Dragons take aim at first state championship

If you’d have asked Josh McKnight back in March to go out and do something on June 15, he would have had to decline.

McKnight, you see, already had other plans.

Although the high school baseball season hadn’t even started, McKnight, who already knew what it took to reach the PIAA championship game as a freshman with Central back in 2014, was booking a return trip to Penn State’s Medlar Field for the state Class 3A title contest, and he wasn’t planning to buy a ticket.

“I did believe it was a reasonable goal,” McKnight, a Pitt-Johnstown recruit who plays third base for the Scarlet Dragons, said of getting back to the state finals. “We said for years this class was going to be special when we got to be seniors.”

The Dragons are where they expected to be today, and they’ll try to capture the program’s first PIAA trophy this afternoon when they take on District 2 champion Holy Redeemer.

First pitch is scheduled for 3 p.m. Central, which avenged a District 6 championship game loss to Huntingdon in Monday’s state semifinals, will take the field with a 23-3 record. Holy Redeemer makes its first-ever state final appearance with a mark of 16-4.

“I think they expected to be here at this point,” said Central coach A.J. Hoenstine, who has guided the Dragons to the finals three times in 11 years. “These guys have stayed as focused as any team I’ve ever had.”

That was probably fair to anticipate from a team that whose roster features 11 seniors, nine of whom make up the starting lineup. Unlike some Central squads of the past where a couple of players might have stood out above the rest, this group has been largely notable for its remarkable balance up and down the lineup and consistency, although McKnight and near-.500-hitting center fielder Chase Smith definitely can make some eye-opening plays, and pitcher Jarrett Imler gets a lot of attention for his tenacity on the mound.

The Dragons commit fewer than two errors per game, and they’ve won eight games by three runs or less, including the last two PIAA playoff games and a showdown with powerful Hollidaysburg in the championship game of the Curve Classic.

In fact, Central very easily could be undefeated heading into today’s game — the Dragons’ only losses are against Bellefonte and Clearfield by one run early in the regular season and then 2-0 to Huntingdon in the D6 finals.

“We really preach unselfishness. I think this group really shows that on the field,” Hoenstine said. “It’s a tight-knit group.”

McKnight cited an obvious reason for that.

“We’ve all played together since we were little kids,” McKnight said. “We played wiffle ball together when we were playing baseball. We just stuck together the whole way up through.”

Hoenstine figured, with McKnight and Smith leading the way, offense wouldn’t be an issue for this year’s Dragons, and the fielding figured to be in sure hands with Smith in center field and Alex Hoenstine and Larry Corle handling the middle infield. He also knew he had a terrific No. 1 pitcher with Imler, but some things have fallen right with the rest of the staff.

“The pitching has been better than expected. We knew we could count on Jarrett Imler, but a lot of pitchers have stepped up,” A.J. Hoenstine said. “Catcher was a question mark, but Jacob Muthler has stepped up there. We have a lot of guys coming up with big plays. If they don’t do it with the bat, maybe they make it in the field.”

Imler won’t be available to pitch today after going six innings in the semifinal win over Huntingdon. Instead, Hoenstine expected to go with a junior on the mound — either righty Brady Nicewonger or lefty Preston Karstetter.

Nicewonger or Karstetter will face a lineup very much like Central’s. Holy Redeemer is a veteran team that welcomed back its top 10 players from last season.

“One to nine, I don’t think we have a weak spot in the batting order,” Royals coach Chris Ritsick said. “We did think we were going to have a good year, although you couldn’t say we expected to get this far.”

Redeemer’s four losses all are by one run, and the Royal pitching staff has an ERA of 1.41.

At the plate, Holy Redeemer’s biggest threat is No. 3 hitter Tom Borum, the Royals’ catcher. He’s batting .393 with five doubles, a homer and 20 RBIs.

“They remind me a lot of us,” Hoenstine said. “They play a lot like us.”

McKnight was the only current Dragon who was a regular when Central fell to Loyalsock in the 2014 Class 2A state finals; he DH’d that year. He said the veteran Dragons are just going to continue to do what got them to this point.

“It’s just another game. We’re just going to approach it that way,” McKnight said. “We don’t like to get too caught up in it being a playoff game.”

PIAA Class 3A baseball finals

Teams: Central Scarlet Dragons (23-3) vs. Holy Redeemer Royals (16-4)

When: Today, 3 p.m.

Where: Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, University Park