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Saturday, November 11, 2017

The stunner in Medford

No one I knew of journalistically was more well-versed in the Shawnee-Toms River North field hockey rivalry than I was.

Starting with Kim Bush's 'Penalty Corner Shot Heard 'Round Ocean County' in 1987 that gave the Mariners their memorable NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV championship in overtime, a North-Shawnee field hockey game was a well-anticipated matchup to watch on a New Jersey high school sports level. The skill that went into one of those matchups was incredible. And it was always a matching of wits between the two head coaches, Shawnee's Bobbie Schultz and North's Becky Miller, two longtime coaches who respected one another.

But it may have been Miller who said it best about the rivalry, stating, "Bobbie and I have similar coaching styles, so in a way, it doesn't come down to style. It comes down to determination."

That determination, I wasn't sure, was there on North's side. Just 14 days earlier in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals, the Mariners had their lunches and dinners handed to them by eventual tourney champion Allentown, 6-1. It was as big a bashing I've ever seen a Miller-coached field hockey team take. From that standpoint, I figured North would go through the motions when it came to the state tournament.

But they won their opener as a third seed at home on November 7, 1997, against Washington Township. Now the Mariners had another matchup, but Shawnee, the second seed, was standing in the way. It was another typical Schultz-coached team, though this particular year, her team wasn't headlined by a superstar player or two. The Renegades, though, had a star defense, one that had given up less than 10 goals for the season. So if North was going to win this one, its defense needed to be at its absolute best.

And this team's makeup was a little different. It was a mix of senior veterans such as forward Lauren Skripko, midfielder Teresa Andreani and defender Meghan Clarey, but the heart of their defense was anchored by a freshman goalie, Nancy Velez, who had just been brought up to the varsity after a successful freshman team season that saw North give up just one goal at that level and win the county championship.

Still, freshman level and varsity level are two completely different types of ball. How success on the freshman level translated to the varsity level was a whole different matter. And to be honest, I wasn't all that sure I felt good about this particular game this Veterans Day Tuesday afternoon, November 11, 1997, as I headed to Medford, three years to the day I saw North and Shawnee play last for the NJSIAA SJ IV championship, North losing a heartbreaker, 1-0, after upsetting unbeaten Eastern Regional in the semifinal matchup.

I wasn't all that sure how well this page of the North-Shawnee story would write itself out. That '94 game was a great one, just like the other two I had witnessed in back-to-back years in 1987-88, the first one being the Bush goal that sent North to the SJ IV championship and, ultimately, its first state championship. The second one was bittersweet -- it had been exactly nine years earlier at North that the Mariners held a 1-0 lead with less than a minute to go when Shawnee forced the issue and beat North goalie Linda Kurtyka on a loose ball for a score with 18 seconds to go to tie the game, then win it in a penalty one-on-one shootout to grab the SJ IV title and ultimately win the Group IV title itself.

More importantly, Shawnee was looking to play in what would have been a 12th straight SJ IV championship. North was the semifinal hurdle Schultz and the Renegades needed to leap to get there.

Honestly, I wasn't sure what was in North's tank that brisk, cool fall afternoon. But I knew one thing from watching North break the huddle with Miller -- they were excited to play. They rightfully took that "we have nothing to lose" attitude.

And for the first 30 minutes of the game, I can see it was going to be a "first to attack the net relentlessly and scores wins" game. Neither team's defense was giving to the other. But for as good as North was playing after that slaughter by Allentown, I was wondering if this was nothing more than living off of borrowed time.

The teams reached halftime scoreless. I looked at my sheet to see the shots on net -- "not a lot to very little" was how I described it. I kept getting that stronger feeling the first one to one was going to take this battle. But all I kept doing during halftime was looking over at North's huddle in the corner of the field. Something told me if they could just find an alley way to the net, they'd have a strong shot. Andreani, Clarey and their defensive mates were fairly strong in the first half and being veterans, I just had a feeling they could hold Shawnee down for a long time.

The second half began with Shawnee bringing the ball down on North's defense. And it seemed like the Renegades were there for a long, long time. They were biding their time. They had one shot on net in which Velez made a pad save. Less than a minute later, they had another shot on net that Velez kicked aside.

That test early in the second half gave me reason to believe North may have a shot in this one after all. Trouble was the Mariners were having a hard time mounting an attack in Shawnee's end. By the end of the game, the Mariners mustered just five shots on net against Shawnee and goalie Brooke Peterson. So North bided its time. Something, you'd think, would open up. It was a matter of being patient. And when your record is 16-3 going into the game, you figure patience has held up for you somewhere during the season.

But how long was this going to keep going on? North got down to the final 10 minutes of regulation, not able to push the issue much in the first 20 minutes of the half. Thank goodness that defense was playing stellar.

Finally, passes clicked for North and the ball at long last found its way into the Shawnee circle. The ball banged off a Shawnee leg, and that was an automatic penalty corner. So everyone took their places for what might be a golden opportunity for the yellow-and-blue clad Mariners. Another freshman -- Lauren Shern -- maneuvered the ball to the baseline to get the play started. I had literally watched her grown up in front of me because her father, Mike, was Lacey High's longtime field hockey coach and mentor of the NJSIAA Group III championship Lions team of 1994 that stunned West Essex in the championship at Trenton State College, ending West Essex's 86-game unbeaten streak, to take home the title.

So from her standpoint, Shern pushed a perfect pass to the left side of the circle where Katie Facciponti had it on her stick. She dodged one defender, still maintaining the ball. Thought she was living dangerously, especially against this defensive attack of the Renegades. But she was able to make her way to the center of the circle, still with ball in tow. To her left side, she saw Skripko. From there, Skripko got the ball and banged away until it found the back of the net behind Peterson.

Mariners players screamed loud as soon as the ball crossed the goal line, making it 1-0. There was 7:03 left in the match. Was this going to hold up? After all, I had been here before on North's field exactly nine years earlier. The Mariners had spent all afternoon trying to get away from Shawnee players. Now they had the golden opportunity to attack and cashed in on it.

Just seven minutes left from a championship date on my birthday two days later.

As expected, Shawnee had the ball back in North territory. Trouble was, the Renegades could not thread the needle of a perfect pass that would put Velez and her teammates in danger. Either the ball got deflected or miss the target. And the time was running down on the Renegades.

With each ball going out of bounds, the Mariners kept letting more time go by. There was nothing the Renegades could do -- they had all game to make some noise and couldn't. And so as the timekeeper got out of her chair to follow the main official down the field in the final 90 seconds, I suspected that the Ghost of '88 was not coming back to haunt North. And as 18 seconds left arrived, then went away, that part of history wasn't repeating.

"Five ... four ... three ... two ... one" followed by a whistle to end the match.

North players on the bench stormed the field to hug their teammates. They had gotten the job done, 1-0, and the Mariners would have one more SJ IV opportunity to bring home another title. Shawnee players walked slowly toward North's players to give the congratulatory handshakes at the end of the game.

But North was more than excited. And to top off the win, just as I was about to talk to Miller about this latest milestone in a Hall of Fame career, I can see Clarey from behind with a water bucket.

Yup, I got out of the way in time from enduring a Gatorade bath that Miller was getting. This was Miller's fourth win in her career against Shawnee, but first since the Bush goal and the '87 SJ IV championship.

"We all felt confident," she told me afterward. "We came into the game that way. But the kids did the rest with desire and determination."

That, they did. They were outshot for the game, 8-5, but yet, endured and were determined to send Shawnee home earlier than normal. For the first time since 1985, Shawnee, whose season ended at 17-2-1, was not playing for an SJ IV title. It was time to celebrate on North's side.

So I found both Skripko and Andreani, good friends who I covered in sports they were better at than field hockey, Skripko, an all-everything point guard who I watched take North to the state Group IV title as a sophomore in 1996, and Andreani, a star catcher for North's softball team who would earn her way to all-state first-team honors in this, her senior year.

"We don't get intimidated," Skripko said smiling, green eyes gleaming among the backdrop of the pretty colors surrounding Shawnee's field. "We know we're the underdog, so we go out there with nothing to lose."

"We pretty much stayed positive throughout," Andreani said. "We wanted to win, and to do that, we had to stay aggressive. Shawnee moves the ball around really well. We haven't faced a team quite like that."

On this nippy day, these Mariners were on fire and picked the right time to burn a talented bunch of Renegades. But if this were a championship game instead of a semifinal, this would be an awesome story. As I arrived back at the Observer building to write the story, I thought of the big hit of the time, "Tubthumping" by Chumbawamba.

So the lead read like this:

"MEDFORD -- They got knocked down. But they got up again. Now it seems no one may keep the Toms River High School North field hockey team down."

These Mariners had been knocked down, but battled back.

But they still had one more obstacle in the way -- Thursday, November 13 against top-seeded Cherokee, which had dusted off Eastern Regional in the other semifinal. North once again went out west, this time to Medford Lakes, to play for the championship. And though North had a great outing against Cherokee's Chiefs, it didn't resonate quite as much as it had two days earlier. Kelly Rose scored 13:05 into the game and the Chiefs' defense made it hold up, outshooting North, 9-3, in a 1-0 win that saw North's Velez hold her own with seven saves.

Unfortunately, that would be the last bit of glory I would see covering field hockey in Ocean County. With girls soccer moving from the spring to the fall starting in the 1996-97 school season in the Shore Conference to compete against the rest of the state, a lot of talented soccer players who played field hockey remained in soccer and the talent level wasn't quite as strong as it once was.

My last season of covering field hockey at the Ocean County Observer was 1998. It was a meh year. Good teams, but not great enough to challenge for a sectional title. The wave of no longer having soccer players play field hockey had already washed up on the county shores.

