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Saturday, June 4, 2016

The team with the target takes the SCT title

The Toms River High School East girls soccer team was in another orbit by the first week of June 1985.

The Raiders were fresh off proving they were Ocean County's best club after holding back equally talented Monsignor Donovan in a Shore Conference Tournament semifinal by a 3-2 score that wasn't as close as that score indicated.

The Raiders were 16-1-1, the tie coming in the fifth game of the season against Toms River South, 1-1, the loss coming in early May to Toms River North, 2-1, the winning goal in that one a rocket launcher by Barbara Hedrick for what would be her only goal of the season that Raiders coach Ed Polhemus believed should have been stopped.

So on the phone that night after he reported his loss, Polhemus had made this one promise:

"Nancy Hearne is going to go back into goal," he said. "We're not going to let this happen again."

I've never told that story before in over 30 years since that fateful night. What I heard on the phone was a very low-keyed, soft-spoken man who obviously was stung by a North team that was good that year (10-6), but couldn't be better than his Raiders.

There was quite a lot of pressure on the Raiders that spring, my first as a sports reporting correspondent at the Observer. The Raiders were Ocean County's best team in 1984, winning the last county championship game on a sweltering, warm night at North against Donovan, 3-0, spoiling Donovan's attempt at an unbeaten season.

More importantly, most of the players on Polhemus' squad were returning for the 1985 season, including young ladies I grew up around in my life as I graduated from East just the year before, around-the-corner neighbor Denice McKenna, her buddy Karen Carlisle and Hearne, who was the All-County goalie on the Observer team in 1984. But as the season began, Polhemus believed his team would be much better if they moved Hearne onto the field to play defense. This really cool girl I knew in high school was a soccer talent, regardless of where Polhemus put her on the field.

Hearne was surrounded by defenders who were equally talented in what they did -- midfielder McKenna, stopper Sue Lauterborn, fullback Barbara Applegate and tall sweeper Leda Fenton, a smooth-working junior who by the end of the year became the most dominant defensive player in the county.

Their job was to make a younger, first-year goalkeeper feel comfortable and let her grow in the position. And it was working because East's defense had surrendered just six goals in 10 games in building a 9-0-1 record.

But then came the night of the North game. Two goals slipped past the goalie that should've been stopped.

End of experiment. Hearne back in the goal. Michele Adamkowski, who had a role in the defense most of the season, got moved into the main defender position to work with Applegate, who was on the other side defender spot. Polhemus had trusted his defense enough that he could make this move, but in the process, he alienated a young lady who never played soccer for him again.

The Raiders bounced back from the loss to North with wins over Shore Regional and Southern Regional, then stopped South in the rematch, 3-1, before pulling out a 2-1, double-overtime victory over Brick Memorial.

They had their hiccup and moved along. The Raiders were given the top seed for the inaugural Shore Conference Tournament in the third week of May. At 13-1-1, they looked tough to stop and right as the favorite. But unlike most coaches who downplay being the target everyone is shooting for, Polhemus was a far different cat than that.

He actually brought it on! "The only team that can beat us is ourselves," he would tell me once that season.

The man wasn't lacking for confidence. Ed Polhemus was way different than anyone else coaching the sport. When I'd throw that line out to other girls soccer coaches, I'd get a variety of responses, from rolled eyes to head shakes to pregnant pauses, followed by, "OK, if he says so."

So with targets on their backs and fronts, East went out in its opening game of the tournament at home at its then-home of Shelter Cove Park and put on a methodical display of precision soccer in a 2-0 victory over No. 16 seed  Point Pleasant Beach. About the only thing the Raiders didn't do was put the ball in the back of the net, but two goals worked on this day.

The next game would be Tuesday, May 28, at Shelter Cove Park again versus No. 9 seed Jackson Memorial, led by two talented All-County seniors in midfielders Sue Leahy and April Williams. Their coach was Mike Costa, who couldn't have cared less about Polhemus' quiet bluster -- he actually liked Polhemus, though his Jaguars were maybe the most physical of any in the Class A South opponents that East played in. The score this time was, like the last game, 2-0, but the Raiders had to work a little harder for this one as Hearne made a couple of key saves in the game to keep the Jaguars off the scoreboard.

