A year after coaching a state champion, Jeremy Eck stood in the outfield at sun-drenched Bodine Park on May 5 and uttered words which surprised even him.
At that point, with his team struggling, injured, disjointed, facing a tough schedule and an 8-5 record, Eck was simply hoping Loyalsock could reach the playoffs. He added the caveat that if they qualified, the Lancers would be dangerous, but he seemed to be convincing himself as much as anyone else.
Turns out Eck was right. And since he uttered those words, Loyalsock has not lost. The Lancers have won 13 consecutive games and are back in familiar territory. Loyalsock faces District 12 champion Neumann-Goretti in today's state semifinal at Northern York High School. The Lancers are playing in the state's Final 4 for a fifth time in seven seasons, a claim no other program in any classification can make.
Teammates and coaches congratulate pitcher Phil Krizan after an inning during the District 4 Class AA?championship game at Bowman Field.
It traveled a rocky road at times, but Loyalsock is right where it wants to be. The ultimate goal is still a possibility.
"A couple weeks ago when we were going through those tough times I never thought we'd be where we are," assistant coach Nate Hill said. "But we're fighters. Through thick and thin we're going to come through and do what we have to do. All the stuff that went on, we pent that anger up and take it out on the baseball field and that's what you have to do."
Hill served as Loyalsock's head coach last Thursday when Loyalsock blanked Notre Dame-Green Pond, 4-0. Eck was with his family and his mother, Brenda, who is battling cancer, but is expected to coach today. The Lancers were determined anyway, but now they have an extra push and are seeking to give Eck and Brenda something special.
How it got here: In districts, beat Cardinal O'Hara, 3-0; Roman Catholic, 11-1; Philadelphia Academy Charter, 12-1; in states, beat Berks Catholic, 5-3; Bloomsburg, 1-0
Players to watch: Josh Ockimey - The 6-foot-2, 225-pound first baseman was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the fifth round (164th overall) last Friday. Ockimey will be deciding between turning pro or attending Indiana, saying if the money is right he will go pro. He is hitting .493 with 32 RBIs and 29 runs and worked out at Fenway Park eight days ago. Pat Doudican - The left-hander is the ace of a terrific three-man rotation. Doudican, a Division I recruit, struggled against Berks Catholic, allowing three runs in the first inning before being removed in the second. He walked three and threw 22 of 41 pitches for strikes. During the Catholic League playoffs, Doudican went 2-0 with a 1.56 ERA, 16 strikeouts in 18 innings while walking 11. Greg Jerla - If Doudican is the team's ace, Jerla is 1A and is another candidate to start today's game. The senior left-hander has been brilliant throughout the postseason, throwing six shutout innings against Berks Catholic and allowing three hits. Jerla, who will play at Marist next spring, dominated the Catholic League Tournament, going 3-0 with two shutouts and 13 strikeouts in his three starts. Jerla has thrown 22 straight scoreless innings and is 8-3 with a 2.33 ERA this season. Ethan Pritchett-The sophomore right-hander threw a two-hit shutout against Bloomsburg and struck out nine. He has struck out 20 in his last 18 innings.
N-G notes: The Saints reached the 2012 Class AAA state semifinals and lost to Salisbury, 6-2, in eight innings in the opening round of last year's Class AA tournament. Bloomsburg's Colton Hock held N-G to four hits in Thursday's quarterfinal and struck out 10, but scored a third-inning run on a wild pitch. The Saints overcame a 3-0 first-inning deficit against Berks Catholic, going ahead to stay in the third inning. They had seven hits in that win with Tommy Nardini's two-run single putting them ahead to stay. Nardini was moved to the clean-up position midway through the season. Doudican and Vince Vaccone also had RBI singles in that win. N-G has won four of the last six Catholic League championships. First-year coach Kevin Schneider is one of Monmouth's all-time best pitchers, setting a single-season record with a 0.74 ERA. He also is the program's career leader in appearances and saves and coaches a nationally-ranked travel ball team.
"It puts it in a lot of perspective. It shows how much of a family we really are," right fielder Jimmy Webb said. "Years from now when we're not going to have baseball we're always going to have our guys, we'll always have our family together. It shows that no matter what happens, cherish every day you have with someone and that's what we're doing."
Loyalsock seemed broken a bit past the season's halfway point, losing five of 10 games at one point. Duke-bound pitcher Luke Glavin was lost for the season after having surgery on his arm. All-state outfielder Robbie Klein was thought to be lost for the season and personnel issues also surrounded the team.
Instead of imploding, Loyalsock pulled together. Families go through hard times but the strongest ones bounce back and that is what the Lancers did. They won their final seven regular-season games before capturing four playoff games, a playoff first, to win the district championship. Loyalsock has outscored its first two state opponents, 10-1, and all the adversity now seems so long ago.
"We set a goal of being district champ and then set a goal to make it to the state championship and we're one win away from that," Hill said. "The kids are hungry. We're playing our best baseball right now and I think it's only going to get better."
That would be a huge plus against Neumann-Goretti, a loaded team that many anointed the state's best long ago even though the Lancers are the defending champions. This season has been a huge challenge and Loyalsock always seems up for a fight.
The Lancers have a good one today and they are not running. They are embracing the opportunity.
"It doesn't matter who we're playing," said Kyle Datres, who threw a one-hit shutout against Notre Dame. "If we're playing the Yankees or we're playing a T-ball team we come out and play the way we have to play and that's all that matters."
Different players have emerged as vital contributors during the 13-game run to the Final 4. Klein returned at the Backyard Brawl and has changed the lineup's complexion. Phil Krizan has provided excellent defense at second base, been brilliant in relief pitching roles and been a tough offensive out. Tommy Baggett and Joey Balawajder have delivered some clutch hits and Bailey Young and Evan Moore had game-changing RBI doubles in the district championship.
Freshman pitcher Andrew Malone came out of nowhere after Glavin was injured and is 5-1, winning two playoff games. Center fielder Nick DiFrancesco has helped anchor a strong outfield a year after missing most of the season with a back injury, and Nate Krizan has played stellar defense at shortstop. The bottom line is this family can play.
"I just think we're coming alive at the right time. We're hitting our peak right when we need to, so we have to come out strong two more games and get it done," Datres said. "We have to work hard at practice, get better each day and hopefully that will help us be successful down the road."
Loyalsock has traveled the long and winding road to reach the Final 4. So much has to go right in a sport as unpredictable and humbling as baseball to reach this point. The Lancers know it well.
This team has taken the hits but it keeps getting back up. The finish line is so close and Loyalsock is enjoying where this journey has taken it.
"This is what we live for. We're playing when there's no school and nothing else to worry about," Webb said. "You're playing baseball with your best friends and making memories. It's the best feeling ever."