It was an exciting and unpredictable year for sports in Centre County in 2013.
The year began with questions of whether Penn State football coach Bill O’Brien would leave for the NFL — and it ends the same way.
In between, there were two national championships for programs that lately have been synonomous with winning, historic moments for local athletes both in the state and nationally, and plenty of surprises, too.
The CDT’s sports staff takes a vote every December on its top 10 stories of the year, and much like the past year being full of surprises, so was the vote.
The No. 1 story was clear: It’s hard to argue with a third straight national championship and the continuing domination of the Penn State wrestling team. And the other stories in the running for the area’s best might have been No. 1 in other years. A sixth national championship for the Nittany Lion volleyball team? A local athlete playing in the World Series? It was another special year.
But there was little agreement and a lot of arguing in the staff vote, and the end result, thanks to ties in the voting, is the top 12 stories of 2013 for Centre County sports.
As we welcome the new year, a look back on the one just completed:
1. Three-peat for Penn State wrestling
Penn State was expected to have another spectacular season, and the Nittany Lions did not disappoint.
For the third straight season, Penn State walked away from the NCAA Championships with the team trophy as well as individual champions. It was the program’s fourth national title overall.
The Nittany Lions rolled through the regular season, losing only a road dual with Iowa, then won the Big Ten title before heading to Des Moines, Iowa.
Ed Ruth finished undefeated for a second straight season, earning Big Ten Wrestler of the Year honors along with the title at 184 pounds. Then Bald Eagle Area’s Quentin Wright finished his career as Penn State’s 10th four-time All-American and a two-time national champion with the 197-pound victory, dropping previously-unbeaten Dustin Kilgore of Kent State. Wright went undefeated in his final season.
“The team race is really important to me personally,” Wright said after the win. “I knew one of us had to take it upon our shoulders to get it. I thought, ‘Why not me? Lets go out there, lets clinch the team race so it’ll take the pressure off of Nico (Megaludis) and David (Taylor).’ ”
His points assured the Nittany Lions, who put five wrestlers into the finals, of the team title by four points over Oklahoma State. Penn State joined the Cowboys and Hawkeyes as the only programs to win three straight titles.
Taylor fell in the finals in the highlight bout of the weekend, losing at 165 to Cornell’s Kyle Dake, who earned his fourth national title in a fourth different weight class. Megaludis, at 125 pounds, and Matt Brown, at 174, also finished as runners up with losses in the finals.
After guiding the talented group with NCAA qualifiers in all 10 weight classes to the crown, head coach Cael Sanderson was named NWCA Coach of the Year for a second time.
Two other local athletes also found success in Iowa. Cornell senior and State College graduate Steve Bosak finished third at 184, losing to Ruth in the semifinals. Edinboro redshirt sophomore and Bellefonte product Mitchell Port finished second at 141 pounds.
Penn State is off to another dominating start to this season as well, rolling to a 7-0 record including a 24-12 win at No. 3 Iowa. The Lions are again ranked No. 1 and the odds might favor a fourth title in March.
2. Title No. 6 for Penn State volleyball
With every starter back from the previous season, the expectations also were high for the Nittany Lion women’s volleyball team – and they met them.
After being surprised in their opening Big Ten match of the season by Michigan State, ending a 30-match home win streak, Penn State won its next 25 contests, capped by a four-set win over Wisconsin at Seattle’s KeyArena in the national championship match.
It was the Nittany Lions’ fifth title in seven seasons, anad sixth overall.
“I think we worked really hard throughout the summer, throughout the fall, everything, just to get better and work our way back here,” junior libero Dominique Gonzalez said after the match. “And this is every collegiate volleyball player’s dream, to win a national championship. And to do that is pretty awesome.”
The program, already familiar with setting NCAA records, added another to the collection, tying Stanford for the most in Division I women’s volleyball. For Russ Rose, six titles is the most for any Division I coach, and it also was career win No. 1,125, which is three short of the record held by Hawaii coach Dave Shoji. Both of them passed the former record-holder, UCLA’s Andy Banachowski, earlier in the season.
Penn State was led by a group of seniors who got to bookend their careers with titles, also grabbing the trophy as freshmen. The Nittany Lions will lose starters Deja McClendon, Katie Slay and Ariel Scott, along with reserves Erica Denney, Maddie Martin and State College product Maggie Harding.
3. Philipsburg native on baseball’s biggest stage
Centre County has produced a handful of talented athletes who have made it to the top of the professional ranks. Philipsburg’s Matt Adams did something that had not been done before when he gave the county its first starter in the World Series.
