Double play

STATE COLLEGE – Six years ago, several future Lancers watched the Loyalsock baseball team capture its first Class AA state championship.

They eagerly awaited the day they would have their chance at a title, their shot at immortality. Given that opportunity, they have turned what started out as one championship into something even bigger. As Loyalsock players threw their gloves high into the air Friday, a state dynasty was born.

Kyle Datres threw a complete-game five-hitter, Jimmy Webb shined defensively and offensively and Evan Moore threw out three runners Friday at Penn State’s Medlar Field at Lubrano Park as Loyalsock defeated Central, 5-1 and captured its second straight state championship. The Lancers (23-5) became District 4’s first-ever repeat champion and just the third Class AA team in history to go back to back.

Overcoming a series of injuries, personal adversity and the unpredictability that is baseball, Loyalsock climbed the state’s summit again and earned a special place in both program and PIAA history.

“I was standing out there in the outfield and just thinking, oh my gosh. It’s the best feeling in the world,” said Webb, who went 2 for 3 with an RBI triple and two runs. “This year everything our team went through and how close we got, we’re ecstatically happy. This is everyone on this team’s favorite baseball season ever.”

“To overcome the adversity that we did and come out on top is unbelievable,” said third baseman Joey Balawajder, who went 1 for 2 with an RBI. “That was the goal at the beginning of the season. I knew this team wasn’t going to give up until we reached that goal.”

Doing so proved more difficult than last year and in 2008. The Lancers lost Duke-bound pitcher Luke Glavin to season-ending surgery early this season and played without 2013 all-state outfielder Robbie Klein much of the season. Webb suffered a pulled hamstring in the playoffs, center fielder Nick DiFranscesco played with a torn labrum and Klein came back from a painful back injury despite doctors telling him earlier this year he would not play.

Loyalsock was 8-5 just past the season’s halfway point and seemed to be falling apart. Some might have stopped talking about a Loyalsock repeat at that point. Except the Lancers. Rumor of their demise was greatly exaggerated.

Loyalsock ended the season on a 15-game winning streak and everyone played their role. Eight starters reached base yesterday and the one who did not, Moore, was the game’s defensive MVP after single-handedly stopping Central’s potent running game.

They took the long, winding and bumpy road, but Loyalsock reached its destination. The Lancers once again are the state’s best Class AA team.

“We got down in the beginning of the year and nobody believed in us but ourselves” said Datres, who capped a terrific postseason by winning a fourth straight state game. “We took it as motivation. Nobody believed in us but we’re brothers and that’s all that matters. We have that belief in the team and you saw that today. We came out and played fantastic.”

Sixty-five miles away, coach Jeremy Eck’s mother Brenda held her BEstrong T-shirt tight as Loyalsock overcame an early 1-0 deficit and started putting the game away. In the stands filled to near capacity in along the lower level, Loyalsock fans wore those same shirts as Loyalsock captured a third state title in six years.

Any state championship is special. This one, though, had extra meaning.

Brenda Eck had been battling cancer the last two years and was told two weeks into the season that she had a week to live. She kept fighting on and defying the odds and became Loyalsock’s source of motivation. If she could keep fighting, than so could they.

Jeremy Eck told the Sun-Gazette late Friday night that Brenda had died after the game. No other information was available.

Loyalsock was knocked down but never out and now the title is theirs once again. They did Brenda proud, lifted their coach upon their collective shoulders and mirrored both his and his mother’s fighting spirit.

“It was our destiny. Everything we went through and she went through, we weren’t going to stop,” Balawajder, a cancer survivor, said. “She’s a great person and we did it for her. She deserves it.”

“To be able to come out and end it this way is great,” Eck said. “You talk about doing it for my mom and the community, but to be able to come out and actually get it done is a storybook ending.”

Loyalsock ended Central’s perfect season, handing the Dragons (24-1) their first loss since last year’s District 6 semifinals. Datres allowed just two hits after the second inning and Loyalsock scored three third-inning runs to take a 3-1 lead it never relinquished. Klein drew an RBI walk to tie the game before Tommy Baggett hit a sacrifice fly, putting Loyalsock ahead to stay while driving in his team-high 27th run.

Balawajder, who played at South Williamsport the last two years, made it 3-1 when he placed a perfect squeeze up the first-base line for a single that scored Phil Krizan. Three innings later, Datres and Webb started putting the game out of reach.

Datres (3 for 3, 2 runs) hit a two-out single and stole second. Webb, who delivered his fourth straight multi-hit state performance, was robbed of a fourth-inning double but would not be denied this time. Webb (2 for 3, 2 runs) crushed an RBI triple to deep right field before scoring two pitches later on a wild pitch.

Webb continued coming up big in Loyalsock’s big games. The Wake Forest-bound right fielder also made a tremendous leaping catch in the fourth inning, robbing Mike Mock of a potential RBI double or triple.

“After I took it deep to left-center I knew they were going to try to pound the outside corner and got up on the dish and just took it to right,” Webb said. “We have things going for us right now. We have some angels in the outfield and it helps us.”

A four-run lead for Datres looked more like 14 at that point. The right-hander capped one of the best performances in area postseason history, striking out six and stifling a team that entered with a .406 batting average.

Central scored a run in the second inning but had just one runner advance past first the rest of the way. Moore played a huge role, throwing out runners trying to steal second in the first, third and fourth innings. The Dragons entered with 102 stolen bases, but Moore threw out speedy Austin Cunningham, who had a team-high 24 twice, and helped change the game’s complexion.

Central put two on with two outs in the sixth, but Datres ended that threat, fielding a grounder and flipping to Balawajder for a fielder’s choice. The North Carolina-bound junior then retired the side in order in the seventh inning as Baggett made a highlight-reel catch in foul territory for the first out.

Krizan fielded the game’s final play, stopping a grounder and throwing to Baggett. Second later, the gloves went into the air and players dogpiled on the third-base side’s infield dirt.

Six years ago on this date, the current Lancers watched history take place. Yesterday, they made it and now they walk together forever.

“This isn’t football or basketball where a couple guys can get it done,” Eck said. “One bad bounce or one good arm can beat you and for us to overcome and beat a fantastic team speaks volumes about our guys and how relentless they are.”