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Local tales connect east, west coasts

We had a good laugh the other day when the NIT champions from West Virginia University were presented with T-shirts that read "West Virgina." Insert your favorite Jeff Foxworthy joke here.

But there to explain that the shirts weren't from the university, but from the NIT organizers, was Shelly Poe, one of the best sports information directors in the history of the calling.

And seeing her flaming red hair on camera sparked an old West Virginia memory and spurred along some others from my 11 years on the East Coast.

When visiting media members cover football or basketball games in Morgantown, their assigned seat in the press box isn't marked with a paper tag like every place else in the sports universe.

At WVU, the sports information staff creates a black laminate name plate, the kind you'd see held in place by a bracket on the door of a doctor's office.

In 1995 our family was making plans to leave New Jersey and return to California when I covered a Rutgers football game at Mountaineer Field. I mentioned to "Miss Shelly" that it would probably be my last trip there, and wondered if I could have the laminate that had been used probably 13 times over the previous nine years.

She looked at me with implausible seriousness.

"Everybody comes back," she said.

Eleven years later I still haven't returned to Morgantown, but two stories I recently wrote allowed my mind to sail back and recount some wonderful East Coast memories.

The first was the story was on Trevor Crowley, the Gustine High basketball coach who played on Seton Hall's Final Four team in 1989. That story idea started sometime last fall, when Bee staffer Will DeBoard mentioned Gustine had a new coach. He said Crowley's name and mentioned he played basketball somewhere, maybe in New Jersey.

It took me three days to remember Crowley was on the Seton Hall team that took the entire New York Metropolitan Area on a magic carpet ride. My wife surprised me on my birthday with tickets to see that team play Syracuse at the Meadowlands Arena — one of three times I had the chance to watch those Pirates that year.

Writing the story gave me the chance to get in touch with people I hadn't seen in years. I spent 30 minutes on the phone with coach P.J. Carlesimo — 10 minutes talking about Crowley and then 20 trading New Jersey basketball stories — and he seemed to have as much fun as I certainly was.

I knew Seton Hall assistant coach John Carroll more as the head coach at Duquesne while I was covering Rutgers — then a member of the Atlantic 10. And sportswriter Tom Luicci of the Newark Star-Ledger pointed me in the right direction to chase the story, although I reminded him I'm still upset he took away my Heisman Trophy vote when I moved back west.

Four days after the Crowley story appeared, I had a feature on Eric Young Jr., the Modesto Nuts second baseman. And another cause for a Jersey flashback.

Eric Young Sr.was a star defensive back and kick returner at Rutgers in addition to his excellence on the diamond for the Scarlet Knights, and one of the most delightful and upbeat athletes I've ever covered.

So when I spoke with him for the story on his son, I reminded him he owed me $5.

"What for," he said.

I explained that the last time we spoke was at a Rutgers preseason football practice in 1994. Major league baseball was on strike, and Young Sr. was making a visit to Rutgers.

So I asked him at the practice when he thought he'd be back on the diamond.

"We're going to settle in a couple days and we'll be back on the field in two weeks," he said, in his always-positive manner.

"I'll bet you five bucks you don't play another game this season," I said.

"Oh, man," Young said. "That's easy money."

In our phone chat two weeks ago, he said he remembered the visit and the bet, and — with interest — he figures he owes me lunch.

If our lunch date materializes, I guarantee we'll be dropping names of common friends and acquaintances in the Rutgers community — trading notes on our favorite Central Jersey diners and hot spots. And for an hour or so, both of us will feel as if we're back in the Garden State.

I'll probably keep making trips to Jersey to visit friends, but I don't see a trip back to Morgantown in my future.

But Miss Shelly, keep the name plate. I can close my eyes and visit that any time I want.

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2301.

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