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Thursday, March 30, 2017

"Guess Ocean County College is going to the nationals this year"

If you ever attended Ocean County College and you knew the sports scene fairly well, you knew within a nanosecond that the "rival" school resided in the county above at Brookdale Community College.

And there was no question that when it came to that rivalry, there was no rivalry in some sports.

That included softball. No matter who coached at OCC, the Vikings were always second-best to the Blues, who became more of a national power in the rankings because of coach Bo Scannapieco. The man knew his stuff, and success leads to good players coming aboard to help the program. He rightfully established a power at Brookdale by the early 1990s. Not many teams could beat them and, soon, the Blues were going off to the Division III JUCO national tournament (Division III is for non-scholarship players, so a coach has to be a great schmoozer to bring players into the fold).

OCC, too, had a great schmoozer as coach. He was Dick Strada, one of the most colorful and enjoyable people I have ever known in my 30-plus years of sports journalism. Need something from him, he could get that to you in an instant. Had him for one semester as a teacher. Brilliant time I had learning from him. He coached OCC's ice hockey and was Toms River High School East's first ice hockey coach. I never got to cover his Viking teams playing hockey, but I got to cover East in hockey, especially in his best year with the program, 1988-89.

Dick Strada had a way of answering a question. You ask it, he'd take a moment to formulate the answer, then in a soft-spoken manner, he'd come up with something that was both relevant and sarcastic.

In other words, he was an absolute joy for a young reporter.

But when OCC's athletic department ended the hockey program in 1989 when few teams played the sport then, Strada needed another outlet beside East's hockey team. So when the head softball coaching job opened after Joe Riccio stepped down in 1989, he took it on. And though the Vikings were good, they were nowhere near as good as what Scannapieco put together at Brookdale. They were a penthouse compared to OCC's nice townhouse.

Then things changed in 1991 when Ocean County had one of its greatest softball seasons ever. Most of that talent would go off to play college somewhere else, but before they did that, they took on a group of college players in a charity all-star game in July 1991 in Lavallette and the high school players killed the college players in that game, the college team coached by Strada.

Scannapieco was able to get some of that Ocean County talent to wander toward him at Brookdale, recruiting Lakewood High's talented duo of shortstop Addie Dix and center fielder Jen Cranley and standout Brick High pitcher Viki Kara along with Green Dragon teammate Kerry LaPlata. Teamed with some talented Monmouth County players, Brookdale was once again a force for the next couple of seasons.

But something happened before the 1993 season. OCC, which had been building a decent program under Strada, suddenly brought in key cogs. One was Lacey High catcher Silvia Cacoilo, a first-team all-county player.  Strada was also able to make Cacoilo, who could play any position if need be, an outfielder. Then they brought in a talented shortstop in Joie-lin Scott from Brick Memorial High. And they got a nice gift that year when two standout players from that Class of '91 transferred in, Kelly Arnold, who had gone to a small school that wasn't her fit, and Heather Richards, who moved back to Ocean County after one year at the University of Delaware.

Richards pitched Toms River North to a huge 1991 season, including championship game spots in the Ocean County and NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tournaments. Arnold was a first-team All-State catcher from Toms River East, who had to do a whole bunch of everything when the Raiders were just 5-19 in '91.

Now Strada had a credible catcher and a credible pitcher. And that could be trouble for any opponent ... even big, bad Brookdale.

But before the season began, Strada had an immediate issue -- Cacoilo was having trouble with her college courses and was razor-thin close to being declared academically ineligible. But as Cacoilo would put it herself, "All those extra hours of tutoring paid off. I had to take so many tests just to make up the grade."

And it so happens that Brookdale was right there on OCC's schedule for the third game of the season. The Vikings had won their first two games, and that was a game talked about among Vikings players, including the new players, since the schedule had been revealed.

However, one thing was getting in the way of this matchup for Tuesday, March 30, 1993 -- the weather. For three days, it had rained practically non-stop and that was after our part of the country had recovered from an ugly Nor'easter. Just two days earlier in the awful, rainy weather, my mom and I attended the funeral of one of my high school friends, murdered at his job in cold blood.

On this particular Tuesday -- yup, you got it ... rain. But there was a window in the forecast that the rain was going to stop and stop long enough to drain out whatever was still remaining on Brookdale's field. The game started at 3:30, but it wasn't until noon when the final verdict had come down to play the game.

Having to rent a car at this point because of an accident to the bottom of my car that put a hole in a part of it and not seeing it for a week, my rental and I got to Lincroft safely to Brookdale's field. I parked in a spot beyond the outfield, so I walked in from there, grabbed my lineups for both teams and sat in the stands on the OCC side.

That's when I heard about the "incentive" the Viking players had going into this game from Strada. He happened to have a copy of the Star-Ledger with him. In a story involving Brookdale's team, Scannapieco proudly touted his team, saying that if a team is better than his, "they're going to nationals because this is the best team we've ever had here."

These Lady Vikings were going to do all they can to take this man to task, a man they were far from fond of, as well as Strada, who is as down to earth as you will ever meet in a person.

But to do that, they had to break Kara. A Kara-Richards matchup was a big thing in 1991 -- they met each other four times that season and Kara beat Richards and the Mariners three times, including the Ocean County championship game, 9-2.

The Vikings had an early threat against Kara, loading the bases with two outs. But Kara wriggled out of it with a forceout.