With half the mission done, the next stop was the semifinal matchup with Donovan and its talented senior class that included leading scorer Stephanie Harmon, midfielder Barbara Callaghan, defender Barbara Indiero and goalie Maureen McShea. East built a 3-0 lead into the fourth quarter until a couple of mistakes led to two penalty kicks that freshman Liz Rehak converted into goals. Still, Donovan could not get the equalizer and East got off its field with a 3-2 victory.

So knocking off the fifth-seeded Griffins after knocking down No. 9 Jackson Memorial should have been a step closer to coronation as Shore queens, especially when the other side of the 16-team bracket saw upsets happen to No. 2 seed Wall and No. 3 seed Middletown North. In the end, the opponent for East's finale would be ... coach Gene Tutzauer's No. 11 seed Freehold Township Patriots, which upset its way to the finale.

Tutzauer was not only as down to earth a coach as you will ever meet, but he was throwing a deaf ear at Polhemus, who still was boasting about not only his own team's place in the Shore, but in the state, too, stating that if everyone played at the same time, he'd be an NJSIAA Group IV champion.

Tutzauer had three players that helped run the engine to this point in the tournament. Two of them were up front in forwards Irene Harth and Joyce Flood. The other was the "game-changer," another senior standout in Ami Scheinberg, her presence coming to the forefront throughout the tournament. Like Polhemus, Tutzauer had a quiet confidence going in, relishing the fact no one gave his team a chance against mighty, mighty East.

I knew this would be a great matchup, regardless of the seeds. And so that night, I had the choice of covering either this game or the Toms River South-Lakewood Ocean County Softball Tournament title game. Actually, my boss made the decision easier by sending me to the SCT soccer final because by this point, I could be trusted to turn a story around quickly. And I knew my target after the game to do all this was at the local Pizza Hut on Route 35 in Wall Township, not far from where I was going for the first time in my career as a journalist -- Wall Township High School, the designated site for the championship.

And so I was in "comfortable" garb for a 65-degree night on Tuesday, June 4, 1985. I arrived without much of a problem (the directions to the school were made easy by the wonderful dispatcher for the Wall Township police department). I can still see the outfit I wore in my head: A sleeveless, 1980s style white shirt with a button-up collar that Rick Springfield would be  proud of and a pair of blue OP-made rippled shorts, wearing socks and basketball sneakers.

Yes, I was comfortable. The area around Wall High's soccer/football field is extremely tight and allows little walking room between the field and the fence, so if anything, I was going to have to walk around benches and players, not that they cared at that point, for the entire game.

I asked Polhemus and assistant coach Rob Czarniewski how they were doing. Polhemus shrugged his shoulders and had an answer that resembled something out of, "It's up to them now."

These Raiders weren't just about defense. Yes, their defense was great, but they did score goals, led by Carlisle's 12 goals. After that, a whole bunch of Raiders followed in scoring: Linda Anderson was the next highest-scoring goal scorer with seven, followed by sophomore Stacy Komisar at five goals, Fenton and Bonnie Krall with four goals and four others -- Adamkowski, Lauterborn, McKenna and Applegate -- with three.

In other words, pick your poison on who was going to bury you for that game. Polhemus had so many options to go to and none of them were afraid to contribute. Defense, though, was the No. 1 priority with Polhemus, so that may be why the leading scorer on the team had 12 goals.

Viewing Freehold Township on the other side, I could see Tutzauer with arms folded watching his girls and watching him watch Scheinberg go through a regimen of hard shots that she was getting her hands on. From viewing that, I had a premonition she was set for anything East threw her way.

Mere moments into the game in front of a nice-sized crowd, East collected a corner kick. So not far from where Anderson was standing, I watched her take the kick into the box, a well-placed boot I might add. Out of nowhere came 5-foot-10 Fenton from her sweeper role to put a head on the ball ... lightning fast all this was happening, too.