So that '97 North-Shawnee game was the last "stand" of county field hockey greatness I saw in covering the sport for 14 seasons. Of all the teams I've covered over the years, I'll always treasure the games played by Becky Miller's Mariners. They were in some epics.

And it always seemed like Shawnee brought the best out of the Mariners.

The 1997 SJ IV semifinal was no different.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The War at the Shore delivered everything, but one important thing

The end result was inevitable.

The two top field hockey programs in the entire state of New Jersey were about to play for top honors at the Jersey Shore in the Shore Conference Tournament championship.

There was a lot of anticipation the Halloween morning of Saturday, October 31, 1987. The site was Toms River High School North and the two combatants -- No. 1 seed Shore Regional and No. 2 Toms River North -- came in with unbeaten records, the Blue Devils sporting an 18-0-1 record, the Mariners with a 16-0-2 record. In my mind and those who were going to be there to witness this 10 a.m. battle, something had to give.

So I left my parents' home at 8:55 in the morning to get there very early on this mid-50 degree morning under beautiful blue skies and sun. By the time I arrived at Toms River North 10 minutes later, I drove along the road the field hockey field was located right next to the school. Shore Regional had already been there warming up.

I got out of my car and walked onto the field to say hi to their long-time successful coach, Nancy Williams. We did a couple of minutes of pleasantries since I had known her for a couple of years now just talking about field hockey and her own team and her emotion going in.

Then I ask her, "How long have you been here for? This game isn't for another 50 minutes?"

"We got here about 20 minutes ago," she said. "Our bus driver is really fast."

Then, as if it was on cue, behind where we were standing, the school bus that brought the Blue Devils and Williams to the game came zooming behind us on that same road I came up moments earlier, hitting a speed bump pretty hard.

"See." she said.

Williams' Blue Devils could do no wrong throughout the entire 1980s decade. Their best team may have been the 1986 squad that won the state Group II title, led by two of the best players the program ever saw, Andrea Begel and Missy Paolantonio. But they had other great players on that team and they were back in this 1987 season. One of those players was Chris Tormey, who was the main distributor of the ball to the Blue Devils' attack. And their best player was senior Chris Wajda, a tall and powerful player from the point who could deliver a penalty corner shot and you'd know it was going to inflict harm with how hard she took it.

The Blue Devils were continuing to be dominant.

And that was what Toms River North was shooting for in this '87 season. The pieces were in place for what many close to field hockey and the program thought was a special year. There were plenty of seniors who provided leadership for the Mariners this particular season. That started with the program's heart and soul, four-year starting forward Kim Bush. She was on her way to an amazing final season with the Mariners, back to her scoring ways from the 1985 season when she put home 34 goals.

But Bush had some help on this team from a very strong senior class that included senior defenders Mary Bendel, Vicki Trotman and Sue Gerbino and two-way player Krista Saponara. Behind the seniors was an amazing group of juniors that included scorers Katie Vignevic, Christie Emmert and Lori Garrabrant, two-way standout Dawn Ostrowski and the final obstacle for the other team, dominant goalie Linda Kurtyka.

North's coach was Becky Miller, who like Williams, was a dominant winner herself in the sport's history. But unlike Williams, the one thing that eluded Miller was a state championship. Seven years earlier, North made it to the state Group IV final before losing the championship. This team had all the earmarks for a special season.

From in close, you can see the admiration between the two coaches. But when you put them both on the same field with their teams, you can see the fiery competitiveness of the two of them.

For the next 45 minutes before the game as I'm inside the gate of the field, people were lining up alongside the fences and in the small set of bleachers set up for those to sit down on this amazing day weather-wise ... and player-wise.

And from the moment the whistle was blown to start the game, the fans started getting into it. It was nonstop the entire first half, even if both teams looked like they were going through the motions because defense was dominating the day.

But the threats came from Shore Regional. They tested Kurtyka on a couple of occasions. The first came as Tormey came down the right side, weaving her way through Mariner defensive traffic. She threaded the needle to forward Barbara Krautheim for what might have been a perfect goal, but as Krautheim went to shoot, Kurtyka was there for the pad save. Later in the first half, Shore's Emily Bahrs had a good shot at the net, but she, too, was stopped on a pad save by Kurtyka. No one I ever saw used those blocker pads better than she did on a field hockey field.

Meanwhile, Shore's defense limited North to very few opportunities in the first half, keeping their distance from the high-powered North attack.

And so after 30 minutes, defense reigned and the game went scoreless. I remember sitting on Shore's bench where they were situated as coach Williams began talking to her players at the far end goal area. I looked at my notes -- very few scribbled down -- and figured that someone was going to make their mark in this game, but it may not be either Bush or Wajda, who had already beaten Bush's Shore area record for goals in a season by already scoring 36 times this season. It could be someone I least suspected who might deliver the goods at the right moment.

So both teams came away from their opposite ends after halftime talks and began the second half. North had a new strategy -- attack with more players. They were having a lot more ease playing on their thicker grass field than the Blue Devils were, Shoe used to playing on a lower-grass cut field. It was something Williams said later her players had a hard time adjusting to.

Finally, only 4:09 into the second half, we had our first score. Vignevic had the ball and no defenders in front of her after a Shore player tried to tap the ball away. That was bad news for goalie Caryn Goldman, who had the unenviable task of stopping Vignevic by herself. She came out second best as Vignevic fired a shot to the goalie's left side and into the net from close range, giving the Mariners a 1-0 lead.

The ripples could be felt -- it was only the second goal the Blue Devils had allowed all season. But there was still 25:51 left in the game. That was plenty of time for the Blue Devils to adjust to what was not working and make some kind of a run.

North, however, wasn't having any of it. The defense that players like Bendel, Gerbino and Ostrowski provided was proving too much to Tormey, who had 24 assists going into the game, and Wajda, who was continually being frustrated by the Mariners.

With 22:24 left in regulation time, Williams called a timeout. She was getting on her players to get going, but was also encouraging them that if they can put some passes together and continue to put what pressure they could on North, good things would come out of it. So back after the timeout, the Blue Devils began to take over play, playing in North's territory. When a North defender was detected for a foul, a penalty corner was called.

This time, Tormey set up a beautiful pass to Wajda, who had the talent to stop the hard charging ball on a slightly bumpy North field and fire a shot to Kurtyka's right side to tie it up at 1-all.

All morning long, whatever penalty corners the Blue Devils were getting, Gerbino, whose nickname was "Turbo" for her all-out speed on those corners and stopping them, was putting a kibosh on. Not this one, though. The sound of the ball pounding the wooden bottom part of the goal resonated throughout the North complex.

With 20:15 left, the game now came down to who would blink first. Both sides had their moments of taking the ball into the other team's territory, but the last 20:15 would become a defensive game. No matter what any player did once they got into the other team's defensive side, the ball would be poked away by a defender or the goalie or would slice out of bounds. For all her greatness in the '87 season, Bush was having a hard time getting anything that looked like a possible score. It may have been the most frustrating game she played all year. Shore's defense was on point.

And so the clock got counted down to zero. Now it would be sudden death overtime deciding the championship. There would be two 10-minute overtime periods. Both sides would switch fields after the first 10-minute period.

Immediately, North was on the attack on Shore's defense and Goldman. The ball found its way to Saponara, who fired a shot that went wide of the mark. Minutes later, Saponara had another chance to finish the deal and give North the huge victory, but again, her shot went wide of the mark.

Nothing after 10 minutes. The teams switched sides.

North's defense continue to throttle Shore, which could only muster five shots on net the entire afternoon. Meanwhile, North had one last chance at Shore's net. This time it was Garrabrant who had the chance to play hero. She was on the side of the net, looking to stuff a loose ball behind Goldman, but the Shore goalkeeper put a blocker on her shot and the ball went out of the box.

That would be it. The last true opportunity for someone to play hero.

As the clock operator counted down the final seconds, it became inevitable this championship gave us everything, but one important element.

A winner.

The teams walked off the North field exhausted and disappointed. Eighty minutes of field hockey, some great skill and fantastic shot taking shown, and nothing came out of it other than both teams would be crowned as co-champions.

Just two years earlier on this same North field, both Shore and North battled it out for 80 minutes in a scoreless SCT final, but on that day, they had a one-on-one shotout and North prevailed, 3-2, in the shootout for the title. A year later, the Shore Conference voted to end that finish to a game since state championships are not decided in that manner.

So because of that ruling, neither team felt satisfied with the final outcome.

But the coaches were saying the right things at the end of the game to me.

"I think everyone played a great game and got some nice shots," Miller said. "I have nothing negative to say at all."

"I think if we played each other 10 times, we'd win five and they'd win five times," Williams said. "Both teams deserved to win the title. (North) moved the ball very well. They're a well-coached team."

North outshot Shore, 10-5, as Goldman made five saves and Kurtyka three. And though Shore did not win the title, the Blue Devils made it 44 straight games without a loss, breaking the Shore area mark they had from 1979-81.

And like that, it was over. The pomp and circumstance was nothing more than a sister-kissing exercise. I wanted more! Any fan of the sport, especially that year, wanted more. We paid our ticket for the rollercoaster ride and got nothing more than an occasional small up-and-down moment.

But you appreciated how great these two teams really were, especially at the defensive end. And both teams ultimately reached their state championship at Trenton State College on a bitterly cold Sunday, November 22. However, for Shore, it ended in an NJSIAA Group II loss to Delaware Valley High, ending that unbeaten streak at 47.

For North, it was the culmination of an amazing season. The Mariners held back Morristown, 2-1, to win the NJSIAA Group IV championship, the first in program history and the great payoff in the career of Miller, who started the program in 1969.

