attempts at sleep were a failure in the car, I tried again on the couch as everyone was roaming about down on the field trying to get the field prettied up again to continue this game.

Meanwhile, just as I had found a comfort level to get some shut-eye, I can hear the back of the couch going, "Thump! Thump! Thump!" every few seconds. A couple of kids were using the couch as a backstop to throw a rubber ball back and forth. It was annoying, but I had no energy to tell them to stop. I was determined to keep my eyes closed on the couch, flip-flops next to the couch, for as long as I could until Lake City officials came back upstairs and prepared to pick up the game.

And then by 6:15 p.m. -- long past how I was going to spend at the complex in my head -- the game picked up again. By now, the lights were turned on over the field. And yet, this could all end in the bottom of the seventh. With two outs, Sellers, still allowed to pitch, walked Bentz, then committed a balk to move the runner into scoring position. I wasn't sure what the call was, but I had a feeling it had to do with delivery while Bentz was threatening to steal a base. Bentz would eventually steal third, putting the winning moment in the hands of Zweydorff, who was 3-for-3. Zweydorff fought off a 3-2 pitch to stay alive. But on the next pitch, he hit a ball squarely at McCole, who got the runner by a step to keep the game tied at 4-4 and into extra innings.

I was just hoping for a quick ending by now as 6:30 o'clock was approaching. And by now, up in the press box, I was so comfortable watching the game overhead that I didn't even think about returning back to field level.

With two outs in the top of the eighth inning against Zweydorff, who had now taken on the reliever duties, Blankenship singled. McCole walked, and this brought up Foshee, muzzled most of the game. On an 0-1 pitch, Foshee deposited a single to left field, but White knew his runners well enough to send them or slow them up. Blankenship, he felt, was not going to get home safely, so he held him up at third to load the bases.

After all, Sellers was coming to the plate. This young man was a game-changer both on the mound and at the plate. One swing could change the outcome. But Sellers got fooled on a 2-0 pitch and hit a harmless grounder that new second baseman Davis ate up and threw to first to end the threat.

Sellers had his way with Tallahassee's lineup in the eighth. In the ninth, he had to work out of a one-out, first-and-second jam. Tallahassee manager Brian Kelley put the hit-and-run on to end matters with the count at 2-2. Bentz fouled off three straight 2-2 pitches, but struck out on this next pitch and Kozlowski threw a strike to Bass at third to nail pinch-runner Jordan Ulee to end the inning.

The 10th and 11th innings provided no fireworks, so we moved to the 12th. McElroy, who had come in for Zweydorff in the 11th, stranded a runner on first, sending the game to the bottom of the 12th. Unfortunately for Melrose, Sellers was out of innings to pitch. He had eight going into the weekend and now every last one of them was eaten up because neither team could score a run. Sellers threw 130 pitches, allowed five hits in those eight shutout innings, walked two hitters, hit another and struck out eight.

He had done his job. Now it was up to others to pitch in. And slowly, reality was beginning to set in -- if this game was going to continue on at this rate, who would be available to pitch for Melrose on Sunday morning if they won? It seemed all the better pitchers Yarbrough and assistants White and Dan Duffy sent to the mound were exhausting all their innings in this one day between the Argyle and Tallahassee games.

The next option was McCole, another good pitcher with not quite the same overpowering stuff that Sellers had, but still good enough to keep batters off balance. He gave up a leadoff hit to Milton, but would get a flyout, a forceout and a groundout to end the 12th.

All I kept thinking in my head was, "End it now!" McCole had three innings left for his week of pitching.

McCole looked like he was going to make something happen in the top of the 13th when he walked to lead off. Foshee sacrificed him up to second, putting him in scoring positon for the big boys in the lineup. Sellers once again hammered a single to center field, but on one hop, Carlson got the ball and fired to the plate where White held McCole up at third. McElroy got a big out when he fanned Kozlowski for the second out.

It left things up to Oliver. The count got to 1-1 when McElroy threw a one-hopper past Seccombe. McCole made the quick decision to test out the battery and see if they would react to the wild pitch. Seccombe got to the ball and McElroy hustled to the plate. The retrieved ball, the runner and the pitcher all met at the same time. McCole slid in. McElroy slapped the tag on.

The umpire yelled, "Out!" But on a day in which he was spot on with his ball and strike calls, he missed it ... he missed it badly, too. From my overhead view of the play, McCole slid in to the plate under the tag. It was in my plain view. He missed it.