Scheinberg didn't have a chance. But she was bailed out -- the ball hit the bottom of the crossbar and bounced back to the goalkeeper before anyone else could get a foot on the ball. I saw Fenton with strong defensive ability, but not with that kind of offensive threat in her.

It was just three minutes into the game and East was already going at it. And East didn't stop. Fifteen minutes of this was becoming too much for Scheinberg and her teammates. And at 15:22, the Raiders finally got to the goalie. Anderson fired another corner kick toward the edge of the box where McKenna got it and flicked a shot onto the goal. Both Komisar and Krall got to the ball near each other and got it past Scheinberg from a short distance with the help of a Patriots defender's body deflecting it, not making it easier for the Freehold goalie. Komisar was credited with the goal and the Raiders had the 1-0 lead.

Freehold Township put some pressure on East's defense as the second quarter of the game arrived. But each time the Patriots had something, East's defense would have an answer. And when East's defense sent the ball down the other end, it was the quick sophomore pair of Komisar and Krall who would pick the ball up and give East's defense a rest.

And when it looked as if East might put the game away, there was Scheinberg shining in her final game as Patriots goalie to knock away potential game-breaking goals. With 6:22 to go before halftime, Scheinberg was tested again, this time by Carolyn Anderson, another of East's pesky, fast forwards. She beat the defender on her and found herself one-on-one with Scheinberg. Scheinberg came out to get the ball before Anderson could make a kick and the two collided.

Anderson came out of it OK, but Scheinberg didn't. She laid on that Wall field for a good three minutes, the stadium getting silent watching carefully Wall's trainer and Tutzauer tended to the goalkeeper. Finally, she stood up and walked off the field, a bit dazed. After a minute or so, though, she would come back into the game for the backup keeper.

The game got to halftime and while Scheinberg seemed to be better, East went into its huddle looking confident, feeling like it was "business as usual." Polhemus knew to expect a tough game from this gutty bunch, so to him, it was just popping in a few more goals.

But after halftime, Freehold Township came out rejuvenated and began getting the better of the play from an East team that looked like it still hadn't come out of the halftime ceremonies that saw both Red Bank Catholic (Monmouth County) and Lacey (Ocean County) receive their Sportsmanship of the Year honors from the Jersey Shore Soccer Officials Association.

And just outside of East's box, Harth let loose with a rocket launcher from 22 yards -- a shot that still was taking off with mighty force toward the bottom of the crossbar. This was the goal that was about to tie the game and turn this first-ever SCT final around, only two minutes into the second half.

However, that may have happened with East's former goalie. Nancy Hearne was in goal and she put every ounce of her 5-7 body into reaching as high as she could and knocking the game-tying goal over the crossbar with her right hand and out of danger.

This was the play of the game. This is why Ed Polhemus felt the need that a change in goal with a more established netminder was important. Period. By the end of the night, the outgoing, brown-eyed young lady finished with 10 saves, that stop of Harth easily the biggest save of the night.

Freehold Township didn't give in, though. The Patriots' offense continued to put pressure on the Raider defense, mainly due to the fast front it had. But once again, East's defense was up to the task, protecting Hearne and the goal like it was Fort Knox.

Said Tutzauer after the game to me, "When I saw the goal scored, I knew East's defense was coming. They're one of the best we've seen all year. We had opportunities, but they did the job on us."

The Patriots put one more effort into cracking East's defense with minutes to go as a ball got sent into the box, but Fenton kicked it out of trouble. Another attempt and Applegate, having to deal with Harth most of the game, got the ball out of trouble.

Wash, rinse, repeat. That was East's defense on this evening.

Scheinberg was at her absolute best with 15 saves, proving she was Monmouth County's best goalie. Her effort would have helped lead to a Freehold Township title that night.

But not against East's ferocious defense and "tenacious sharks" as Polhemus would call his offense. The final whistle sounded and East had the first-ever Shore Conference Tournament championship, 1-0, capping a second straight 17-1-1 season, proving they were the Shore's best.

Still sounding assured and confident and not raising his voice a whole lot, Polhemus would say after the game, "I'm happy with my team's performance. All season long, I've been stressing team play and I'm happy about that. They were all tenacious sharks."

