The top Centre County sports stories of 2016

The Penn State defensive line celebrates stopping Wisconsin's last drive of the game during the Big Ten Championship game on Dec. at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind, raging back from 21 points down to beat the Badgers 38-31.
The Penn State defensive line celebrates stopping Wisconsin's last drive of the game during the Big Ten Championship game on Dec. at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind, raging back from 21 points down to beat the Badgers 38-31.

It was a year of triumphs and remarkable accomplishments for Centre County athletes in 2016.

There were league, state and national championships, major milestones — and minor ones too. There were big goals and heroic performances and plenty of good stories.

In most years, a team that starts its season 1-7 and finishes with a state championship would probably be the best story of the year. But 2016, in so many ways, was anything but ordinary.

After most observers, other than a handful of die-hards, thought the Penn State football team would be finishing the season with seven or eight wins and be in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, this year was an absolute stunner.

With nine straight wins, a No. 5 ranking, upsets of Ohio State and Wisconsin and a trip to the Rose Bowl, the Nittany Lions were the easy choice as the Centre County sports story of the year.

With a vote of the CDT sports staff, here is our annual list of the year’s top 10 — or 11, since we had some ties — stories of a stunning year:

1. Penn State football wins Big Ten title

There isn’t one moment that encapsulates Penn State football’s unexpected season.

Sure, the blocked kick returned for a touchdown against No. 2 Ohio State is the easy choice, but there are dozens of plays that have helped re-establish the Nittany Lions as a member of college football’s elite.

And those monumental plays have translated into unfathomable celebration.

After starting the 2016 season with a 2-2 record, fresh off a 39-point defeat at the hands of Michigan, it looked like the year was lost. Penn State still had Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa ahead. A 7-5 record was looking kind of nice.

Then the Minnesota game happened. Irvin Charles ripped off a shocking 80-yard touchdown catch, Trace McSorley led the Nittany Lions down the field in the final minutes for a game-tying Tyler Davis field goal, and Saquon Barkley, after being bottled up the whole night, broke loose for an overtime score that brought life back to Penn State.

The team proceeded to pummel Maryland in a game in which it was an underdog, and of course the Ohio State game will never be forgotten, and neither will Grant Haley or Marcus Allen. Those two cemented themselves into the hearts and minds of Penn State fans forever with the biggest special teams play of the college football season — and they likely won’t ever have to pay for a beer in State College again.

So there the Nittany Lions sat, 5-2 with a winnable schedule ahead of them. The players knew what was possible, and so did the fans that rushed the field at Beaver Stadium on the night of Oct. 22.

To Penn State’s credit, the team did not let that win get to its collective head. The Nittany Lions might have coasted through the first half against Purdue, but a 62-24 win over the Boilermakers, followed by a 41-14 drubbing of Iowa and a 45-31 victory at Indiana had Penn State sitting in a cushy spot.

For the most part, Rutgers was a cakewalk, putting the Nittany Lions at 9-2. If it defeated Michigan State, and Ohio State beat Michigan earlier that afternoon on the final weekend of the regular season, Penn State was going to the Big Ten title game. Obviously, both of those happened, and the Nittany Lions traveled to Indianapolis to compete for a Big Ten Championship against Wisconsin.

Thanks to plays like Mike Gesicki’s leaping touchdown grab over two Spartan defenders or the flea flicker to DaeSean Hamilton in Bloomington, the Nittany Lions generated contest-altering moments when they needed them most.

And they did the same at Lucas Oil Stadium, raging back from 21 points down to beat the Badgers 38-31 in the conference championship game.

McSorley put on a show with four touchdown passes, Barkley showed up with a deciding touchdown, and the Penn State defense stopped Wisconsin on fourth-and-one with a minute to go in regulation.

What a difference two months can make, huh?

Four games into the young season, the Nittany Lions looked beaten and battered.

They were destined for another trip to a mediocre bowl to play another mediocre team.

Now, the No. 5 Nittany Lions are set to play No. 9 Southern California in the Rose Bowl.

No one thought Pasadena was possible after a 2-2 start. Except the Nittany Lions.

2. Bellefonte wins PIAA baseball title

The Bellefonte baseball team captured the first state championship in program history in June, beating Susquehanna Township in the PIAA Class AAA championship to complete an improbable postseason run.

The Red Raiders went 1-7 to start the season, but they finished the regular season strong and got hot at the right time. Bellefonte was the No. 5 seed and earned wins over Greater Johnstown, Somerset and Hollidaysburg to win the District 6 title.

