Defending state champions focus on their next chance
By CHRIS MASSE
One by one, players repeated the same thing. Sure, Loyalsock captured last year’s Class AA state championship and sure it just clinched another state final berth.
Moments after winning last Monday’s state semifinal, however, Loyalsock players remained unsatisfied. A team that has achieved so much the last two years wants more.
Truth be told, the Lancers still have a chip on their collective shoulder. They remain a team on a mission and that mission is not complete.
Loyalsock tries completing it and goes for a second straight state title at 10:30 this morning when it faces West Region champion Central in the state final at Penn State. The Lancers (22-5) can join Riverside (twice) and Oley Valley as the only repeat Class AA champions if they win. Then again, this year has never been about repeating. It simply has been about being the best Class AA team in 2014.
Now, Loyalsock has its chance.
“We have something to prove. People always say we’re the defending state champions, but we’re not defending anything,” catcher Evan Moore said. “We’re after the 2014 state championship and we’re not satisfied until we win our last game.”
“The only way our season would be a success at all is if we got back to the championship game and went out with a W,” second baseman Phil Krizan said. “We have seven hard innings coming up and we have to go take care of business again.”
Loyalsock has won 14 consecutive games and is 7-0 this postseason, avenging three regular-season defeats, beating two district champions and three state quarterfinalists. The Lancers scored runs in the fifth and sixth innings against N-G, labeled by many the team to beat this season, and won a thriller 4-3 after Moore tug out the potential tying runner between third and home.
The Lancers celebrated that win, but moments later started focusing in on Central. Reaching a state final is the ultimate for some teams, but not for Loyalsock. A year ago, Montoursville legend and former major leaguer Tom O’Malley addressed the team and offered powerful words.
O’Malley talked to Loyalsock after it lost the district final to Hughesville and the Lancers played their best baseball following that speech. A year later his words still have this team motivated and focused.
“He said you should not be satisfied unless you win your last game and we rode that,” Loyalsock coach Jeremy Eck said. “We have another shot and we’re not going to be satisfied. We’re not satisfied that we’re there. We’re going to try our best to win it and ride off into the sunset the right way.”
Doing so will be difficult against undefeated Central, a team that has won its three state tournament games by a 31-10 margin. Then again, any game at this level is supposed to be tough. And Loyalsock likes a challenge.
Loyalsock is playing in its third state final since 2008, but took the most difficult road, yet, to reach it. The Lancers dealt with injuries throughout the season, the most costly being Duke-bound pitcher Luke Glavin going down early in the year. Off the field issues also threatened to destroy the season, but right when everything seemed to be falling apart, the Lancers pulled together.
They have not lost since May 5 and have again played their best baseball at the perfect time. Pitcher Kyle Datres has been brilliant throughout the postseason, going 5-0 and allowing just two earned runs in 33 innings while throwing 27 2/3 straight scoreless innings at one point. The defense has come up big the last two games and brothers Phil and Nate Krizan have been especially strong up the middle.
Different players have been delivering hits in key situations and everyone in the lineup has made a big impact at some point this postseason. Jimmy Webb has three consecutive two-hit state tournament games and team RBI leader Tommy Baggett went 2 for 3 against Neumann-Goretti. Bailey Young and Evan Moore have had clutch hits in wins over Bloomsburg and N-G. Joey Balawajder has been a consistent run producer throughout the season and is hitting .416.
Put all those performances together and Loyalsock has turned its season completely around while building on its stellar tradition. They hit some detours, but the Lancers are right where they always wanted to be come mid-June.
“At that point (when they were 8-5) we weren’t thinking about a state championship run at all. We were just thinking about getting our heads back on straight and playing baseball and not worrying about outside things,” Datres said. “Nothing was going our way. We came together and just fought and fought and fought and that got us back to the state championship and we have seven innings to go.”
Loyalsock also gained perspective watching Eck’s mother Brenda deliver the fight of a lifetime against cancer. Brenda has been one of the team’s biggest supporters since her son began coaching the team in 2010. She was told two weeks into the season that she had a week to live but she keeps defying the odds and keeps holding on. She has told the Lancers she wants a state championship and the players have been going all-out since.
It was easy for Loyalsock players to put aside whatever differences they had when they were struggling. They have given Brenda motivation and she has reciprocated even more. She does not play, but Brenda has been one of the team’s most valuable contributors and has helped this group bond.
“We believed that it could happen. Once you win a state title you say what else is left? Unless you get back there you’re never going to be satisfied and that’s what we’ve been preaching to these guys,” Eck said. “Obviously winning games is a big deal and we want to win and that’s what we’re all about, but ultimately we’re coming together as a family and they’re battling for each other, they’re battling for my mom.”
Loyalsock has battled through an uphill climb but has reached its final destination. It was 364 days ago when Loyalsock captured the 2013 state championship. It has worn a collective bulls-eye on its back since, taken every opponents best shot, been knocked down and come back swinging.
None of that matters now. It is all about seven innings. This is the last time this team will play high school baseball together. The Lancers will remember this game for the rest of their lives. This is a special moment in time and the goal is to own that moment.
“Jeremy always asks us how do you want to be remembered?” Datres said. “Do you want to be remembered as the team that won a state championship with a lot of sophomores and juniors that had all the talent in the world and just let it all go out the window and were satisfied with one or do you want your name on that banner twice? We want to be remembered as champions.”