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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.

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