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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The moment of (SJ IV) truth for Kathy Snyder

When you lose championship games three previous times, you're always searching for an answer as to why those things happened and how can things be better if we get back to that point again.

The first thing Kathy Snyder did was not agree to play the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV girls basketball championship game against Toms River North in a much closer venue for both North and her Southern Regional High School Rams. That, she said, was a mistake the year before when she agreed to the game much closer in Toms River at High School East.

"By playing the game in Toms River, we got every fan to come and pad the spectator numbers for Toms River North," she started. "So this time, we'll play the game in Rancocas Valley and keep it there."

Rancocas Valley was in the small town of Mount Holly out in western New Jersey, somewhere between Camden and Trenton. It's nowhere near the Jersey Shore, but it was a familiar court to Kathy Snyder -- she had lost on this court two years earlier against Washington Township High School. That loss didn't bother her that much -- Washington Township rallied from a 25-17 halftime deficit and won the game. The Minutemen were a better team and found a way to break Snyder's suffocating defensive pressure and time-consuming possessions.

This time around, Snyder's Southern Rams were better than coach Ray Cervino's Toms River North Mariners. But it was the Mariners who were defending the SJ IV championship from a year earlier when they, like Washington Township the year before them, overcame a 15-9 halftime deficit to quadruple their point output in the second half and get fans from basketball crazy Toms River fired up en route to a 45-30 victory, giving Cervino his first South Jersey title in 16 years as a head coach.

This time around, the Rams were the favored team to win the SJ IV title ... but they needed North's help to make it such a scenario after North stunned top-seeded Shawnee, 64-60, in the SJ IV semifinal round. So for the second straight year, the SJ IV championship was an all-Ocean County affair between the two best teams in the sport.

Southern and North was such a rivalry that one would call "perfect." I know, I know ... you've heard that one before, but think about this: How many so-called "rivalries" are played as fiercely on the court or on the field by two competitive teams, but at the end of the day, they could put those differences between the lines aside and be respectful and friendly with one another?

That was North-Southern girls basketball. Only the boys soccer rivalry between Crescent City and Pierson Taylor, two schools 15 miles apart in distance, have that similar and better a rivalry in all my years in the business.

The two head coaches -- Snyder and Cervino -- weren't just successful basketball coaches, but were also very good friends off of it. Cervino told me once how much he respected Snyder by getting beaten often by Snyder in the beginning of their rivalry. You see, he and his Mariners lost their first 13 games to Snyder-coached Southern teams before finally getting the best of her with a season sweep of the Rams in the 1988-89 season. Then the Mariners did it again in the 1989-90 season behind the play of Cervino's daughter, point guard Nicole Cervino, and center Heidi Vandenburg.

From the 1990-91 season on, North held an 8-6 lead in the series between Shore Conference Class A South rivals, which included a pair of memorable South Jersey Group IV matchups. Beside the '96 SJ IV title game, there was an even more memorable SJ IV quarterfinal round game at Southern where the Rams trailed 39-36 with mere seconds left in the game when freshman center Candice McCallum stepped out behind the 3-point line, fired a shot while being knocked to the floor by North center Dana Simonelli and swishing the shot. Off the foul, McCallum hit the free throw with four seconds to go and Southern won the dramatic matchup, 40-39, with Snyder jumping on the court not even a second after the clock expired and hugging her freshman star in the making.

This was one of the most intense rivalries I've ever covered in scholastic sports.

During the 1996-97 season, the teams split a pair of Class A South games with North catching Southern flat-footed and on an off night in a 47-42 victory. That was on December 23. On January 24, 1997, the tables had turned dramatically as Southern flattened North, 47-21, using its trademark suffocating defense on leading scorer Melissa Fazio, holding her to four points.

Southern's world lived and breathed around both its defense and 6-foot-2 center McCallum, a four-year varsity star in the middle averaging 20.5 points and just over 10 rebounds a game and who was going to be taking her talents to Georgia Tech after graduating. For as ferocious a competitor as she was on the court, Candice McCallum was a sweet-smiling pussycat off of it, a delight to talk to. For her, you wanted to see Southern at long last win this championship that had eluded them.

But it wasn't McCallum this title eluded longer than it did Kathy Snyder. A three-sport star at Shore Regional and 1973 graduate of the school when she was Kathy Leslie, Snyder had built a reputation as a hard-nosed coach who demanded the most out of her girls, but knew which buttons to push with each and every one of her players, whether it was the star player like a McCallum or a Michelle Jones or a Jill Spaschak or a Charity Smead or a Mary Tantillo or a Kathy Harlfinger or the seventh or eight player coming off the bench.

Good coaches make teams better. Great coaches make them champions.

