It has become part of Mercer County lore. Forty years later, it is still one of the most memorable moments in county athletics history, and the game wasn’t even being played at the time.
It is known simply as “The Walk Out.”
It quickly led to a knockout. A few hours later Steinert completed a 7-0 destruction of Livingston to win the NJSIAA Group IV title and cap a dominating 24-0 season.
The moment occurred on Nov. 25, 1977—the day after Thanksgiving—at rain-drenched Mercer County Park. Three state championship games had already been played in a driving rain that would not end until the following morning. And yet the crowd continued to swell to 5,500 fans as the day got wetter, colder and darker.
And seemingly every one of them was a Spartan fan.
They had come to see the final between Steinert, the state’s No. 1 team, against upstart Livingston. The Spartans had drawn large crowds all year but none were bigger than this. And coach Paul Tessein stuck to his usual pre-game ritual, knowing full well the impact it would have in this situation.
He lined up his team, two-by-two, starting with senior captains Jim Bowen and Jack Blair, followed by New Jersey Player of the Year Tom Fink and captain John Bowen (Jim’s twin), and on it went. With Livingston on the field warming up, the Spartans marched in formation from a distant pavilion. As they approached the field, the Livingston players looked over and, as Blair put it, “were clearly in a ‘what the hell!” moment.
After the procession entered the gate, it began a full lap around the field, never breaking rank.
“As we did, the huge crowd stood up and applauded as we passed them,” Blair recalled. “All the while the Livingston team just stood still and watched.”
“They were done, right there,” Fink said. “I think they were just like ‘Holy (bleep)!”
John Bowen couldn’t agree more, adding that, “I think that night it was much more dramatic because we were coming from a locker room away from the field. Livingston was already out there loosening up, and it must have really freaked them out.”
Jim Bowen felt it the greatest singular moment for what was arguably the greatest public school team in Mercer soccer history. John Bowen noted that the walk-out had actually been done prior to most games, but had never been received like this before.
“We did not expect that kind of noise,” he said. “I thought something was happening on the field. I think it was a little dark. It was quiet as we started. As we drew closer to the stands, the closest section started to see us and erupted.
“We always walked to the bench, dropped the bag of balls and then started the jog. It just got louder and louder as we turned each corner. Paul Tessein said later that the thought that crossed his mind at that point was, ‘This game is ours,’ or ‘Game over.’ It certainly psyched us up. I can’t imagine how crazier it would have been if the weather was nice!”
The weather was seemingly never nice that year. Jim Bowen said “it had to be the wettest fall on record.”
And yet the Spartans put forth a season-long performance that is still talked about. The 40th anniversary will be celebrated on Nov. 18 at Massimo’s in Robbinsville and a number of players are returning to share memories.
And what recollections they will be. Steinert outscored its opponents 117-15 and compiled 14 shutouts. It had four shutouts in five state tournament wins, outscoring foes 23-1. Fink was first-team All-American and the New Jersey Player of the Year, five players were All-State and nine went on to play Division I soccer.
If there was a better forward line in the annals of county soccer, no one has presented their case yet. With Fink in the middle and the Bowens on the wings, the three combined for 81 goals and over 65 assists. Fink scored what was then a school-record 34, John Bowen had 25 and Jim Bowen 22. Each had over 20 assists, and the totals would have been further inflated had they not been pulled in blowout games to give reserves a chance.
The chemistry between the three began when they were teamed on the Hamilton Rec Soccer League’s 12-year-old All-Star team, and just improved through Reynolds Junior High and at Steinert.
“Tommy was a big, strong guy with incredible talent and ball control,” John Bowen said. “The ball just stuck to his foot, and you couldn’t knock him off it. And he wasn’t above giving the defender a shove before the ball got to him. If I remember correctly, he scored the first goal (against Livingston) off of a corner. Right before he headed it in, he shoved the defender out of the way.”
Fink felt blessed to have such talent setting him up, although to this day the twins enjoy telling people Tom never passed a ball in his life.
