10 things to remember about the 2014 state champions
A year ago some fans gathered in an elevator moments after Loyalsock captured the 2013 Class AA state championship. Within seconds the repeat talk started. The Lancers had not even received the championship plaque but the pressure already was on.
Loyalsock returned eight starters from that team and things looked great on paper. Before the 2014 season started, however, injuries began sending the Lancers on a long, winding and bumpy road. Again, though, it reached Medlar Field at Lubrano Park at Penn State. Again, Loyalsock reached the state’s summit.
Loyalsock defeated Central, 5-1 Friday and became the first District 4 team to repeat as state champions. Considering the obstacles, it was an unlikely title run and the following are 10 defining moments that made it happen.
10. Joey Balawajder’s arrival: Balawajder spent the last two seasons playing at South Williamsport and did not figure to play a prominent role after moving to Loyalsock last fall. Instead, the junior third baseman was a huge addition and became one of the team’s most valuable players. Balawajder hit .420 and was one of the team’s top run producers and base stealers. He repeatedly came up big in the playoffs and lived a dream Friday, winning his first state title.
9. Winning state champion showdown: Loyalsock traveled to undefeated West York early this season for a showdown against the two-time defending Class AAA champions. West York was 7-0 and had eight starters back from last year, but Loyalsock thumped it 5-1 as Kyle Datres threw a one-hitter and Balawajder went 4 for 4. The Lancers soon started struggling, but this win showed how good they could be when they were clicking and that proved crucial.
8. Losing Round 2 to Hughesville: Loyalsock traveled to Bodine Park last May 5 knowing the winner of that day’s game likely would capture the HAC-II championship. The Lancers led 1-0 until the sixth inning but Hughesville rallied and won, 2-1 in 10 innings. That victory helped Hughesville end Loyalsock’s five-year title reign and completed a season sweep. It also was the third straight time the Spartans beat Loyalsock, including in last year’s district final. The loss was a tough one, but it sparked something inside Loyalsock. Instead of crumbling, the Lancers came together and never lost again. Loyalsock defeated Hughesville in the district semifinals and won its last 15 games while tying the program record for wins.
7. Robbie Klein’s return: A year ago, Klein earned all-state honors and was one of Loyalsock’s most valuable players, batting over .400, playing excellent defense and providing strong pitching. After suffering a stress fracture in his back during the offseason, though, Klein looked like he might not play at all his senior season. Against the odds, Klein returned for the Backyard Brawl championship and his presence instantly changed Loyalsock’s offensive dynamic. Klein settled back into the clean-up spot and strengthened the middle of the lineup. Klein consistently reached base and his intensity and leadership were a huge addition as Loyalsock soon started surging.
6. Backyard Brawl champions: The night Klein returned, Loyalsock repeated as Backyard Brawl champions, recording impressive wins over rivals Williamsport and South Williamsport. The wins signaled how quickly Loyalsock was coming together just five days after losing at Hughesville. The Lancers played one of their most complete games against Williamsport, slowed streaking South and served notice that they were hitting their stride down the season’s stretch. Counting the Brawl, Loyalsock went 8-0 in tournament games this season.
5. Andrew Malone’s emergence: Loyalsock suffered a devastating blow early in the season when Duke-bound Luke Glavin was lost for the season after a blood clot was removed from his arm. Datres and Glavin won every game in last year’s postseason and Loyalsock was left without a pitcher not named Datres who had thrown a varsity inning prior to 2014. Enter Malone. The freshman came out of nowhere and started shutting down opponents, including Williamsport. Malone went 5-1 with two saves and a 2.31 ERA. He earned the win in two playoff games, including the district final over Bloomsburg. Malone’s presence gave Eck the confidence to replace Datres after five innings in a 6-1 first-round state win over Bald Eagle Area. That move allowed Datres to pitch in all four state playoff games as Malone came up big. Malone’s development gives Loyalsock an especially formidable rotation next year with Glavin returning.
4. BEstrong: Eck delivered an emotional speech during winter workouts, telling the team his mother Brenda had terminal cancer and there was nothing that could be done. Brenda overcame cancer a year ago but it returned in the offseason. Two weeks into the season, doctors told Brenda she had two weeks to live but she kept fighting on, asking Loyalsock to give her another state championship. Brenda’s spirit inspired Loyalsock and the team never lost sight of achieving the ultimate goal. Players wrote BEstrong on their hats and cleats while fans wore BEstrong shirts, turning the third-base line into a sea of maroon and white Friday. Brenda was holding her BEstrong shirt Friday as Loyalsock captured its second straight championship. She passed away Friday night, but her final memory was a great one. She never played a game but Brenda Eck always will be remembered as one of the 2014 team’s most valuable contributors.
3. Can’t keep them down: Look up and down Loyalsock’s roster and one sees a series of players who overcame injuries and/or illness. Klein and Young were told at different times their season was over while Jimmy Webb and Nick DiFrancesco played through painful injuries in the outfield. Tommy Baggett fought a severely sprained ankle and trainer Barb Wertz seemed to be on call all the time. Time after time, though, those players fought on, refused to come out or stay down. The Lancers are a talented team but at the heart of this title run was an incredible will to win. This team would settle for nothing less than a state championship and had no trouble sacrificing their bodies to earn it.
2. Kyle Datres’s dominance: Area fans might watch baseball for the rest of their lives and never see a postseason performance like the one Datres delivered. The Lancers basically put their state title hopes in Datres’s right hand and he delivered one clutch performance after another. The North Carolina-bound junior went 6-0 this postseason, winning all four state playoff games and allowing just four earned runs in 40 innings while striking out 46. Datres stifled some of the state’s best teams, throwing 27 2/3 straight scoreless innings at one point. He retired 36 of the first 39 batters he faced in states and threw a one-hit shutout in a quarterfinal win over Notre Dame-Green Pond. Datres completed his run with a five-hit gem against Central, an undefeated team hitting .406. He also went 3 for 3 and scored two runs, displaying that he is just as dangerous offensively. Datres improved to 11-0 in his postseason career and has thrown complete games in the last two state finals.
1. Crowning a dynasty: Loyalsock never let adversity knock it completely off course and now stands alone as District 4’s only back-to-back state champion. Winning one state championship is extremely difficult, especially in an unpredictable sport like baseball. Doing it two years in a row is not just remarkable but rare. Only Riverside (twice) and Oley Valley ever had won consecutive Class AA state titles and Loyalsock has now joined the exclusive club. Loyalsock has won three state championships since 2008 and those three titles are more than any other District 4 program has won. The Lancers also tied last year’s team for a program-record 23 wins. Eck gathered the team before last year’s title game and told them if they win, they walk together forever. Now this team does the same. Eck always asked his team how it wanted to be remembered this season. They answered in unison.
The 2014 Loyalsock Lancers are one of the school’s best teams ever.