And that was the one thing missing from Snyder's resume ... that defining state sectional championship. Class A South titles are nice. The 1984 Shore Conference Tournament championship was the most memorable game in her coaching career when a Spaschak jumper at the buzzer gave Southern a 42-40 win over Neptune at Brick Memorial High School.

But it was a month later that Snyder and the Rams suffered the worst heartache in her coaching career. The Rams were 27-1 and destined to win the state Group IV championship. They made it to the SJ IV championship game with Washington Township, had things in command at the start of the third quarter until whistles began to blow more against the coach's players. Star guard Spaschak fouled out shockingly in the third quarter. The lead began to slip away. Questionable non-calls were happening against Washington Township. The Minutemen seemed to find their way to the free-throw line quite a bit. And while all this was going on, the announcers from Clear Cable-8 who were calling the game, Ken Turp and Nick Werkman, began to chastise the referees, some of the audio is cut out of the rebroadcast of the game.

It was maybe one of the biggest rook jobs in the history of high school sports, especially involving Ocean County teams. Southern lost that game in overtime, and it was found out not too long after the game that one of the game officials was a roommate with the Washington Township coach. This is where the rule was changed on officiating assignments where any association with the coach or the school disallowed an official to do that team's games. Snyder, understandably, never wanted to talk about that particular night.

And it took 11 years for Snyder and her Rams to get back to the SJ IV title game, though Washington Township didn't need any help to come back and win that game in 1995.

These Rams were buoyed up front by McCallum and 6-2 senior forward Heather Gardner, who, too, had seen her share of Southern Regional successes and setbacks. Junior forward Tiffany McCallum, Candice's cousin, and junior guards Erin Gillece and Jessica Naughton rounded out Southern's starting lineup.

For North, Fazio, a 5-9 fiery redhead with a lot of talent as the No. 3 swing player, was, like Candice McCallum, the leading basketball scorer, boys or girls, in her school's history. She had carried North on her back a good amount of the season, averaging 21 points a contest. Her supporting cast was pretty good, too, in senior forward Kim Palmer at 8.4 points a game, junior point guard Lauren Skripko, averaging 8.9 points a game and center Joanne Ihrig, averaging 6.6 points a matchup.

Still, one night before this big showdown in western New Jersrey, what did I catch Snyder doing? Yeah ... watching North games on VCR, including the loss to them earlier in the season. She did not want to miss an unturned stone.

She said to me, "I need to be totally prepared. It makes me comfortable to see a team on tape. It may drive other people crazy around me, but what would drive me crazy was if I wasn't prepared. I'm watching the tapes and looking at things I haven't seen before."

That's how much this championship would mean to Snyder. Even the slightest hiccup could cause a North run that would force her team out of its comfort zone and play a different style than what it was used to playing.

And so on the night of March 11, 1997, as I arrived at Rancocas Valley High, a school tucked away within Mount Holly's suburban setting, and as I walked in to the gym, long-form notepad in tow as always, I saw Kathy Snyder sitting there, calm as could be. I knew from the comments she made to me the night before she was prepared for her 39th battle with Cervino and his Mariners. Then again, when you've won 302 career games at that point, you must have been doing something correct over the years.

Cervino, on the other hand, was a ball of energy compared to Snyder as he kept looking to his ladies on the court, then talking with assistant coach Steve Hill, then just pacing. Maybe he knew something I didn't know that night.

As the game started in a packed gym -- not bad for two schools having to travel over 55 miles to get to its destination -- the teams were feeling each other out. Southern held a 10-6 lead in the first quarter, which indicated to me that they weren't looking to slow this game down by any means unlike in previous Southern-North matchups. There was no apprehension here -- Snyder and Southern told North and Cervino to "bring it on" in not so many words.

That's when the Rams "brought it." And, as always, it started with the defense -- a 10-second violation when North's backcourt couldn't get the ball over the midcourt line. Off the turnover, Candice McCallum got the ball inside and was fouled. She hit two free throws to make it 12-6.

On the next possession, Gillece stole the ball, drove to the hoop for the layup and scored and was fouled. She completed the three-point play, making it 15-6. Once again, North had trouble bringing the ball into the front court and Naughton came up with a steal this time. Naughton waited for her teammates to get back over to their side of the court, hit Tiffany McCallum with a pass behind the 3-point arc, and McCallum drained her trey attempt to make it 18-6. She may have pulled the trigger a bit early, according to Snyder, but as the coach would tell me later, "The way everything was going down, I thought just let her go and it went in."

Cervino, already standing up watching this horrific showing, got Skripko to call a timeout. North fans were in absolute shock. Southern fans were in elation. Snyder greeted her players with hand-claps, something I got used to witnessing in all my years of covering the sport, as to tell her girls they did a remarkable job. The very boisterous Snyder was exuberant in what her players were doing and telling them to keep it up (it didn't hurt I was sitting not far from Southern's side of the court).