And that meant McCole had to go out there for the 13th. By now, I'm pretty sure he wasn't happy. And I'm very sure I wasn't happy.

"End this thing already! Someone!!! I don't care who now! Just someone ... end it!!"

McCole got a quick 1-2-3 bottom of the 13th and onward we went to the 14th.

After Bass had reached on a one-out error, he got stranded after a popout and a comebacker, bringing us to the bottom of the 14th ... and McCole's last inning he could throw. He got the first two outs of the inning, but Milton singled and Bentz walked, putting the winning run on second with two out. And up stepped Zweydorff again. He was 3-for-6 by now, and had the chance to be a hero and send Tallahassee to the North Florida title. But anxiously, he went after the first pitch and popped out to new second baseman Connor Osteen to end the inning.

The misery was continuing. It was now 8:30 p.m. and the 15th inning didn't go well for Melrose against McElroy, throwing his fifth inning of relief. Blankenship grounded out, McCole fouled out and Foshee flied out.

Onto the bottom of the 15th and yet another new pitcher. This time -- and out of desperation for arms -- it was Blankenship who got the call. He was, by far, just a "break glass in emergency" kind of pitcher. And now, he was being relied on to get his team to the unenjoyable 16th inning.

It didn't start well, though, as he walked Rauh, who was entered back into the game for this at-bat, on five pitches to start. Jerry put down a sacrifice bunt to move Rauh to second. The winning run was there, just two bases away again.

On the first pitch, though, Carlson popped out to Foshee, now playing shortstop. That brought up McElroy, the opposing pitcher, who was 2-for-7 at the point with three strikeouts. After a first-pitch ball, Blankenship put one just about letter-high to the left-handed hitting McElroy. He took it for a ride to right field.

Probably tired of the game by now, Kelley sent Rauh around third to come home, even as the ball came up true to right fielder McCole, who had been sent there after his three-inning stint, on a hop. McCole got the ball and fired a one-hopper to the plate where Kozlowski would grab the ball and make the tag on Rauh, who was somewhere between third base and the plate, nowhere near home plate!

The hop to Kozlowski was true. McCole could not have put the throw in a better place for Kozlowski to catch it.

And sadly, that was the problem ... Kozlowski completely whiffed on the catch! Missed it completely! Had the perfect bounce and blew it!

He would have had to have caught the ball and run maybe three or four steps back to the plate because he was a bit away from the plate ready to take the throw. But even with those three or four steps, he would have had Rauh out at the plate in plenty of time. That's how far away Rauh was from the plate.

It was heartbreaking. By the time the ball bounced behind Kozlowski and to the fence over by the Melrose dugout, Rauh was running toward the plate with no backup behind him because Blankenship was in the wrong spot. And as Rauh reached the plate, Kozlowski whipped his catcher's glove to the ground as hard as he could.

It was over in the most stunning and awful ways at 8:50 p.m., nearly nine hours after it started. The teams had combined to play 15 up-and-down, dramatic innings, throw 446 pitches combined with 25  hits and both teams each leaving 16 runners on base.

When handing out the trophies at the end of the game, host District 12 commissioner Joe DeColuccio said it was the most innings a state tournament final had ever been played and it was the most exciting game he had ever witnessed.

Kelly would tell me afterward it was the most amazing game he had ever been a part of. Meanwhile, Yarbrough, White and Duffy were still collecting their thoughts. White said the most prophetic words to me when I asked him had his team won, what they would have done about pitching the next day.

"We didn't know what we were going to do," he said. Then looking at me, he asked, "Could you have pitched?" I would have loved to have helped, but I think I ran out of eligibility 32 years earlier. My 46-year-old body just wouldn't have held up like I would hope it would.

White, though, expressed the honor it was to be part of a game with a team that draws from two other teams within the league, while Tallahassee draws from numerous high schools and has 13 teams within the league at that 15-and-under level. Sounds lopsided, but lopsided never measures heart. Those Melrose kids showed heart ... it just didn't have enough energy left to carry on to another day.

It was now 9 o'clock, probably nine hours longer than I anticipated staying at that Lake City complex. I didn't have to come back the next day now that Tallahassee had claimed the 5-4 victory. I must admit that whatever adrenaline I had left in me got me back home on SR-100 to Palatka. By the time I reached my quiet and empty apartment, I plopped down on my sofa and turned on my laptop to see what I missed on this particular day.

