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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Donovan girls soccer title at long last

Covering high school girls soccer for the third spring at the Observer, I got to know plenty of the coaches and players in Ocean County.

It didn't hurt that I was only 20 years old and finishing up my third year of college, my first at Monmouth. I was just a little older than the kids who were playing the sport, so I got to know the players well enough.

One of the girls soccer teams I got to cover in my home county was Monsignor Donovan. When I first covered the Griffins two years earlier, they were a mix of seniors like Stephanie Harmon, Barb Callaghan and Maureen McShea and freshman and sophomore standouts like Liz Rehak, Colleen Hanhart, Jilene DeFilippis and Kim Brickner, whose star was getting bigger as a scoring machine.

But the one thing that eluded the Griffins and good-guy coach Bill Slocum was a title of some kind. In 1984, the Griffins were 17-0 as an independent in the Shore Conference, one victory away from clinching an unbeaten season with the Ocean County Tournament title. But an exhausted Donovan team could not handle the humidity and warmth of the June night against Toms River East, losing in the final, 3-0. A year later, the Griffins played in the Shore Conference Class B South, but lost out on the B South title by half a game to Wall. The Griffins advanced to the first-ever Shore Conference Tournament semifinals, but lost again to East, this time, 3-2, in a game that was not as close as the final score indicated. Then in 1986, a knee injury to sweeper Hanhart sent the Griffins reeling, even though they held it together to finish second in the B South to Wall again.

This time in 1987, the Griffins were being put into a new division -- smaller Class C as part of a nine-team grouping. The one team, though, that was going to give the Griffins fits was Freehold Boro. The Colonials were a talented bunch, but seemed to be lacking in something, whether it was physicality or experience.. In their first meeting in Freehold, the Griffins won.

And the Griffins were finally going to win some kind of a title. They were 14-1 in Class C and 16-1 overall as they came into their final divisional game -- against the Colonials, who were 13-2 in the division and needed a win to clinch a division title share with the Griffins. Overall, they were 14-2.

So the stage was set for this Thursday afternoon at Donovan, May 21, 1987. It was a 3:30 p.m. start, but I knew that school was letting out sometime around 2 p.m. At that time, I was dating a senior at Donovan named Mary. I told her about this game and that I was covering it, so she stayed around after school to wait on me. We connected somewhere near the tunnel of the school heading out to the football/soccer field and sat in the bleachers for a while. She and I had planned a trip to Dorney Park the next day, but that got put on hold for a month for reasons that, to this day, befuddle me. We ended up going on her 18th birthday, which happened to fall on the final Saturday of June.

After we said our goodbyes as she took a later bus home, it was time to cover this game.

Donovan had a formidable front line led by Brickner and her county-best 28 goals coming into the game, DeFilippis and sophomore Meredith Tompkins. The midfield had a lot of experience with senior Karen Baiersdorfer and juniors Rehak. The defense was the team's bread and butter, though, led by senior veteran Chris Smith, junior Michele Fosgreen, freshman Sue Baiersdorfer and the heart and soul of the team, Hanhart, now in her fourth year on the varsity, at sweeper. By now, the Bayville resident had been fully recovered from her knee injury.

Freehold Boro had a young team with untapped potential. Julie Simon, a fiery redhead, was just a sophomore on that team, as was forward Karen O'Brien. The Colonials were not a bad team. This game had potential to be a classic.

But for Donovan, this one had the chance to make history. And so under blue skies and temperatures in the low 70s, the teams got off on time.

One thing these Colonials liked doing was overlapping, and forcing the defense to have to make a decision on who to cover and who gets picked up. Freehold Boro forced Donovan into this quandary in a game the teams played in 1986, a game the Colonials won, 4-3. And Boro decided to try those tricks again in the first meeting against the Griffins. They did score off of it, but the Griffins won that game, 3-1.

Each offensive attempt by the Colonials was being meant with resistance by Donovan's defense as Baiersdorfer shut down her offensive counterpart and Smith and midfielder Kelly Carrigan did their best to make things troublesome for O'Brien. And if by any chance the ball squirted by them, either Hanhart or goalie Kris Brickner, Kim's older sister, was there to pick it up and set Donovan's offense in motion.

Trouble was that Donovan was having the same problems. They tried a number of things, from putting passes together to find Kim Brickner, or just trying the kick-and-run method for Brickner to break free from the defense and out-race everyone to the other end of the net to put a shot on goalie Paula Arcoleo. But led by Simon, the Colonials held firm. Shots were hard to come by, and as the third quarter came to an end and it remained scoreless, Slocum remained concerned. He knew at any moment, Freehold Boro's offense could break free and score a goal. By the time the fourth quarter started, all he was asking for from his players was a goal as he huddled them up just one last time.

The crowd there was small when the game began, but as the game got later on, more fans were filing into the stands or around the field.