And whatever Cervino was trying to draw up didn't work -- North threw the ball away for yet another turnover. On the next possession, Tiffany McCallum found Naughton, who returned the earlier favor by nailing a 3-pointer to make it 21-6, capping off an 11-0 run. North got a late basket in the first quarter, but it was 21-8 after the opening eight minutes.

This was scary. Very scary. Why? Because in the previous 13 games in this rivalry when North began to thrive, Southern Regional averaged 35.1 points per game. After one quarter, they were already close to that average. That didn't bode well for the Mariners one bit, so by that alone, I knew they were in trouble. Southern, 22-3 going into this game, again didn't get here by accident.

And again, whatever Cervino said didn't work. Two baskets by Southern made it 25-8, then to make things worse, backup center-forward Lauren Anderson -- better known for her prowess on a softball field as a star pitcher -- was called for charging.

Now that frustrated Cervino, who ended up getting a technical foul for his words and actions. A well-liked coach in my years of covering the sport, he would tell me later that this was to motivate his players who weren't very motivated at all.

Of all things, that technical foul sparked something under North as the Mariners went on an 11-4 run to cut the lead to 30-19 before halftime as suddenly, it was North slowing the game down.

But the Mariners had a tall order left in front of them. Two 6-footers were dominating things inside and no one from North wanted to take shots other than Fazio, who was struggling mightily with Gardner all over her. One thing Cervino was good at for all the years I covered girls basketball was how he could make adjustments at halftime.

One problem, though: Snyder and the Rams had been in front of SJ IV title games her three previous times. I saw two of those in person. In 1995, they were ahead 25-17 in this same gym against Washington Township and saw the energized Minutemen storm back to win. Same thing at East's gym the year before against North, Southern holding a delicate, hard-to-watch 15-9 lead, purposely slowing down a better North team until North made the adjustments to come back and win that matchup, 45-30, and ultimately reach the NJSIAA Group IV title game.

Snyder knew it was coming. And her premonition was right -- North looked like the team that dominated Southern for most of the middle part of the 1990s, moving the ball around until finding the open girl for the basket and not turning the ball over, handing it over to Southern just once in the third quarter. The 30-19 lead got cut into and when Palmer, who along with Joanne Ihrig had four points each in the third quarter, hit a short jumper with 1:11 to go, Southern's lead had been cut to 36-33.

Suddenly, North was in whispering range of Southern. It was uncertain, but did Southern just exhaust itself after nearly three quarters? Surely, Snyder was going to call a timeout, right?

Well, she allowed her players to have leeway again, like she did the entire game. They were a veteran bunch, so in Snyder's mind, the idea was to allow them to have a say in the matter instead of her pushing the buttons. Southern worked the ball around until Tiffany McCallum got the ball and drove to the layup for a bucket that pushed the lead back to five points with 49 seconds left in the third quarter.

That's how it would end: With North making a charge, but Southern making the final statement of the period and up 38-33. Now if they could hold on for the final eight minutes, the long pursuit of an SJ IV championship was finally reached.

From my vantage point, I could see Cervino pumping up his young ladies as best as they could, but Tiffany McCallum's layup took a little of the wind out of their sails. Yet, a five-point deficit wasn't out of reach at all.

On the first possession, North moved the ball around until Barb Ihrig found a hole in the Rams' interior defense, getting a pass from Skripko and scoring, cutting the lead to three points again.

However, for North, that would be about the only thing it did right in the entire quarter.

Southern proceeded to go on a 12-0 run, shutting down North for the next 5 minutes and 46 seconds. Southern's two big girls -- Candice McCallum and Gardner -- were dominant against North's interior players and scored four points each in the run. Tiffany McCallum had two points as did Naughton. No matter how many timeouts Cervino called, the ship was sinking. Unlike the nearly flawless third quarter that saw the Mariners get back into the game, they were the complete opposite, committing nine turnovers in the final eight minutes. In the end, Gardner's defense held Fazio to just eight points on 4-of-16 shooting as Joanne Ihrig led the way with 10 points for North.

"We made mistakes, but I think they were fatigue mistakes," he told me after the game. "Fatigue is always a great leveler."

When Naughton delivered two free throws with 56 seconds left in the game, it gave Southern a 56-37 lead, the biggest of the game. And it gave Snyder, now brandishing a smile that had rarely existed in these games for years, a chance to start substituting her players. Each player came off the court with a high-five or a hug from their mentor. There were many hugs going around that gym on the Southern side of the court.

As the last second ticked off Southern's 58-40 victory, the two rival coaches reached the mid-point of the sidelines and embraced.