The Red Raiders then won one-run games against Chartiers Valley, Cathedral Prep and Hamburg to earn a trip to Medlar Field at Lubrano Park to play for the state title under first-year coach Dan Fravel. Each win was highlighted by memorable performances.

“It was just one heck of a run that I’ll never forget,” Bellefonte’s Tyler Kreger said.

In the team’s 2-1 win over Chartiers Valley in the first round, Dom Masullo threw five scoreless innings of relief and Storm Smith drove in the game-winning run on a single in the sixth inning.

Both seniors soon topped those moments.

But a sophomore stole the show in the quarterfinals as left-hander Adam Armstrong threw a one-hitter to lead the Red Raiders past Cathedral Prep 1-0.

In the semifinals, Smith delivered again. The Red Raiders trailed 4-3 with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning when he stepped to the plate to face Hamburg pitcher Janson Youndt. He battled Youndt to a 3-2 count and hammered the ninth pitch down the left field line for a two-run, walk-off double.

Masullo then pitched a gem to help his team bring the trophy back to Bellefonte, throwing a complete game in a 2-0 win over Susquehanna Township. He was a factor in nearly all seven games during the playoffs, finishing with five wins and one save.

Kreger drove in the team’s first run in the state title game and had the lone RBI in the state quarterfinals.

3. Penn State wins another NCAA wrestling crown

Following a year that Penn State had its lowest finishes in the Big Ten (5th) and NCAA (6th) under coach Cael Sanderson, the Nittany Lions roared back to the top.

They finished the season 16-0, won their fifth NCAA and Big Ten titles in six years and took the inaugural National Wrestling Coaches Association Dual Championship title. Penn State was dominant all season with 10 wins over ranked opponents, four of them against top-10 teams.

The Nittany Lions took that momentum to Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the Big Ten Championships. They had six in the finals with Nico Megaludis (125), Jimmy Gulibon (141), Zain Retherford (149), Jason Nolf (157), Bo Nickal (174) and Morgan McIntosh (197). Retherford, Nickal and McIntosh came out on top in their weight classes, and Penn State won the team race by 23.5 points over Iowa.

At the NCAA tournament inside the famed Madison Square Garden in New York, the Nittany Lions had five finalists and the team title wrapped up before the championship matches began. Megaludis and Retherford captured titles, and Nolf, Nickal and McIntosh lost their title bouts.

For Megaludis, it was his third appearance in the finals but finally resulted in his first win.

For Retherford, it capped off an undefeated season.

4. State College triumphs in PIAA track

The State College boys’ track and field team knew it was a contender for a state title before the PIAA Championships began, with talent across nearly every discipline. The Little Lions needed every point they could scratch out, totaling 54 points to edge Downingtown West’s 53.

The team got gold-medal performances from Griffin Thompson in the pole vault, Alex Milligan in the 1,600 meters and the 3,200 relay team of Milligan, Anthony Degleris, Nick Feffer and Owen Wing. The latter foursome broke the school record and posted, at the time, the No. 1 clocking in the nation. Only two schools have since run a faster time this year.

They also picked up medals from Kellin Valentine in the long (sixth) and triple (seventh) jumps, Tristan Daman (fourth) in the 100, and Feffer (fourth) and Degleris (eighth) in the 800.

“This is track and field, “ said Steve Shisler, who guided the program to its second state crown in its history in his first year as head coach. “We were able to do it sprints, middle distance, 1,600, long jump, triple jump, pole vault — the guys believed in it and made it happen.”

Their female counterparts also did well, finishing second as a team. They got a pair of second-place finishes from Veronika Karpenko in the long and triple jumps, Rachel Wylie was fourth in the 300 hurdles, Natasha Fedkina took sixth in the 1,600, Haley Crawford was sixth in the 200, Taylor Givens was seventh in the long jump and Givens, Crawford, Wylie and Zoe Wicks combined to take sixth in the 400 relay.

As a school, State College captured 16 medals at the state championships.

Karpenko and Thompson also had major victories earlier in the spring, winning triple jump and pole vault titles, respectively, at the Penn Relays.

5. St. Joe’s cross country repeats

The St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy girls’ cross country team went to the PIAA Championships with extra motivation.

Not only were the Lady Wolves running to repeat as Class A champions, they were also running for their coach during a tough time. Coach Jayson Jackson’s daughter, Ophelia, experienced complications after being born one month premature Oct. 28, about a week before the state championships.

The St. Joseph’s community and his team offered support during that week.

