Central among elite teams

UNIVERSITY PARK – A player of the farm system of Cincinnati’s famed Big Red Machine in the late 1970s, a member of one of the dynasties of the Altoona Greater City League and a successful coach for more than three decades, Dave Hoenstine owns a baseball resume with which few in the area can compare.

Hoenstine thinks he saw something special this year watching the Central High School Scarlet Dragons.

“This team’s about as good as I’ve seen, and I’ve been coaching for 31 years,” Hoenstine said. “This is one of the best I’ve seen defensively and pitching and just putting the ball in play.

“This team is up there with one of the best I’ve seen in this area.”

That’s saying a lot.

Schools like Bellwood-Antis, Huntingdon, Mount Union and State College have produced PIAA champion teams in the last 35 years. It’s hard to argue, though, that the 2014 Scarlet Dragons, despite Friday’s 5-1 PIAA Class AA championship game defeat to Loyalsock before a heavily pro-Central crowd at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, earned a place among the very upper echelon of baseball squads in central Pennsylvania since the PIAA started crowning state champs in 1977, and maybe of all-time.

If you want a reason, just wrap your head around this one: 24-0. That was the Scarlet Dragons’ record before finally falling to a defending state champion team that had three major college recruits on its roster.

In high school baseball, that’s almost unheard of. Even Loyalsock lost five games this season. There just are going to be days when the team runs into a hot pitcher, or maybe most of the team has a bad day at the plate. Sometimes, a backload of games because of weather postponements depletes your own team’s pitching, and you get outscored.

The Scarlet Dragons went 24 straight games without that happening, or finding a way to overcome it.

“Not many teams have done that,” senior centerfielder Zach Slagenweit said.

In fact, very few of Central’s games even were close – only four of those wins were decided by three runs or less.

“It’s unbelievable. Words can’t even describe it,” senior outfielder Bradi Moore said. “It was amazing.”

The Dragons captured the imagination of the Cove area, and fans clad in Central red filled buses and the stands at Medlar Field, appearing to outnumber Loyalsock followers by five or six to one. The team played an exciting style that featured aggressive baserunning and terrific defense.

“We always played the game as hard as we could. We practiced hard every day. We never took [for granted] anything,” senior outfielder-pitcher Ethan Lewis said.

Several of the players credited their coaches without any prompting, most of all head coach A.J. Hoenstine.

“Coach Hoenstine is one of the most influential men I ever met. I love him to death. I wish I could play one more game for him,” Slagenweit said.

It’s probably no coincidence that this might have been one of the most athletic groups of male athletes ever assembled at Central, and what a year they had. In the fall, the Dragons upset Richland for the 6-AA football championship and came a few minutes from advancing to the PIAA semifinals. In the winter, they were the 6-AA basketball runners-up.

“We played our rear ends off every game. We played every game like it was our last,” Slagenweit said.

Moore said the players, several of whom played all three sports and many of whom played at least two, were very competitive with each other growing up, honing their talents by trying to be the best of the best.

Eight players that suited up on Friday were seniors, including the superb outfield of Lewis, Moore and Slagenweit and starting shortstop and leadoff hitter Austin Cunningham.

“They’re some of the best I’ve had,” Hoenstine said. “But I think there are some special ones coming, too.”

In fact, while a lot of them have become familiar names already, more than half the players Hoenstine trotted out to start against Loyalsock were underclassmen. The group included junior Jay Stern, who had two hits, junior second baseman Nick Hoenstine, who hit almost .500 this year and scored Central’s only run, junior third baseman Brenden Vollkommer, who had the Dragons’ RBI, freshman designated hitter Josh McKnight, who doubled, and starting pitcher Mike Mock.

Mock turned in a phenomenal year. He went into the state finals with an 11-0 record and an ERA of 0.67.

“I expect him to be even better next year,” Stern said of Mock. “He really works hard.”

“That kid’s been the heart and soul our team. He’s been our stud pitcher,” Slagenweit added. “They’re lucky to have him back next year.”

So the Dragons seem to have a good start on making another run next year. However, one loss, admittedly a very tough loss, shouldn’t detract much from a remarkable run with a group of guys who played baseball like a team game.

“I’ll always remember the guys I played with,” Lewis said. “I’ll always remember these guys for picking each other up and playing the game the right way.”