HOMER CITY - After being helped up by Scarlet Dragon coach A.J. Hoenstine following the postgame meeting, Central High School senior baseball player Trent Forshey leaned over the fence to share a brief kiss with his girlfriend, Sarabeth Bean.
It might very well have symbolized a good-bye to not only one of the best teams in Central's proud baseball program but a farewell to one of the most accomplished classes in the school history.
"Just an awesome run from where we started,'' Forshey said, fighting back tears. "We wanted to get back to this point, but we knew we were going to have to work hard.''
The District 6 champion Dragons' bid to return to the PIAA Class AA finals ended with a tough, 5-4 loss to Riverside at First Commonwealth Bank Field on Monday. As the players left the field, one fan shouted, "Good year.'' Another "We're proud of you, boys.''
It was a sentiment shared by their coach.
"I wish this was a three-game series, but it's not. It's one game. I knew that we'd play really hard,'' Hoenstine said. "[The players] did a good job of that and holding each other accountable for things and just played the game the right way.
"Baseball's a tough game sometimes because you can only put nine guys out in the field, but we had a whole group of seniors who were high-quality, high-character kids and good role models for our underclassmen.''
Coming off a magical year when they finished as state runner-up, the Dragons turned in a campaign in which they won one more game by going 18-6, even though the season ended one game earlier.
Central didn't do it with the same nucleus. Only four of the seven seniors who started vs. Riverside were in the lineup of the 2010 state final against Bermudian Springs. One of them - Forshey - didn't play until the playoffs because of knee surgery from a football injury.
Seniors Mason Longenecker and Lucas Runk, who started at third base and center field, respectively, weren't even on the team last year. Sophomore catcher Kasy Hamm was at a different position, and shortstop Austin Cunningham was in eighth grade.
"Obviously, we had our two left-handed pitchers [Tyler Ferguson and Jared Baird] coming back. But, with Trent being out, [right fielder] Pat Schon was really our only returning regular,'' Hoenstine said. "I tell the kids at the start of every season that we might not start off too well, but, if you do what we ask of you, we'll be a pretty tough team to beat by the end of the year.''
The Dragons were 3-3 after a 6-0 loss to Philipsburg-Osceola and only 5-4 on April 20 before reeling off eight straight wins, punctuated by an amazing 36-22 victory at Clearfield when first-year starting senior Lucas Blattenberger belted four home runs.
"We knew what it took from last year. We lost six of our starting hitters, but we had our two big pitchers back. Fergy and Baird really got us through the playoffs,'' Forshey said. "We had to get the bats somewhere. We had some big people step up.''
But then, that's what this group of Dragons had always been doing. In addition to a 6-AA title and two trips to the state final four in baseball, these seniors will leave Central as the school's winningest class in football with a district title and two other trips to the district semifinals. Derek Nothstein and Dan Hoover combined for three PIAA track and field medals for Central.
"Coach Hoenstine, back in sixth grade, told us we were going to be the class to turn things around and do things the right way. I think, through the years, we proved to everyone that we were that class,'' Runk said.
Hoenstine, who also coached them in football, said he saw something that went beyond athletic ability, describing a close-knit, unselfish group that also excelled in the classroom.
"We pushed each other in practice all the time. We were a really good team, fighting for spots all the time. That's what you want, to make each other better,'' Runk said. "We also had a great coaching staff. I wouldn't trade it for anything.''
Runk, though, couldn't help to wonder what else was possible. He was all-state in football three times and will continue to play that sport at St. Francis University with Forshey despite a injury that ended his sophomore season in the state quarterfinals and another in summer baseball that got his senior football year off to an uncertain start. By the end of football, he was one of the healthiest Dragons.
"I think about it a lot,'' Runk said "But, what is, is.''
Forshey played half of the football season on a torn ACL and partially torn meniscus but came back for the baseball playoffs. The state semis were his first full game, and he responded by doubling and making a couple of nice plays in the field.
"Just growing up, Central sports have always been special to me. I love all my teammates and coaches,'' Forshey said. "After my surgery, I knew I would have to push hard.''
The Dragons will have a solid core of letterwinners back in 2012 led by three starters.
"They know what it takes now. They know what it takes in the offseason, all the practice on Saturdays and the work ethic they have to have. We had a lot of leaders on last year's team, a lot of leaders on this year's team,'' Forshey said. "We'll have leaders step up on next year's team.''