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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.