The Shore area was better for having Nancy Williams and Becky Miller coaching field hockey successfully every year during their tenures at their schools. They helped enhance the sport and put the Jersey Shore on the map. You really couldn't have one without the other.

In one of the most exciting field hockey seasons I ever witnessed, it was an honor to watch these two titans clash at their very best.

If only there had been a winner, though.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The worst call ... ever

Recently, I saw Rick Breed at a state tournament volleyball match at Union County High School. When I first met him, he was an assistant softball coach at Palatka High School, then became the head coach for two different stints with the Panthers, winning a district championship with them in 2009.

These days, Breed is working as a volleyball official, and had grown to being the head official from the first time I saw him working volleyball matches. We talked about various things before the match I was there to cover between Crescent City and Union County that night. We talked PHS softball and how he got to this point as a volleyball official.

Then I reminded him about the last time I covered a match involving him when he was a linesman and the two combatants and how long ago it was. This short look of pain came across his face.

He remembered. I let him know that in 33 years of covering sports, that match still involved the absolute worst judgment call and ending to an event I have ever covered. Let's say he wasn't in a defending mood.

The night was Thursday, October 28, 2010. The site was Interlachen High School. The volleyball match was for the right to play for the District 6-3A championship one night later. The combatants were coach Holly Pickens' Crescent City Junior-Senior High Raiders and Keystone Heights High School, always a tough team in the sport, whose coach, Belinda Phillips, was in her fourth year with the program after she replaced Scott Conkling in the job as he went off to become St. Johns River State College's coach.

That day was a long one for me personally. Not more than two miles away, I was at the West Putnam Recreation Center that afternoon covering the All-Putnam County cross country championship as Palatka's Matt Hurst and Crescent City's Lona Roberts repeated their championships in the event, his third straight, her second.

The event wrapped up sometime before 6 p.m., the volleyball match starting at 7. I certainly wasn't making a 15-mile trip back to Palatka to write this story up and then head back to Interlachen, so I went to the one place I can unwind between events -- and order a Black Forest ham and cheese sandwich at Subway. Hey, it was either Subway or McDonald's since Interlachen doesn't offer a whole heck of a lot of options.

I arrived at Interlachen High, ran into athletic director Ron Whitehurst to say hello, then he hit me with the stunner going into the match.

"Baker County beat Bradford in the first semifinal."

That was a major upset. Bradford was the No. 2 seed and Baker County was the sixth seed of the event. It automatically qualified Baker County for the state tournament regardless of what would happen in Friday night's district final back in the Interlachen High gym.

It also meant -- at least in my head -- that the winner of the match I was there to cover between the Raiders and Indians was most likely going to win the district championship since both teams had beaten Baker County twice during the season.

The Indians were the No. 1 seed of the tournament and had beaten Crescent City twice during the season, but both times in tough four-set matches. The Raiders were primed for an upset with those results on this mid-fall evening.

Keystone Heights' main players on a team that was 23-2 going in were hitters Chelsea Harvin, Meghan Zinkel and Dakota Thacker. Their top servers were Harvin, Madyson Maxwell and Mackenzie Dicks. They were a solid team and understandably the favorites, their only losses in the regular season to a really good Gainesville Eastside High team.

Pickens, in her 28th year as head coach, had a young team that was ready to bust out and make big moves beyond Putnam County's and District 6-3A's borders. Distribution of the ball came from players like libero Steffanie Sheffield, and Karen Leavenworth, while top front-line players were Breanna Stevens and Vicktoria Williams.

But there was no question as to who the best player on the court was that night going in -- it was 6-foot junior sensation Kayshia Brady, a front-line hitter who if you set her up for the kill, she was knocking it down without much doubt. She was our newspaper's player of the year the previous year and was well on her way to repeating that honor.

At the net, Brady looked imposing to the other team, who had some tall players, too. Sometimes, it's just the presence and swag that mean a lot.

The first set showed the Raiders, who came into the match with a 16-8 record, were not intimidated by the Indians. They got out to a 9-5 lead, but a kill by Taylor Semione gave the Indians the ball back at 9-6. Three unforced Raider errors, a kill by Thacker and an ace by Dicks reversed the course of the set and gave the Indians an 11-9 lead.

Stevens put down a kill to stop the run, but the Indians got the ball back off another unforced error and with the help of a Zinkel kill and an ace by Thacker, the Indians built a 15-10 lead. But another momentum shift came upon the set as a Keystone Heights hit out of bounds and gave the Raiders the ball. Leavenworth delivered the next four points on her serve, helped out by Keystone errors and a block by Alexis Sepulveda to tie it at 15-15.

From there, it was just two teams going point for point. Keystone built up a 20-17 lead, but the Raiders didn't go away. Another Indians unforced error made it 20-18 and two more of those unforced errors off Williams serves tied it at 20-20 before a resounding Brady kill gave the Raiders a 21-20 lead. 

Already, this first set was worth the price of admission going in. A Crescent City miss-hit gave the Indians the ball back at 21-all, and another error made it 22-21 in Keystone Heights' favor.

But like a lot of rallies for the Raiders, it all got started with a huge hit for a kill by Brady that other teams couldn't handle. And so after she nailed a kill, the Raiders were back at 22-all with Brady getting the serve. An unforced error, followed by a Stevens kill made it 24-22, one point away from the set.

Still, Keystone Heights had one last chance after Chelsea Cravey put a kill down to cut it to a point. But off a Dicks serve, the Raiders set up and it would be Stevens nailing the kill to end it with a 25-23 victory.

This was a great starting point for the Raiders. They had momentum, but they were doing all they can to contain the excitement. They knew the other team on the side of the net all too well.

And so when the Indians jumped out to a 15-3 lead in the second set, it was just a matter of time before they put it away. Crescent City had its moments in the set, including four straight service points by Brady, including an ace, but this was Keystone's set without question. The Indians took the second set handily, 25-12, locking the match at 1-1.

The third set was definitely more challenging. The difference was three or four points in Keystone Heights' favor, then it got to five points at 18-13. It was at that point the Indians made an error and the Raiders took over at 18-14. It was Brady with the ball in her possession, and she knocked the lead down to nothing thanks to Indian unforced errors (there were a lot of those in this match as it got sloppy at times) and a pair of Stevens kills.

Suddenly, the Raiders were leading 19-18. Cravey stopped the run with a kill to tie it up, but once again, Stevens came up huge with another kill to make it 20-19. Now who was going to step up and string points together for the Raiders from the service line?

It was Brittney Guerrero, one of the younger Raiders. An unforced error was followed by an ace off of miscommunication by Indians players that made it 22-19.

Thacker ended the mini-run with a kill, but Sepulveda responded with a kill of her own to make it 23-20. When Dani Munoz delivered the only ace of the match she recorded, it looked as if this was another Raider win. But back-to-back kills by Zinkel got it back to 24-22. That nervous anticipation was clouding the moment. Could the Raiders hold on and get to within one set of advancing to the final?

The teams got into a short rally on the next point, but while the Indians were anticipating Brady to put the ball down on a kill attempt, it would turn out to be Sepulveda again nailing the kill to give the Raiders the hard-fought 25-22 victory.

Now they were a little more animated, but not quite there yet. They smelled the victory. It was within grasp. But the Raiders needed one more huge effort to get them over the hump. The Indians were looking at each other for answers. I could still see the blank looks on Keystone players. They knew they needed to find the winning mojo again.

The fourth set started with Keystone Heights ahead 6-2. But the bottom was about to fall out again.

This was when Brady started to get stronger. She put down an unchallenged kill to make it 6-3. Then she delivered two more kills off of Williams' services, followed by a Williams ace. Two more Brady kills and two more unforced errors suddenly had the Raiders in the lead at 10-6.

Keystone finally stopped the run with a pair of kills by Cravey and an unforced error that made it 10-9. The teams would trade points. Then at 12-10 in Crescent City's favor, the Indians had an opening. With Chelsea Velazquez on serve (the Indians had three Chelseas on the team), she was getting her serves in, while two kills from Zinkel, one more from Dicks and two more Raiders unforced errors made the score 16-12. Though the Raiders would cut the lead to 16-14, they would never get closer than that. And at 24-19, Zinkel delivered the final kill -- one of 13 she had on the night -- to finish out the Keystone victory.

It was now down to a race to 15 points. Whoever got there first or won by two points was moving on to the final and to a berth in the state tournament. For Keystone Heights, reaching the state tournament was old hat to them. But for the Raiders, a win would have meant something. The Raiders had not been to the state tournament since 1993. Seventeen years is a long time between trips. Now, they were within reach.

Two teams. Fifteen points. The race was on.

Sheffield delivered a service error to start the match and an unforced error -- one of 48 the Raiders had on the evening -- got the Indians out to a 2-0 lead. That would prove to be short-lived as Brady pounded down a kill, then another off of Gabi Martinez's service to tie it up. It didn't stop there. Two more unforced errors by the Indians (they had 41 for the match) and the second kill of the night by Williams gave the Raiders a 5-2 lead.

One-third of the way there. Though Martinez served up an errant serve on the next point, the Raiders got the ball back on another unforced error. Another unforced error made it 7-3.

The moments in this deciding set were fraying the nerves for the players on both sides of the net. Someone had to steady those nerves in a hurry.

The Indians got the ball back on -- you guessed it! -- another unforced error by Crescent City, and Maxwell went on a roll with four points, highlighted by her third service ace of the match and the fourth kill of the night by Semione as the Indians went ahead, 8-7.

