Sports

Looking back on Centre County’s top sports stories of 2017

Centre County sports fans could hardly claim to be bored in 2017 — no matter the preferred sport.

One record after another fell, championship trophies of all sorts were raised, and a certain running back hurdled one opponent after another to make a bold case for a Heisman Trophy.

That trophy may have not made it into Saquon Barkley’s sure hands, and Penn State’s hopes for a national championship in football may have disappeared in late October, but there still was plenty to enjoy.

The year’s highlights on Centre County athletic fields and courts stretched well beyond Beaver Stadium. The Bellefonte football team put together the kind of season not seen in the lifetimes of any of its players, the Penns Valley cross country team made school history of its own by running faster than everyone else, and Penn State’s wrestling program just keeps winning and winning and winning.

There also were memorable moments on the track, volleyball court, soccer pitch, lacrosse field and diamond — including a local kid getting to come back home as a pro baseball player.

There were so many more special days and stories than can fit in one small space, but in our annual vote of the Centre Daily Times sports staff, here are the top 10 sports stories of 2017:

1. Saquon Barkley steals show, but gets Heisman snub

Saquon Barkley — arguably the best running back to ever wear a Penn State uniform — didn’t make it to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

No, his flight wasn’t canceled. And, nope, his car didn’t break down.

Barkley wasn’t a finalist for the award that goes to the nation’s top player. He was snubbed of an invite to the ceremony altogether.

It’s not as if Barkley should have won or the other candidates weren’t worthy. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield was a shoo-in for the award, while Stanford running back Bryce Love and reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson compiled stellar seasons.

Barkley took the high road after being left out, not complaining one bit. But with preseason Heisman hype that surrounded him and the play that backed it up, teammates, coaches and fans thought he was deserving of at least an invitation.

“I can’t imagine there’s another more dynamic player in the country than Saquon Barkley,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said.

Franklin has a point, too.

Prior to the first Monday in December, when ballots were due, Barkley hung gaudy numbers and boasted enough cuts and shimmies to vault him into Heisman consideration.

The 929 Heisman voters — 870 media members, 58 winners of the award and one fan poll vote — saw Barkley’s 1,134 rushing yards and eight games with less than 100 on the ground and didn’t bother digging any deeper.

But Barkley’s 179.5 all-purpose yards per game and 21 touchdowns ranked first and second among Power 5 players. The Coplay native tied for a team-high 47 catches and recorded 594 receiving yards. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and even passed for one.

Barkley — the Big Ten offensive player, running back and return specialist of the year — did it all in the regular season, putting Penn State fans on the edge of their seats every time he touched the ball. He did it again, too, in likely his final collegiate game — posting 175 total yards and two touchdowns on 25 touches at the Fiesta Bowl. He gave Nittany Lion supporters and teammates one last moment to hang on to, a 92-yard dash down the University of Phoenix Stadium.

It was a reminder of what Barkley was for Penn State all year long, and why so many felt he was snubbed of a Heisman invite.

2. PSU crowns 5 champs on way to another wrestling title

The story of college wrestling’s season had the same ending again — for the sixth time in seven seasons, Penn State was the champion.

The Nittany Lions completed another undefeated season at 14-0 and defended their National Wrestling Coaches Association Dual Championship title with a win at Oklahoma State. However, that win came with a cost. Nick Suriano injured his ankle in that dual and was unable to wrestle in the Big Ten Championships, and the loss helped Ohio State take the conference title away from the Nittany Lions.

Even without Suriano’s services at the NCAA Championships in St. Louis in mid-March, Penn State still had another national title and an unprecedented five champions. Zain Retherford (149 pounds), Jason Nolf (157), Vincenzo Joseph (165), Mark Hall (174) and Bo Nickal (184) went one after another in the gold rush never seen before in college wrestling. Nick Nevills added a fifth-place finish at 285 for six All-American Lions.

3. Historical year for Bellefonte football

It was a season for the ages for the Bellefonte football team in 2017.

The Red Raiders won their first district championship since 1999, captured their first league title since 2005 and became the fourth team in program history to win 10 games. This season also marked the high point of the turnaround for the Red Raiders under coach Shanon Manning, who endured a winless campaign in 2013.

“To go from four or five years ago 0-10 to a 10-win season and a district title,” Manning said after his team’s 34-12 win over Johnstown in the District 6 Class 4A championship game, “it means so much to me to give back to the Bellefonte community and those kids. It’s unbelievable.”