“If you ask the Bowens, I had no assists,” he said with a laugh. “Believe it or not, I actually had 24.”
‘When you have three first-team All-American level players, all on one team and all up front running at you, how do you stop that machine?’
Fink, one of seven soccer-playing brothers at Steinert, realizes his goal total had a lot to do with his wingers, as all three made first-team All-State.
“They both had the same style,” Fink said. “They both had very good speed and the ability to get by guys and cross the ball, get to the middle of the goal with ease. They could fly down the wings.”
If the three weren’t setting each other up, Blair was orchestrating from the midfield along with juniors Dan DeAngelo and Eddie Gauss. Blair, who had 7 goals and 22 assists, was second-team All-State while D’Angelo was third-team.
In discussing the Bo-Fink-Bo line, Blair said, “They were three great athletes and tremendous soccer players. When you have three first-team All-American level players, all on one team and all up front running at you, how do you stop that machine? It was fun to get them the ball and put them in position to shoot. Which we were able to do a lot. We averaged over 30 shots a game which his pretty incredible by today’s standards.”
The defense was as good as those up front, but just got their names in the papers less. The back four had rugged G.A. Reid, cousins Vince and Mike Castaldo and Gary Zanoni playing in front of goalies Don Mayer and Eric Matson.
The seeds of 1977 were planted at Reynolds, when the Raiders went 29-1 in 1973 and 1974. Upon reaching Steinert, both Bowens were sophomore starters on the 1975 co-state championship team, while Fink and Blair were also on the team.
In 1976, it was a down year by Steinert standards as the Spartans lost four games and fell to Neptune in the second round of states. Steinert lost to Toms River North and St. Anthony’s (now Trenton Catholic) for the first time in program history.
That didn’t stop the prognosticators—and Tessein—from predicting great things for Steinert in 1977. In preseason, the coach claimed it could be the greatest team in school history. Big talk, considering from 1970-75 the Spartans won five state titles in six years.
The Spartans were ranked No. 1 in the state by the Newark Star-Ledger, which had the only state poll at the time.
“I think our attitude was fine, I don’t think we were even worried about the past year,” Fink said. “I know just coming in, the expectations were pretty high for us to have a good year. I don’t think we let the pressure get to us.”
That would be an understatement.
John Bowen noted that the Spartans broke away from the Mercer County League that year and were able to schedule the best competition from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They were unable to beat up on poor teams, and each game sharpened their skills. Steinert gave eight teams their first loss of the season, and 17 opponents had two or fewer losses when the Spartans met them. And Steinert was not fully healthy throughout, as the Bowens and Reid all missed games due to injury.
Amazingly, Steinert trailed in just three games. The first came on opening-day in a 5-1 win over Pennsbury, which had an outstanding team in Lower Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
“They scored in the first minute, that kind of woke us up,” Fink said.
In Game 3, after its loss to TR North a year earlier, Steinert had a ridiculous 52-6 shot advantage in taking a 7-1 victory. That prompted North coach Les Konyhas, a 1949 Hamilton West grad, to comment “I’ll be glad when the Bowens graduate. I’m going to send them a graduation card.”
And did he?
“True to his word, we got a graduation card from him in that spring,” Jim Bowen said.
Two games later was the Game of the Regular Season, when a passing sequence of Fink-to-John Bowen-to-Jim Bowen resulted in the game’s lone goal with 75 seconds left against Hamilton West. Over 800 fans were lined three deep around Steinert’s dirt and rock field.
Afterward, Hornets coach Jack Bell said, “To me, that makes us better than number two in the state. It makes us at least one-and-half.”
Steinert began steamrolling teams from that point. The second time it trailed was a doozy, as Trenton took a 3-0 lead in the first quarter (they played four quarters instead of halves). It was 11-3 by the game’s completion.
“They should have packed it in and played defense but they kept playing the offsides trap,” Fink said. “We had tied it up by the end of the first quarter and all hell broke loose.”
