PINE GROVE-So many doubted it would ever be playing Thursday. Hughesville in the Class AA state quarterfinals? Get real.
But the Spartans believed it. And there they were Thursday at Pine Grove's Walter Stump Stadium, one of only eight teams playing in a field that started at 166. Following a 9-5 loss to District 11 champion Salisbury, several players left the field with tears in their eyes.
It seemed odd that a team that accomplished so much and made so much history would be so upset. The Spartans, though, expected a state championship. That in itself reveals how far this team, this program has come.
Tyler Mitcheltree (5) and Justin?Lambert (7) of Hughesville shake hands after the game with Salisbury’s Ryan Utsch Thursday at Pine Grove.
"We'll realize how great this season was for us and how far we went and how special these guys are to us and how we meshed as a team, but right now it hurts," catcher Brett Reitz said. "It was a great season, it just stinks we couldn't have gone any farther."
Hughesville (18-8) shattered the program record for wins, captured the program's first district championship, reached its first state tournament and won its first state tournament game. Starting with a 6-1 semifinal thumping of Southern Columbia, Hughesville made history with every win and brought luster to a program that featured good players over the years, but so few title banners.
Some time soon, Hughesville will hang that first district championship banner. No matter what the future holds that banner always will hold a special place in school history. This team broke the barrier, raised the bar and set the standard.
"We can definitely be proud. We made history," pitcher Sadiq Burkholder said. "We made history in more ways than one."
"To win the first district championship for Hughesville is special," Hughesville coach Casey Waller said. "That (banner) will always be up at Hughesville. That will always be a tribute to them and also the guys that came before them that laid the foundation."
Coaches Nick and Scott Grove created that foundation when they took over a program in 2008 that had made one playoff appearance in the previous seven seasons. Hughesville has not missed the playoffs since 2007 and over the past six seasons it took big strides. Then this year it took a quantum leap forward.
The remarkable thing is how unlikely that impending leap seemed earlier this season. Hughesville lost four of its first five games, including a 10-0 no-hit loss at Mifflinburg, and was still at 5-6 more than midway through the season. At that point, the Spartans had to analyze their schedule, figure out which teams to throw their premier pitchers against, and hope they could just qualify.
Out of near disaster rose a champion. Hughesville won 13 of its next 14 games and a team that seemed to be coming apart, jelled and played its best baseball at the perfect time. The pitching was sensational, the defense terrific and the offense featured starters and reserves delivering big hits. It did not matter if it was senior Jason Stroup ripping another timely RBI hit for freshman Zach Fry going 3 for 3 with three RBIs yesterday. Someone always was there to provide a lift, someone was always there to make sure Hughesville won again.
"We didn't even know if we were going to make the playoffs and we end up in the elite eight in states," said Burkholder, who threw a series of postseason gems. "When we got hot and won our first playoff game and beat South (in the district quarterfinals), we were moving and rolling and we were playing well together and having fun."
The community was too. As the wins increased, so did the fans watching. Fans filled nearly every seat down the first-base line at Bowman Field during Monday's 2-0 win over Kutztown. Yesterday, despite a 90-minute drive and a noon start, Hughesville packed Pine Grove's bleachers and made it feel more like a basketball or football game than a baseball game.
"It's been a lot of fun having the fans cheer for us. It gets us fired up," Reitz said. "We just have to live up to the expectations the fans will have next year. That's something to look forward to."
Hughesville, which loses only Burkholder and Stroup, was focused on the game, determined to take another step forward yesterday. They appreciated the fan support but might not realize how happy they made those fans until they have had time to digest this historic run. The years will go by, but the memories will remain.
At some point, players will realize all those fans were just enjoying the ride. They knew a 90-minute drive was a small price to pay to watch a team that had made a world-wide like turnaround.
"It's always been a basketball and wrestling school and it still will be, but baseball is going to be a part of that and the community embraced that too," Waller said.
How could they not? For years, District 4 baseball has been about traditional programs like Loyalsock, Montoursville, Williamsport, South Williamsport and Jersey Shore, to name a few. Nearby Hughesville rivals like Montgomery and Muncy also have been perennial winners and tough outs come playoff time. Now Hughesville has added itself to the mix. The new kid on the block is every bit as tough as the traditional heavyweights.
Nobody will be doubting the Spartans any more. This team is why.
"People used to think we weren't a serious playoff team and this year we proved everyone wrong," Reitz said. "We've given ourselves a name now."