This was about 11:05 p.m. by now. The next thing I remember was waking up about 1 in the morning. I dragged myself to bed and slept until 1 the next afternoon. It was the 21st of July.

I could take my time doing anything I wanted. I didn't have work until Monday.

And amazingly, I could still remember everything that had taken place the day before.

It was a Saturday I won't soon ever forget for everything that took place on that field. I just wouldn't advise anyone to try doing any of what I did on one hour of sleep.



Thursday, June 23, 2016

The last Lakewood OCT softball win

By 1991, the Ocean County Softball Tournament was being run by Lakewood head coach Dave McKelvey. McKelvey was the first person I met who ran this tournament that truly and undeniably cared about not just running a smooth event, but running one in which the players were the showcase and that everyone would play on the same field.

And he was so excited about this concept when he first came to me with it in 1989 that he wanted me to come on board as the "official statistician" for the event. You see, he was going to hand out not just a first-place and second-place team trophy and tournament Most Valuable Player, but he was also going to hand out new awards such as Top Hitter, Top Fielder and Top Pitcher, though the Top Pitcher honor was going to the pitcher who won the championship.

So for the third year running with me as the official "statistician," Dave and I ran things with the tournament. The tournament began on Saturday, May 11, and for the first time, another site was being used to run the first two rounds. Point Pleasant Boro High School softball coach John Natoli had wanted in, especially coming off an 18-6 season in 1990 and a Class C Division title. He thought it'd be a great showcase for his field to host the first two rounds. McKelvey agreed and it actually took some pressure off of him to run the whole tournament on his field because adult leagues were being played on that field, and though he had a major part of the adult league, he really didn't want to screw up that league's schedule.

On this particular Saturday, a very unusually cool and damp day near the ocean and canal, the tournament kicked off with four games. Twelve teams entered the tournament as Point Pleasant Beach, Manchester and Brick Memorial opted not to enter that year. And the Top 4 seeds of this particular year's event – No. 1 Toms River North, No. 2 seed Brick, No. 3 Toms River South and No. 4 Lacey – drew byes and didn't have to be at Point Boro for this day. On top of that, both No. 9 seed Toms River East and No. 8 Southern Regional had agreed to play the Monday after because coaches Dick Manzo of Southern and Joe Armino of Toms River East had a prior commitment that they wouldn't be able to get out of.

So on this particular afternoon and evening, there'd be three games. The first game was scheduled for noon between Pinelands, the No. 11 seed and coached by field hockey mentor Pam Boyd, against venerable No. 6 seed Central Regional, having an off-season for the program, but still competitive under coach Norm Selby. The Golden Eagles easily wiped out Pinelands in 4 1/2 innings, 14-3, to advance to the quarterfinals.

But because the game went by so quickly, Natoli and I had plenty of time between that game and the one at 5 p.m. between seventh-seeded Jackson Memorial and No. 10 seed Lakewood. With all that time and it's 1:30 in the afternoon, I remember packing up my stuff, heading back to Toms River, eating lunch my mom put in front of me (some sandwich, I can't even begin to tell you what it was) and by 3:15 p.m., I was on my way back to Point Pleasant Boro's field, which I got to just around 3:45 p.m. (I thank goodness it wasn't Memorial Day weekend yet!)

Jackson Memorial arrived early to take grounders and do any hitting practice. The field wasn't beaten up too badly after the first game, but the dampness may have begun to start affecting the way the ball was being held by anyone as the cloudy, yucky, grey skies were beginning to darken. Efficient as he would always be for the 20 years he ran the program, Jackson coach Al Aires told me where I could find his lineup card and assistant coach Gloria Calabro pointed to the spot to grab it.

By just after 4 p.m., Lakewood arrived. McKelvey was ready, but he had one little concern on this late afternoon – he was without his shortstop, arguably his best player on the team. Not only was senior Addie Dix a terrific softball player for Lakewood's Piners, she was also an even better bowler who in 1989 won the NJSIAA girls state championship in the sport at Carolier Lanes in North Brunswick as a sophomore. And on this particular Saturday, she was participating in a bowling tournament somewhere up in northern New Jersey.

Without Dix in his lineup to begin with because he knew up front she was going to be a little late, McKelvey had to maneuver players around. His standout center fielder, Jen Cranley, had to start at second base. His normal second baseman, Maryann Nalerio, had to move to shortstop. And Stacey Montgomery would have to patrol Cranley's territory of center field until Dix got there. Without question, McKelvey was antsy. So, too, was his longtime assistant coach, Bob Sattan.