Even after 40 years, the 1977 Spartans are certainly worthy of a suite in the Mercer County soccer penthouse.
Another close call came in Game 19, when Zanoni’s fourth-quarter goal beat St. Rose of Belmar, 2-1, in the regular-season finale on another sloppy field.
Steinert rolled past Trenton and Bridgewater East in their first two state games, but trailed Neptune 1-0 at halftime in the Central Jersey Group IV title game at Central High School. Third- quarter goals by Gauss and John Bowen kept the Green and White train rolling, and a third-period goal by Jim Bowen provided a 1-0 win over Brick in the state semifinal at Trenton State (now The College of New Jersey).
On Thanksgiving day, Fink, both Bowens, Blair, D’Angelo, Reid, Vince Castaldo, Gauss, Mike Castaldo Matson and Mayer were all named All-County in one Trenton paper or the other. The following day in the monsoon, they dismantled Livingston, who had upset Kearny in the other semifinal.
It started with “The Walk-Out” and never stopped.
“That standing ovation was a special moment of recognition and pride that got everyone juiced up and carried right into the game,” Blair said. “It has stayed with many of us throughout our lives as well.”
Ten minutes into the game, Blair’s corner kick was headed into the back of the net by Fink and the rout was on. Fink collected two goals, Jim and John Bowen had one each, D’Angelo scored his first of the year and reserves Don Sims and Ed Rodrique also scored.
It was a wild celebration scene in the darkness with rain still barraging the field. Adding to the festivities is that Steinert’s senior prom was that night. With so much commotion on the field, Trentonian writer George O’Gorman could not find Fink after the game. While Fink was showering for the prom, he was handed the phone. He was interviewed by O’Gorman while washing the Mercer Park mud from his body.
It capped a remarkable season for a team whose players still had careers ahead of them. Both Bowens and Blair played for Princeton and Fink for North Carolina State. Also going D-I were D’Angelo (Hartwick), Gauss and Reid (Maryland), Zanoni (Rider) and Matson (Drew). Several others went to Division II or III schools.
The team went well beyond its starters. Junior Joe Moffat was the first man off the bench at midfield, and other reserves were Sims, Rodrique, Harold Fink, Chris Pittaro, Jim Rivera, Pat Donigan, Gary Conover, John Leigh, Jim Seckinger, John Seckinger and Frank Castaldo (Mike’s twin brother). The majority of players still live in Hamilton or surrounding areas.
Bringing it all together was Tessein, who did not let his sharp soccer mind get in the way of all that talent.
“He coached me in rec and coached me for four years in junior high and high school, I never had a problem with him,” Fink said. “He knew the game, but he kind of just let us play. He let us do what we knew how to do and he didn’t really try to change us. He had us in the right spots where we were most comfortable playing.”
“I think people don’t give Tessein enough credit for that year,” John Bowen that year. “He didn’t try to overcoach, he just let us play. He had to manage all the expectations, he had to deal with a few players who wanted more playing time.”
“And,” Bowen added with a laugh, “he had to deal with Tommy for the whole season!”
In a humorous touch to all the awards, when Fink received his All-American confirmation, it was sent to 8 Jarvie Drive instead of the correct address of 128.
“I don’t know who the heck got it first,” he said, laughing. “Probably (Steinert grads/neighbors) the Timkos or Leigh Hollins or somebody.”
One of the team’s biggest joys was being mentioned as the top team in the country in that publication so known for its soccer expertise—Playboy magazine.
“We were all looking at it, but I don’t even know who got the copy of the magazine,” Fink said. “Maybe my brother Phil Fink, he was good at that.”
“I’m not sure how that worked its way into the magazine, but being 18 years old, it was very cool to see,” Blair said. “Sadly, it didn’t get us an invite to the mansion. Now that would have been really cool.”
Maybe not the mansion. But even after 40 years, the 1977 Spartans are certainly worthy of a suite in the Mercer County soccer penthouse.