But another mistake by the Indians gave the Raiders the ball back tied at 8-all. However, yet another kill by Cravey, her seventh of the night, broke the tie. Worse, the Raiders had a  hard time communicating on the court with one another, players shooting stunned looks at one another as if to say, "I thought you had it" on two more unforced errors and Pickens called her last timeout of the night. She had to get this team back on course or all the effort they exerted in over two hours would go to waste.

To the rescue came Brady, who got set up for a picture-perfect spike to cut the lead to 11-9.

But as easily as it was to get the serve back, it was Keystone Heights batting it around before Harvin delivered her third kill of the night. Worse, Raiders players could not return Thacker's fourth service ace. The Indians were two points away from putting it in the books.

The teams swapped unforced errors and at 14-10, the ball was in the hands of Harvin to take care of matters. The Indians set up for the winning kill -- except into the net for yet another unforced error.

This gave the Raiders one last hope to keep it going. 

And Sheffield was dealing. First, Sepulveda put down a kill to make it 14-12. Then the Indians couldn't get the ball over the net in three tries for another unforced errors. It was 14-13. Another serve and the ball got back on the Raiders' side of the net. The ball got set up to Brady.

BOOM! No one was returning this back as it landed inside the line to make it 14-14. It would take at least 16 to finish this match out.

Fans on both sides were excited. The IHS gym was loud. That I will always remember. This great back-and-forth match was coming down to the nail-biting end. Sheffield got the ball back for yet another serve and to give the Raiders the lead.

She hit the ball, but perfectly hit the Raiders' side of the net. The biggest point of her season and Sheffield did not deliver.

The Indians breathed a sigh of relief. They had the ball at 15-14, knowing one point was going to finish this. Maxwell now had the ball in her hands to serve out the match. She delivered the ball over the net to a waiting Sepulveda, who double-fisted the ball to Sheffield. Sheffield had one target and one target in mind -- Kayshia Brady, who with one mighty stroke of her right arm could save the game and keep it going.

To this day, I can still see the set Sheffield put to Brady -- perfectly high and within line of nailing a kill. Brady had frustrated Keystone's front line players all evening, so as she went up to get the ball and put it hard down on Keystone's side of the court to tie it at 15-15, it was understandable that Indians players had that "I guess it's time to play defense" look on their faces.

Fate, however, intervened in the worst way possible. As soon as Indians players rolled the ball under the net to hand back to the Raiders for serve, game official Jack Wetherington delivered the call that would still resonate with the Raider program to this very day.

He called "carrying" on what would have been Brady's 24th kill of the night. What he basically said was when she went up for the kill, she momentarily "grabbed" the ball and put it down that way. His explanation was, "She (caught) the ball in the (web) of her hand and put it down."

Instead of 15-all, the match was suddenly over. The Indians had the 16-14 fifth-set win and advanced to the district final against Baker County and had the automatic berth to the state tournament.

I wish I could tell you that Crescent City fans who made the trip to Interlachen were understanding and sympathetic after it ended.

I would be lying to you. Instead, Raiders fans angrily hurled their uncensored vitriol (they were very clean about it) at the officials, who, like they normally would do, thank the teams' coaches and head off either out the door of the gym or into their locker room to change afterward.

Keystone Heights players and Phillips were just stunned. There were no words to describe how they looked other than stunned. The tears began to flow freely on Crescent City's side. I can still see the tears ruining the mascara on Sheffield's face, like she'd been crying for hours and didn't bother to fix herself up.

When everything was finished, I talked to Pickens. Normally stoic after a win or loss, she holds her emotions in. Not this night. She left the gym in tears, saying, "To have our girls fight as hard as they could and have it taken away, it's not right." Just as I was about to ask a follow-up question, she respectfully said she couldn't talk anymore and she and her team left IHS feeling like they just got robbed by an unqualified robber.

I turned my attention to Phillips to talk to her after the match. She was a lot more blunt about the last play.

"I don't like the way this ended," she said. "I hate that it ended this way." She later added that, "Crescent City came to play and we took them for granted."

I walked out of IHS' gym back to my car, feeling the way both coaches felt -- that this ending was not the way it was supposed to be. And so I drove back to Palatka to the Daily News office after this long day in western Putnam County was over. I wrote the volleyball match story first because all the events and moments from that were still fresh in my mind. And it was easier to write the cross country story as long as I had notes and quotes to refer to when reporting on it.

It was after deadline that I finally had a chance to go on to my Facebook page, and something told me to go to Kayshia Brady's page to see what kind of reaction she had to what was considered a "mistake" on her part. What I found was eye-opening.

Her amazing mom had taped the final points of the match and from where she was sitting, it was behind Crescent City's team on the court. Thanks to the video, I had the chance to relive those final moments. And then at 15-14, I could still see the camera pointed toward her daughter as she went up to get the ball and slam it down for what should've been a kill and a 15-15 tie.

I watched that video 25 to 30 times in a row. I even watched it a few days later. What Wetherington described to me was nowhere close to what actually happened. There is absolutely, unequivocally, without doubt no way a "carry." She didn't grab the ball for even one millisecond. There was no doubt in my mind that Kayshia Brady had the sights on her ball and smashed a perfect kill down on a helpless Indians team to tie it up. Even Keystone players reacted as if they knew it was Crescent City's point!

I had video proof -- Kayshia Brady got jobbed. Holly Pickens was robbed. And that entire Crescent City team and fans were screwed royally.

In 33 years of witnessing and covering sports on all levels, that was undoubtedly the worst call I have ever seen ... period. Still holds true to this very day. Crescent City had a match taken from its grasp because of a call that was so bad, even I found it unbelievable.

The very next morning, I was looking in my email folder and had one waiting for me from the other official working the match. He was the other game official there.

I opened it up and got to read his take on what happened at the end of the match. I only shared portions the very next day with coach Pickens. Here's what that email read:

"Mr. Blumenthal:  Just to clarify what happened in the final match, which is incorrect in the call made.  The initial call, prior to ball being hit back across the net, was a lift by the young lady from Crescent City.  The whistle was blown and a lift was indicated by the R1, Mr. Wetherington. Due to the crowd noise the whistle was not heard and the ball was hit back across the net.  No call was reversed, since when the whistle was blown the play was dead.  Though no one wants a game to finish on this type of call, it was the correct call to make and would have been made by any official working this match.  I congratulate both teams for the manner in which they played and the level of play by both.  I was the R2 on this match, the down official, and had to tell the coach the play was dead and a lift was called.  Thank you."

Except it was the wrong call -- an absolutely horrible call at that. That's why I went back to the video Mrs. Brady shot of the end. I was looking for a carry or a "lift." Once I got confirmation from Pickens what the definition of a "lift" was, I was focusing in on Brady's right arm. Nope, never saw a "lift" either.

Any of these officials could explain away what happened. But it was not satisfactory. They screwed the call up. End of conversation. And that one call only cost the Raiders a possible district championship finale and a trip to the state tournament, which may have been for good use to get acclimated to the state tournament atmosphere.

On the same day I got that email, I got one from Alexis Sepulveda, whose sisters I covered and whose oldest sister worked at the newspaper for a short time as a clerk. Like her sisters, Alexis is a delightful young lady. But you could feel the pain and hurt in her email.

 I just read the article about last night's game, and I wanted to let you know that I appreciate your honest take on the match. I too was upset about the point reversal and feel as though a possible win was taken away from us.
A few minutes ago, Mrs. Pickens sent a text message to the team. It read, "Just to let all of you know we sent the video to the FHSAA. They cannot by rule change the call but they will review it and talk with the official." She also wrote, "We didn't lose, we may not have won, but we didn't lose." I agree with my coach. Last night's game was the best game all season, and unfortunately, our seniors will remember their last game ending in disappointment.
I wanted to inform you of Mrs. Pickens' communication with FHSAA in case you wanted to follow up. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me." 

The few seniors who were on this team had to leave with that bitter taste in their mouths forever, like Stevens, who was unbelievable with nine kills and three blocks, Sheffield and Leavenworth. This was not how it was supposed to end. Play it out until there was no doubt of the ending. For them, there will forever be doubt. And for the record, Keystone Heights would go on to take down Baker County and win the district title, just as I thought the Indians would do the next night.

But for Brady, who was spectacular that night with 23 kills, four blocks, 14 service points and one ace, Sepulveda, Williams and the Raiders that came back the next year, it only served as motivation. The Raiders moved from the bigger District 6-3A to the newly revised and rural District 8-1A, playing schools their own size. Other than one setback in the gym of Pierson Taylor High, the Raiders stormed through the district regular season, then beat Taylor in the district championship on their own home gym for that elusive first district championship in 18 years.

It didn't end there, though. The Raiders beat Chiefland in four sets in the Region 4-1A semifinal at home, then went to Union County's gym to beat the host Tigers in straight sets to advance to the state 1A Final Four in Kissimmee, the program's second trip there and first trip to a state Final Four in 25 years. They lost to eventual state 1A champion Mayo Lafayette in four sets, the last one a gut-wrencher with Crescent City holding a late lead in the fourth set and on the verge of forcing a fifth and deciding set, only to see the Hornets bounce back and win.

To this day, I still believe had the Raiders had the opportunity to play in the 2010 postseason, they may have had the important experience to get through the fourth set and maybe win that Lafayette state semifinal match.

We'll never know. That's the sad reality.

Crescent City got robbed of a possible 2010 state tournament run.

So when I reminded Rick Breed of that time in 2010 when Keystone and Crescent City played, I didn't have to remind him of the outcome.

It was that memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The OCT softball final that was as good as promised

The 17th annual Ocean County Softball Tournament championship game promised to be an entertaining final.

And maybe the most intense final in its history.

