Sports stories of the year

Bill O’Brien has done a wonderful job of guiding the Penn State football program through uncharted treacherous waters.

Whether he will continue to do so in 2014 remains a question that has yet to be answered.

As the year 2013 came to a close, O’Brien, 44, was one of the top candidates for the National Football League Houston Texans’ vacant coaching position.

O’Brien reportedly interviewed for the position – which became open with the late-season firing of Gary Kubiak – after the Christmas holiday, and was reportedly one of the top candidates, along with former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, former Arizona Cardinals head coach and ex-Pittsburgh Steelers assistant coach Ken Whisenhunt, and current Texans interim coach Wade Phillips, in the running for the job.

In his two seasons as the Nittany Lions’ head coach, O’Brien, 44, led Penn State to two straight winning records – an 8-4 mark in his first season in 2012, and a 7-5 record in 2013 that included a road upset of nationally-ranked Wisconsin and a four-overtime victory over bowl-bound Michigan.

O’Brien took over the Penn State program in early 2012, after legendary coach Joe Paterno was fired late in the 2011 football season amidst the firestorm surrounding the child sex abuse scandal involving one of Paterno’s long-time assistant coaches, Jerry Sandusky.

Paterno died of lung cancer in January 2012 at the age of 85.

The Sandusky scandal left O’Brien and the Penn State football program saddled with severe sanctions, which included a drastic cut in football scholarships that was ultimately tempered by the NCAA this fall [see related note below] and a four-year bowl ban.

O’Brien kept the Nittany Lions’ program afloat over the past two years, and, the program’s future again appears to be quite bright.

But O’Brien, who interviewed with the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles after the 2012 season before deciding to stay at Penn State, has deep NFL roots as an offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots from 2007-11, and his departure from Penn State would mark another chapter in the Lions’ recent turbulent football fortunes.

O’Brien has 3 years left on his Penn State contract, with a buyout reduced from $13 million to $6.5 million this past March.

The O’Brien story developed very late in 2013, but took precedence over everything else that happened on the Altoona Mirror’s sports ledger during the year.

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ first winning season and first berth in the National League playoffs in 21 years, the NCAA’s restoration of football scholarships for Penn State, and the Penn State wrestling squad’s third straight NCAA team championship, were other top stories:

Pirates rejuvenate fan base

When Clint Hurdle took over as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ manager back in 2010, one of his primary missions was to reunite a team which had established a record for modern American sports consecutive losing seasons back with its fan base.

In 2013, that mission was emphatically accomplished.

The Pirates lost 105 games in 2010 under deposed manager John Russell. After making half-season bids for appearances in the National League playoffs in both 2011 and 2012, the Pirates brought back memories of the vintage days in 2013, winning 94 regular-season games, a wild-card playoff game with Cincinnati, and reaching the National League Division Series.

2013 was a watershed year for the Pirates, who posted their first winning season and made their first playoff appearance since 1992, and extended the St. Louis Cardinals to five games in the NLDS.

The Pirates’ on-the-field success reaped dividends in the postseason award balloting. Hurdle was named the National League’s Manager of the Year for 2013, and centerfielder Andrew McCutchen earned the NL’s Most Valuable Player award.

The Pirates’ success surprised most national baseball experts and was one of the Mirror’s biggest stories of the year.

The Pirates were led by a pitching staff that ranked third in the National League in regular-season team earned run average (3.26) and a bullpen that ranked second in the NL with an ERA of 2.89.

The Pirates finished the regular season three games behind the Cardinals and in second place in the National League’s Central Division, and went on in the playoffs to come within one win of a berth in the National League Championship series.

The Pirates’ pitching staff was led by 16-game winner Francisco Liriano, a lefthander who didn’t pitch until mid-May because of a broken right arm, and 10-game winner Gerrit Cole, who made his major-league debut in mid-June and wound up pitching impressively enough that he was given the ball by Hurdle to pitch the decisive Game 5 of the NLDS Oct. 9 in St. Louis.

The Cardinals advanced by winning the game, 6-1, but Cole – the top pick in the 2011 amateur baseball draft – proved to be everything that he was cracked up to be in his first season with the Pirates.