"What I told Kathy was if I was going to lose, I was going to lose to a class coach and program," Cervino said afterward. "I knew how hard they wanted it and personally, it was nice to see an all-Ocean final."

Snyder was getting hugs all the way around -- from her players to parents to athletic director and biggest fan of her, Kim DeGraw-Cole, and then her biggest fan of everyone in the building that night, her husband, Ken, Toms River East's longtime football coach. If only we had a photographer shooting the game for us -- but unfortunately being over 50 miles away didn't allow us for any of our photographers to travel to take pictures that evening.

This night belonged to the Kathy Harlfingers, Jill Spaschaks, Judy Keefers, Jodie Davises and Kiersten Sciallos and others who got to this point and came up short. More importantly, it belonged to the coach, who at 24 years old took over this program and molded it in her tough-nosed, defensive-minded form and made it the watermark for other coaches and programs to attain.

Twenty-four was now 41, but Snyder was every bit the youthful 24-year-old at that moment. Never had I seen Kathy Snyder smile as much as she did that night.

"The monkey's finally off my back," she told me. "It's a really good feeling. I'm excited about this because this is what these kids wanted."

For Candice McCallum, who got to this point two previous times only to come up empty-handed, it was a night she won't ever forget. She finished with a game-high 16 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, also coming up with a steal and a block.

"This was the last thing we needed to accomplish," she said to me, blue eyes beaming, smile electric enough to light the area between Mount Holly and Manahawkin. "It seems all pretty complete now."

Winning the elusive and always-competitive South Jersey Group IV has always defined programs. You get through the Shawnees, Lenapes, Cherokees, Washington Townships and other well-known South Jersey-area programs to win a South Jersey Group IV girls basketball championship for the biggest schools, you've done something.

But the journey was not ending here. There was an NJSIAA Group IV semifinal awaiting the Rams and Snyder at Ewing Township High School in Trenton against Central Jersey Group IV champion Piscataway, whose main player was 6-1 center and University of Connecticut signee Ashja Jones. Unfortunately for Snyder and her players, Piscataway had been humiliated in this game a year earlier by North, so this team wasn't having any of that this time around.

In the end on March 13, Southern lost to Piscataway, 61-38, as Jones scored 21 points and had the better of McCallum, also handing out nine assists as the Rams doubled on her, and pulling down eight rebounds to go along with four steals. Sisters Lisa Guarneri (15 points, 11 rebounds, six steals, one block) and Jessica Guarneri (14 points) had huge games.

McCallum would finish her career at Southern with 1,923 points, good enough for second place at that point behind the great Christie Pearce of Point Pleasant Boro and her 2,190 points.

Snyder would go on to continue to have this amazing ride as both girls basketball and field hockey coach at Southern and would reach two more SJ IV basketball championship games long after I left the Observer in 2008-09 and 2009-10. And no matter who came through those doors at Southern and were coached by her, she was still going to ride them hard like she had for over a generation, calling girls out by their last names, making others wonder if they ever truly had a first name during their high school years.

She continued to touch lives in a positive manner even if it meant yelling at those young ladies to do better, just like she had been told by the legendary Nancy Williams when she was a star athlete at Shore Regional High School in field hockey, girls basketball and track and field. There was never a "no excuse" mode when it came to Snyder, even for herself as she fought breast cancer during the 2006-07 school season. It was business as usual for her as a coach.

Sadly, the journey ended on the morning of January 24, 2014, when Snyder, now 58, died in her sleep, leaving behind Ken, their three children and grandchildren. Those weren't ripples of her passing the day she died -- those were seismic shifts in the scholastic sports ground. And days later at a memorial honoring her life, hundreds of those young ladies who played for Snyder for the 35 years she was there coaching them came out to pay their respects, tell stories, funny and serious, about her and say glowing things of their coach even as they probably heard her voice ringing in their ears for years.

Kathy Snyder was an inspiration to those young ladies who have grown up to become mothers ... even grandmothers. It may have sounded like tough love if something didn't go right, but over 500 wins in a basketball career and another 300 in field hockey attest to her greatness.

To this day, she will be on my personal Mount Rushmore of great female high school coaches alongside Toms River North's Becky Miller, Toms River East/Donovan Catholic's Debbie Schwartz and Crescent City Junior-Senior High's Holly Pickens. In her honor, the court at the school she put on the map as a coach and leader is named after her.

I was blessed that night to witness what happened when everything came together in a positive manner for Kathy Snyder and her Southern Regional girls basketball players in that Rancocas Valley High gym.

To me, she will always be the epitome of "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again," because that night, her players took her persona and rode it to a state sectional championship.

A long overdue one, too.

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