Montoursville no longer the underdog this season

Montoursville reached last year’s District 4 Class AAA semifinals, but several starters graduated. It would not have been shocking if the Warriors took a step back.

Jeremy Eck had other ideas.

Eck returned to his alma mater last fall, hired to coach a storied program that had not won a district championship since 2010. Eck coached for seven seasons at Loyalsock, resigning following the 2016 campaign, leading the Lancers to two state championships and four district titles. Immediately, he set a tone when he met his new players.

Immediately, Eck let the players know one thing. It does not matter how young or inexperienced this team was. Good was not good enough any more. They could achieve greatness.

Flash forward to last Wednesday. Montoursville achieved just that.

The Warriors won an epic, 3-2, 10-inning district final against Loyalsock, rallying from a 2-0 sixth-inning deficit and making Eck look like a prophet. More work remains, starting Monday in the state tournament against District 2 champion Lakeland, but this is a program that continues moving forward.

“We’re a very well-coached team. We’ve been doing stuff since the fall,” winning pitcher Owen Kiess said after throwing three shutout innings of relief. “Coach Eck told us at our first practice we’re going to win a district championship and we’re going to play those guys and we did end up playing them in the final and beating them. We were prepared.”

“We talked about this all year long. The first time I met with this team as coach I told them they were good enough to compete for a district championship and win it,” Eck said. “Winning the league, winning the Backyard Brawl and winning the district title were all realistic goals.”

Montoursville (17-2) won both the Brawl and district championships Tuesday and earlier this season, captured its first HAC-II championship. The Warriors broke Loyalsock’s hold on both District 4 and the HAC-II. They also have won 12 straight games and overcome several costly injuries.

Few outside the Montoursville dugout thought this would happen. The Warriors won 12 games last year, but lost some of their top hitters and their two wins leaders. Montoursville players absorbed Eck’s words like sponges. They knew many counted them out, but they loved proving them wrong.

Skepticism from the outside turned into motivation inside. And nobody is doubting the Warriors any longer.

“We were the underdogs all year. Nobody really expected us to win, just like in basketball,” Kiess said. “People weren’t putting money on us and we had our backs against the wall and we came out and won the championship. That’s all that matters.”

“We grinded this whole year,” Gabe Phillips said after drawing the game-winning walk. “Nobody thought we would be here and we did it. We weren’t cocky, but we did the right thing and had that confidence.”

That showed in the season opener. In a preview of things to come, Montoursville and Loyalsock battled to a 0-0 tie through six innings. Kiess, though, hit a two-run seventh-inning single and combined with Logan Ott on a 4-hitter as the Warriors sent an early message and won, 3-0. Montoursville started 4-0, before losing to Central Mountain, 6-3. Two games later, Loyalsock defeated it, 8-6.

From defeat came valuable lessons. And it was the Central Mountain loss, in particular that might have really set Montoursville on that championship path.

“We got to Central Mountain and we don’t throw Owen or Logan because we’re more concerned about Mifflinburg and Loyalsock coming up and winning the league championship and people started questioning things. They went, ‘why didn’t we go there to win?'” Eck said. “I told them we went there to win. We put a kid on the mound who is very capable of winning that game. Why did your mindset change and why did you not believe we could win? I wouldn’t have put him out there if I didn’t think we could win. After that conversation I think things started to change a little bit.”

Montoursville has not lost since that second Loyalsock game. The Warriors bought into what Eck and the coaching staff were saying. They no longer hoped to win, but expected to win, no matter the situation. Phillips has missed most of the second half of the season with a hamstring injury. Outfielder Brandon Dyer, a fantastic No. 9 hitter, missed the district final with a hip injury. Outfielder Dylan Moll has fought injury and designated hitter Cameron Wood started the year in the hospital.

Through it all, Montoursivlle has kept winning. Different players keep filling the voids and Montoursville has its most wins in a season since 2011. The Warriors are talented, but they also are tough and resilient.

“I don’t think too many people expected us to win a district championship but we believed in ourselves,” Wood said. “That’s all that matters.”

Eck’s message now is that Montoursville can not relax or feel content. The biggest prize remains out there. Montoursville has won two state championships, but none since 1992. It reached the 2006 Class AA state final, but has not won a state tournament game since.

Montoursville has put together a fantastic season but it now has a new opportunity. Lakeland (21-1) is an excellent team and Montoursville will have to play a fantastic game to beat it. This is the fun part. Montoursville has spent its season proving others wrong and now it has a chance to do so on a statewide level.

“That’s what I’m trying to instill in these guys. Winning a district title is great, but your two wins from playing in the Eastern final,” Eck said. “I have to ingrain that in them and make them understand that you’re 14 good innings away from having a chance to play for a spot in the state championship. It’s difficult, but we’re close. We have to come out and play great baseball or we’ll be going home.”