Though Toms River High School East was given the top seed, the Raiders were not the hottest team even in town by the end of the season. Crosstown rival Toms River North was the team riding the hot hand going into the tournament. In the semifinal matchup on East's field on May 31, 1997, the fourth-seeded Mariners hit the Raiders in dribs and drabs to score a methodical 10-2 win to advance to their first final in four years.

The day itself was yucky, grey and cool, far from good softball weather. That Saturday was part of a semifinal doubleheader with the other game featuring second-seeded Central Regional and third seed and defending champion Jackson Memorial. The first game took two hours and 28 minutes to plod through, so the second game wasn't going to go off at 7:30 like I hoped it would. Instead, it got off the ground at 8 p.m.

And with a surging four-run top of the seventh, Jackson Memorial had taken a 9-5 lead and needed just three outs to clinch the win and a chance to do something no team had ever done in the history of the event -- repeat as a champion. But the Jaguars had a hard time putting away the Golden Eagles in the bottom of the seventh. A couple of errors and some walks helped to cut the lead to 9-8. And with two outs, the only obstacle in the way of the Jaguars finishing out business was junior shortstop and cleanup hitter Toni Penniman. On an 0-1 pitch, Penniman drilled a shot to left field that Cheryl Fossati, who went to the outfield after she could not finish what she started in the circle, did not spot. The ball went over her head, pinch-runner Meghan Barrett scored and Penniman ended up at third base with a triple.

But before anyone thought about extra innings, Kristy Tice, who had the indignity of being relieved in the circle in the top of the seventh when the Jaguars scored four runs, made up for the mess in the seventh by drilling a first-pitch offering from reliever Dara DeVincenzo to left-center field to win, 10-9, and send the Golden Eagles into the championship.

And so for the first time since April 30, the two teams would be back on a softball field, but this time deciding who was best in the county for the year. It was on that afternoon at Toms River North that the Mariners powered past the Golden Eagles, 6-2, behind the one-hit pitching of North hard-throwing right-hander Lauren Anderson, who had nine strikeouts in the game.

Anderson was only a sophomore, but she was already building a huge reputation around New Jersey as a strikeout ace and dominant hurler. She had already rolled up 251 strikeouts for the year going into this championship. The problem, though, was that her teammates couldn't get a clutch hit when needed. And it wasn't from a lack of trying -- scratching out a run or two in games was tougher than solving the Rubik's cube. There were some threats on the team, but stringing hits together was a problem.

North's top hitters would be their battery, Anderson and all-around standout junior catcher Teresa Andreani, who, too, had built a strong reputation as a standout catcher in the state. The Mariners were coached by the venerable Becky Miller, the only head coach in the program's history and now in her 27th year as the team's leader. Her Mariners were winners of 13 of the last 15 games they played, losing only in the state tournament, 1-0, to Shawnee even though Anderson threw a no-hitter in the loss, and to Allentown in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals when Allentown forced North to play on the day of its prom, meaning some key Mariners did not make the trip to play.

North had not won anything during the season -- its inconsistent play allowed East to win the Shore Conference Class A South title and with the state and SCT gone, the only thing left to go after was the OCT.

And with a win over Central just over a month earlier, it seemed as if Anderson and the Mariners were going to roll to this championship.

But there was a reason why for years I called the Golden Eagles' program "Big Game Central." Most of the time, the Golden Eagles, whether under former coach Norm Selby or its current coach at the time, Joe Winkelried, found a way under the most flappable of situations to win a game it didn't have a chance to win. In 1994, the Golden Eagles rallied in the bottom of the seventh to beat Ocean Township and win an SCT semifinal game, eventually going on to the championship in what would be Selby's final game as coach. In 1996, against those same Ocean Township High Spartans, this time in the NJSIAA Group III semifinals, Ocean Township scored in the ninth inning to take a 4-3 lead, only to have the Golden Eagles rally for two runs in the bottom of the inning to advance to the title game ... which they would win against Paramus, 1-0, for Ocean County's state softball championship.

And, of course, there was the Houdini-like escape against Jackson Memorial in the previous OCT game. These Golden Eagles were proven gamers when needed, but they needed a title to make their season complete a year after a state championship. They didn't win the divisional title, and were eliminated by Lower Cape May in the state tournament and lost a heartbreaker in the SCT to St. John Vianney. The OCT was left.

Leading the way was their All-State center fielder, senior Cheryl Zellman, who was again having a great year and on her way to North Carolina-Pembroke on scholarship. But she had plenty of company who had been there, done that in three or four years as varsity players. There was catcher Kelly Honecker, the steady force behind the plate and, like Andreani, one of the best in the county. Jill Homage was a solid first baseman who can hit for average and anchor the base defensively. And there was Tice, the steady hand in the circle who had a lot to prove in the championship after Winkelried removed her in that game against Jackson Memorial when she didn't have her best in the seventh inning.

But there were other key players on the younger level -- like Penniman, best known for the RBI single that knocked in Zellman the year before leading Central to that 1-0 win over Paramus, and like Becky Barrett, a veteran left fielder with a good arm and a nice bat. For at least the first six hitters in the Golden Eagles' lineup, they were solid.

This title game on Toms River East's field, though, was much more than a second seed against a fourth seed. North felt like it was wronged in getting the fourth seed compared to the second seed Central got, considering it was that week of North's win over Central that the tournament was being seeded. And North wanted to take away whatever swagger Central had from all the years it dominated the county softball scene. The Mariners had something to prove on this night and Anderson was going to be the unstoppable force facing Central's immovable object.

In other words, something had to give.

The night of Thursday, June 5, 1997, started as a cool one in the upper 50s under bright, but sinking sunny skies. Before we got the game off the ground, I, as a co-director of the tournament along with East coach Debbie Schwartz, had put together a ceremony honoring the 1987 improbable Lacey High championship team as a 10th and last seed. The problem was that only three young ladies from that team along with coach Mike Shern showed up -- and Kathleen Hanlon threw out the first pitch, though it was suggested to me by one of the other young ladies that the number of people there that night from Lacey's team was so small that everyone should have thrown a first pitch.

It was on to the game at long last. I was working the public address system and official scorekeeping duties on one end of a table, while Brian Bender, a fantastic young man with a lot of potential in the communications business, got to work the scoreboard for me on the other end. From near behind the plate, the game was being taped and broadcast for a showing a week later by Adelphia-8 cable with Tripp Rogers and Sue Shilling, a former Lakewood High outfielder, doing the call.

The first inning for both pitchers were routine -- Tice got a groundout, line drive and foulout for a 1-2-3 inning, while Anderson got two comebackers and a strikeout for her bottom of the first.

In the top of the second, Anderson delivered a single to center field. Junior second baseman Nicolette Schellato bunted her up to second, putting Anderson in scoring position and giving North the first threat of the night. But back-to-back popouts to Penniman by Alyson Barnett and Kathy Acosta ended the threat.

The bottom of the second began with Penniman delivering an opposite-field single to right field. Then came the first key play of the night. Tice dropped down a bunt that third baseman Lisa Miller fielded and threw to Schellato covering first for the out. But no one was available to cover third and seeing that, Penniman didn't stop running until she got to third without a throw.

A big play for Central. A big mistake for North.

That brought up Honecker. She fell behind 0-2 in the count. Then defending herself at the plate, she barely got bat on ball. It trickled up the right side of the infield. It couldn't have been more than 12 feet. But Andreani wasn't coming out to get it and Anderson and Barnett weren't getting there fast enough to make a play at the plate. Penniman slid home easily with the run to give the Golden Eagles the 1-0 lead.

To this day, when I bring that hit up to Honecker, I've said it was the most effective 12-15 foot grounder hit by anyone in OCT history. She gets a laugh out of that.

Anderson would get strikeouts of Robin Pepper and Dawn Wilson to end the inning, but the Golden Eagles had a 1-0 lead.

And it was up to Tice to make it hold up. Robin Rusin would bloop a single to left field, but she would be forced out on a grounder by No. 9 hitter Tonilynn Trombino. Tice would get a strikeout of leadoff hitter Megan Clarey and a foulout by Lisa Miller.

Tice, a 20-game winner in back-to-back seasons as a junior and senior, wanted a defining game for her career. Though she was the Most Valuable Pitcher in the 1995 OCT title win over Jackson Memorial, it was an unmemorable 11-4 Golden Eagles win in which the Jaguars stumbled and fumbled their way to nine errors. And as a junior, she was the starting pitcher in the Group III championship on North's field against Paramus when a freak accident off a riseball foul that she deflected into her own mouth ripped her lip open in the top of the first inning and forced her out of the game. It was backup pitcher Pepper to the rescue in that one, throwing a two-hit shutout in that dramatic 1-0 win over Paramus.

This time, Tice was front and center ... and having to make amends for what happened in that previous game against Jackson Memorial. Her teammates got her off the hook and she delivered the game-winning hit in that one. Now she wanted to be the star in what was her last game.

After Rusin had reached in the third, Tice put the Mariners down by retiring 12 straight batters, including striking out the side in the top of the sixth inning.

But Anderson was matching Tice zero for zero, though the bottom of the third got interesting when the Golden Eagles got runners on second and third and two out. She struck out Penniman looking to end the frame. Two innings later, Zellman had reached on an error by Schellato at second and after stealing second and third, was left stranded there when Anderson reached back to strike out Homage and Becky Barrett. In the sixth, the Golden Eagles had gotten Penniman aboard on a walk. She stole second and one out later, was sacrificed to third by Honecker. But Pepper hit a comebacker to Anderson to end the inning.

Nonetheless, Central had held service after that second-inning run. Tice was unbelievable and was three outs away from finishing up Central Regional's record sixth county title. By this point, I can feel the anticipation of a huge celebration since the Golden Eagles fans were next to me on the first base side of the East field.