Fenton was all smiles. So was Adamkowski. Most of East's team was. I was happiest for McKenna, Carlisle and Hearne, the three girls I knew from my friendship with the McKenna family and with Denice. Everyone should walk away a champion in their final game, but unless you win that last game, most notably a championship, that is never going to happen in life.

The night got cooler as the game went on and my bare shoulders and legs were starting to feel it. So after it was over, I walked off the field, into the parking lot and pulled away in my 1973 Chevy Chevelle and back onto Route 35 and toward the Pizza Hut. As I ate my dinner of spaghetti and meatballs that night, I began to write my story in the notebook I carried for the game. It was a characteristic of mine to jot a story down from start to finish when I was on the road and I either couldn't get back to the office in time to write the story or just say silently, "I am sooooo not going back to the office." To this day, I still have that notebook and the five pages inside of it that entailed the story.

Long before we had the Radio Shack Tandys that would make writing and sending stories so much easier, I had to call collect off something that seems foreign today -- a pay phone. Once they knew it was from me and accepted, I told my boss East won, then he handed me over to Chris, our main sports writer who was a speed demon at taking dictation, something I learned to do with relative ease within due time.

I read Chris my story verbatim and whatever he did in editing was minor. The process took about 20 minutes to do, then he asked the boss if there was anything else that was needed for which he said there wasn't. I finished what I was doing and left the Pizza Hut at around 11:15 p.m.

The ride back to Toms River on Route 35, then Route 70 and Hooper Avenue took about 25 minutes and I was home. Now knowing my neighbors, the McKennas, very, very, very well, I figured once I parked the car on the street like I normally did, I could walk through the passageway between my home and their home, past their basketball court in their backyard and to the house and sure as night is dark there'd be some kind of party going on there. The McKenna house was a hub for that.

The professional side of this 18-year-old didn't want to do it, but hey, I was off work. I didn't care at that point. As I went further into that backyard, I could hear the noise like a party was going on. And there it was -- a party! I saw Flo, the McKenna matriarch and head of the household there, smiling face and inviting me in. I walked around the house and saw plenty of East soccer girls celebrating the title. I won't go further into the details, other than it was a very good time for all who came to visit.

As I walked around, I got near the front door and there was Stacy Komisar and Bonnie Krall, who lived across the street from the McKennas. I congratulated Komisar on the goal and the first thing she said to me, "I didn't score. She scored it." She was pointing to Krall, the baby of four sisters in her family. Then she explained that she was closer to the ball and had gotten to it first. Maybe I was obscured of the view, but everyone on the East side seemed to be convinced it was Komisar's goal off the McKenna assist.

For the record, though, these last 30 or so years, Stacy Komisar is credited with scoring the first-ever SCT girls soccer championship game goal ... even if she says Bonnie Krall did it.

After about a half hour, I headed back through the woods and finally into my house where mom wondered where I went to.

"East won. McKennas holding a party. I stopped in."

That was pretty much it.

East had a lot of representatives on the All-County team that year, but the one who should have been on that team was Nancy Hearne. But she wasn't the best defensive player when on the field. Players like Sue Lauterborn and, of course, Denice McKenna and Leda Fenton, were better and honored. And as for the whole goalie thing for All-County, I went with Lacey's up-and-coming star Juliann Schlossareck, who had played the whole season in net and was part of an unbeaten Lacey team until the Lions were knocked out by Donovan in the SCT quarterfinals.

Nancy Hearne was the kind of player you wanted on your soccer team, no matter where you put her. I'm sure she could have thrived as a forward. Problem is she wasn't outstanding in any of the field positions and the one place she was outstanding she didn't even play half the season there.

Everytime I saw her after the team came out, I felt bad. I really did. This beautiful yound lady no more than 10 months younger than me deserved praise and I couldn't give it to her. I saw Nancy Hearne last at Freehold Mall in 1987 while I was doing a chore. Hope she's doing OK.

Those East Raiders of 1985 were a fun team that had a huge target on its back and front thanks to the coach who was so self-assured he had the best team in the Shore.

They came through with flying colors -- flying sky high.

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