Year of the championship
Curve claim Eastern League title; Central baseball reigns supreme
More than perhaps any other year in recent memory, the calendar year 2017 brought something special for just about every sports fan in the Altoona Mirrorás readership area.
Name the sport, and there was a corresponding honor or accolade for an athletic team or individual.
Penn State football coach James Franklin got a six-year contract extension worth $34.7 million that will keep Franklin at Penn State through the 2022 season, although the Nittany Lions lost the architect of their high-powered spread offense when offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead accepted a head coaching job at Mississippi State University in late November.
The Altoona Curve won their second Eastern League championship in club history, the Central High School baseball team earned its first PIAA state championship, and the Pittsburgh Penguins clinched their fifth Stanley Cup championship in franchise history and their second in as many seasons.
The Penn State University wrestling team added to its list of national championship banners in 2017, winning the schoolás sixth national team title in the past seven seasons, while Central Cambriaás Max Murin and Huntingdonás Jacob Oliver both won their second individual PIAA Class 2A state wrestling titles.
Altoona native Dan Ott achieved national acclaim in July by finishing in second place in the World Series of Pokerás Main Event at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, taking a home a cool $4.7 million in the process.
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost their iconic chairman and former team president Dan Rooney, who passed away at the age of 84. The Steelers started the year in the American Football Conference championship game, falling on the road to the New England Patriots and finishing one game short of their ninth berth in the Super Bowl.
The Steelers repeated as the American Football Conference North Division champions this season and will be making another appearance in the playoffs later this month.
A closer look at the top stories:
Curve win Eastern League title
The Altoona Curve swept through a pair of playoff series to win their second Eastern League championship in club history.
After winning the leagueás Western Division title with a 74-66 record, the Curve swept the best-of-five Western Division championship series with the Bowie BaySox in three games and captured the best-of-five league championship series with the Trenton Thunder by winning three more straight games.
Trenton had compiled a league-best 92 wins during the regular season, but the Curveás outstanding pitching created a buzzsaw for the Thunder in the championship series.
The Curve got a huge leg up by winning the first two games in Trenton, 2-1 behind right-hander Brandon Waddellás six shutout innings in the opener, and 4-2 behind an eight-inning effort from righty J.T. Brubaker in the second game of the series.
The Curve returned home on Thursday night, Sept. 14, and nailed down the sweep of the series with a 4-2 victory in the third game before 3,656 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field.
Catcher Jin-De Jhangás bases-loaded three-run triple in the fifth inning was the gameás decisive hit, and highly-touted right-handed pitching prospect Mitch Keller made it stand up by working into the eighth inning.
Lanky right-hander Johnny Hellweg, a former major leaguer who was an Independent League pitcher before being picked up by the Curve, got the final five outs for the save that locked up Altoonaás league championship.
The Curve won their first Eastern League championship back in 2010, clinching the pennant at Trenton, and also appeared in the league championship series in 2004, losing to New Hampshire.
Penguins hoist Cup again
The Penguins earned one for the thumb in 2017.
The Penguins joined the Steelers and Pirates as franchises who have won at least five world championships by capturing their fifth Stanley Cup and second in as many years, defeating the Nashville Predators, four games to two in the Stanley Cup Final Series.
The Penguins clinched their fifth Cup championship — with all of the deciding victories occurring on the road — by scoring a 2-0 shutout at Nashville in Game 6 of the finals on Sunday night, June 11.
Patric Hornqvist broke a scoreless tie with 1:35 left by banking in a shot off the elbow of Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne and into the net, enabling the Penguins to become the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the Detroit Red Wings pulled off the feat in 1997 and 1998.
Penguins star Sidney Crosby won his second consecutive Conn Smythe Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the Stanley Cup playoffs, finishing second on the team with 27 points (eight goals and 19 assists) in the postseason.
Young goaltender Matt Murray, who was still considered a rookie last year, posted two straight shutouts in the championship series.
The Penguins won the first two games of the championship series at home, then lost the next two at Nashville before scoring a resounding 6-0 victory in Game 5 at Pittsburgh.
