The year just completed was not an easy one on the Centre County sports scene.
The region lost an icon, saw its university hit hard by the NCAA and experienced gut-wrenching details spilled in courtrooms.
But there were also triumphs, with national championships and other on-field highlights both in the area and far away, that reminded us how much we still love sports.
Still, it was the losses that dominated Centre County sports in 2012 — the loss of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and the loss of the clean image of the Nittany Lion program after the NCAA hit it hard with sanctions.
Those, far and above all others, were the top sports stories of the year just completed.
What Paterno meant to the community, and how much the region and university grew along with the football program, ultimately put that story above what the long-lasting effects of the NCAA’s decision will have on the future for Penn State and the area.
The top 10, as voted by the Centre Daily Times sports staff:
1. Paterno dies
Former Penn State football players descended upon State College last winter to mourn a coach who never retired.
Joe Paterno died on Jan. 22 following complications from lung cancer. He died less than three months following his abrupt firing after initial legal maneuverings in the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
A State College and Pennsylvania icon, Paterno was survived by his wife, Sue, sons, David, Jay and Scott, daughters, Diana Giegerich and Mary Kathryn Hort, and 17 grandchildren. He was 85.
Paterno won an NCAA Division I-record 409 games as Penn State’s head coach from 1966-2011. A Brooklyn native and Brown University graduate, he moved to State College in 1950 to work as Rip Engle’s assistant. He was named Penn State’s coach one day after Engle announced his retirement. Paterno led the Nittany Lions to five perfect seasons.
A memorial service honoring Paterno was held at the Bryce Jordan Center four days after his death. One player representing each of the six different decades Paterno worked as head coach took the podium during the two-hour ceremony.
“No one individual has ever done more for a university in the country than what Joe Paterno did for this school,” former quarterback Todd Blackledge said.
Nike chairman Phil Knight, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr were among those who attended the service.
Crowds lined the streets of State College as Paterno was driven to his final resting place.
2. NCAA hammers Penn State
The NCAA used its immense power to punish Penn State for its leaders’ roles in the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
Less than six weeks before the Nittany Lions opened the season, the NCAA levied major sanctions against the school. Notable sanctions included a $60 million fine, four-year postseason ban, scholarship restrictions, waiver of NCAA transfer rules for existing players and the loss of 112 victories from 1998 to 2011.
NCAA president Mark Emmert and the organization’s executive committee used the a report by former FBI director Louis Freeh, a 267-page document ordered by Penn State’s Board of Trustees, detailing the role key Penn State officials had in concealing Sandusky’s acts, as the primary guide in its ruling. Emmert called the the report “vastly more involved and thorough than any investigation” the NCAA has ever conducted.
The sanctions had an immediate impact on the football program as nine players, including star running back Silas Redd (Southern California), veteran wide receiver Justin Brown (Oklahoma) and kicker/punter Anthony Fera (Texas), transferred before the start of preseason practices. The players were eligible to compete immediately at their new schools.
Penn State will be forced to trim its stable of scholarship players to 65 beginning in 2014. The program can only sign 15 scholarship players from 2013-16. Joe Paterno lost 111 wins because of the sanctions and fell from his perch as Division I’s all-time wins leader.
Penn State President Rodney Erickson signed a consent decree, preventing the school from appealing the ruling.
3. Bill O’Brien experiences big year
His hiring received a lukewarm response. His year ended with him receiving numerous coaching honors.
Bill O’Brien officially replaced Paterno as Penn State’s head coach on Jan. 6. Acting Athletic Director Dave Joyner and a six-person search committee plucked O’Brien from the NFL’s New England Patriots, where he worked as offensive coordinator. O’Brien had no head coaching experience when he arrived at Penn State, a fact that concerned many of the program’s ardent supporters.
Using blue-collar ways and a pro-style offense, O’Brien, who hired eight new assistant coaches, methodically turned skeptics into admirers. He guided the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record despite the roster upheaval caused by the NCAA sanctions.