Just 4:40 into the final quarter, the Griffins had the perfect chance to break the tie. Rehak served a perfect headball Brickner's way. She put her head on the ball and it eluded Arcoleo, a sure goal in mere moments.

But out of nowhere came sweeper Dena Thyne to knock the ball away on the goal line and keep the game scoreless.

There it was! The opportunity the Griffins needed. Even if this game ended in a tie, the Griffins would be outright division champions, but it'd be sweeter if they could win the game and put the stamp of approval on their regular season.

Minutes later, Donovan was back down in Freehold territory. The Colonial defense was scrambling, trying to get the ball out of its box. One deflection after another kept Donovan on the attack.

Then the moment came and it was by accident.

The Colonials tried again to get the ball out of the zone, but it didn't clear DeFilippis' tower and the 5-foot-8 forward-midfielder deflected it right in Rehak's direction. She kicked the ball from one side of the box to the other where Brickner was waiting about 12 yards out. Brickner delivered a shot that avoided Arcoleo, who was now rushing to make it to the other side of the goal. The ball eluded Arcoleo and into the back of the net.

The Griffins had their goal and now half a period to protect the lead.

For the next 10 minutes, though, the Colonials were mounting threats. Each threat, though, was met with resistance. Only a freshman, Sue Baiersdorfer was having the best game of her young career. Each member of that defense was holding its weight in keeping the Colonials down. Two more trips down in Donovan's end wound up finishing in a save by Kris Brickner in one instance, and the ball just eluding the goal off an O'Brien shot in the other.

Those last minutes were filled with consternation, Slocum quietly wishing the time time away. But like his players, he could sense the end coming.

And when the head referee blew the final whistle, the reality had arrived.

Donovan 1, Freehold Boro 0. Class C Division champions.

In this instance, the celebration was more memorable than most of the game. Player hugged one another and fans came onto the field and shared the moment with the girls who had worked so hard to win that first championship.

And they had a surprise waiting -- two bottles of non-alcoholic champagne. They wanted to party and celebrate like the big boys and girls did, though I'm not sure wind ever got to the sisters of the school of this kind of party. So the seniors were in charge of opening the non-alcoholic bubbly and passed the bottle around to take swigs or just pour it on each other.

All the while, Hanhart was looking for one person.

"Where's coach Slocum?" she asked. Then she found him. And after she caught up to him, he was wearing about half of the bottle in her hand that she dumped on him.

It was mighty cold and smelly -- and Bill Slocum didn't mind a bit. His young ladies had delivered a division title.

"It's the greatest feeling in the world," said Hanhart, blue eyes glistening over this memorable victory. "We deserved it because of our dedication and hard work and Mr. Slocum's standing beside us."

This one, though, was dedicated to Hanhart, as well as fellow seniors Smith, Kris Brickner, Karen Baiersdorfer and Kris Hermann. Hanhart had gotten so close to a title and now she had something to walk away with from Donovan.

Donovan was the second-best team in Ocean County at that point and through most of the season behind a surprising Point Pleasant Boro club. The Griffins were given the No. 3 seed in the tournament and had a strong chance to go very far and make the championship in a possible all-Ocean County matchup with the top-seeded Panthers at the end.

Sadly, though, it didn't happen. After Brickner scored three times in a 5-1 opening-round win against No. 14 seeded Raritan, the Griffins gave up two goals to Laura Wilson and sixth-seeded Wall captured a 2-1 win to stunningly take Donovan out of the quarterfinal round.

Most of the Griffins players were back for the 1988 season and they were expected to once again have a big season with Donovan's junior trio of Brickner, Rehak and DeFillipis back. But in the biggest game of the season, the Griffins were stunned by Freehold Boro on Freehold's field this time, 2-1, giving up two second-half goals in the process. Under new coach Heshy Moses, the Colonials took the Class C title away from Donovan with the physical play and direction that had been lacking the year before, relegating Donovan to a 10th seed in the SCT, where the Griffins once again lost late, giving up three goals in the final five minutes of play and falling, 3-2, to No. 7 seed Raritan in the '88 SCT first round.

Those losses were costly because Slocum, who announced he was resigning from the coaching position after seven seasons, came within two victories of 100 for his career, finishing instead with 98. Brickner would become Ocean County's all-time leading career scorer with 96 goals and 53 assists for 245 points. But that would last seemingly for a couple of cups of coffee as Point Boro's scoring maven, Kim Yankowski, darted right past Brickner in 1990, en route to a career total of 356 points

And things would never be the same. That era of dominance for Donovan between 1984-88 was officially over. They had some great times, but that one title on that beautiful afternoon in 1987 was the only thing they would come away with in the end.

Still, it was an enjoyable era for the Griffins. It was a fun time for those involved.

That victory against Freehold Boro will always be a landmark in my mind.

It gave the Griffins something to remember in the end.

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