Jay Ebersole doesn't have a son or former player on the team and his nephew who is on the roster has missed the year with an injured arm.
But, like so many others who pack the stands following the Central High School baseball team, Ebersole can't help but look on with interest every time Central takes the field and watch with pride as the Scarlet Dragons make another playoff run.
"It's like a local tradition. Everybody likes to play,'' Ebersole said. "I always sit at the game wishing that my dad was still around that he could go. When he wasn't sick, he was at just about every game.''
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Fans from all over southern Blair County will be watching Tyler Ferguson and his Central teammates this afternoon.
Ebersole's father, Sam, helped instill that tradition as a coach at the school and in the Roaring Spring Park and Recreational Department, and Jay - a teammate of current Dragon coach A.J. Hoenstine in the early 1990s - has followed suit as vice-president and a minor division coach in the Martinsburg Little League.
Through the efforts of the Ebersoles and people like them, Central baseball, while not always contending for state titles as it has done the last two years, has long been a force with which to be reckoned and a member of the short list of high school programs its size in this part of the state that can boast that distinction.
The latest generation of Dragons will endeavor to make a second straight trip to the PIAA Class AA championship game today when they face WPIAL champion Riverside at Homer City's First Commonwealth Field at 6 p.m. Talking to people involved with the game in the area of Blair County known as "The Cove,'' they don't think it's any coincidence Central finds itself in this position.
Directions to Homer City
n Take Rt. 22 West to the Rt. 219 North exit in Ebensburg. After about a mile, take the Rt. 422 exit and turn left. Follow Rt. 422 West for approximately 26 miles.
n Take the exit for Rt. 119 South.
n As you approach Homer City on Rt. 119, you'll come to a traffic signal. There will be a Sheetz convenience store on the right. Stay straight.
n From Sheetz, go 1 mile to next traffic light. Just before the traffic light, take the exit ramp to right. (There's even a small sign that says First Commonwealth Field / Jr. Legion Tournament).
n After exiting Route 119, go 2/10 of a mile. At bottom of hill, road bends hard to left, before coming to stop sign. The Homer City Borough Building, a tan brick building is on left. Turn left onto S. Main St.
n Proceed 9/10 of a mile. The C. Frederick Bowser Funeral Home will be on the right. Just in front of funeral home, turn right on to Red Barn Rd.
n Go 1/10 of a mile, come to stop sign. Turn left onto Booster Drive. Follow back to baseball complex.
"Our baseball program has been fortunate to have a lot of good baseball people involved with it,'' said Fred Guyer, a Central player in the 1960s who came back to help coach the sport in the rec leagues before becoming the school's athletic director for a time. "It's just gotten passed down from one generation to the other.''
Since Martinsburg, Morrison Cove and Roaring Spring high schools were consolidated into Central in 1960, the Dragons have won six District 6 titles and finished runner-up three other times. Despite competing with larger schools like Altoona and Hollidaysburg and smaller school powers like Mount Union, the program produced 13 Blair County League champs.
Last year was the second time the Dragons played in the state baseball finals.
"There was a little bit of a difference going into last season than this season,'' Dragon senior left-hand pitcher/first baseman Jared Baird, a four-year member of the Central varsity team, said. "There was more pressure this season, because I think everyone was trying to beat us. But we were always confident that we never thought of ourselves as the underdog.''
Hoenstine grew up playing for Sam Ebersole in youth league and then his father, ex-Cincinnati Reds farmhand Dave, on the high school team before going on at Mansfield to become one of more than 50 Dragons who have continued their baseball careers after graduating from Central.
Although most of Central's players are multi-sport athletes, Hoenstine, who also was the school's football coach until recently, held weekend workouts in the offseason, which Baird said were a big part of the team's success since he's been playing.
Hoenstine, though, acknowledged those in and of themselves aren't enough.
"A big thing is the community involvement,'' A.J. Hoenstine said. "Going back to the little leagues, you see a lot of very knowledgeable people involved with them, and they really support our baseball team. We have some very good people involved all the way up through. Our kids learn the game, but they also play the game hard. We take pride in that. We talk to them about the history of Central baseball.''
That's a rich tradition that includes former professional players like Chris Glass from the 1970s and Christian Bridenbaugh in the 1990s. That, though, also is a product of the area's love affair with the game.
"For many years, Martinsburg and Roaring Spring each had two teams in the VFW Teener League. That means we had 60 kids playing,'' Guyer said.
The same was true until recently in the George B. Kelley Federation for 16-to-18-year-olds, and those two largest communities of the district still have separate youth leagues. Their teams sometimes cross over to play each other in the regular season and tournament action.
Future Dragon teammates hone their skills playing against each other. Baird came out of the Roaring Spring League.
"The little leagues were always competitive, especially when we were playing the teams from Martinsburg,'' Baird said.
Although winning has always been important going back to the days when Frank Moore coached the first Central teams, Cove baseball coaches always seemed to recognize the importance of development and fundamentals.
When Guyer returned to the area after college, Max Baker hired him to help at the park and recreation department. Sam Ebersole, whose favorite sport was baseball, according to his son, Jay, then took the reins of that office from Baker.
"That was a perfect fit. You didn't have offseason programs back then. Sam controlled everything from elementary on up,'' Guyer said. "He really combined the mental aspect with the physical.''
The elder Ebersole began offering an instructional league that focused strictly on fundamentals.
"He started us age 7 or 8. There'd probably be 20 players. It'd be every other day, maybe every day,'' Jay Ebersole said.
Meanwhile people like Denny Cowher, who, like Dave Hoenstine, had professional baseball experience, were helping out with the varsity program.
Baseball holds such adoration in the district that a group of parents helped raise $20,000 to completely renovate the field in the late 1990s around the time Bridenbaugh was getting drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers. So, the Dragons have some big footsteps in which to walk, but they also have a lot of people who know what it takes to be good firmly in their corners.
"You should have high expectations,'' Hoenstine said. "They [the players] want to make our community proud. I told them, you look at our playoff games. Even though we've had to travel, I tell them to look and who has more fans in the stands. That's not to put pressure on them. That's to get them to see who's supporting them, and they've got to play their tails off for them.''