By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

"When the best play the best, it is not just a game, but an exercise in human exploration."

-- David Halberstam

The 4,000 fans in the stands at Lions Stadium, on the campus of The College of New Jersey, knew they were going to see a field hockey game the morning of Nov. 23, 1997.

Few knew that, because of ensuing events, that nobody else would get to see the game.

The game pitting Allentown (N.J.) against North Caldwell West Essex (N.J.) for the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association's (NJSIAA) Group II championship, went on so long -- three overtimes -- that the game was never shown on the statewide cable network station.

In essence, it could be called the greatest game never seen, but tell that to the fans in the stands -- the knowledgable West Essex fans used to statewide success, and the Allentown minions who came to see if the field hockey team would be the first from the region encompassing Upper Freehold, Cream Ridge, Millstone, New Egypt, and the borough of Allentown to win a state championship.

What makes this particular game the greatest of the 1990s was not just the quality of play or the drama on the field. Instead, the 1997 Group III final had it all: courage, self-discovery, contrast. The contrasts come from the two opposing teams and their cities.

West Essex was a team that had won four state championships in the six seasons previous to the 1997 season. West Essex was a team which had it all: tradition, self-motivation, and numerous scholastic and collegiate All-Americans.

The West Essex program had all the necessary support systems for long-term success: a feeder program, indoor play during the winter, a school administration willing to do anything to ensure success.

The interesting factor in 1997 was a new head coach. Linda Alimi, who had posted some 459 wins at the school, had retired. She had, however, prepared for the coaching change. During the search, she made a call to nearby Kean University.

"Linda called me that February about the job and suggested that I apply, and they really took a gamble on me since she only knew me from other people," said Jill Cosse, who was a multiple All-American at Trenton State College. "But not only did I get a teaching position, I also got the coaching job."

Cosse's job was not an easy one, replacing a legend and trying to maintain Alimi's level of amazing success.

Allentown, on the other hand, was a perpetual bridesmaid. For the previous fifteen seasons, Allentown had found all sorts of ways to lose important games, despite regular-season excellence. Overtime penalty strokes, last-minute fades, shootout losses. One especially painful loss, an overtime defeat at the hands of West Long Branch Shore Regional (N.J.), even resulted in the rewrite of a section of the National Federation field hockey rule book.

But in 1993, MaryEllen Clemencich came to the school's head-coaching position. After a couple of years of difficulty, her toughness, humor, and positive reinforcement style of coaching began to reap dividends.

It was getting to the point where the Redbird program was ready to wreak revenge on anyone that crossed them. That year would be 1997.

Both Allentown and West Essex had few problems in their regular-season contests. The teams were pretty much injury-free, and won games handily within their divisions.

Allentown's season came to an important crossroads in October with the finals of the Shore Conference Tournament. The SCT is an invitational single-elimination tournament playing off the best 16 teams (out of about 35 in the conference) over the last weeks of the regular season.

The final would be contested the last week of October, and the opponent would be the Redbirds' long-time nemesis, Shore Regional.

Over the course of the 1997 SCT final, Allentown was magnificent. Winning 3-0, the Redbirds not only nullified Shore's home-field advantage in the game, but showed that it could overcome any historical jitters from the past 15 seasons.

"They've been building towards this for four years," said the legendary Shore Regional head coach Nancy Williams.

Cosse, on the other hand, went through the season undefeated and untied, but not without some close calls.

"The second Boonton game in our conference was pivotal," said Cosse. "In that game, I told the starters that they would be coming out at halftime, no matter what the score. Of course, I expected they would be up four or five goals by then, but they played absolutely sloppily. Now, of course, I would take a loss rather than a sloppy win or a win that was not deserved.

"We were up one goal at halftime, and I put my entire substitute team in, and they played so much harder and so much more heart than my starters did. They worked so hard, but they got scored on. I'll never forget seeing my starters' faces on the bench looking at me, thinking, 'Coach is going to take a tie before she lets us go back in.' "

Cosse inserted the starters in the last four minutes, and the Knights escaped with a 2-1 win.

"They learned the character about themselves," Cosse said. "When the kids knew that I was unwilling to let the kids get away with sloppy play and was willing to let the kids learn about themselves, then they knew who I was."

The state tournament in New Jersey is a three-week imbroglio of lose-and-go-home hockey. Teams that have a .500 or better record by the state tournament cutoff date are divided into four groups by school population, and each group is divided into four geographical sections, making 16 sectional champions that play off into four state champions at the end of the season.

