Victory puts stamp on seniors, program

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UNIVERSITY PARK — When they finally got to the part of presenting the Central seniors with the PIAA Class 3A baseball trophy at Medlar Field, it looked like the whole team was coming over to accept it.

After all, the Scarlet Dragon roster includes 11 upperclassmen.

Appropriately, it was a that group of young men who had been playing sports together almost all their lives who in their last act as Central students culminated so many years of work for Scarlet Dragon athletics by bringing the school its first-ever team state championship.

“It’s been an expectation for the 2017 class, since we were freshmen, to get to this point,” center field and leading hitter Chase Smith said. “It was like we wrote a book. Everyone in the field was a senior except out pitcher.

“That we did it for the community, for our fans and for us, it’s amazing.”

The 8-3 victory over District 2 champion Holy Redeemer on Thursday at Penn State served as final validation for a program that has established itself as one of the state’s best. It felt like there were more than 11 people carrying the hardware back to Martinsburg.

“It’s huge for me not just for these guys,” said Central coach A.J. Hoenstine, a star athlete at the school himself back in the 1990s, “but I received maybe a hundred texts or phone calls or emails from former players saying, ‘Go get it done.’ That’s big. I think our players knew they were playing for more than just them.”

Central was making its fourth trip to the state baseball finals and its third in seven years looking for its first win in the last game. They polished it off in the way they’d won 23 other games this season.

They were flawless in the field, making no errors.

They got production throughout the lineup — every Dragon had a hit or scored a run, and those were all seniors. Michael Speck, Jacob Muthler and Jarrett Imler, probably three of Central’s most underrated bats, were the three hitters with two hits apiece.

Central’s two junior pitchers split duty, hit their spots and held Holy Redeemer to four hits.

It might have been the culmination of four years of hard work, but, really, only McKnight saw appreciable action for the Central squad that eventually fell to Loyalsock in 2014. Most of the other current seniors were on the team, but few were in uniform that day.

“I remember sitting in the stands freshman year when Central played in the championship game. I only dreamed of getting back here and winning it all,” said Imler, who DHed on Thursday but posted a 10-1 record as the Dragons’ No. 1 pitcher this season. “Words can’t even describe how excited I am right now.”

Imler, Smith, Muthler, Speck, Alex Hoenstine, Josh McKnight, Hunter Liebal, Larry Corle, Brice Brumbaugh, Will Helsel and Devon Mountain have been playing together for at least two-thirds of their lives. That’s contributed to a comfort level playing together and probably a bit of beneficial rivalry, too.

“We’ve been playing together since we were 5 and 6,” Muthler said. “Now we get to play one last game, and it’s for the state championship.”

This assemblage of athletes excelled on other fields, too. Muthler and McKnight were key components to the Scarlet Dragons’ success in basketball over the winter. Corle and Brumbaugh made names for themselves in football — Brumbaugh even was an all-state player as a junior before a knee injury ended his senior year at the midpoint.

Of course, Alex Hoenstine was the state player of the year in 3A football after setting school records for career rushing yards and touchdowns in leading the Dragons to the state semifinals two years in a row. He’s going to walk-on at Penn State in the fall.

“It’s hard to imagine that,” Hoenstine said, taking a deep breath. “We had a feeling we could do something. We’re all as close as it gets. We’re all best friends.”

That made the squad very relaxed. In the last couple of weeks they’ve been using the term “noodles and meatballs” to remind them to stay loose after junior Preston Karstetter broke his teammates up by saying an opposing team was bringing in a pitcher “with a noodle for an arm, and he’s throwing meatballs.”

A.J. Hoenstine said the credit for this success and this championship goes beyond those who were on the field Thursday, though.

“There were guys before them,” Coach Hoenstine said. “We take great pride in our baseball program. I think we have good little league coaches, good coaches the whole way up through that try to play the game the right way.”

The pride was evident after the game. A couple of the players, when asked about this team’s place in Central history and what it meant to be the first to win it all, actually looked down the line, saying it was the first, but it wasn’t going to be the last.

“We’re going to be strong,” McKnight said. “Definitely, in a couple of more years, there’s going to be another good group coming up.”

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