Then came the third inning. A half-inning after Richards had nailed Kara with a pitch, Kara nailed Richards with a pitch to start the inning. A wild pitch moved Richards to second, but Kara got her composure under her by striking out Scott and Arnold. Two outs and it left it up to cleanup hitter Cacoilo. Kara threw an outside pitch to Cacoilo, who in all her years of high school ball had never faced her before.

Turns out Cacoilo liked outside pitches ... a lot! She took the offering to right field for a base hit. Strada sent Richards home and the Vikings had a 1-0 lead.

Meanwhile, Richards continued to handle her work in the circle the way she handled it while she was the Mariners' standout pitcher at North -- businesslike without any gestures. She loved having close friend Kim Niedzwicki behind the play at North for two years, but she had a calm presence behind the plate in the confident Arnold, one of the best catchers I've ever seen play the position.

The Vikings kept it at 1-0 going to the bottom of the fourth when the Blues put on a rally. Karyn Ippolito and Deana Ivanicki both singled with one out, and once again, Richards had to face her opposite number, Kara. She got the count to 2-2, then got her to chase a bad pitch for strike three. It left it up to Terry Johnson. Once again at two strikes, Richards had Johnson chase a pitch she should not have been chasing.

Strike three. Inning over.

Viking players were pumped, but Richards had to reassure them they still had three more innings left.

That's because Kara wasn't allowing the Vikings a whole lot either. In the top of the fifth, though, the Vikings threatened to put the game away. Arnold reached on a walk and that brought up Cacoilo, who was 2-for-2 at this point against Kara. Another outside pitch and Cacoilo roped it to the right-center field gap. Arnold was legging it out as best as she can and Strada was not afraid to send her home. It took two fantastic throws, the first one to Dix, now the Blues' second baseman, and the second one from Dix to catcher Marya Moore, to nail Arnold and keep it a 1-0 game.

Meanwhile, Richards kept the Blues down and off the scoreboard. In the bottom of the sixth, the Blues had another rally with runners on first and second and two outs. And, again, Richards went to what worked for her, getting Johnson out on strikes for the third time in the game to end the inning.

Scannapieco, meanwhile, kept his cool in what was a truly tremendous game. One more inning. Something could happen.

And it did.

Rene Haskamp, one of Richards' North teammates who was in her second year with the program, started the inning by getting hit by Kara. Back to the top of the lineup where Richards, too, was plunked by Kara, her third hit batsmen of the game. Kara's wildness continued when she walked Scott to load the bases.

Kara settled in to strike out Arnold for the third time this day. But who was it coming up next? Yup, Cacoilo. By now, Scannapieco was on to Cacoilo, so he shaded his outfield toward right, but keeping the infield in their normal spots. This was huge because this time, Cacoilo hit a rocket just past Kara and into center field for a base hit, easily scoring Haskamp. But when Cranley had issues picking up the ball on a somewhat wet field for an error, Richards scored.

It was 3-0, more than enough for Richards to seal the deal in the bottom of the inning.

These ladies from OCC were fired up more going into the last frame. Richards got one out, but Moore reached on an error and Cranley singled. Dix walked to load the bases. And Ippolito, one of Brookdale's biggest threats, came to the plate. She got a hold of Richards pitch and belted it to right field. Cacoilo kept chasing it back and finally settled under it, catching it for the mere sacrifice fly to give Brookdale its first run.

But the Blues were down to one out, and Richards induced Terry Patterson into a flyball to none other than the star of the show on this dreary Tuesday afternoon. Cacoilo secured the flyball out and Vikings players celebrated the 3-1 win as if they just won Game 7 of the World Series.

Not to knock the importance of the game. It was Strada's first-ever win over Brookdale and it was the Vikings' first win over Brookdale in a long, long time. The players gave Strada a Gatorade water bath afterward.

Kara finished the game by scattering seven hits – four of those by Cacoilo – and struck out 10 Vikings. But she was out-dueled by Richards in one of the best performances I ever saw her pitch. Richards scattered five hits, walked four and struck out seven and delivered grace under pressure a number of times.

Seizing on the opportunity to talk about the quote by Brookdale's coach, Richards said afterward, "I think he underestimated us. I think he figured, 'Oh yeah, Ocean County. Who cares if they have a couple of good players?' I think we proved we're a clutch team and we can hit off of good pitching. And I think he spoke a little too soon."

Brookdale's players and coaches disappeared pretty quickly after that loss. OCC players and Strada celebrated before the lights got turned out and they headed back to Toms River.

For one shining moment, though, OCC had the better of Brookdale with some of the best players I ever saw play battling it out on Brookdale's field. And as I pointed out in my lead when I pointed out Scannapieco's original comment in the Star-Ledger, my next line was much-needed.

"Guess Ocean County College is going to the nationals this year."

"I was nervous. I thought I was going to start biting on my sleeve," Strada admitted afterward. "Brookdale has been the nemesis, the team to beat, and we finally did it."

The Vikings did have a nice season under Strada, but not good enough to play in the nationals, though. Brookdale continues to have a dominant program under Scannapieco all these years later. Kudos for continuing what he started, kind of like Geno Auriemma with the UConn women's basketball program.

But I always go back to that Tuesday afternoon in late March 1993. Because it was that day, the rivalry really did have meaning.