Montoursville’s run capped best season in 12 years

Contrary to conspiracy theories colleagues and I hear all the time, sports writers do not cheer for specific teams or players.

What we root for are good stories. And the Montoursville baseball team provided a great story all season long.

A year after losing the majority of its starters, Montoursville seemed like it might be headed for a rebuilding campaign. Instead, first-year coach Jeremy Eck and his staff convinced their players they could achieve greatness. They were right, too.

Montoursville bought in, sold out and put together the best season this storied program has had in 12 years. The Warriors finished 19-3, captured their first district championship since 2010, reached the state semifinals for the first time since 2006 and laid the foundation for continued future success. These underdogs packed quite a bite and came within seven outs of reaching the Class AAA state final before losing to Lancaster Catholic, 7-2 Monday night.

“I don’t think anyone in District 4 thought we would be here,” Montoursville coach Jeremy Eck said. “Montoursville lost everyone. That’s what everyone was talking about. We had a new coaching staff and we’re extremely young. Coming in our job as a coaching staff was getting them to believe. That’s what we talk about all the time. You just have to believe in yourself and your ability because we do have very good athletes.”

They proved it all year. Montoursville opened its season with a 3-0 win against defending District 4 Class AAA champion Loyalsock. It started 4-0, then hit a bump in the road and an 8-6 loss to Loyalsock had it sitting at 5-2. Several tough games loomed and it seemed the season could go either way at that point. That is when this team went in to overdrive.

Montoursville did not lose again until Monday’s Eastern Region final. The Warriors won 14 straight games, beating one strong opponent after another, highlighting that streak with an epic 3-2, 10-inning district championship win against Loyalsock in which they overcame a 2-0 sixth-inning deficit.

“I really think it’s Coach Eck. He got us more prepared for the season,” senior Ryan Kessler, who shined at five different positions said. “Practices got harder and the expectations were high to begin with, but we wanted to meet them and build on them.”

They did. This was not just an excellent team, but a deep one. It was not one player doing most of the heavy lifting. It was player after player making strong contributions. Logan Ott went 8-1, Owen Kiess won seven games and provided consistent clutch hitting. Sophomore catcher Jaxon Dalena enjoyed a breakout season as did fellow sophomore Cameron Wood. Juniors Dylan Bower and Gabe Phillips were on-base machines throughout states and Kessler provided a spark from the lead-off position. Freshmen Dylan Moll and Peyton Mussina developed into strong starters and seniors John McCarthy and Brandon Dyer provided defensive and offensive sparks.

The list goes on and on. This was a team that grew closer, stronger and better throughout the season. By the time it ended, Montoursville was one of the best four teams in the state.

“Nobody expected us to do anything, so I’m proud that we helped take the program to another level,” Kessler said. “And I think next year they’re going to go even farther.”

That’s the thing. As good as Montoursville was in 2018, it certainly could be better in 2019. Nothing in sports, especially baseball, is a given. Staying healthy and focused is essential, but if Montoursville builds off what it did this season, overcoming some costly injuries along the way, it could be as good as anyone in Pennsylvania. That is a big if, but there is good reason to be excited.

Instead of Monday’s game marking an ending, it could be just the beginning.

“We lose some key seniors but we have a lot of young players and we all expect to be back at this point next season,” said Wood, who hit a second-inning home run and drove in four runs in his last two state tournament games. “Nobody had any experience this season. With everybody returning, I think the pressure won’t be as much. The moment won’t be too big. We’ll know that we’ve been here before and can get it done.”

If Montoursville does get it done, these outgoing seniors’ fingerprints will be all over the success. As impressive as this season was and as good as those seniors were, their lasting legacy could be the impact they make moving forward. They helped set a new standard and now the returning players will keep trying to raise that bar. That is how championship traditions are built and that is exactly what Montoursville is hoping to start again.

Consider 2018, the first brick in that foundation.

“This is definitely a stepping stone for us,” Eck said. “Now it’s going to be different. Now we’re going to be the hunted. Now the word is out about the way we play and the athletes that we have. Guys are going to come at us with the very best they have every night of the week so things will change a little bit, but I still fully believe that we’ll be back next year.”

As strong as Montoursville is in so many sports, at its heart it remains a baseball town. That is one reason Montoursville attracted such huge crowds throughout the season. Still, there was more. It was about the way this team played, the progress it made and the pride it instilled community-wide.

It may not have won a state championship, but 2018 Montoursville still became a team to remember.

“That was just awesome. It’s kind of indescribable to see how much people care,” Wood said. “That’s what baseball does. It brings everyone together”

Maybe this story is just getting started. Chapter 1 was a page-turner, but the next ones might be even better.

Masse may be reached at cmasse@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse.

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