But for the Golden Eagles to finish things out, it had to start with getting out the dangerous, left-handed hitting Andreani, who I would come to find out was playing from the fifth inning on in the game with a broken finger after a Zellman foul ball. She has always been a part of my "all-tough team."

Tice got to 0-2 on Andreani by hitting the corners or where her good buddy Honecker was putting the glove down. But as she went to find another corner on North's No. 3 hitter, Tice missed her mark. Honecker knew it. And Andreani made her pay.

Andreani drilled a shot over new right fielder Meghan Barrett's head and on a field without a fence, Andreani could run all day. But Barrett was a faster runner than previous right fielder Pepper and that was what kept Andreani from an inside-the-park home run. Andreani was held up at third by Miller.

The table was set for North to tie this game and send it into the bottom of the seventh. Tice and Honecker needed to regroup. They had to get past Anderson first. Ticee worked the count to 2-2, then threw an outside fastball that was a borderline strike. Nevertheless, home plate umpire Rich Coleman called it a strike.

One out. Two to go.

Next up was Schellato, who was having a difficult night in the field. With an 0-2 count, Tice went to the corner on the outside part of the plate again. Coleman banged Schellato. Becky Miller was none too pleased and she came almost storming down from the third base box giving Coleman an ear full. Most umpires may have ejected her, but Coleman had an understanding ear and an even more giving demeanor. He let her have her say before she went back to her coaching box.

Two out. One to go.

By this point, Miller pointed to the bench and called on Kim McTamney to pinch-hit. Only a sophomore, she was now being asked to keep the game alive and get Andreani home from third to tie things up. Problem was Tice wasn't having anything of it.

First pitch, outside corner, strike one. Second pitch, outside corner, strike two. Central fans were fired up. You can almost feel that explosion and that the sixth title was in the Golden Eagles' grasp.

But on 0-2, Tice got too much of the plate. She knew it.

McTamney poked the ball just over Penniman's head and into left field for a base hit. Andreani scampered home. The euphoria was gone on Central's side. We were tied at 1-all. And though  Acosta grounded out to second baseman Wilson, it was a new game.

But Central had the last at-bat. Get a run and go home with the title. Pretty simple.

Sure! This was Lauren Anderson we're talking about. You think this stuff's easy?

Wilson tried to bunt her way on, but Anderson pounced on the bunt and threw a strike to Schellato covering the base for the first out. However, Tricia Friedman, the No. 9 hitter, was about to get on when her harmless grounder could not be swallowed up by Schellato -- her third error of the game -- giving the Golden Eagles the runner they needed to win the title.

Back to the top and the dangerous Zellman. She made hard contact with a first-pitch fastball and laced it into center field for a base hit, putting runners on first and second. That sent Homage up. She bunted. Andreani got the ball, but her throw to Miller at third base was too late to get Friedman.

Bases loaded, one out. And with No. 3 hitter Becky Barrett at the plate, it wasn't looking good for North. The Mariners would have to bring the infield in. Meanwhile, Winkelried was putting a much faster runner in at third base in freshman Amanda Smith to help force the issue with a play at the plate.

The count got to 1-1 on Barrett. Anderson threw the next pitch letter-high. Barrett made contact and hit a grounder to Schellato. She fielded the ball cleanly, then fired to Andreani at the plate.

It was a bang-bang play. Coleman had a difficult call to make.

He held his fist up and called Smith out at the plate. The broadcast of the game is something I still have to this day and I can tell you first-hand, it was so close, I wound up breaking that play down frame by frame. In the end -- and Coleman couldn't really see it because of how close it was -- Smith beat the throw home.

Well, Winkelried thought Smith beat the play at the plate and started celebrating like she was safe for a few seconds. Then he realized she was out and had the tough task of getting the other runners on the basepaths to get back to their bases.

And here's next why Andreani is one of the best catchers I've ever seen play the sport. The play at the plate was over -- but the play itself wasn't. Trying to find an advantage somewhere with the other runners, Andreani saw Zellman and chased her back to third (in all honesty, Andreani was not going to win a foot race with the speedy Zellman). But out of the corner of her eye, she saw Homage well off the bases. She reached out and touched Homage and North coaches and players went bananas claiming that Homage was out as well.

Once play finally stopped, Coleman grabbed his wife, Nancy, who was umpiring at third base, and Karen Hughes, who was at first base, and asked what they thought of the play and what they saw. When it was finally finished discussing, it was decided that not only was Smith out at the plate, but Homage was out, too, since no one had called timeout.

North had pulled off an unimaginable double play all because their studious catcher was thinking beyond the initial play.

Central fans were livid. I can still hear them to this day yelling at the umpires for the call. But there was nothing they could do. Turns out in the end, Homage was reacting to Winkelried's reaction of thinking Smith was safe at the plate. But no matter what Central may have argued, for the first time in the history of the OCT, the title game was going into extra innings at 1-all.

The seventh inning alone was exhausting. The teams had previously played an OCT game in 1993 -- and that game went a record 15 innings before North beat the defending champion Golden Eagles that night at Point Pleasant Boro High School, 7-4. That thought started creeping into my head as 9:30 p.m. rolled around.

Remember, immovable object versus the unstoppable force?

Tice, though, didn't have any troubles in the eighth inning, unlike the seventh. She got a groundout, popup and a flyout for a 1-2-3 inning.

Anderson struck out Penniman for the second time in the game to begin the bottom of the eighth. But Tice hit a popup that should've been the second out. And to make a bad night worse, Schellato had difficulty with a little bit of a swirling wind and dropped the ball for an error.

It was her OCT finals-record fourth error of the night, tying a mark first set by another North second baseman, Lesley Gertner, in the 1991 final against Brick. And by now, Central's fans, who were over by the first base side -- well, mainly the students -- were giving Schellato a hard time. And someone must have said something because from the corner of my eye, I can see Schellato giving the "We're No. 1" sign to the fans with a different finger. Hughes had to call timeout and tell the fans to knock it off, reminding them there's still sportsmanship involved in this event.

After getting Honecker to strike out, Anderson uncorked a wild pitch, moving Tice to second. On a 1-1 pitch, Meghan Barrett bunted beautifully away from any North fielders and beat it out, putting runners on first and third with two outs. Barrett advanced to second on the first pitch to Wilson. But there was no thought of putting Wilson on base to load the bases for Friedman ... Anderson was coming after her. She got the count to 2-2, then got one to the outside part of the plate that Wilson laid off of that Coleman called a strike, the third time Wilson got caught looking on a strikeout, giving Anderson 13 Ks for the night and moving the game along to the ninth.

Tice got Miller out to start the ninth, once again bringing up Andreani. And let's just say Honecker wasn't going to allow Andreani to play a role in a possible North title. Four straight balls, none even close to the plate.

Andreani was on base on the unintentional intentional walk. Anderson hit a comebacker to Tice that got Andreani to second with two outs. But Schellato, already having a rough game, popped out to Penniman to end the frame.

It was at that time, I started looking at who was coming up. Friedman was to start the inning. Then it was Zellman, then Homage and Barrett. I felt like if Central was to try to win the game, this was the opportunity to do so. And on top of things, it was getting a bit colder as temperatures that started in the upper 50s had gone down into the upper 40s on this early June night. I think anyone who was there, even in light coats or jackets, were feeling the chill at this point.

But for a cold as the weather got, Anderson was still bringing the heat. She delivered a heat-blower that Friedman barely got a bat on and hit a grounder to Schellato, who cleanly fielded it and threw to Barnett for the first out of the inning.

And now it was Zellman's turn at the plate. Like Tice with Andreani, Anderson wasn't going to give Zellman any cookies to spray throughout the field. She went low on the first three pitches, one even clanging off the backstop, to get the count to 3-0. On the next pitch, a borderline outside delivery, Coleman called a strike. I can hear the Central parents at that point complaining about that pitch and that it should've been a ball. But nothing was automatic.

Still, a 3-1 pitch is a great hitter's pitch. And it was on this pitch that years later, Zellman told me that the ball was "a little bit up and a little bit inside ... and just right."

The left-handed hitting Zellman clocked it like no one had all night against Anderson. The moment Zellman rocked Anderson's offering, all I can see was center fielder Trombino having to turn her back and race after the ball. She gave a valiant effort into chasing the ball down on the fenceless field. But Zellman was a bit faster than most of Central's hitters. She got to second, then to third.

And Winkelried wasn't slowing her down. He was sending her home, not wanting this game to go any further than it already had.

Trombino put a perfect relay throw to Acosta. Acosta in turn, threw a one-hopper to the plate as Zellman came sliding in to Andreani. The ball bounced past Andreani and to the backstop as Zellman slid in.

And it was over. In the most dramatic way you can imagine, Zellman's inside-the-park home run had given the Golden Eagles the 2-1 victory and their sixth OCT title. And I will forever hear Tripp Rogers' voice on that play for as long as I live:

"Three-one pitch <crack> ... BELTED! Center field, over the head of Trombino! Zellman, rounding first on her way to second. Zellman, rounding third on her way home. Cheryl Zellman! Play at the plate! She's in! With a home run! And Central has won the OCT in 1997! And look at the players surrounding Cheryl Zellman!"

Twenty years later, it is still the most dramatic play in OCT championship game history in what is still the greatest final ever played. Central players celebrated jumping on top of each other. North players came off the field like it was the slowest version of the Bataan death march ever. I can still see Trombino balling her eyes out with Anderson trying to console her.