The Penguins eliminated Columbus, Washington and Ottawa en route to reaching the championship series.
The Penguins clinched their first Stanley Cup on road ice against the Minnesota North Stars in 1991, and their second at Chicago against the Blackhawks in 1992. In 2007, the Penguins won a deciding seventh game in the Cup finals at Detroit, and in 2016, the Penguins closed out San Jose on the road in six games.
Local man enjoys poker bonanza
Ott, a 25-year-old Penn State Altoona and Altoona Area High School graduate, was among 7,221 initial entrants in the World Series of Pokerás Main Event July 8-22 in Las Vegas, and finished second to Scott Blumstein of New Jersey in the blockbuster competition that was televised nationally on ESPN.
Ott, Blumstein and Benjamin Pollak of France were among nine players seated at the eventás final table.
As the first-place winner, Blumstein — a graduate of Temple University — earned $8,150,000.
Ott guaranteed himself of the $4.7 million prize by finishing second. Pollak won $3.5 million for finishing third.
âBeing at this table and at this spot is incredible,áá Ott said prior to the start of the final day.
Ott, who plays most of his poker online, was making his third trip to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker, but it was the first time he entered the $10,000 buy-in Main Event.
Ottás twin brother, Dillon, was also among the 2017 tournamentás initial entries, but he was eliminated on the second day of the tournament.
A supportive contingent of people on hand to cheer on Ott in Las Vegas included Ottás brother Dillon, their mother Leisha, their sister Deana, and two of Ottás friends from Altoona, Brady Gehret and Adam Schmitt.
Penn State announces renovation plan
In March of this year, Penn State announced a grand vision to renovate and beautify Beaver Stadium during an ambitious 20-year facilities master plan, but at present, there is no timetable in place for when the project will be started or completed.
It will be at least six years before major renovation work on the stadium begins, and then an additional three or four years before the work is finished.
Under the plan, the stadiumás seating capacity would decrease to approximately 103,000 from the current 106,572.
Penn State also announced plans to build a new 450,000 square-foot athletics hub to be called the Center of Excellence, which will be the new hub for Penn Stateás 800 student-athletes, staff and coaches and will be constructed where the East Area Locker Room is currently located.
A new indoor practice facility — similar to the current Holuba Hall — will be attached to the Center of Excellence, and provide practice space for the schoolás baseball, softball, menás and womenás golf, lacrosse and soccer programs, as well as indoor workout space for all 31 sports.
Also in the plans are a new natatorium for the menás and womenás swimming and diving teams, a new indoor tennis facility for the menás and womenás tennis teams, and upgrades to Jeffrey Field, which hosts games for the menás and womenás soccer programs.
Penn State hopes to raise a minimum of $120 million over the next five years to do work on the initial phase of the renovations.
The Nittany Lionsá football team experienced a bittersweet season in 2017. Penn State was one of the preseason favorites to reach the College Football Playoffs, and the Nittany Lions were ranked as high as second nationally in late October.
But Penn State suffered back-to-back heart-breaking losses at Ohio State and Michigan State, and finished the regular season with a 10-2 record. Penn State earned a berth in the Fiesta Bowl, where the Nittany Lions [insert score of game with Washington here].
Junior running back Saquon Barkley was considered a frontrunner for the coveted Heisman Trophy until the final month of the season, but tailed off individually as Penn State lost two games, and Barkley did not get an invite to the award ceremony in New York in early December.
Barkley — who was named the Big Ten Conferenceás Offensive Player of the Year for the second straight season — was second in the nation in all-purpose yards (179.5) and fifth with 21 touchdowns, including two kickoff-return touchdowns. He was also 2-for-2 in passing attempts with a touchdown pass.
Barkley is expected to be a first-round pick in the National Football League draft this upcoming spring.
Moorhead moves on
While Franklin has done more than his share to rejuvenate the Penn State football program since his arrival in 2014, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead had more to do with the success of the Nittany Lionsá offense in the past two seasons than any other single individual.