In his first full season in the Major Leagues, the 2006 Philipsburg-Osceola graduate started at first base in three games and appeared in all six for the St. Louis Cardinals. The Boston Red Sox, however, spoiled the ending and won the Series.
Adams had a tough Series, going 3 for 22 with a double and seven strikeouts. In the first two rounds of the playoffs he did a little better, with an 11 for 41 performance with two doubles, four RBIs and a home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Division Series.
During the season he played 108 games, hitting .284 with 17 homers and 51 RBIs.
Philipsburg was enthralled with seeing its native son play in the World Series, and gave him a hero’s welcome a few weeks later with a parade through town.
“When I got drafted in 2009, I didn’t know how soon, or even if, I’d be (here),” Adams said after the parade. “It’s definitely been quick.”
The 2014 season looks like it could be even better for Adams. With Carlos Beltran’s departure as a free agent, Allen Craig will likely move to the outfield from first base, and Adams has the chance to be the full-time starter.
4. New ice palace opens
On Oct. 11, hockey fans and Penn State fans in general found out what $90 million can buy with the opening of Pegula Ice Arena, the new home of Nittany Lions hockey.
The construction was finished on time and under budget for a building that is loaded with amenities for the men’s and women’s teams. With two sheets of ice, numerous locker rooms for youth and club programs, gorgeous rooms for the varsity teams, weight rooms and training areas, the place had virtually everything on the teams’ wish lists.
The men’s team then put on a show that night, scoring three third-period goals to beat Army 4-1, thrilling the 6,370 on hand — well beyond the arena’s capacity.
“I’m pretty bummed it’s out of the way,” said freshman center David Goodwin, one of the game’s goal-scorers. “I wish we could do it again.”
The women’s team had its home opener the next weekend in a 2-1 loss to Union.
Since then the teams have been struggling. The women are 3-14-1, while the men are 4-10-1 and diving into a talented Big Ten Conference.
The building also is a new home for figure skating classes and clubs, youth teams, State College High School’s teams and public skating events and open almost around the clock most days of the year.
5. Scintillating Spikes
Medlar Field at Lubrano Park was the place to be last summer. Fans got to see winning baseball — and for the first time postseason baseball — from the State College Spikes.
The team had not posted a winning record after the franchise’s inaugural season in town in 2006, when they were 39-36, until 2013. The Spikes even flirted with the New York-Penn League’s record for worst mark in a single season in 2008 when they were 18-56.
But this summer, the team got red-hot and burned through the competition in the first season returning as an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. The Spikes had been with St. Louis in 2006 season before switching to the Pittsburgh Pirates for six seasons.
The team finished 48-27, the best record in the league, won the division and the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Tri-City ValleyCats in the best-of-three championship series. They definitely pleased the home folks, with a 30-8 record at Medlar Field, and eight of those wins were walk-offs — getting the winning run on their last at-bat. The most dramatic was a walk-off grand slam from David Washington on July 20.
The winning showed in the seats, too, with more than 142,000 fans catching games in the ballpark, a 10 percent jump in attendance over the 2012 season and the best season total since 2008.
“It’s exciting for everyone involved,” general manager Jason Dambach said late in the regular season. “The employees are sharing in it, the ushers, the parking guys, our front office staff. It’s amazing when you come to the ballpark and do what we do, you focus so much on what happens outside the white lines as we always say, this year everyone has such a buy-in on the field. It makes for a special atmosphere in the ballpark.”
6. Penn State finishes 7-5 in football
With a football season finishing barely above .500, by Nittany Lion standards it would be considered a lackluster showing.
But with the program having to fight through scholarship limitations, a ban on bowl game appearances and NCAA sanctions, it’s the fight and determination that has been defining the Nittany Lions for the past two campaigns.
The season’s highlights included a 43-40 triple-overtime win over Michigan at Beaver Stadium, with the game running well into the night, and a season-ending 31-24 upset at Wisconsin. There were a few lowlights as well, none greater than a 63-14 beating at the hands of Ohio State.
One of the team’s biggest stars was receiver Allen Robinson, who has shattered a number of records including single-season marks for receptions (97) and yards (1,432). Robinson is second on the program’s lists for career catches (177) and yards (2,474). The junior All-American is still pondering whether to return for his senior season or head to the NFL.
Throwing all those passes this season was Christian Hackenberg, who was second in the Big Ten in completions (231) and touchdowns (20) and third in yards per game (246.2) on his way to earning conference Freshman of the Year honors.
But off-the-field stories also made the team compelling. The biggest victory came earlier in the year when the NCAA decided to relent on some sanctions, restoring all scholarships by 2015.