Of the four groups, Group II has gotten the reputation as being the toughest in the country. West Essex had little trouble in North Jersey Section I, then stoned Pompton Lakes 4-1 in the state semifinal.

But Allentown's tournament run was as wild as a chase scene in an Indiana Jones movie. Two overtime games, three one-goal contests, last-minute heroics.

Allentown's first challenge was the Group II Central semifinal game against Glen Gardner Voorhees, an opponent which had several Division I scholarship players on its roster.

It turned out that two players would decide the contest in a matchup of players with shots exceeding 65 miles an hour. Though Voorhees' Jana Mendes put in an early goal off a hard blast, Allentown's Tiffany Fodera scored twice in seven minutes, including a dipping shot in the first minute of overtime to send the Redbirds into the Group II Central final.

That game took place two days later against Red Bank (N.J.) Catholic. And, once again, the game went into overtime. Fodera again generated the Allentown scoring chance, but her teammate Kelly Smith was on the stroke line to deflect the ball into the cage.

"I just closed my eyes and put my stick out," Smith said after the wild celebration. Allentown had its first sectional championship in the program's history.

Despite all of the euphoria, there was more work to do, starting with a two hour-long trip down to Manchester to play long-time South Jersey powerhouse Collingswood.

Allentown would take an early 2-0 lead off two Pam Zukowski deflections. But the Colls would make it a game late, scoring with three minutes to go and shooting wide of the cage in the final seconds. With that, the Redbirds' wild ride to the finals was complete.

There were five days between the Collingswood game and the state championship. It was a nervous time for both teams. Both teams got practice time on artificial turf to prepare for the contest.

Plans were made for the game, which was the first of the four games to be played on the Lions Stadium turf.

"By the time we got to the state championship, we had peaked for that day," Cosse said. "It was an amazing feeling for these kids."

That morning, tension was everywhere.

"It was my first state final ever, and I was very nervous," said West Essex midfielder Vanessa Immordino.

It is hard to know whether the nerves led to one of the more bizarre incidents in state final history. Moments after Allentown began its pregame warmups, a chipped ball from an attack drill struck one of its players on the nose.

But it wasn't just any other player: it was Katie Nicholson, whose play in the state tournament on the right wing was nothing short of spectacular. Her quickness and skill, especially in the Collingswood game, opened a lot of eyes that season. However, her status for the game was questionable, especially when the area between her eyes started to swell and fill with blood.

Clemencich was not about to let the Allentown dream die before the game even started. She inserted Nicholson into the lineup at her customary right wing spot and asked her to give everything she could.

The fans in the stands had little knowledge of Nicholson's injury. What both sets of red-and-black clad fans expected was for West Essex to come out hard early, attack the Allentown goal in waves, and get the first scoring chance.

Instead, fullback Lauren Zukowski, Pam's younger sister, came up with a huge early play when she make a textbook block-tackle to stuff a West Essex attempt at building up an attack from the midfield.

"They came on the field confident and focused," said Clemencich. "As soon as she made that defensive play, it pumped everybody right up."

West Essex, for the first time in a long while, were on their heels. But in the middle of the first half, Immordino slapped the ball into the circle late in the first half, and was touched into the cage by Annie O'Rourke.

It was a goal which could have deflated many other teams. Allentown, however, was able to work a three-way passing play six minutes from the end of the first half. Nicole Harrison's pass to an active Nicholson found Pam Zukowski on the right wing, who fired the ball into the cage.

During the first half, both Cosse and Clemencich made adjustments, especially when it came to the ability of several players to continue. Nicholson's nose was getting worse. Teammate Dana Woods' back and hip muscles -- wrapped by a long white bandage that made her look mummified -- began to stiffen in the cold.

The same pace continued into the second half -- Allentown taking the initiative, all the while knowing that one mistake in positioning or receiving the ball could lead not only to one West Essex goal, but a flood of them.

It was in the early part of the second half when Pam Zukowski began to feel a lot more comfortable on the field. She, Nicholson, and left wing Denise Reed began finding openings in the normally stout West Essex defense.

Too, that defense suffered what could have been a catastrophic injury.

"It was in the second half when I was trying to make a block tackle on Pam Zukowski," said Knights' defensive leader Kristin Gavin. "I wound up breaking the first metacarpal on my left hand."