Moorheadás spread game plan revolutionized the Nittany Lionsá offensive format, getting excellent use out of the passing and running skills of quarterback Trace McSorley, the rushing greatness of Barkley, and the Lionsá legion of talented receivers as Penn State won 21 of its 25 games over the past two seasons entering the Fiesta Bowl.
Moorhead accepted the Mississippi State coaching job that became open when Dan Mullen left MSU to become the University of Floridaás head coach in late November.
Penn State running backs coach and special teams coordinator Charles Huff also left the Nittany Lions to work as Mississippi Stateás assistant head coach, co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach under the direction of Moorhead.
Ricky Rahne, who had served as Penn Stateás tight ends coach the past two seasons, was promoted to the offensive coordinator position by the Nittany Lions.
Phil Galiano was hired as special teams coordinator and defensive line coach, and Tyler Bowen, a former PSU grad assistant, was hired as the new tight ends coach.
Steelers chairman Dan Rooney passes
The Pittsburgh Steelers and the entire National Football League lost an icon on April 13 with the passing of Steelers chairman and former team president Dan Rooney.
Rooney took over the operation of the Steelers in the 1960s from his father, Art Sr., who had founded the franchise.
Along with overseeing the Steelersá six Super Bowl championships and eight total Super Bowl appearances since 1975, Dan Rooney became one of the most powerful and innovative forces within the game, developing the Rooney Rule under which NFL teams are required to interview minority candidates for coaching and front-office positions.
Under Rooney, two stadiums — Three Rivers Stadium (1970) and Heinz Field (2001) — were built for the Steelers to play their home games.
In 2000, Rooney was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining his father. Dan Rooneyás son, Art II, took over as the Steelers president in 2003, with Dan becoming the teamás chairman.
Dan Rooney was a force in the Steelersá commitment to continuity and stability. Pittsburgh has had only three coaches — the late Hall-of-Famer Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and current coach Mike Tomlin — since 1969.
Central baseball team wins PIAA Class 3A title
The Central High School baseball program captured the schoolás first PIAA state championship June 15, when the Scarlet Dragons defeated District 2 titlist Holy Redeemer, 8-3 in the Class 3A championship game at Penn State Universityás Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
Central wrapped up a 24-3 season to win the title game behind a pair of RBIs from third baseman Josh McKnight and shortstop Alex Hoenstine, and a solid starting pitching outing from lefty Preston Karstetter, who worked four innings and allowed just two runs and three hits. Reliever Brady Nicewonger pitched the final three innings for the save, allowing just one hit and one run.
Central never trailed in the game, building a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning and increasing the lead to 8-2 in the middle of the sixth.
The Scarlet Dragons had made three previous appearances in the state championship game — including its third in the past seven years. The Dragons lost in the state title game in 1984, 2010 and 2014, but, led by a solid nucleus of 11 seniors, sealed the deal last spring.
Central had lost to Mountain League foe Huntingdon in the District 6 Class 3A championship game, but avenged that loss in the PIAA semifinal game to earn its trip to states.
Murin, Oliver repeat as PIAA mat champs
The Mirror coverage area was well-represented in the PIAA Class 2A Wrestling Championships at Hersheyás Giant Center on Saturday, March 11, as three area competitors — Central Cambria senior Max Murin (138 pounds), Chestnut Ridge junior Justin McCoy (145), and Huntingdon senior Jacob Oliver (170) — won state titles.
Murin and Oliver, who are now competing for NCAA Division I wrestling programs at the University of Iowa and Edinboro University, respectively, both captured their second PIAA state titles.
Murin, who won the 113-pound state championship in 2015, captured the 138-pound title last March with a thrilling 2-1 ultimate-tiebreaker victory over Reynolds junior Cole Matthews, who was himself a state champ in 2015.
Murin, who finished his senior season at 40-0, escaped with only four seconds left in regulation to tie the match, 1-1, then came up with an escape with six seconds left in the ultimate-tiebreaker session to win his second gold medal. He was also named the Class 2A tournamentás Outstanding Wrestler.
