Dragons will face stiff test

The hero faces their biggest obstacle in the end of most good stories, and Loyalsock fits that role to a T as the Central High School baseball team endeavors to complete an undefeated, PIAA Class AA championship season.

The District 4 Lancers are the defending state champions, and only one senior started on last year’s team. Their lineup includes three players that have signed with ACC colleges, and they just beat a team featuring a seventh-round MLB draft pick to get to this point.

“They’re obviously a very good team,” Central coach A.J. Hoenstine said. “I’ve heard they are very well-coached, and they do things right, also.”

First pitch on Friday at Penn State’s Medlar Field at Lubrano Park is scheduled for 10:30 a.m.

Loyalsock comes into the game with a record of 22-5 after beating Philadelphia’s Neumann-Goretti, 4-3, in the semifinals in a game that ended with a rundown between third base and home. The Lancers are going for their third state title since 2008 and have been to the PIAA semifinals five times over the last seven years.

“It’s always the goal to get back. We always talk to our players about winning the last game of the year. Obviously, that’s the state championship game,” Loyalsock coach Jeremy Eck said. “As a young team and a young coaching staff, unfortunately, if you don’t get back there, you aren’t going to be satisfied. We knew we were built to make a run again. It takes a little bit of luck. It takes great athletes, but it also takes a little bit of luck.”

The Lancers have the great athletes. A half-dozen of Eck’s players were part of a team that finished as Babe Ruth national runner-up a few years ago.

Leading the way for the Lancers are the trio of Kyle Datres, Jimmy Webb and Luke Glavin. Datres and Webb, both juniors, are the first two batters in the Loyalsock lineup and are hitting .417 and .475, respectively. Datres has verbally committed to North Carolina, Webb to Wake Forest.

Glavin is a Duke-bound senior. He’s played only sporadically this season because of an injury.

Datres also is all-state in basketball and the star quarterback for the Loyalsock football team. He’s likely to draw the start on the mound, where he’s parlayed a high-80 mph fastball and a well-commanded curve into a 7-2 record and a 0.74 ERA this season.

While the talent’s been there, the luck hasn’t always been for Loyalsock. In addition to Glavin’s injury, senior outfielder Robbie Klein, a 2013 all-stater, was hurt and missed almost a third of the season. After winning their first three games of the season convincingly, they dropped three of the next four, scoring just nine runs in those games. A couple of weeks later, Central Mountain and Hughesville topped the Lancers.

“We are not the same team as we were last year. … We’re just starting to put it all back together,” Eck said. “We haven’t hit the ball as well as have in the past. Last year’s run to the state championship was all about pitching and defense. We’ll manufacture runs in any way we can.”

Bald Eagle Area coach Jim Gardner has gotten to see both state finalists up close. Three of the Eagles’ losses this year came against Central, including a 5-1 setback in the District 6 championship game. Loyalsock was BEA’s first round interdistrict opponent, and the Lancers and Datres ended the Eagles’ season, 6-1.

“I see them as being fairly similar talent-wise,” said Gardner, who is planning to take a personal day off work on Friday just to catch the clash. “Both of them have outstanding pitchers.”

Central scored 31 runs in its two regular season wins over BEA. The Scarlet Dragons have shown an ability this season to maximize their offense, and Gardner thought that was a potential tipping point in an otherwise very even matchup.

“I have a lot of respect for what they do. They use their tools to their utmost potential in the way they come at you,” Gardner said. “Also, they’re willing to hit the ball the opposite way and battle. The guy they are going to be facing throws hard, but I think Central will battle him, get some guys on base and then make things happen. Central’s a team that, if you make one mistake, they make you pay every time. That’s just what they do.”

Shortstop Austin Cunningham sets the table for the Dragons and is bringing a .507 batting average into the state finals with 36 runs scored and 32 RBIs. Fellow starters Nick Hoenstine, Josh McKnight, Mike Mock, Bradi Moore and Jay Stern all are batting better than .400, as well. Moore has scored 34 runs, while Mock, Stern and Hoenstine have driven in at least 32 each.

Coach Hoenstine still was undecided as to his starting pitcher as of Tuesday night. Mock, a junior right-hander who won in Monday’s semifinals against Northwestern, is available to come back and has had a remarkable year, going 11-0 with a 0.67 ERA. However, Hoenstine also could throw last year’s ace, Ethan Lewis, who is 10-0.

Hoenstine even suggested Cunningham or senior Tom Rice could throw, or that he might use all four of them on the mound.

“I told our guys I wouldn’t trade them for any Major League players,” Hoenstine said. “We know we’re going to have to scrap for runs. I’m pretty confident that our pitchers will throw strikes, and we’ll play good defense behind them. It’s great to have the opportunity, but we’ll be up against a pretty good baseball team.”