The team also had a shake-up to the coaching staff right after the season ended, with the departures of assistant coaches Ron Vanderlinden and Charlie Fisher.
Of course, O’Brien’s decision might just bring the biggest shakeup. He was flirting with the NFL’s Houston Texans as the year closed.
7. Wolski retires from Little Lion sideline
It’s rare to have a local high school coach’s retirement make the CDT’s annual top story list, but State College’s Al Wolski was a rare coach — and highly successful.
This fall’s campaign was an aberration for him, as the Little Lions finished with a 5-6 record and fell in the first round of the District 6 playoffs. More often, he guided the Little Lions through plenty of success stories. Wolski finished with an 87-42 record over 10 seasons.
He racked up plenty of district titles along the way, three 12-win seasons, a PIAA semifinal run in 2006 and a spot in the state championship game in 2009, when the Little Lions lost to LaSalle College in a blizzard at HersheyPark Stadium.
He will retire in June from his teaching position in the school’s motivational resource center.
T-8. Red Raiders triumph in pool
The high school may not have a swimming pool, but that doesn’t seem to deter the Bellefonte swim program.
The Red Raiders earned a pair of state titles, and nearly won the PIAA Class AA team title at the state championships at Bucknell’s Kinney Natatorium in March.
The 200-yard medley relay team of Colton Schnars, Andrew Rosenberger, Isaac Thomas and Frank Aberegg set a school record and picked up the program’s first gold medal.
The next night, Rosenberger swam to victory in the 100 breaststroke. He also earned a silver medal in the 200 individual medley.
The Raiders finished third as a team, but were first entering the final event. Salisbury and Franklin finished 1-2 in the 400 freestyle relay, well ahead of sixth-place Bellefonte, to pass the Raiders in the team standings.
“That’s ridiculous, considering last year I was the first person ever to get into the top eight,” Rosenberger, who had a third-place finish in the breaststroke in 2012, said that night. “Coming from that to this year — third in the team score, whole bunch of people scoring, getting on the podium — it’s ridiculous. I couldn’t be more proud of the whole team. Everyone did fantastic this week.”
T-8. Taylor earns PIAA wrestling title
Bald Eagle Area senior Jake Taylor completed his high school career in style with a dramatic win in the 182-pound finals at the PIAA Championships at the Giant Center in Hershey.
Taylor defeated Norristown’s Brett Harner 2-1, besting his opponent in a 30-second rideout in an ultimate tiebreaker.
After finishing with a record of 127-16, he became the 10th individual state champion in BEA history, and the second in his family. His father Doug won the 126-pound title in 1988.
“You dream about it ever since you started wrestling, since you started coming and watching the finals,” Taylor said that night. “It is great to finally be there myself.”
After attending community college for a year to train, Taylor will be wrestling at Cornell next winter.
T-10. Leath named state’s top player
State College senior Taylor Leath achieved something no athlete in Centre County had ever done before — she was named the Gatorade Player of the Year for volleyball for Pennsylvania.
No county athlete in any sport had ever earned the Gatorade award in its history, dating back to 1986.
The 6-foot-3 outside hitter led the team with 384 kills and 223 digs, hit .340 and also had 46 aces and 42 blocks.
She is headed to North Carolina on a full athletic scholarship.
T-10. Coaching turnover on campus
It is fairly common for there to be a new coach or two every year on a college campus, big or small, but not at Penn State. The university had always been the picture of stability, with quite a few head coaches holding onto the same post for a decade — or two or three.
But a high number of coaches left or lost their jobs in 2013, including baseball coach Robbie Wine, who had been at the helm for nine seasons, and Robin Petrini, who had been guiding the softball program for 17 seasons. Swimming and women’s tennis also saw new leaders take over.
The most surprising departure was the firing of fencing coach Emmanuil Kaidanov, who was ready to begin his 32nd season with the program after racking up nearly 800 wins and 12 NCAA titles. Protests and a lawsuit soon followed.
After so much stability at Penn State, now only seven coaches have at least 15 years of coaching tenure at the school, while 11 coaches have been on campus three years or fewer.
T-10. Lady Lions win Big Ten again
Penn State’s women’s basketball team captured back-to-back Big Ten titles for the first time in a decade en route to earning a No. 3 seed for the NCAA Tournament last March.
The team was led by All-American guard and Big Ten Player of the Year Maggie Lucas, who finished her junior season seventh on Penn State’s career scoring list (1,838) and third in Big Ten history in career 3-pointers (292).
With point guard Alex Bentley, who is now playing with the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, running the offense and keying the defense, the Lady Lions made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before losing 71-66 at LSU.
Honorable mentions (in no particular order)