Oliver defended the 170-pound state title that he won in 2016 as a junior by logging a 9-2 victory over Susquenitaás Dalton Group in last Marchás state-title bout.
Murin and Oliver (who finished his senior season with a 44-1 record) were both four-time state medalists during their high school careers.
Chestnut Ridgeás McCoy won the 145-pound championship with a 5-2 victory over Bishop McDevittás John Pipa in the championship match.
McCoy joined the late Gary Pfahler as the only two state champions in Chestnut Ridgeás history to date. Pfahler, who died tragically at the age of 26 in March of this year, won the 140-pound state title for Ridge back in 2008.
Central Cambria relay team wins gold again
The Central Cambria High School girls 3200-meter relay team of senior Sydney Gilkey, junior Lexi Peterman, and sophomores Paige Wess and McKenna Hayward won its second gold medal in as many years at the PIAA Class AA state meet at Shippensburg Universityás Seth Grove Stadium on Saturday, May 27.
The Central Cambria foursome finished the race in nine minutes, 25.52 seconds, nearly five seconds ahead of the first-place finish that they achieved in winning the gold medal in the 3200 relay at the 2016 meet.
Penn State matmen win national title
The Penn State wrestling team has almost made winning NCAA team championships a foregone conclusion.
The Nittany Lions won their sixth NCAA team title in the last seven years in convincing fashion this past March 18 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
Penn State crowned five individual champions — junior Zain Retherford (149 pounds), sophomore Jason Nolf (157), freshman Vincenzo Joseph (165), freshman Mark Hall (174), and sophomore Bo Nickal (184) — and won the team title with 146.5 points — the most in school history. Ohio State finished second with 110.
Retherford captured his second NCAA title with an 18-2 technical fall in 6:42 over Missouriás Lavion Mayes in the championship match.
Penn Stateás success resulted in a contract extension for head coach Cael Sanderson in July.
Penn Stateás seventh NCAA team title tied the Nittany Lions with Oklahoma for fourth place on the all-time list. Oklahoma State leads the list with 34, followed by Iowa with 23, and Iowa State with eight.
Altoona rejoins Mid-Penn Conference
In mid-November, the Altoona Area School board voted 7-2 to approve an associate membership to the Mid-Penn Athletic Conference for a two-year period beginning with the 2018-19 school year.
The move is restricted to football, both boys and girls basketball, and varsity and junior varsity boys volleyball.
Altoona rejoined the Harrisburg-based league after getting approval from 20 of the leagueás 30 schools.
The move brought an end to Altoonaás eight-year football affiliation with the WPIAL in Pittsburgh.
Altoonaás football team competed in the Mid-Penn from 2004 to 2009 and compiled a record of 27-35.
The Lions will be part of the Commonwealth Section of the Mid-Penn Conference with State College, Chambersburg, Carlisle, Central Dauphin East, Harrisburg and Cumberland Valley.
By joining the Mid-Penn Conference, Altoona would also have the opportunity to compete in the District 6 Class 6A football playoffs, which was not the case when the Mountain Lions were a member of the WPIAL.
Other Altoona sports could follow the lead of football, basektball and volleyball and take up residence in the Mid-Penn Conference, but those wouldnát take effect until at least the 2020-21 school year.
Juniata Valley girls reach PIAA title game
The Juniata Valley High School girls basketball team reached the PIAA state championship game for the first time in the programás history last season.
Though the Class 1A championship-game result wasnát pleasing to the Lady Hornets and their fans, Juniata Valleyás chances of making a return trip — or several — over the next three years are very promising.
Valley dropped a 55-43 decision to Lebanon Catholic in the title game last March 24 at Hersheyás Giant Center, after suffering through a first quarter in which the Lady Hornets made just three of 27 floor shots.
Valley, which finished last season with a 24-6 record, is returning all five of its starters this season, including Halee Smith, who was the teamás leading scorer last winter as a freshman.
Other returnees on this yearás team include sophomore Hayden Taylor and seniors Sydney Reed, Taylor Leidy and Maddie Mattas.
