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.