The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat -- it's always what makes sports great. At 9:51 p.m., it was over. Now it was time to give out the awards for the tournament. I was given Rogers' other mike along with the one I used for the tournament to make the announcements for both the fans and the Adelphia-8 broadcast. First came North's second-place individual trophies and team award. Then came Central Regional's individual and team first-place honors.

And then came the individual honors for the tournament. All of them went to Central Regional: Zellman was the top hitter of the event at .533 (8-for-15), Honecker had no errors in earning defensive player of the tournament honors, Tice, who had something to prove that night and did, won the Most Valuable Pitcher honor, though North fans -- including assistant coach Mary Ellen Tutzauer -- had a right to protest since Anderson had struck out 41 batters in her three tournament games and brought up Tice's less-than-stellar effort in that Jackson Memorial game.

But there was no doubt on the OCT Most Valuable Player honor -- how many players say they ended their careers by hitting a home run in their final at-bat? Cheryl Zellman could and she walked away with yet another piece of hardware for the tournament.

It was 10:20 p.m. and I still had to get back to the office and write this amazing game up. I did it in just about an hour and we got out before the 12:30 a.m. deadline like we normally did.

This game is 20 years old, and to me, it still stands the test of time among great games. The sights and sounds I won't ever forget. Nor will I forget that wacky but amazing double play that sent the game to extra innings or that 12-foot RBI single or that RBI single on 0-2 with the game on the line.

Or that home run that decided the championship. I still have a copy of the video somewhere that one day I want to make into a DVD. I just can't find anyone that can do it for me.

I want people to see that amazing game. It really does stand the test of time.

The Central-North championship was entertaining and memorable, everything it promised it would be.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Left standing in the on-deck circle

The beauty of a game featuring the seventh and 10th seeds of a tournament is that you have two teams fairly close in talent facing off with another.

The ugliness of a game featuring the seventh and 10th seeds of a tournament, though, is the game is going to be far from talent-driven.

In other words, it's an intriguing game, but the old standard line is "you know what you're paying for."

On Saturday, May 9, 1987, I wasn't paying to see seventh-seeded Lakewood host 10th-seeded Lacey in the opening round of the seventh annual (and as it turned out, the most bizarre ever) Ocean County Softball Tournament. But I knew this was a game featuring two young clubs. There were very few seniors on either team, but I knew who the star senior was on both teams.

For Lacey High, the visitors on the scoreboard, it was all-everything shortstop Kathleen Hanlon. She had a very good bat and could make key plays in the field. It was her third year on varsity and she was ready to shine in this, her senior year.

For Lakewood High, there was Carol Walters -- and then there was everyone else in Ocean County. One of the most dominant players to ever set foot on a softball field, the shortstop was the glue to holding the Piners together. As a sophomore, she helped lead the Piners to the county championship game, one the Piners lost, 8-3, to Toms River South. And she was having a great senior year altogether, winning 24 matches as a second singles player in tennis to make All-County, then leading the Piners as the team's point guard to a second NJSIAA South Jersey Group III girls basketball championship in three years.

By this point, she had popped four home runs in her season. Against straight-throwing junior pitcher Tiffany Boczkus, I couldn't imagine the damage she might do in this morning game.

Boczkus led Lacey's Kiddie Brigade that included a sophomore first baseman (Debbie Lynch), a freshman second baseman (Denise Lucas), a freshman third baseman (Patty Brilly), a sophomore left fielder (Janene Spitaletto), and a sophomore center fielder (Andrea Arminio).

The Lions were 5-10 going into the game, too, but had won three straight to begin the process of transitioning into the future for third-year coach Mike Shern. There was going to be no other postseason action for the Lions. So if they were to make a late-season impression, the county tournament was it. Only one other time did the Lions make a final -- that was in 1982 as a first-year program with players who had played for Central Regional coming in to a new school. That year, the Lions were a 10th seed as well. They fell in the final to top-seeded and experienced Toms River South, 10-3.

But other than being a 10th seed in this year's tournament, that was about the only comparison you could find between those two Lacey teams.

Lakewood was a little older, though most of its starters were juniors. One of those juniors was pitcher Kelley Edwards. She was hot and cold as a pitcher. When she was on, she would get strikes and get outs. When she wasn't on, she'd issue walks like it was a holiday and innings would seemingly go on for quite some time.

Game time on this particular morning was 11 o'clock. I left at just before 10 to head over to the field, listening to American Top 40 on WJRZ-FM, the first song being the only two debut hits in the countdown that week -- Smokey Robinson's first hit in five years, "Just To See Her" at No. 40, and the Miami-based dance act Company B debuting at No. 39 with "Fascinated."

Oh, the little things you remember.

I arrived at Wilbur Thompson Field somewhere around 10:15 in the morning on a sunny day where the weather was slowly warming up. I can still see Lakewood assistant coach Bob Sattan warming up his Piners and most of them having trouble with grounders, the outfielders struggling with pop-ups to them. Only Carol Walters was gobbling grounders up without much problem and making precision throws to first baseman Angie Gately.

Before they warmed up, I watched Shern warm up with his Lions. They weren't all that much better out there on grounders, flyballs and popups, but hey, they made plays. If they did this in a game, they had a good shot at winning this darn thing and moving along in the tourney.

Minutes before the game, coaches Shern and Lakewood head man Dave McKelvey met at home plate, discussed the ground rules on the spacious Thompson Field and just after 11 o'clock, the game began. My view was over next to the Lakewood bench on the first-base side of the field.

The Lions were going to be hitting first. This was the first time I would be seeing both teams play this season. When you're not all that good, it's rare I get to see you play in person. But this is the tournament, so I get to see a lot of games in it.

The game started out normally with leadoff hitter Boczkus reaching on a walk, only to be erased at second on a Hanlon grounder to Walters for a forceout. But Spitaletto delivered a triple to the left-center field gap and Hanlon scored to make it 1-0. A Lynch grounder to Shayna Busto was mishandled and Spitaletto scored to make it 2-0.

It was only going to get worse -- Debbie D'Allesandro, the only other senior on the Lacey team along with Hanlon, singled to right-center to send Lynch to third. Lucas hit a squib shot that Edwards picked up and threw wildly to first for an error, allowing Lynch and D'Allesandro to score. A wild pitch moved Lucas to third and Armino walked to put runners on the corners. Sue Spitaletto, Janene's older sister, hit a grounder that Busto ranged up the middle to get, then threw to Walters at second for the forceout, which allowed Lucas to score. A groundout by Brilly finally ended the inning with Lacey holding a 5-0 lead.

Things seemed OK when Boczkus retired Edwards on a groundout to Hanlon to start the game. But up stepped Walters. The left-handed hitting standout took a 1-0 pitch to the outside part of the plate and drilled it to the left-center field gap. On that field, the ball could roll all day and it seemingly did as by the time Spitaletto got the ball, Walters had reached third and was cruising in with an inside-the-park home run, cutting the lead to 5-1.

It didn't stop there, though. Busto singled, Gately walked and Sue Shilling singled to load the bases. Sophomore catcher Robin White was ready to get Lakewood back into the game. But she hit a two-hopper to Boczkus, who threw to Sue Spitaletto at the plate to get Busto. Michele Morgan hit a grounder that Hanlon grabbed and tagged Shilling on her way to third to end the threat.

In the top of the second, the Lions were going to continue what they started against Edwards. Boczkus laced a triple to right-center field to begin the frame. Edwards then had a hard time finding the plate, walking Hanlon and Janene Spitaletto to load the bases. Lynch, though, hit a comebacker to Edwards, who threw to White to get the force of Boczkus at the plate.

But D'Allesandro walked and in came Hanlon. Edwards found the plate long enough to strike out Lucas for the second out, but she needed to get Armino next.

Nope. She walked her on a 3-2 pitch and in came Spitaletto to make it 7-1. Then to make matters worse, Sue Spitaletto singled to right field to bring in Lynch and D'Allesandro, making it 9-1. Once again, No. 9 hitter Brilly made the last out of the inning on a pop-out, but even on a field that had no working on scoreboard, even Lakewood knew there was concern down 9-1 in the second inning.

But Kris Simon singled, then Jackie Shaw walked. Both moved up on a wild pitch and leadoff hitter Edwards walked to load the bases.

Bases loaded ... and here comes Carol Walters to the plate. You can imagine that sick, awful feeling Mike Shern was having at that moment. On another 1-0 pitch, Walters lofted a flyball to center field that Armino was going to haul in and make the catch.

Nope. She dropped the ball. Simon and Shaw scored, Edwards got to third and Walters ended up on second on the error that kept her from having a perfect day at the plate. (This was a point of consternation between McKelvey and I for a time because one thing I've never done unless I'm absolutely 100-percent sure is to "assume" something will happen. I've never given an automatic sacrifice fly, plain and simple, on something like that.)

Well there went the chance of an out. Busto singled to right to score both Edwards and Walters and it was 9-5. After Gately popped out for the first out of the inning, Shilling hit a grounder that ate Brilly up alive, putting runners on first and third. A wild pitch followed to bring home Busto. After a walk to White, McKelvey had his two runners pull off the double steal, which they did successfully, allowing Shilling to score. It was 9-7. A wild pitch sent White to third, a walk to Morgan and a single by Simon suddenly made it 9-8.

And there was still one out. Lakewood wasn't done yet. But in one pitch, the Piners were done as Shaw hit a soft liner at Brilly, then threw to Lucas at second to double off Morgan when she forgot how many out there were.

Oops. Still, Lakewood was back in the game at 9-8. It was a game again, but I wanted sanity restored. I mean c'mon ... it' 9-8 and it's two innings into the game! By the end of this one, it was truly stated these two teams belonged with one another.

My hope for a quick half-inning came in the top of the third as Edwards got a strikeout of Boczkus and two flyballs to left field within nine pitches for a 1-2-3 inning.