Saint Francis menás team reaches NEC final
The Saint Francis University menás basketball team hasnát appeared in the NCAA tournament since Mike Iuzzolinoás heyday back in 1991, but the Red Flash came within a victory of a trip to the Big Dance last March.
Saint Francis made it to the Northeast Conference Tournament championship game on Tuesday, March 7 before losing, 71-61 to Mount St. Maryás in a winner-take-all showdown that clinched a play-in berth in the NCAA tournament for Mount St. Maryás.
Saint Francis — which finished 16-16 on the season — held an eight-point halftime lead in the conference championship game before Mount St. Maryás stormed back in the second half to win.
Saint Francis advanced to the title game with an electrifying 71-70 victory over Wagner in the semifinal that the Red Flash won on a last-ditch 3-point shot by Keith Braxton that beat the buzzer and made national sports highlight viewings.
Saint Francis participated in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament and split two games, winning 78-76 over Jacksonville before getting ousted from the tournament by the University of Maryland Baltimore County, 87-79.
Both the Saint Francis men and women were picked as preseason favorites to win the Northeast Conference championship in the 2017-18 season.
The Saint Francis menás team, however, suffered a potentially devastating blow only three games into the season when standout junior guard Isaiah Blackmon suffered a season-ending knee injury that required surgery.
Blackmon had been the Red Flashás leading scorer with a 14.3-point average through three games this season after averaging 13.7 points a year ago.
Another Saint Francis starter from a year ago, shot-blocking phenom Josh Nebo — who had set a school record with 144 blocks while averaging 12 points and 8.2 rebounds a game last season — transferred to Texas A&M at the end of the 2016-17 school term.
Saint Francis prepped for the rigors of postseason competition by scheduling grueling regular-season road games at then top-ranked Duke, and nationally-esteemed Louisville, St. Maryás (Calif.) and San Francisco early in the 2017-18 campaign.
Although the Red Flash lost all four games — including a 124-67 decision at Duke — the players wonát be blindsided by the big stage if they happen to step on it again in the NCAA tournament this March.
Penn State ice hockey team shines
The Penn State menás ice hockey team made headlines in the 2016-17 season, winning the Big Ten Conference championship and reaching the Midwest Regional Championship game in Cincinnatiás U.S. Bank Arena before falling to top-ranked Denver University, 6-3.
Penn State, ranked 11th in the country, wound up its landmark season with a 25-12-2 record and came within one victory of securing a berth in the Frozen Four in Chicago.
Penn State volleyball team reaches Final Four
The Penn State womenás volleyball team reached its 13th national semifinal earlier this month, falling to Nebraska in five sets at the Final Four in Kansas City, Mo. on Dec. 14.
Penn State, the top seed in the Final Four, finished the season with a 33-2 record. The Lady Lions were bidding for their eighth national championship.
Hollidaysburg Little Leaguers reach states
Hollidaysburgás Little League entry celebrated a trailblazing achievement, becoming the townás first Little League team to reach the state tournament.
Hollidaysburg — under the direction of head coach Jarrett Storm — made it to the state tournament by winning District 11 and Section 4 tournament championships.
Hollidaysburg went 1-2 at the state tournament, which was played at the Christy Mathewson Little League Field in Fleetville in late July.
Former local area baseball coach George Wagner, 92; Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, 84; former Bellwood-Antis High School football coach Chet Dillen, 84; former Hollidaysburg Area High School and Williamsburg High School football coach Harold Price, 81, who is also a member of the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame; Jim Gardner, 81, who formerly served as head football coach at Bellwood-Antis High School and as an assistant coach at both Altoona Area HIgh School and Juniata College … Building II Rec Hall proprietor Carl Bennett, 72; former Tyrone High School basketball star Steve Catich, 27; former Penn State football lineman Adam Gress, 26; former Chestnut Ridge wrestling champion Gary Pfahler, 26; former Bedford High School wrestler Chance Williams, 20; Hollidaysburg Area High School softball pitching standout Mikayla Focht, 18; Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School tennis player Cole Rinker, 18.