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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.

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