STATE COLLEGE - There's a time, Jeremy Eck remembers, when he stood in the outfield, playing for Montoursville High School, with tears in his eyes, wondering if he wanted to play baseball, or even be a part of the game, anymore.
His grandfather had recently died, and he had lost a man who wasn't just a family member, but a friend. And their relationship had been built on baseball. Eck would go to his grandfather's house every night and watch the Atlanta Braves. They'd get lost in a team built around future Hall of Famers Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux.
Eck had made a promise to his grandfather, Bob Morris, known to his friends as the "Mayor of Warrensville," to take his career as far as he could, to someday be a baseball coach. He's lived with a bitter feeling, though, never having accomplished what he felt he was capable of as a player. And prior to Friday evening, on the campus of Penn State University, he had yet to help his players see through the goal of winning the state championship he so desperately wanted.
But as the sun faded and dusk fell over the picturesque mountain scene beyond center field, Eck stood in front of the Lancers' dugout, holding his son Elijah in his left arm, and his PIAA Class AA gold medal in his right hand as he recounted his relationship with his grandfather one more time, and how he had finally fulfilled his promise.
"He always told me, 'All the way, nothing less.' That's always stuck with me," Eck said. "I know he's smiling down right now."
Jeremy Eck entered a thankless job when he began his first season as Loyalsock's head baseball coach in 2010. He took over for Casey Waller, a coach who had not just built a successful season or two at Loyalsock, but had built a program which had become a statewide threat and was just two years removed from the Lancers' first-ever state championship.
District championships had become the expectation, not just a wish and a prayer. And from the outside, Eck always seemed to be fighting the demons that came with trying to replace a coach as successful as Waller. He seemed to feel a need to validate himself as a head coach, and winning a state championship seemed to be the only way to do so. He already had two district championships to his name as the Lancers' head coach in 2010 and 2012. But the first came with a disappointing loss in the East Final with a Division I pitcher with a 90-plus mph fastball on the mound. The second came with a surprising loss in the first round of the state tournament with a young, but talented, team.
Whether he'll admit it or not, Friday was his validation. Loyalsock's 5-4, walk-off win over Beaver Area, was his affirmation as a coach capable of building and guiding a winner.
He did it with a Loyalsock team whose seniors have known nothing but Jeremy Eck as a head coach. And as he sprinted down the third-base line in the bottom of the seventh inning, his right-arm extended to the heavens with his index finger held high, he chased Caleb Robbins on his way to scoring the game-winning run thanks to a Bailey Young single. The weight of the world was lifted off a young coach's shoulders in the moment he joined the bouncing pile of players and coaches at home plate.
He's created his own legacy at Loyalsock. He's no longer living in the shadow of the past. He's forging his own path. And that path now includes a state championship.
"Of course a state championship has always been on his mind. That's one of his goals and he's been working for that ever since I was here and he was here," said Loyalsock's Ethan Moore, the lone senior in the Lancers' starting lineup. "(Friday) is his day and he's worked hard for this, harder than a lot of us have."
Eck wasn't about to admit it, though. Sure, he knew the job came with expectations. And he was spoiled in that first season to have a team loaded with talent. He learned from that season how difficult it was to be one of the two Class AA baseball teams left in the state.
With that team, though, he learned to better appreciate the gold medals he hung around the necks of his players and coaching staff Friday evening. To him, this four-year ride as the Lancers' head coach has never been about proving himself. It's been about him making the most of his first opportunity as a high school baseball coach.
"Is it always in the background to have to live up to everybody's expectations and find a way to get it done? Absolutely," Eck said. "But it's never been about that for me. It's been about winning games and teaching these guys life lessons."
His impact on the 20 players wearing a white Loyalsock jersey with the intertwined 'L' and 'T' on the chest has been immeasurable. He's been a calming influence, never flinching when the heat is at its most insufferable.
When Beaver rallied in the top of the seventh inning to tie the game against Lancers ace pitcher Kyle Datres, Eck met his players in the dugout with the positives which could still come out of the game. He was upbeat, pulling aside Moore to tell him his only job should leadoff hitter Robbie Klein reach base was to get down a bunt.
There was never a question of if Moore, Loyalsock's clean-up hitter, would bunt. It's not something he's asked to do very much, if at all. Hell, Moore is often one of the last guys to put down bunts in the batting cage during pre-game warm-ups. But Eck was fixated on what needed to be accomplished to win the game.
After Klein was hit by a pitch, Moore bunted the first pitch he saw perfectly, advancing Robbins, who ran for Klein, to scoring position and setting up the Lancers' offense to score the winning run.
Eck instills a calm confidence in his team, leading it to rallies from four runs down in the final inning of the District 4 championship game to force extra innings, and from a four-run deficit in the state tournament against Delone Catholic to winning comfortably and advancing to the East Final.
That calm demeanor shined through as Young put together a brilliant at-bat in the seventh inning, fouling off pitch after pitch before driving a single through the right side to score Robbins with the winning run.
"He does a good job of that, and this year he's been great," Moore said. "If something were to happen or we get down, he keeps us a lot calmer and he comes at you with positives. That's what you need as a coach. You don't want to be a coach who just yells and screams. That's why we're successful."
Eck finally let go of the bitterness toward his own career and its untimely ending yesterday, on a sun-splashed central Pennsylvania day just made for baseball. That calm demeanor which helped drive Loyalsock to the pinnacle of baseball in the commonwealth was present as he talked about his grandfather.
There was a fondness in his recollection of those summer nights watching the Braves. There was a hint of sadness that it's been 10 years since he's shared one of those glorious nights.
But There was also an overwhelming joy. His head was spinning as he looked for anyone with whom to share a hug as his players organized for a team photo with the golden state championship trophy.
"He does not have an easy job at all with everything that goes on," Loyalsock's Tommy Baggett said. "I'm real happy for him. I know he wanted this real bad, and I'm happy to get it for him."
There were tears welling in Eck's eyes as he walked down the right-field line following the win. But they weren't the tears of confusion or sadness which overwhelmed him in the outfield some 10 years ago.
These were tears of joy, tears of accomplishment, tears of relief of a promise finally fulfilled.
Mitch Rupert is a Sun-Gazette sports writer. He can be reached at 326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at email@example.com.