Loyalsock looking to improve upon winning tradition

Depending on one’s perspective, Jeremy Eck walked into a dream or a nightmare when he became the Loyalsock baseball team’s new coach three years ago.

The good part in 2010 was that Eck inherited a program that captured a state championship, reached two straight semifinals and won 44 games the previous two seasons. The bad part was the immense pressure Eck faced, replacing highly successful coach Casey Waller and guiding a program into a new decade accustomed to winning at a high level.

Eck embraced the challenge, his players responded and nothing has changed. Loyalsock is still one of the state’s best baseball programs and is still winning at a remarkable rate. And today the Lancers play for a shot at the Class AA state championship game.

Loyalsock (20-3) meets District 11 champion Salisbury today at Bloomsburg University in the Eastern Region championship. It is the second time in four years Eck has led the Lancers there.

“As a head coach after four years you want to re-evaluate and see where you stand and see where your program is. I think we’re where we need to be,” Eck said. “It’s exciting but we’re not satisfied. As (Montoursville) coach Jim Bergen always told us in football, ‘be happy, but not satisfied,’ and I’ve carried that with me my entire life and we tell our boys that.”

That mentality has helped Loyalsock become a Class AA power. Loyalsock is the only team which has reached the state’s Final 4 in four of the past six seasons. The team’s seniors have won 76 games and this is the third time in four years the Lancers have won at least 20 games. It has been one of the best runs by any team in any high school sport.

The names of players and coaches have changed over the years but the results have been constant. This consummate winner was born in 2005 when Loyalsock won its first district title. Kory Datres and Nate Hill were the team’s top pitchers that year and now are assistant coaches. They were there when the good times started and they are part of a coaching staff that has helped it continue for nearly a decade.

How Loyalsock has built on the tradition this season is a nod to great Lancer teams of the past. The Lancers have been ravaged by injuries and other issues, but have never buckled. Nothing has deterred Loyalsock in its pursuit of the ultimate goal and this year’s team has proven the program produces players who are as tough as they are talented.

“We’re all tweaked up a little bit but that stuff happens in the game,” shortstop/pitcher Kyle Datres said. “You have to fight through it and make the most of it.”

“We knew coming in that we were built to make a run. Some things haven’t gone our way all season with some injuries and the other stuff, but our kids believe and they have heart,” Eck said. “We talk about Lancer pride all the time and doing things the right way. You do things the right way and everything else will take care of itself.”

Nothing has come easy this season, but Loyalsock has repeatedly found a way to flourish. It rallied to win a fifth straight HAC-II championship and then won consecutive one-run district playoff thrillers over Towanda and Montoursville while earning a fifth state tournament berth in six seasons. The Lancers erased a four-run seventh-inning deficit in the district final, but lost a 7-5, nine-inning heartbreaker to Hughesville.

The loss stung and forced Loyalsock to travel a difficult road to the Final 4, starting in the backyard of District 2 champion Lakeland. Again, the Lancers thrived when others might have broken. Loyalsock snapped Lakeland’s 16-game winning streak and blanked the Chiefs 6-0. They then overcame a four-run deficit in a quarterfinal that covered three days and two locations, downing District 3 champion Delone Catholic, 9-5.

The more difficult the task, the better Loyalsock seems to play.

“We had 12 outs (Saturday) to find a way and we found a way,” senior infielder Ethan Moore said after hitting the go-ahead, two-run triple. “We knew we had four innings to do something, four innings to get baserunners and have people come through and that’s what we did. It was another team effort and a big win.”

Loyalsock has collected a lot of those over the years. Going back to 2008, Loyalsock has won four district championships and 10 state playoff games. No District 4 team has matched that resume and now the Lancers have a shot to enhance it.

Competing at a school that produces successful teams in just about every sport makes it tough to stand out sometimes. And yet this team, this program does. Whether under Waller or Eck, whether healthy or banged up, Loyalsock baseball has set the standard at its school.

“That just shows who we are,” center fielder Robbie Klein said. “We’re just a tough team.”

Now the Lancers want to be the state’s best team.

“They’ve been in big games. They’ve been in World Series, they’ve been in state championships in Little League but none of that compares to playing for a state championship in high school,” Eck said. “To be able to walk out at (Penn State’s) Medlar Park with your community behind you and a state title on the line … there’s nothing like it.”

Today’s game will be yet another tough one. They all are at this point. But that is what Loyalsock likes. That is what makes these games so fun.

“I’m extremely proud of these guys and a little emotional too because I’m drained, I’m tired, but it’s great,” Eck said. “You bust your butt this long and you give everything you have.”

That is the Loyalsock way.