The Lady Wolves then won the Class A title, edging Elk Lake on a tiebreaker determined by the sixth-place finishers.

Sera Mazza won the individual state championship with a time of 19:17.

“I was hoping individually I could get top three because I was fourth last year,” Mazza said. “I really wasn’t expecting to get first. But it was really exciting.

“I think the thing that really pushed me was running for Ophelia and knowing that our whole team was running for the same reason.”

Julia Cusatis (18th, 20:24), Addie Ebbs (20th, 20:34), Maggie Urban (21st, 20:34), Cousins (43rd, 21:49), Kate Ott (49th, 22:07) and Lindsay Carmack (54th, 22:22) contributed to the Lady Wolves’ win.

St. Joseph’s and Elk Lake both finished with 103 points.

Tie-6. Irwin hits 2K

Kyla Irwin did something accomplished only once before in the history of Centre County high school basketball — she scored 2,000 points in her career. She joined 1989 Penns Valley graduate Dana McDonald as the only athletes to hit the mark, finishing with 2,032.

The State College graduate also pulled down 1,188 rebounds and posted a double-double in 79 of her 96 career games, helping the Lady Little Lions to the District 6 Class AAAA title last season. No State College basketball player, male or female, has more career points or rebounds than Irwin.

She is far from done with basketball, now on scholarship with the best women’s basketball program in the country – Connecticut.

Tie-6. Spikes win NYPL title again

From the first day of the season to the last, the State College Spikes used a positive team mindset to generate wins — and plenty of them.

After earning a franchise-record 50 regular season wins, the Spikes cruised through the playoffs and captured the New York-Penn League title, sweeping a best-of-three championship series against the Hudson Valley Renegades in September.

Tommy Edman set a club record with 61 runs, Ryan McCarvel was second in the league with 10 home runs, and State College as a team finished second in the NYPL in total hits and first in runs.

Tie-8. State College volleyball makes stunning run

They may not have had that one go-to player or a roster filled with Division I talent, but the whole was greater than the sum of the parts for the State College girls’ volleyball team. Beating teams along the way that did have Division I players, the Lady Little Lions advanced all the way to the PIAA semifinals in November before falling in a five-set marathon to Garnet Valley.

Led by Taylor Kuruzovich, who will play for Akron next season, State College won its sixth straight District 6 title and played in the state semifinals for the fourth time in program history thanks to a team that excelled in serving and passing. Kuruzovich, Alli Henderson and Laura Hildebrand earned All-State honors in helping the team reach the semis.

Tie-8. Penn State hockey on meteoric rise

Penn State had been in the national rankings before, but not like this. As the calendar changes to 2017, the Nittany Lions, in just their fifth season as a Division I program, are No. 3 in both major national polls, receiving first-place votes in both. They also are No. 1 in the PairWise Rankings, a statistical indicator of who’s in line to make the NCAA tournament, and possess the nation’s best record.

On the same night the football team shocked Ohio State, the Nittany Lion skaters upset then-No. 3 Notre Dame in South Bend, starting a run of 11 straight wins. Pegula Ice Arena has been the place to be, with sellout crowds every home game, and the Nittany Lions are now the team everyone in the Big Ten is chasing.

Tie-10. P-O snaps losing streak

The Philipsburg-Osceola football team earned its first win since 2013 this fall. P-O beat St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy 34-14 in their final game of the regular season to snap a 36-game losing streak.

The Mounties, who lost their first nine games, built a 21-0 lead on their way to the win over the Wolves.

Tie-10. Nittany Lions party in Rio

Last summer Penn State was represented well at the Rio Olympics, with 25 Nittany Lions at the summer games and 18 of them competing. The former and current Lions competed for the United States, Mexico, Ireland, Japan and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In all, eight Nittany Lion athletes won medals. Joe Kovacs was a silver medalist in the men’s shot put. Earning bronze were Miles Chamley-Watson (men’s fencing), Monica Aksamit (women’s fencing), Christa Harmotto Dietzen and Alisha Glass (women’s volleyball) and Matt Anderson, Max Holt and Aaron Russell (men’s volleyball).

Honorable mentions (in no particular order): State College football wins Mid Penn, advances to PIAA first round; State College boys’ soccer wins district title again, falls in PIAA first round; State College girls’ soccer wins district title again, falls in PIAA first round; P-O softball wins district title in dramatic style, falls in PIAA quarters; Bellefonte softball wins district title, falls in PIAA quarters; State College swimming teams defend district titles.