McCutchen carded a .317 batting average, 21 homers, 84 RBIs, and finished third in the league in hits with 185. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez tied for the National League lead in regular-season homers with 36, and also knocked in 100 runs, but it was pitching that carried the Pirates.

Along with starters Liriano, Cole and Charlie Morton – who rebounded from Tommy John elbow surgery to win seven games – the Pirates’ boasted a shut-down bullpen that enabled the Bucs to go 73-5 in games in which they were holding leads entering the eighth inning.

After second-half-of-the-season collapses in 2011 and 2012 that knocked the Pirates from division championship hopefuls into losing seasons, the club delivered a season to remember in Hurdle’s third year as its manager in 2013.

Scholarships reinstated at Penn State

The NCAA put down the hammer on Penn State’s football program in the summer of 2012, then lifted it considerably this past fall.

Among the biggest fallouts on the football field from the Sandusky scandal that rocked Penn State’s world in 2011 was the NCAA sanction that reduced annual football scholarships from the standard 85 to 65 for the 2014-17 seasons.

The NCAA had a change of heart about the sanctions this past September, and gave Penn State its normal allotment of 85 scholarships effective for the 2016 season.

Under the NCAA ruling, Penn State can offer a team maximum of 75 scholarships in 2014 and 80 in 2015.

The NCAA also relaxed its initial sanction concerning new annual football scholarships at Penn State. The original sanction was only 15 new scholarships per year. Under the adjusted sanctions, Penn State will be allowed 20 new scholarships in 2014, and the national standard 25 new scholarships in both the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

When the NCAA sanctions initially came down in 2011, the limiting of scholarships was believed to be the most damaging to the football program.

In November, an independent monitor also announced the possibility of scaling back the original four-year bowl ban the NCAA had originally levied on Penn State from 2012-15.

Former Senator George Mitchell praised Penn State for the university’s compliance with the athletics integrity agreement, and left open the possibility of reducing the bowl ban. No decision on the ban would be expected until September 2014, and if the bowl ban were to be reduced, it could be for the 2014 and 2015 seasons, or possibly just for 2015.

Penn State was not eligible to play in a bowl game in after the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

The other NCAA sanctions – a $60 million fine against the school, and the wiping the ledger clear of all Penn State’s football wins from 1998 to 2011 – remained in place.

An offseason story carried by Sports Illustrated in May questioning the medical coverage of the Penn State football program also carried a big wallop in the Nittany Nation in 2013.

The Sports Illustrated article implied that the Penn State football program would no longer maintain the same level of medical coverage for its football program after Dr. Wayne Sebastinelli had relinquished his roles as team doctor and orthopedic surgeon last February.

An irate O’Brien vehemently took issue with the article in a May press conference, asserting that his top priority as the Nittany Lions’ football coach is the health and safety of the players.

Penn State officials also maintained that the SI article “fundamentally distorts the facts,” and that the article neglected to mention that Sebastinelli still oversees the university’s entire sports medicine department and that all the doctors serving every one of the school’s athletic teams will continue to report to Sebastinelli.

“From a coverage standpoint, we have exactly the same level of medical care as we had previously,” O’Brien said. “For anyone to suggest or perhaps outright accuse that anyone within Penn State’s athletic program would do otherwise is irresponsible, reckless and wrong.”

O’Brien started his second season as Penn State’s coach presiding over a hotly-contested battle between highly-touted freshman Christian Hackenberg and esteemed sophomore Tyler Ferguson for the starting quarterback position.

O’Brien refused to announce his starting quarterback to the media in the days leading up to Penn State’s 2013 season opener against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Hackenberg wound up getting the opening-game call, completing 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns as Penn State won, 23-17.

Hackenberg continued on as the Lions’ starter for the entire season, and earning the Big Ten Conference’s Freshman of the Year recognition after throwing for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns. Leading receiver Allen Robinson – who could be a top NFL draft pick in 2014 – was named the Big Ten’s Receiver of the Year after catching a new single-season Penn State record 97 passes for 1,432 yards.

Meanwhile, Ferguson announced at season’s end that he will transfer from Penn State.