The game went goalless for the next 22 minutes until Pam Zukowski, seizing a moment in which she had some space to go to goal, put in her 34th goal of the season.

The Allentown crowd cheered madly. A rookie team leading a nine-time state champion with less than eight minutes to go?

The lead, however, would last less than 90 seconds. Melissa Yuppa, West Essex's leading goal-scorer in 1997, found a lane to the goal cage and tie the contest.

From that time on, both teams were on notice: the next goal would likely win the game. This especially held for overtime, which, in the 1997 season, was up to three 10-minute periods of golden-goal play with no substitutions for the seven players on each team.

Both coaches needed everybody for the overtime -- healthy or not. Nicholson's nose was swelling to the point where she might have to go to the hospital after the game. Aches, bumps, and other hurts accumulated over the long season were catching up.

In the West Essex camp, Gavin was a particular concern, given the fact that she was the strength in the West Essex defensive center.

"She came to me in the huddle, and looked at me, and her hand is swollen," Cosse says. "She says, with tears in her eyes, 'Coach, I think there's something wrong with my hand.' She was definitely shaken."

Cosse knew that her next words would set the tone for her entire team. If Cosse wasn't tough enough, her Knights might not respond properly with the game on the line.

Cosse, narrowing her eyes, told her prime defender, "Kristin, if you can play, go to the trainer. If you can't, get off this field because we have a game to win."

Gavin trotted over to the trainer, who taped together her index and middle fingers. She returned to play in the overtime period.

"You can't stop playing in a game like that," said Immordino.

West Essex had a reputation for overtime heroics: the year before, West Essex had been frustrated by Belvidere's extreme defensive tactics for 60 minutes, but, in the 7-on-7 game, the Knights scored in all of 28 seconds.

But Allentown proved to be a sterner foe. Indeed, the Redbirds had much the better scoring chances in the three 30-minute overtime periods. Zukowski hit the outside of the cage after faking down Mosser in the second OT, and could have had a shot at winning the game in the first overtime period if an off-the-ball foul had negated a possible stroke call.

"It was the most intense, and craziest game," Cosse says. "I had never seen such a beautiful game, with all of the skills and the great plays."

Immediately after the game, the emotions on both teams were a study in contrast. West Essex's players, so driven to win outright, were visibly disappointed in the tie.

Allentown, on the other hand, expressed a tired euphoria. Make that a very tired euphoria.

Both teams had wanted this Group II state title, one for which they had practiced and played four months to attain.

The teams got a lap around the field holding the state championship trophy, and both had group photographs taken with it.

After several minutes of happiness, tears, and well-wishes, Cosse addressed her team as it gathered around the bus.

"You need to tell each other what you feel about each other right now," said Cosse. "You need to tell each other how proud you are for having gotten here. You're never going to feel this intensity and this amount of strength ever again."

For at least two weeks afterwards, that exchange of emotions amongst the West Essex team continued.

There was a celebration in the borough of Allentown after the draw. The bus carrying the field hockey team was met at the city limits by fire trucks, which made a loud parade ending at the school.

The emotions peaked the next night, when Allentown had its post-season banquet in the nearby village of Cream Ridge. The state championship trophy was on the dais.

But even years after that state championship game, Cosse still has doubts about the overall effect she has had on the team. The reason was that the trophy did not come to West Essex through a dominating win. Instead, the championship was shared.

"They worked so hard to be there," she says. "But it showed me how much they had learned over the course of the year. They were set on being so good, they thought they had failed by tying the game. But they never gave up. It was neat to be able to tell them that."

"It was indeed like a win for us," Immordino says. "It didn't feel like that at the time, but looking back on it, we played really well."

The game itself was spectacular, but had other ramifications. The players on both teams developed a healthy respect for each other's talents. Indeed, a year afterward, you could see Allentown and West Essex jackets shoulder-to-shoulder in the front row of the Lions' Stadium bleachers, taking in the state finals.

Unfortunately, the front row was the closest either team would get to a state championship field hockey game for the balance of the 1990s; West Essex was stopped short twice by Pompton Lakes, and Allentown's best chance in 1999 was ended with a shutout loss to Moorestown.

But the new decade presented new challenges for both schools. West Essex won the 2000 "B" state championship title in girls' lacrosse -- using several players from the 1997 field hockey roster.

Allentown, on the other hand, left the Shore Conference in 2000, having split its school district with a new campus in New Egypt. That history has yet to be written.