Penn State opened the season with losses to Ohio University and Virginia. The Nittany Lions recovered to win eight of their final 10 games, collecting Big Ten victories over Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa, Purdue, Indiana and Wisconsin.
O’Brien’s steadying influence helped him earn consensus Big Ten Coach of the Year honors. His name entered every major coach of the year list, and he was named the Maxwell Club’s Coach of the Year.
Perhaps O’Brien’s biggest success was convincing 31 seniors to remain with the program. The group was honored before the season finale against Wisconsin with the year “2012” being placed on a Beaver Stadium wall honoring the program’s undefeated and championship teams.
4. On top — again
Penn State waited 48 years between its first and second NCAA wrestling titles. The gap between the school’s second and third titles lasted just 12 months.
The Nittany Lions defended their title with a dominating performance at last March’s NCAA Championships in St. Louis, crowning three champions, producing six All-Americans and scoring 143 points. Minnesota finished second with 117.5 points.
Frank Molinaro (149 pounds), David Taylor (165) and Ed Ruth (174) captured NCAA titles for the Nittany Lions. Taylor and Ruth went a combined 62-0, with Taylor winning the Hodge Trophy, which is college wrestling version’s of the Heisman Trophy. Bald Eagle Area High School graduate Quentin Wright (184) and true freshman Nico Megaludis (125) also reached the national finals and Central Mountain High School graduate Dylan Alton (157) added a third-place finish.
Penn State also won its second straight Big Ten tournament title and split the conference’s dual meet title with Minnesota. The Nittany Lions went 13-1 in duals.
5. Familiar foes
The NCAA 184-pound final marked an unforgettable occasion in Centre County wrestling history.
Cornell junior Steve Bosak defeated Penn State junior Quentin Wright 4-2 in overtime to win his first national title. Bosak (State College) and Wright (Bald Eagle Area) graduated from rival high schools in 2008 and culivated a friendship while learning the sport in the same youth program.
The title ended some painful big-tournament memories for Bosak. He never won a state title in high school, losing in the PIAA Class AAAA finals as a junior and senior. He also dropped an overtime decision to Lehigh’s Robert Hamlin in the 2011 NCAA semifinals.
A major figure in the county’s wrestling history coached Bosak in St. Louis. Cornell head coach Rob Koll is a State College High School graduate who won an NCAA title for North Carolina in 1988.
Bosak is the sixth wrestler from Centre County to win an NCAA title. Wright won the 184-pound title in 2011.
The county almost produced three All-Americans in 2012. Edinboro freshman and Bellefonte High School graduate Mitchell Port lost in the Round of 12, missing the 141-pound podium by one victory.
6. California dreamin’
The Penn State women’s soccer team made history this past fall, breaking through to the NCAA Championship match after three times being denied in the national semifinals.
The Nittany Lions could not quite complete the run, falling 4-1 to North Carolina in the title match in San Diego.
Along the way, Penn State put together the nation’s top scoring offense, won a 15th consecutive Big Ten regular-season title to extend its own record and gave head coach Erica Walsh her 100th win at Penn State with an overtime win in the semifinals against Florida State.
The prolific offense was paced by Christine Nairn, one of three finalists for the Hermann Trophy as the nation’s top player, and Maya Hayes, who missed the first month of the season helping the U.S. under-20 national team win the World Cup in Japan.
7. New sport hits campus
Oct. 12 was a big night for Penn State athletics, with the return of men’s ice hockey as a varsity sport and its debut in Division I.
In front of packed Greenburg Ice Pavilion bleachers, the Nittany Lions could not quite send their enthusiastic fans home happy, falling 5-4 in overtime to American International, but history was nonetheless made with the first goal among so many other milestones. The first win had to wait 24 hours, when Penn State beat those same Yellow Jackets in Wilkes-Barre 4-3.
