As Nevin Grove received his District 4 Class AA championship medal Friday at Bowman Field, Hughesville players and coaches pointed upward into the night sky. They were acknowledging Grove's late father, Scott Grove, a Lycoming County coaching legend.
It was not just a salute to a great coach but also to someone who helped make Friday's celebration possible. Grove and his son Nick coached Hughesville from 2008-2010, guiding a program that had made just one postseason appearance in the seven prior seasons to three straight playoff appearances and the 2010 district semifinals.
Scott Grove used to tell Spartans players about making that upward climb and now they have scaled that District 4 mountain. Hughesville is the district champion for the first time and it climbed from near rock bottom to get there. No doubt, Grove was smiling from above Friday night.
"Nick Grove and his dad gave me a chance to be part of this program and I'm grateful for that," said Hughesville coach Casey Waller, who joined the staff in 2010 and became head coach in 2011 after leading Loyalsock to three district championships from 2004-2009. "It's been a tough season but we're starting to click right now. Coach Grove always said keep climbing and we're still climbing and still grinding. We're not going to sit on this."
Hughesville (17-7) continues its climb Monday at Bowman Field when it plays its first state tournament game against District 3 runner-up Kutztown.
"At this point of the season we just keep climbing," said freshman designated hitter Zach Fry after going 3 for 4 in Friday's championship. "We won't relax."
That Hughesville is still trying to scale new heights is remarkable considering where it started. The Spartans have only two seniors and started the season 1-4 after dropping an ugly 10-0 decision at Mifflinburg. Just past the season's halfway point, they were 5-6 and making the playoffs was in doubt. On the brink of disaster, though, Hughesville shined and has won 11 of its last 12 games while breaking the program record for wins and setting three team milestones in the past two days.
The Spartans won four district games and downed South William-sport and Loyalsock, teams that had swept them during the regular season. Loyalsock has been a perpetual thorn in Hughesville's side but the Spartans slayed their nemesis in Friday's final, winning a 7-5, 9-inning thriller. The mountain was littered with daunting obstacles, but the Spartans finally reached the summit.
"Once we got to 5-6 reality set in a little bit that if we don't turn it around we're going to play 20 games and be done and nobody wanted that," infielder/pitcher Justin Lambert said. "We grinded every day at practice and came out and we knew what we wanted and we got there."
"I couldn't ask for anything better. I love these guys," senior first baseman Jason Stroup said. "We had some bumps on the road and had some new kids on the team but they are all welcome. Everyone meshed together and things are going real well now. It's unbelievable."
That is a good way to describe Friday's championship. The Spartans dominated for six innings as different players delivered timely hits, the defense was flawless and Sadiq Burkholder stifled the defending champions. The title seemed a near lock before Loyalsock made a furious seventh-inning rally, tying the game 5-5 when Kyle Datres stole home.
Hughesville had seen this scenario before. The Spartans perpetually seemed doomed to play the role of Sisyphus and with the summit inches away, the boulder they have been pushing seemed to be rolling down again.
Instead, Burkholder and his teammates showed tremendous resilience, left the winning runs stranded and then took control in the ninth as Lambert, Stroup and Fry delivered consecutive hits that produced three runs. Burkholder retired the top of Loyalsock's order in the bottom of the ninth and a journey that started five years ago reached its triumphant end.
"If that went another inning I don't think I could have taken it. I was literally on the edge of puking. I was that riled up and that excited," said Stroup, who has repeatedly delivered clutch playoff hits. "It was a team effort. They beat us twice in regular season and I told the guys before the game, there is no way they are beating us three times."
Filling the Hughesville cheering section Friday were past players who started changing the program's culture and future players who now realize anything is possible. There is still work to do and the climb continues.
But Hughesville is liking its view.
"Once we got that 10th win and started rolling a little bit we really came together," Lambert said. "Now that we're here we don't want to leave.
"It's a great feeling."