Left to right: Frank Noppenberger (1984-88),
William "Dud" Tighe (1977-82), John Emery (1960-77)
and Robert "Bo" Henning (1988-2013). Between them,
these 4 men coached the boys' basketball team at
East Brunswick High School in all but 2 of its 1st 53 seasons.
March 15, 1986. An unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in Central Jersey. It was the greatest day in the history of East Brunswick High School sports.
It’s been 25 years. That’s mind-spinning.
Darren Schulman became EB's 5th State Champion in wrestling (we've since had a 6th), taking the 123-pound title at Princeton University's Jadwin Gym. This capped a 31-0 season for him, only the 2nd undefeated State Championship season for an EB wrestler. (We've since had a 3rd: Lenny Cassidy went 27-0 in 1966, and Scott Kammerer went 32-0 in 1991.)
The match itself was no fluke: He beat (if I remember the name correctly) Darren Fagan of Middletown South, who was a junior, and came back the next year to win a State Championship in a higher weight class. New Jersey now conducts its State Tournament at the Atlantic City Convention Center.
The day was also to be the first appearance, in 25 years of trying, for East Brunswick in a Central Jersey Group IV Final in boys' basketball. The opponent was Franklin, which has usually been a Group III school. (Group IV is the highest enrollment classification in the State, usually everything from 1,000 students on up; EBHS then had about 2,000 students.)
The game was played at Bridgewater-Raritan High School East, or "Bridgewater East" or "B-R East." Since the reconsolidation of Bridgewater's schools, B-R West returned to being simply "Bridgewater-Raritan," and B-R East became Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School.
Picking a neutral site wasn't easy, as it had to be a school in Middlesex, Monmouth, Mercer, Somerset or Hunterdon Counties, that was not a Group IV school. (In the 1980s, EBHS often hosted Group III title games in boys and girls basketball.) But while Franklin is just 1 town over from Bridgewater, EB is 3 towns away. When I did the math later, I discovered the distance from my house at the time, about halfway between the Brunswick Square Mall and Bowne-Munro Elementary School, was 24 miles from the site.
I was 16, a junior at EBHS, and I couldn't drive: The legal driving age in New Jersey, then as now, was 17. And as for getting there with the help of public transportation... let's just say I had a better chance of getting a date with then-Sports Illustrated cover girl Kathy Ireland.
Did I do what any sane kid would have done, and say, "Forget it, I'll read the misspelling-ridden article in the Home News tomorrow"? Of course not. Those of you who've known me since then, you remember my nickname at the time: "Crazy Mike." That day, if I hadn't already, I earned it.
I found alternate transportation: I got on my bicycle. It took me 3½ hours. I ended up riding up Easton Avenue, past the Rutgers campus, getting lost in Bound Brook, and having to cross U.S. Route 22 without the benefit of a traffic light.
Those of you from North Jersey, who might not be familiar with Central Jersey: Route 22 is a lot like U.S. Route 46, only rural. This truly was crazy: I could have been killed. And it would have been all my own fault.
Anyway, I made it, albeit late. When I got there, the Bears were well behind. Franklin has usually been a good basketball school. It had already produced Rutgers star and NBA player Roy Hinson. We'd won the Greater Middlesex Conference Red Division title (this was the 1st year of the GMC, after the merging of the Middlesex County Athletic Conference with the smaller-school Bicentennial and Central Valley Conferences), and were 24-2. We had power in Keith Motusesky (1 of 4 siblings to star in EB hoops), height in Greg Berliner (who led us to the County Championship the next season) and Bill Zahn, a deadly corner shot from Tom Jaronski (if the 3-point rule had been in effect, Mot and TJ would have been All-State), and grit in Chris Brill and Chris Ciatto. (I know I've forgotten an important player or two, and I apologize.) But the Warriors were a dozen points ahead when I got there late in the 1st half.
Now, I'm not claiming credit for anything. Especially since head coach Frank Noppenberger, now EB's athletic director, has probably had to get his eyes checked for all the times he's rolled them at things that I've said over the last 25 years. Besides, he probably said something at halftime that made them come out like a house afire in the second half. As a Yankee Fan, he knows the saying of 1930s Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez: "I'd rather be lucky than good." Nopp knows it pays to be both lucky and good, and, as a basketball coach, he was both.
And so they did come out, and Franklin simply couldn't stop us. We went through them like a hot knife through butter. The buckets just kept pouring in. Defense? What defense? The only D was from us. When it was all over, it was East Brunswick 87, Franklin 69. A 12-point deficit became an 18-point win. What a spectacular performance. Suffice it to say, that court got stormed.
I did get a ride back to East Brunswick, with my bike in their trunk. I wish I could remember who gave me the ride. I know it was a girl, her father and her sister. It might have been Gina Terraciano, one of the cheerleaders, but I'm not sure. Whoever it was, I'm sorry I don't remember, but let me offer this belated thank you.
This is the sort of story you hear of fans of major league teams, or of European and Latin American soccer teams: "I couldn't miss this game. I just had to be there." I did it in high school.
Now, it seems, truly, crazy. But I was hardly the only person doing crazy things at 16, and this was about as nuts as I got back then.
Now? I tend to think things through first, to make them less crazy. After all, I'm not a kid anymore.
If I had to do it all over again? I would've borrowed the money and called a cab. Today, a taxi from the New Brunswick train station to the Somerset Patriots' ballpark, also in Bridgewater, is 30 bucks. So we're probably talking $45 from EB to the former B-R East. Back then, it probably would have been about half that. But it would have been safer.
Still, it could have been worse. After all, this was the peak period of British soccer hooliganism. If I'd grown up in England's Middlesex County, instead of New Jersey's – or, perhaps, like Fever Pitch author Nick Hornby, 35 miles outside London instead of 35 miles outside New York - it would have been far easier for me to get to both a local "football club" and one of the London powers such as Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham or Tottenham. But it would also have made it easier for me to get "a right hiding" from one of those clubs' "firms." And that would have made such a venture beyond crazy. (Not to mention the mid-1980s was a down period for Arsenal – and knowing what I know now, I still couldn't have rooted for any of the others.)
I guess I was lucky to grow up where and when I did – and to survive it all, including my worst enemy: Myself.
But March 15, 1986 was still a great day. As John Cheever would have said, and as EBHS teacher Steve Michaud would have happily quoted, it was a day where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.
And it was a day where teenaged lunatics in green jackets ride bicycles over the highways. Was it worth it to see the mighty mighty Bears win their 1st-ever Central Jersey Championship in basketball?
As they used to say on Laugh-In, "You bet your sweet bippy!"
We are... EB!