After Edwards struck out to start the bottom of the third, Walters singled to right. And as expected, she stole second, then third without much of a challenge. After a pop-out and a walk to Gately, who stole second soon after, Shilling singled to left field to score both runners.

Remember that 9-1 Lacey lead? Yeah, it got wiped out with Lakewood leading, 10-9, after three innings.

The Lions put runners on first and second with no outs, but a Lucas bunt attempt was snagged by White, who threw to Gately to double off D'Allesandro at first, then Armino grounded out to Gately to end the inning.

Another zero inning for the Lions. And the Piners were feeling things swaying their way. Morgan led off the fourth by reaching on a throwing error by Hanlon. Singles by Simon and Edwards with one out loaded the bases ... for you know who.

One again, Walters ripped the first pitch she saw -- a 1-1 straight fastball to right field to score Morgan and Simon, making it 12-9. The throw to get Simon at the plate was late and allowed the runners to move up a base. This was important because Busto delivered a single to center that scored the two runners, making it 14-9.

Boczkus got Gately and Shilling on grounders, but I was just dumbfounded. The Piners had gone from being down 9-1 to up 14-9 with three innings left. This shouldn't have happened, but it showed me why these Lions were so inconsistent all year. Inconsistency, as they say, is the sign of a young team trying to find its way.

But just when it seemed like the Lions were ready to be counted out, they found their second wind in the top of the fifth against Edwards. Sue Spitaletto walked and Brilly singled her to second. Edwards once again found her pitches not finding the strike zone when needed. She walked Boczkus on a 3-2 pitch, then walked Hanlon on a 3-1 delivery to force in Spitaletto. Things were about to become worse as Janene Spitaletto got a hold of a 1-0 pitch and drilled it to the gap for a triple to bring in Brilly, Boczkus and Hanlon.

Lakewood 14, Lacey 13. Two pitches later, Lynch lined a shot down the right-field line. It seemed to take forever for Simon to retrieve the ball. By the time she got it, Lynch rounded the bases for a two-run home run and just like that ... Lacey was back on top of this insane game, 15-14.

And the inning still wasn't close to being over. D'Allesandro walked. White noticed D'Allesandro coming off the base and threw quickly down to Gately, who got the runner in a rundown before Walters made the tag for the first out of the inning. That was just a momentary stop. Lucas walked and moved to second on a comebacker by Armino. It was Sue Spitaletto's turn to become the next Spitaletto to deliver a triple, which she did to the left-center field gap to score Lucas, making it 16-14. Things might have been even worse if Edwards didn't catch Brilly's line drive at her face for the final out of the inning.

Though it took 14 pitches, Boczkus finally had her first 1-2-3 inning in the game with a comebacker, strikeout and groundball to keep Lacey's 16-14 lead.

This game was already two hours and 10 minutes old, and I just didn't know what else to expect at this point.

The top of the sixth began with Edwards issuing her unreal 13th and 14th walks of the game to Boczkus and Hanlon. But Hanlon hit a hard-shot, one-hopper that Shaw gobbled up, stepped on third, then threw to first to complete a double play. But that opened a base up for Hanlon, which she stole. Lynch hit a groundball to the sure-handed Walters ... except for this moment where the hop on Lakewood's field flummoxed her and she couldn't pick the ball cleanly. The error allowed Hanlon to score and Lacey had a 17-14 lead with six outs to get.

But guess who was hitting third in the inning? Yeah, I can look across the field at Shern being very stoic, but I can tell his stomach was turning again. No. 9 hitter Shaw walked to start the inning, but Brilly got an Edwards grounder and threw to Lucas at second to get the force.

At least Walters was not walking to the plate as the tying run, a relief for all those on the Lacey side. On a 2-0 deliver, though, Walters reminded Boczkus and everyone there why she was the best softball player in the county -- she drilled a shot over Armino's head. By the time Armino tracked the ball down, it didn't matter. Walters had just hit her second inside-the-park home run on that gigantic Thompson Park field and the Piners were down 17-16. Busto flied out, but Gately walked and stole second, putting the tying run in scoring position.

Shilling gave a 2-0 offering a ride to center field. Thought she may have gotten it all, but it hung up there too long. Armino tracked down the flyball to end the inning.

Most of us were pretty exhausted after six innings. And with the lead being a run, the intrigue was only going to build up as the seventh inning began. But for that to happen, Edwards needed a shut-down inning. There was no getting around that fact.

And so when she walked Lucas to start the seventh -- her 15th walk of the game -- it was going to be far from smooth sailing. A wild pitch -- only the second of the game as White had done a terrific job catching Edwards throughout the game -- moved Lucas to second. After Armino popped out, Sue Spitaletto sent a flyball to right field. Simon was under it ... but dropped the ball, Lakewood's fourth error of the game. Having to wait to see what would happen, Lucas could only advance to third. Brilly then grounded out to Busto, allowing Lucas to score and pinch-runner Sue Peters to get to second.

But just as it looked as if the Piners may get out of this down two runs, Boczkus hit a grounder that Gately had trouble gathering for Lakewood's fifth error of the game. Worse, a throwing error on the play by Edwards (the sixth error) allowed Peters to come home, making it a 19-16 game.

Hanlon grounded out to Walters to end the inning at long last, but the Piners were going to have to work harder than they anticipated in the bottom of the seventh.

Then again, this game allowed for very little to be easy. Boczkus, having throw 113 pitches going into the bottom of the seventh, just needed to have a nice, tidy inning and the victory would be all hers, giving Lacey a quarterfinal-round date with second-seeded Monsignor Donovan.

Nice and tidy, though was asking a whooooooole bunch. White began the bottom of the inning with a base hit to right field. Morgan hit a nice shot into the hole between third base and shortstop that Hanlon was able to glove and throw to Lucas to get the forceout on White. When Boczkus struck out Simon in just three pitches, the victory seemed finally within reach for the Lions.

Little did Boczkus and her teammates realize that the finish line was a much longer distance than they thought. Shaw roped a triple to left field over Janene Spitaletto's head. Morgan scored and the lead was two runs.

And the top of the lineup was coming around for the sixth time in this wild one. It was up to Edwards to continue this game. She had to come through. If she did, guess who was coming up?

So Boczkus had no choice -- get Kelley Edwards and get the heck off the field for the last time or possibly suffer the consequences of one last duel with Walters, who had tattooed the ball all morning and afternoon to 4-for-5 with five runs scored and five RBI, including two home runs.

Sometimes, the line between success and failure is paper-thin. So Boczkus did all she could to get the ball to the plate, but had worked the count to 3-2. I can still see Walters in the on-deck circle, taking her swings and watching the action intently. On what would be her 127th pitch of the day, Boczkus forced Edwards to hit a grounder at Hanlon. Hanlon scooped the ball up and threw a strike to the left-handed Lynch at first.

The umpire put up his fist to designate the "out" call.

It was over in three hours and seven minutes. Lacey had escaped with a 19-17 victory in what was at that time the highest-scoring OCT game in history. There were 36 runs, 23 hits, nine errors and 23 walks. Amazingly, there were no hit batsmen.

McKelvey lamented about the errors in this one that cost his team a trip to the next round of the tournament. "That's been the problem all season long," he told me afterward. "To me, there's just so much inexperience where we give four-five outs an inning."

Shern was just happy to escape Lakewood's home field without having to face Walters one more time.

"I told Tiffany that we needed to get people out in the seventh," he said. "If we didn't get them out, we were in trouble. And in a situation involving Carol Walters, I'd put my money on her. She most likely would've ended the game."

Years later when I retold the quote to McKelvey, he scoffed at the idea that Walters would be able to beat Lacey by herself and in that at-bat. "With an open base, I would've walked her and taken my chances. I wouldn't have let Carol beat me at that point."

But I reminded McKelvey that Busto, the next hitter, was 3-for-5 with four RBI in the game.

"I'd still take my chances on her before I take my chances on Carol Walters."

Of course, we'll never know since Boczkus got the out that was most important -- the last one.

And little did I know that when Lacey won this game, they were about to venture off on a journey that would see them stun one team after another. I've said this is maybe the most bizarre OCT in its history. Only 10 out of the 15 county schools entered that year (Toms River North was noticeably absent because they played a tournament in Pemberton and couldn't have too many games on their schedule going in, though honestly, I never bought that excuse for one moment. Let's just say there was internal strife between two coaches in that year's event.), and with Lacey as the last seed, not many teams took these Lions seriously.

But then came the shocker of the tournament -- Lacey beat seemingly unbeatable Donovan, 15-8, in eight innings to move to the semifinal round, where the Lions won another wild one, 13-12, over sixth-seeded Toms River South to reach the final. In the final against fifth-seeded Toms River East, the Lions prevailed, 7-5, to win what would be their first and only OCT championship, scoring 54 runs in four games, still an OCT record for one tournament to this day.

The Lions ran off an eight-game winning streak at the end of the season to finish at .500 at 10-10. It was a nice way to end the season.

For the Piners, the clock was winding down in the amazing Carol Walters' career. Who knows exactly how far they could have gotten if she had been able to get to the plate one more time? McKelvey would be Lakewood's head coach until resigning after the 1993 season. Shern coached the Lions for 28 seasons, retiring from teaching after the 2009-10 school year. He'd take the Lions to two more OCT championship games, but both would end up in losses to Toms River East in 1994, 9-5, and in 2007, 2-0, as Lyndsey PeQueen tossed the first championship game no-hitter.

Little did I know that in 1987, though, this first game of that year's OCT would set the tone for the rest of the event.

It was beautifully ugly ... and definitely worth remembering.