Loyalsock coach Jeremy Eck sometimes finds his eyes wandering down the third-base line when his team is batting. He sees a lot, but still feels empty.
Someone special is missing.
Eck's mother Brenda has been battling cancer for much of the last two years and was told two weeks into the season she had a week to live. She never missed her son's games while he was playing growing up in Montoursville or at Bloomsburg University. That streak continued when he became Loyalsock's coach in 2010.
Now, Brenda is fighting for her life and Eck is trying hard to hold everything together. It is the toughest of times, but when Loyalsock players look at their coach they see something other than a hurting man. They see a pillar of strength. They cannot heal Eck's mother but they can bring their coach joy through all the sorrow.
Against the odds, Loyalsock (22-5) is back in the Class AA state final. The defending state champions face District 6 champion Central Friday at Penn State. Eck will be there and his mere presence speaks volumes.
"Baseball is just a game, but what he is going through is real life. He's definitely a passionate guy and for him to be here is remarkable," Loyalsock first baseman Tommy Baggett said. "I don't know if I could do same. He puts so much effort into our team and we're really thankful to have him here."
Eck missed the first game of his five-year tenure when Loyalsock blanked Notre Dame-Green Pond, 4-0 in last Thursday's state quarterfinals. He was with his ailing mother that night but an inspired Loyalsock team played one of its best games, dedicating it to both Eck and Brenda. Eck returned Monday as Loyalsock edged Neumann-Goretti, 4-3. Eck pushed all the right buttons too as Loyalsock beat a team loaded from top to bottom.
Loyalsock finds motivation in Eck's strength but, ironically, Eck sometimes questions his.
"Sitting and watching what we've been going through the last couple weeks is heartbreaking and there are a lot of helpless feelings when you sit back and you teach these boys about battling until the last out and you step back and I can't do anything for my mom," Eck said. "That's the gut-wrenching thing that just eats you alive."
It is not a stretch to say, however, that Eck and his players are keeping Brenda alive. Eck truly is a mama's boy, displaying the same strength his mother has. Brenda keeps fighting on, defying the doctors. She wants her son to lead Loyalsock to another state championship and both he and his team are going all-out trying to make it happen.
The players understand that Eck and his mother are toughness personified. The Lancers are acting as their reflections.
"We always had a chip on our shoulder ever since the season started. We knew we had to come back and prove something and then with Jeremy's mom going through what she has we had something even more to play for," catcher Evan Moore said. "Jeremy is always going to tell us what's up and what we need to do. When something is bothering him we're always there to pick him up and we're always here to help him whenever we can."
Loyalsock looked like a lost team throughout much of the season's first half and was 8-5 at one point. The way the team came together, the way they started playing relentless baseball, the way they picked each other up time and time again ... that is the greatest tribute they could give their coach.
Eck knows the game well and has helped Loyalsock win a state championship, reach two state finals and three Final 4s in his five years. Still, it is the way he has handled things off the field that has elevated his players' performances. They see Eck fight on through the most difficult of circumstances and know they can handle anything baseball-related.
"High school coaches go enough with the parents that argue to the school board and disagree with every decision you make no matter what it is," pitcher/shortstop Kyle Datres said. "What he's gone though with his family and being away from his kids all day at practice, that says something special."
"He's almost like a father to us," Moore said. "He's always there for us and we're always going to be here for him."
The goes for the assistant coaches too. Eck has leaned on Nate Hill, Denny Loner, Curtis Jacobson and Kyle Rude who have helped keep things running smooth. That was evident last Thursday when Loyalsock stymied Notre Dame, as Datres threw a one-hitter, Jimmy Webb homered and the defense played an error-less game.
More than anything that night, Loyalsock wanted to give Eck another game. The state quarterfinal ramifications seemed to pale in comparison. That alone explains how the Lancers feel about their leader.
"We love Coach Eck with all our hearts and we want to bring this home for him," Baggett said. "He just told us his mom is waiting for us. She's waiting for Friday."
"He comes here every day and gets his mind off it. He comes to practice and has a blast," second basemen Phil Krizan said. "We're a family and we're doing it for his family. That's the main goal right now is to get a state championship for his mom and his family."
Loyalsock is playing in its third state final since 2008 but few outside the dugout thought this run was possible a month ago. Duke-bound pitcher Luke Glavin was lost for the season, 2013 all-state outfielder Robbie Klein still had not played a game and no pitcher, other than Datres, had thrown a varsity inning before 2014. The Lancers rallied down the regular-season's stretch, but still were only the district's No. 5 seed and had to win four games to capture the championship.
All Eck keeps doing is coaching hard. All his team keeps doing is winning. Eck's job is to teach baseball, but he has taught his players so much more about life..
Brenda Eck's spirit flows through her son and he has passed it to his players. That has again made Loyalsock a state power.
"Our family has always been private, but at this point people know we're struggling. My mom is a great lady and nobody deserves to go through what she's going through but at this point I think it's our destiny," Eck said. "We understand how difficult what we're doing is and for us to continue to do it is just remarkable, it really is."