Depending on one's perspective, Jeremy Eck walked into a dream or a nightmare when he became the Loyalsock baseball team's new coach three years ago.
The good part in 2010 was that Eck inherited a program that captured a state championship, reached two straight semifinals and won 44 games the previous two seasons. The bad part was the immense pressure Eck faced, replacing highly successful coach Casey Waller and guiding a program into a new decade accustomed to winning at a high level.
Eck embraced the challenge, his players responded and nothing has changed. Loyalsock is still one of the state's best baseball programs and is still winning at a remarkable rate. And today the Lancers play for a shot at the Class AA state championship game.
Loyalsock (20-3) meets District 11 champion Salisbury today at Bloomsburg University in the Eastern Region championship. It is the second time in four years Eck has led the Lancers there.
"As a head coach after four years you want to re-evaluate and see where you stand and see where your program is. I think we're where we need to be," Eck said. "It's exciting but we're not satisfied. As (Montoursville) coach Jim Bergen always told us in football, 'be happy, but not satisfied,' and I've carried that with me my entire life and we tell our boys that."
That mentality has helped Loyalsock become a Class AA power. Loyalsock is the only team which has reached the state's Final 4 in four of the past six seasons. The team's seniors have won 76 games and this is the third time in four years the Lancers have won at least 20 games. It has been one of the best runs by any team in any high school sport.
PIAA CLASS AA EASTERN FINAL
Salisburg (25-1) vs. Loyalsock (20-3)
Loyalsock facts: The Lancers are playing in their fourth Eastern Final championship since 2008 and are seeking their first state championship appearance since that year. Loyalsock rallied past District 3 champion Delone Catholic for a 9-5 quarterfinal win that stretched from Thursday to Saturday and that began in Pine Grove before being moved to Bloomsburg. The Lancers overcame a 5-1 third-inning deficit and scored five runs in the fifth and sixth innings after the game was resumed Saturday in the fourth. Ethan Moore delivered a big go-ahead, two-run triple in the fifth inning. Right fielder Jimmy Webb went 3 for 4 and scored twice while center fielder Robbie Klein went 1 for 1 and reached base four times. Klein is 3 for 5 in two state games, has reached base six times and has three RBIs. Kyle Datres threw five scoreless innings and struck out six against Delone after throwing 3 1/3 hitless innings in a 6-0 first-round win over Lakeland. Duke-bound sophomore Luke Glavin threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings against Lakeland and is 5-1. He threw 6 1/3 brilliant innings in a 4-3 district quarterfinal win over Towanda and threw a complete-game two-hitter with 13 strikeouts in a 2-1 regular-season game against Danville. Loyalsock has overcome deficits of three and four runs in the postseason and edged Montoursville, 2-1 in the district semifinals when Klein drew a game-winning bases-loaded walk. Bailey Young hit a two-out sixth-inning RBI single in that game. Tommy Baggett was one of the team's top run producers during the regular season and was a HAC-II first-team all-star, along with Datres, Klein and Webb.
Salisbury facts: The Falcons are seeking their second state championship appearance in three seasons and have a good core still together from the team which reached the title game in 2011. They dethroned defending Eastern Region champion Pine Grove in the District 11 semifinals, turning a three-run seventh-inning deficit into a dramatic 6-5 win. Salisbury defeated Neumann-Goretti, 6-2, in eight innings in the opening round of states before holding off Hughesville, 9-5, in Thursday's quarterfinals. The Falcons opened a 3-0 first-inning lead in that game before falling behind 5-4 in the third. They took the lead back in the fifth inning and added three insurance runs in the seventh. Salisbury did a good job finding holes and finished with 11 hits, several with two strikes. Center fielder Brad Vangeli made the play of the game in the bottom of the sixth, throwing the potential tying runner at home with a perfect strike. Justin Aungst and Tyler Cooperman threw well against Hughesville, scattering eight hits. Those two are a combined 16-1. Staff ace Nic Ampietro is 8-0 with a 0.98 ERA and 72 strikeouts. He allowed a season-high five runs against Pine Grove. He allowed one run and scattered seven hits while striking out two in 6 1/3 innings against Neumann-Goretti before Aungst earned the win in relief. Salisbury is collectively hitting .371. Aungst is hitting .483 with three home runs and 34 RBIs. Vangeli, the lead-off hitter is batting .447 while Mason Kresley has a team-high four home runs and 33 RBIs. Right fielder Zach Seitz is 6 for 8 with four RBIs in two state games.
Winner plays: District 7 champion Beaver or District 7 runner-up Quaker Valley
- By CHRIS MASSE
The names of players and coaches have changed over the years but the results have been constant. This consummate winner was born in 2005 when Loyalsock won its first district title. Kory Datres and Nate Hill were the team's top pitchers that year and now are assistant coaches. They were there when the good times started and they are part of a coaching staff that has helped it continue for nearly a decade.
How Loyalsock has built on the tradition this season is a nod to great Lancer teams of the past. The Lancers have been ravaged by injuries and other issues, but have never buckled. Nothing has deterred Loyalsock in its pursuit of the ultimate goal and this year's team has proven the program produces players who are as tough as they are talented.
"We're all tweaked up a little bit but that stuff happens in the game," shortstop/pitcher Kyle Datres said. "You have to fight through it and make the most of it."
"We knew coming in that we were built to make a run. Some things haven't gone our way all season with some injuries and the other stuff, but our kids believe and they have heart," Eck said. "We talk about Lancer pride all the time and doing things the right way. You do things the right way and everything else will take care of itself."
Nothing has come easy this season, but Loyalsock has repeatedly found a way to flourish. It rallied to win a fifth straight HAC-II championship and then won consecutive one-run district playoff thrillers over Towanda and Montoursville while earning a fifth state tournament berth in six seasons. The Lancers erased a four-run seventh-inning deficit in the district final, but lost a 7-5, nine-inning heartbreaker to Hughesville.
The loss stung and forced Loyalsock to travel a difficult road to the Final 4, starting in the backyard of District 2 champion Lakeland. Again, the Lancers thrived when others might have broken. Loyalsock snapped Lakeland's 16-game winning streak and blanked the Chiefs 6-0. They then overcame a four-run deficit in a quarterfinal that covered three days and two locations, downing District 3 champion Delone Catholic, 9-5.
The more difficult the task, the better Loyalsock seems to play.
"We had 12 outs (Saturday) to find a way and we found a way," senior infielder Ethan Moore said after hitting the go-ahead, two-run triple. "We knew we had four innings to do something, four innings to get baserunners and have people come through and that's what we did. It was another team effort and a big win."
Loyalsock has collected a lot of those over the years. Going back to 2008, Loyalsock has won four district championships and 10 state playoff games. No District 4 team has matched that resume and now the Lancers have a shot to enhance it.
Competing at a school that produces successful teams in just about every sport makes it tough to stand out sometimes. And yet this team, this program does. Whether under Waller or Eck, whether healthy or banged up, Loyalsock baseball has set the standard at its school.
"That just shows who we are," center fielder Robbie Klein said. "We're just a tough team."
Now the Lancers want to be the state's best team.
"They've been in big games. They've been in World Series, they've been in state championships in Little League but none of that compares to playing for a state championship in high school," Eck said. "To be able to walk out at (Penn State's) Medlar Park with your community behind you and a state title on the line ... there's nothing like it."
Today's game will be yet another tough one. They all are at this point. But that is what Loyalsock likes. That is what makes these games so fun.
"I'm extremely proud of these guys and a little emotional too because I'm drained, I'm tired, but it's great," Eck said. "You bust your butt this long and you give everything you have."
That is the Loyalsock way.