Everything pointed toward a Jaguar rout. Everything. With Dix in the starting lineup, the Piners got creamed in two games this particular season, being no-hit in one game, 15-0, and getting hammered, 20-6, just three days prior! Three days! 

I had all but moved Jackson into the quarterfinal round, especially the fact the Jaguars were making a forward progress toward being one of the Shore's best teams by the end of the 1990s. For now, they were a team in training led by a strong top of the lineup featuring second baseman Michelle Schenck, first baseman Michelle Nikolayew, third baseman Kerri Sherman and center fielder and main power hitter Brenda Letts. Their main pitcher was senior Andrea Fitzgerald, who got the start in this one.

Even if Dix gets to the game, how bad is the deficit going to be? We were going to find out as the Piners took their swings in the top of the first inning, the lights switched on by now.

Alicia Intramasso, the Piners' first baseman and No. 3 hitter, singled and advanced to second on an error by right fielder Rose Esposito. An error on a Vassone Barrett groundball by Schenck put runners on first and third. But Fitzgerald induced catcher Jessica Forse into ... naturally ... a forceout to end the inning.

So it didn't turn out well, the top of the first. How would the bottom of the first go for the Piners in the field.

Well, turns out not so well.

Montgomery swallowed up Schenck's flyball. But on a 1-0 delivery from pitcher Jen Zerbe, Nikolayew hammered a shot to left field. It found the gap on this big field and kept rolling and rolling and rolling. By the time the ball got back to the infield, Nikolayew had smacked an inside-the-park home run, her first career OCT four-bagger. Just like that, 1-0.

I can see McKelvey encouraging his Piners to settle down and just get the last two outs of the inning. They weren't going to be easy, though. Sherman delivered a double. A wild pitch moved her up to third and Letts smashed a single to center to make it 2-0. Fitzgerald reached on a single and a bunt single by Kathy Murphy loaded the bases.

This makeshift Piners lineup was starting to feel like it was deja vu all over again versus these better Jaguars. Zerbe settled down to strike Esposito for the second out. But Jaguars catcher Michelle Anton singled to right. Two runners came home and it was 4-0.

Up stepped No. 9 hitter Lisa McCloud. On a 1-1 pitch, Zerbe uncorked a wild pitch to the backstop. Now keep in mind that the Point Boro backstop is not very big from plate to fence. But somehow, Murphy, who was on third, didn't quite get the message. Forse hunted the ball down and fired to Zerbe at the plate to nail Murphy and end the inning.

Somehow, that painful mistake by Murphy took the Piners off the hook and the Jaguars walked away with a 4-0 lead after the first. Still, down 4-0 isn't all that warm and fuzzy to anyone, especially these undermanned Piners, who must have been looking in the parking lot behind them on the third-base side of the field every few minutes hoping that their shortstop and leader would be joining them.

Though right fielder Missy Zielinski reached on a walk, two popouts, and a forceout ended the inning without anything happening.

But as the half-inning came to an end, out of a car in the parking lot popped an African-American girl with glasses on and donning a Piner uniform. I knew who it was from a distance.

Addie Dix had finally arrived. And as soon as she got her cleats on and found her way to the Piner bench, McKelvey was coming out to tell the umpire that he had some changes. Back to center field went Cranley. Back to second base went Nalerio. And replacing Montgomery in the lineup in the ninth slot, but now at her normal shortstop position, was Dix, taking groundballs before the bottom of the second and having to just "go with it" from there.

And wouldn't you know it – the very first batter up, McCloud, hit a grounder right at Dix, who fielded it and threw a groundball that skipped past Intromasso and out of play since there was no fence beyond the first-base bench. McCloud took second. A wild pitch would move McCloud to third.

Welcome to the game, Addie!

Zerbe got Schenck to pop out to Intromasso for the first out. But that brought up Nikolayew and after that first at-bat, Zerbe wanted nothing to do with the Jaguars' most talented player. She put her on base. It was obvious that the Jaguars were going to try a double steal and Nikolayew took off for second, right on cue. But Forse fired the ball that Zerbe cut off and for a split second, this caught McCloud off guard. She stepped toward heading home, and a perfect throw to third baseman Kim Estelle by the pitcher nailed her for the second out.

Between the Murphy and Estelle gaffes, the Piners were staying in this one. Sherman walked, but Letts flied out to Zielinski to end the inning.

