SHORE REGIONAL NO LONGER THE ONLY GAME IN LONG BRANCH

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

Out near the New Jersey shore, at the intersection of Routes 35 and 36, some of the best young field hockey players in the country have perfected their craft.

In the 70s and 80s, players from that area have had to have worn the blue and white of West Long Branch Shore Regional (N.J.) in order to play the game of field hockey. In that period of time, Nancy Williams has become a local, if not national, legend.

Williams has more than 1,000 coaching wins in basketball, softball, track, and field hockey. She is approaching 500 wins in field hockey, tops all time in the American scholastic game. During her illustrious career, she has prepared and developed countless young women for athletic and life successes.

Over the past six or seven years, however, she has helped develop something else: an explosive growth of competition in neighboring schools. In the last six years, neighboring Long Branch (N.J.) and Red Bank (N.J.) Catholic have been developing into high-caliber programs which have taken on Shore Regional characteristics -- skill, work ethic, and fundamentals.

Williams does not think of the rise of Red Bank Catholic and Long Branch as a competitve threat. Instead, in keeping with her role as a die-hard activist on behalf of girls' and women's athletics, she sees the two new teams as helping spread the gospel of field hockey in greater Long Branch.

"Red Bank Catholic and Long Branch have strong programs, and they'll be here someday," Williams said after Shore captured the 1998 Group I state title on the frozen turf at Lions Stadium. "It goes to show you the kind of hockey you have in the Shore Conference."

And Shore Regional graduates Lisa Caprioni and Meghan Kelly, coaches at RBC and Long Branch, show the kind of women Williams has helped mold. Both have developed into fabulous coaches, and have taken their teams to the brink of greatness.

In 1998, Red Bank Catholic edged defending Group II champion Allentown in penalty strokes in the Group II tournament, while Long Branch won the state Group III Central crown.

Not bad for such a short existence.

"What our players have seen is a coaching staff that loves the game of hockey," Kelly says. "And they want to play it all the time."

Caprioni, who also coaches lacrosse at Red Bank Catholic, has instilled much the same ethic into her players.

"We've gotten them to play in the off-season, and, since I can't coach them out of season, I watch how they organize," Caprioni says. "Especially the juniors, who are going to be the seniors the next year. They have to get the money and transportation together, and that instills the leadership in them."

There have been times when the three programs have interacted, and not necessarily on the playing field.

"I still keep in touch with Nancy," Kelly says. "And it turns out that the daughter of Shore Regional's AD plays for me."

There is a budding friendly rivalry between the three schools. At times, you can see a group of young women wearing dark green "Waves" varsity jackets from Long Branch at Shore Regional games, or blue Shore windbreakers at Red Bank Catholic contests.

The teams play each other infrequently, since the Shore Conference has nearly 40 teams and change divisions every other year. However, more often than not, Shore Regional tends to come out on top.

"Shore Regional has set a standard down here that we would like to get to," Caprioni said. "We are working to get into that elite group and to stay up there."

Kelly's girls, in turn, dropped a 3-0 game to RBC the first game of the season, which told her that, despite an intense off-season program, there was another level to be attained.

"They've never played out of season before," she said. "They saw, coming off last season, that they improved. Since (that game) they turned it completely around."

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