Garcia named Curve manager

The Altoona Curve hired one of the most high-profile managers in their 15-year history when former Pittsburgh Pirate all-star Carlos Garcia was appointed as the club’s skipper for the 2013 season in January.

Garcia, who became the seventh manager in the Curve’s team history, had spent the previous two seasons as manager of the Pirates’ high-Class A affiliate Bradenton Marauders.

Garcia played with the Pirates from 1990-96, and became an everyday player in 1993, when he hit 12 home runs. A 45-year-old native of Venezuela, Garcia was named to the National League All-Star Team in 1994, and hit a single in his only at-bat in the game, which was played at Pittsburgh’s old Three Rivers Stadium.

Garcia also saw major league action with the Toronto Blue Jays, San Diego Padres, and California Angels.

The Curve’s first season under Garcia featured outstanding performances from several individual players who should make their presence known at the big-league level in the future.

The Curve struggled in the win-loss column, however, posting a 63-79 record and winding up in last place in the Eastern League’s Western Division.

Curve host Pirates in exhibition

A standing-room-only, record-setting crowd of 10,116 fans was on hand at Peoples Natural Gas Field on Saturday, March 30 to watch the Curve host their parent club, the Pittsburgh Pirates, in a preseason exhibition game.

The Curve prevailed in the game, 8-6, which was played under sunny, blue skies in picturesque early-spring weather conditions and was a public-relations coup for the Pirates, Curve and their surrounding communities.

Pirates’ left fielder Starling Marte provided the hitting highlight of the game by belting a grand slam off Bucs’ closer Jason Grilli, who actually started the game for the Curve team in the loosely-constructed game.

The Curve also beat the Pirates, 8-5 in the Pirates’ only other visit to Altoona for a game back on May 15, 2000.

PSU wrestlers win third straight title

The Penn State University wrestling team won its third conescutive NCAA Tournament team championship last March, edging out Oklahoma State by four points, 123-119, in the NCAA Championship meet at the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.

Penn State boasted a pair of individual champions, Ed Ruth (184 pounds) and Quentin Wright (197), as well as three runners-up in David Taylor (165), Matt Brown (174) and Nico Megaludis (125).

Ruth scored a 12-4 major decision over Lehigh’s Robert Hamlin in the championship bout, while Wright edged top-seeded Dustin Kilgore of Kent State, 8-6.

Taylor dropped a 5-4 decision to Cornell’s Kyle Dake, who became a four-time NCAA champion.

Former Tyrone Area High School standout A.J. Schopp became an All-American for Edinboro University, taking fourth place at 133 pounds last March in his second trip to the national tournament.

Pressel wins high jump gold

The third time was a charm for Northern Bedford High School senior Zach Pressel in the PIAA Class AA state high jump event.

After finishing fourth and fifth in previous medal-winning efforts in the state high jump, Pressel won the gold medal on May 25 at Shippensburg University, with his personal-best effort of six feet, eight inches.

Springfield High School’s Chris Stone also jumped 6-8, but Pressel won the gold medal because he had fewer misses.

In memory

The year 2013 again brought its share of sadness to the area sports community with the passing of several former athletes, coaches or contributors.

Former long-time Altoona Area High School boys basketball coach Larry Betar died after a battle with cancer at the age of 59. Betar coached the 1991 Altoona team into the PIAA Class AAAA state championship game. A key member of that squad, Danny Fortson, went on to play in the National Basketball Association, as did two of Betar’s other former players, Doug West (1985 graduate) and Mike Iuzzolino (1986 graduate).

Other members of the area sports community who died this past year included: former Major League baseball pitcher Bill Tremel, 84, a Lilly native and member of the Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame … former Greater City League, George B. Kelley Federation, and professional baseball player Jack Sloey, 83; Mary Ann Rusnak, 71, wife of former long-time Altoona Area High School wrestling coach Marty Rusnak. Mary Ann regularly worked at the scorer’s table at Altoona’s regular-season tournaments and during the postseason tournaments; former Pittsburgh Steeler L.C. Greenwood, 67; former Altoona Area High School football, basketball and baseball player Shawn Price, 29; former Altoona High football and baseball standout Joey Mummert, 24; former Altoona Curve player Evan Chambers, 24.