The third inning began uneventful as Cranley grounded out to first baseman Nikolayew.

But Nalerio delivered a single to get aboard. Intromasso hit a groundball that shortstop Jeana Hansen muffed and runners were on first and second. Barrett was hit by a pitch and the bases were suddenly loaded with one out. Forse hit a grounder that ate up Hansen for yet another error, allowing Nalerio to score. Zielinski hit into a forceout at second, allowing Intromasso to score, making it 4-2. Estelle was hit by a pitch to load the bases again, but Zerbe hit a forceout that Schenck made the play on.

The Piners had cut into the lead and were feeling much better about things down 4-2. They had their best player back and now they were starting to answer the bell. Zerbe was also gaining important confidence a starting pitcher normally needs. She got flyouts to Barrett and Cranley and a strikeout swinging by Esposito for the second time to keep it at 4-2 going to the fourth.

Dix was to get her first at-bat of the game and she lined a single on a 1-0 pitch from Fitzgerald into left field to get things going. When Murphy flubbed getting the ball for an error, Dix moved up to second.

The spark had been lit and the top of the lineup was now next with Cranely. Dix would move to third on a wild pitch and Cranley would eventually walk on a 3-1 pitch. Cranley would steal second, but Hansen would try to pick Dix off third. The ball got away and out of play, allowing Dix to score and Cranley to move up to third, making it 4-3. Nalerio lofted a sacrifice fly to Letts in center, deep enough to score the senior Cranley to tie it up at 4-4.

It was a new game and suddenly, the Lakewood Piners had all sorts of confidence going for them. In the fourth, Zerbe got a popout and a groundout before Schenck walked, bringing up Nikolayew again. She hit the first offering from Zerbe on the screws, but right at Dix, who flipped to Nalerio at second to end the inning.

The Jaguar bench was next to me and I can suddenly see the concern. This wasn't supposed to happen at all. They had scored 35 runs in two games against the Piners, yet after four innings, they had four. Maybe they were hoping for a late surge. But looking on Aires' face told me he sensed something wasn't right with his team on this dreary day.

In the fifth inning, the Piners began to get to Fitzgerald as if they were chopping down a tree. An error by Nikolayew off a Force grounder got the inning started. A Zielinski forceout at second put her on base with one out. A groundball by Estelle had the Jaguars trying to get Zielinski at second for a force, but they were late in the attempt. Zerbe lined out to Nikolayew for the second out, but now it was Dix at the plate. She walked on four pitches to load the bases for Cranley.

The most unheralded talent on this Piner team, Cranley worked out a walk to force home Zielinski, making it 5-4 in favor of the Piners. That brought up Nalero. On a 1-2 delivery, she hammered a shot to right-center field for a single. Estelle scored easily and McKelvey sent Dix home behind her to make it 7-4. Intromasso followed with a single to center to bring home Cranley from second.

What once was a 4-0 deficit now was an 8-4 lead going to the bottom of the fifth after Barnett lined out to Hansen.

The Jaguars found a little bit of what they did in the first inning. With one out, Letts singled, followed by another single by Fitzgerald and a sacrifice bunt by Murphy gone awry when Zerbe threw the ball away for an error, allowing Letts to score and moving the other runners up into scoring position.

Already a strikeout victim twice, Aires had Esposito, a very good bunter, put down a squeeze bunt that scored Fitzgerald and moved Murphy to third. Anton took a 1-0 offering from Zerbe for a ride, but Cranley could cover a lot of area out in center field and she tracked the ball down to end the threat and keep it an 8-6 game.

McKelvey was still concerned. Though Zielinski reached on another Jaguars error and moved to second on a wild pitch, she was left stranded there by two flyball outs that ended the inning. The Jaguars were bringing up McCloud, then Schenck and Nikolayew. Zerbe had to hold the fort down and up 8-6, it was tenuous on how much this lead was going to hold.

Zerbe, though, handled it well at the start. She struck out McCloud and got Schenck to ground out to Estelle. She walked Nikolayew, though, and a wild pitch put her on second base with two outs.

This brought up Sherman. On a 3-2 pitch, she lined a single to left. Barrett got the ball and fired the ball back to the infield. Nikolayew scored easily, and they had Sherman dead to rights out trying to get to second. However, Zerbe's throw sailed by Nalerio and into right-center field.

This was a disaster. I can feel it.