That same night, women’s hockey made its debut in State College as a Division I sport in a 4-0 loss to Syracuse. That Nittany Lion team won its varsity debut 5-3 at Vermont on Oct. 6, and have a current record of 5-12-1.
As the calendar turns, the Nittany Lion men have a respectable 8-9 mark, having just beaten Ohio State 5-4 in Pittsburgh on Saturday in the first meeting with a future Big Ten foe.
Meanwhile, construction began on the Pegula Ice Arena in January, with the structure taking shape and nearing enclosure, with the project on target to open this fall. To help in the efforts of the hockey programs, the university also announced at the official ground-breaking in April that benefactors Terry and Kim Pegula donated an additional $14 million to the programs to bring their total gift to the university to $102 million.
8. See you later
The State College Spikes’ relationship with the Pittsburgh Pirates ended with a public divorce.
After six years of awful baseball, the Spikes opted against extending their Player Development Contract with the Pirates. The Spikes returned to their roots by signing a two-year PDC with the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Spikes went 39-36 using Cardinals’ prospects in 2006. The Spikes went 191-260 in six year as the Pirates’ short-season Class A affiliate. In fact, the Pirates never sent a winning team to State College.
So, yes, 2013 brings hope of better baseball at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
9. London calling
Penn State, and State College, were well represented at the Summer Olympics, with a few of those athletes bringing home medals.
Heading the list was Jake Varner, who trains with Penn State coach Cael Sanderson and the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club. Varner grabbed a freestyle gold medal at 96 kilograms with a 1-0, 1-0 win over Ukraine’s Valeriy Andriytsev in the final match.
The Nittany Lions’ recent success on the volleyball court also brought plenty of highlights, with three players making the U.S. rosters and three more earning alternate spots for the Games. Megan Hodge and Christa Harmotto both helped the U.S. women earn a silver, falling to Brazil in the final match. The men finished out of the medal hunt but the team’s scoring leader, at the Olympics and all year, was former Nittany Lion Matt Anderson.
Grabbing a bronze medal was 2007 gradaute and Everett native Natalie Dell as part of the quadruple women’s sculls.
Also earning bronze were Carmelina Moscato and Erin McLeod with the Canadian women’s soccer team, which lost a disputed semifinal match to the U.S. to be denied a chance at gold.
In all, Penn State sent a school-record 19 athletes to the Olympics including competitors in gymnastics, fencing and track and field.
10. Matt Adams makes big leagues
Matt Adams will never forget what he experienced on May 20.
The Philipsburg-Osceola High School graduate made his major-league debut for the St. Louis Cardinals in a nationally-televised game at Dodger Stadium. Adams singled to center field in his first at-bat and finished the game 2-for-4. His first stint with the Cardinals lasted 27 games. He hit .244 with two homers and 13 RBIs.
He split 2012 between St. Louis and Triple-A Memphis, where he hit .329 with 18 homers and 500 RBIs. An elbow injury that required surgery cut his season short.
Adams, a 2009 23rd-round draft from Division II Slippery Rock, will begin 2013 in a good spot. He’s on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster.
Also under consideration: Top-seeded Penn State women’s volleyball team falls short in NCAA semifinals; State College girls’ volleyball team wins District 6 title, advances to PIAA quarterfinals; State College girls’ soccer team five-peats District 6 crown, boys also take district again; Philipsburg-Osceola boys’ soccer team captures first district title; Luis Heredia dazzles on the mound for Spikes; Penn State Lady Lions advance to NCAA Sweet 16; PIAA moves basketball championships out of Bryce Jordan Center, back to Hershey; Chester makes history with another PIAA basketball title at BJC; Five local wrestlers win medals at PIAA meet; State College native Matt Rhule named Temple football coach; Penn State men’s basketball team suffers big loss with injury for guard Tim Frazier; State College’s Emily Pate places third in the 100-yard breaststroke at the PIAA swimming championships; Bellefonte’s Mitchell Smith takes sixth at PIAA Cross Country Championships.