Sherman got up from her slide and headed to third and now Aires was waving her home to tie the game. But on the play, Cranley was alert to rush over to collect the ball as soon as it took off out of Zerbe's hand. She set herself up and fired a one-hop strike to the plate. Just as Forse was getting the ball from Cranley, Sherman was pile-driving into Forse at the plate in a bang-bang collision.

Sprawled out, Forse showed the home-plate umpire the ball and called Sherman out. The collision was simply unavoidable. Forse had most of the plate and was in Sherman's way.

Nonetheless, Cranley and Forse had saved the day for the Piners, keeping it an 8-7 game going to the seventh.

Unhappy with how she threw a good amount of the day, Aires replaced Fitzgerald with Jen Burke in the circle to start the seventh. Fitzgerald went out to left field, Murphy went in to play first and Nikolayew, who was to be the full-time shortstop in the 1992 season, moved over to short.

And just like the fourth inning, it would be No. 9 hitter Dix starting the seventh inning. She roped a single to left field to begin it. Dix stole second and Cranley walked. Up stepped Nalero. She singled to left field, her third hit of the game, to bring in Dix from second, making it 9-7 and giving the Piners a little breathing room.

It didn't stop there, though. An Intromasso fielder's choice loaded the bases and an error by Nikolayew off a Barrett grounder scored Cranley, making it 10-7. Forse walked to force home Nalerio. One out later, pinch-hitter Venus Hunter, a big-sized freshman, smashed a single to left to score Intromasso. And an error by Sherman plated Barrett.

By the time the inning ended, Lakewood had plated five runs on three hits, helped by two errors and sent 11 batters to the plate.

The competitive phase of this Ocean County Tournament game was all but over. Though Aires kept trying to get the girls up, you could see they were too shell-shocked by what happened to them on this afternoon. Zerbe got Letts to fly out to Cranley, gave up a single to Fitzgerald, then got another flyout to Cranley off Murphy's bat. She struck out Esposito for the third time, this time looking, to finish out a 13-7 triumph that no one saw.

Not me. Not anyone smart enough to know the county softball scene. Not Jackson people. Maybe not even some Lakewood doubters.

But there they were, the Piners celebrating the win, moving on to the quarterfinals for the first time since beating Brick Memorial in a 1988 first-round game.

McKelvey, a soft-spoken man for the most part who eventually handed over the reins of the OCT to myself and new Point Boro coach Ric Malta the next year, told me after the victory, "After the first inning, I thought, 'Oh, here we go again.' But they hung in tough."

You could have heard a pin drop after the game on the Jackson Memorial side. Not only did the Jaguars lose, they lost to a team they practically owned all season long. And a sullen-looking Aires walked toward me as he headed on the bus back to the school as afternoon became evening. The 10 errors his team made on this day drained him in all facets.

"Just not our day," he told me. "Lakewood deserves credit for hitting the ball, but simply not our day. We'll learn from this."

Starting in 1992, Jackson Memorial would be a semifinalist in the OCT every year through 2000, making the finals in 1993, '95, '96, '98 and '99 and winning it all in '96 and '99.

This game was simply a lesson in humility. The Jaguars had overall better talent on paper than the Piners, but they don't play games on paper.

The next game after the Lakewood-Jackson game was the host Panthers against No. 12 seed Monsignor Donovan and the Panthers treated the Griffins like they stole something, whipping them, 15-0.

A week later back on the Point Boro field on an even drearier afternoon and night, Lakewood could do nothing against Brick fireballer Viki Kara, who struck out 10 and held the Piners to three hits in a 10-3 triumph. Cranley could get nothing going, finishing 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and Dix, back in the No. 2 slot in the lineup, had a hit and a run in three trips to the plate. Nalerio, who had three hits in the win over Jackson, was 0-for-4 with an RBI.

Little did anyone know that would be the last time Lakewood High would play in an OCT quarterfinal-round game, at least not for the next 25 years. Softball had pretty much been wiped off the map of competitive sports at LHS after Dix and Cranley had graduated. Every year, no matter if it was McKelvey, who coached the program three more years before retiring, or anyone else who took over after, it was a struggle since there was absolutely, positively no feeder program to ever make Lakewood better at softball.

So that's a major reason why that game in 1991 was historic, both for good and bad reasons.

The scorebook I used that day has yellowed a bit over the years ... and it was done in pencil. I don't do games in pencil anymore! That's how long ago this game was.

It was a small and wonderful moment in time for the Lakewood Piners softball players and coaches.

Maybe their last for over a generation.