More often than not, the Red Raiders steamrolled the competition behind star quarterback Dylan Deitrich. Deitrich started the season at wide receiver before taking over at quarterback in the team’s second game after Nick Paloskey was sidelined with appendicitis. The transition was seamless, as Deitrich became the first quarterback in county history to both rush and pass for more than 1,000 yards in a season.

He led the county in rushing with 1,535 yards to go with a school-record 26 rushing touchdowns. Deitrich rushed for more than 200 yards in two games this year, and he led his team to memorable blowout wins over Tyrone, Clearfield and Central during the regular season. The Red Raiders then cruised to a 62-21 win over Clearfield in their district playoff opener before beating Johnstown in the championship.

The season came to an end with a 37-3 loss to Selinsgrove in the PIAA first round, but Manning shouted, “Bellefonte football is here to stay!” to his team after the state playoff loss. The Red Raiders finished with a 10-3 record and rewrote the program’s record books.

Deitrich earned all-state honors along with Bellefonte defensive lineman Caleb Rockey, who finished with 48 solo tackles, 10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss.

4. Penns Valley leads county cross country supremacy

Centre County has had a strong tradition for running, but there has never been a fall cross country season like 2017. It was even more spectacular for Penns Valley.

The Rams ran to a PIAA Class A title in Hershey in November, capturing the first boys’ team state championship in school history. They put all five scoring runners in the top 25 and outran runner-up Montrose by 12 points.

“It’s that state championship,” freshman Brendan Colwell proudly said after the race. “That’s what you’re working toward.”

The team used a mix of experience and youth for the win. Colwell’s brother Chris was joined by Sam Gray, Mark Bierly and Charles Romig as the senior leaders, while Colton Sands and Daniel Kelly were the other fast freshmen. Sands was the fastest of the bunch in the PIAA meet, finishing 10th overall

The Rams were not alone in their success. In the PIAA’s three classes for boys and girls, county teams won four team District 6 titles, and three squads had top-5 finishes at the state meet. St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy was the PIAA Class A runner-up this fall after state crowns the previous two years, and the State College girls were fifth in Class 3A, the third straight top-5 finish for the team. The State College boys, who were 11th at PIAAs, rounded out the four district champions, and each of the four teams had individual runners finishing among the top 12 in their respective PIAA races.

5. Penn State leaves Iowa riding high, out of national race by end of October

This wasn’t the season Penn State and its fans were necessarily hoping to witness.

The Nittany Lions — capped by a 35-28 win over Washington in the Fiesta Bowl — finished with an 11-2 record and springboard into the 2018 season. With back-to-back 11-win campaigns and a pair of New Year’s Six bowl trips, most programs would take that.

But with Barkley and Trace McSorley coming back to run Joe Moorhead’s offense for a second year and Penn State’s defense led by seniors, College Football Playoff aspirations were sky high. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, they fell short of those lofty expectations.

Penn State started its season perfectly. James Franklin’s crew beat its first seven opponents by a combined total of 280-67. Perhaps the six most important points in that stretch came on a touchdown pass from McSorley to Juwan Johnson as time expired at Iowa, propelling Penn State past the Hawkeyes in a primetime thriller.

A few weeks later, the Nittany Lions — fresh off hosting College GameDay and dropping 506 yards on Michigan in a 42-13 win — were ranked No. 2 in the country going to No. 6 Ohio State. The matchup in at The Shoe was billed as college football’s game of the year.

And Penn State surrendered a fourth-quarter lead, striking a dizzying blow to its playoff dreams. The Nittany Lions’ 15-point advantage evaporated as Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett completed 13 of 13 passes for 170 yards in the final period.

After a total collapse, lingering questions became front-and-center issues. The pass rush needed to create more pressure, and the offensive line came under fire.

Penn State had to bounce back at Michigan State. Instead, the Nittany Lions — hampered by a 202-minute weather delay — dropped back-to-back games.

Penn State went from the No. 2 team in the nation to completely out of playoff consideration in a couple weeks. That’s how cutthroat college football is in the playoff era; one loss can be endured, but a second is a killer.

Penn State found that out the hard way.

6. Bellefonte’s Port earns PIAA wrestling silver; SJCA claims first state medal

Brock Port only suffered one loss during his senior season. Unfortunately for him, it happened at the PIAA Championships in Hershey in the 145-pound final to current Penn State freshman Jarod Verkleeren. Port was the first county wrestler to make the PIAA finals since Penns Valley’s Corey Hazel in 2014.

Port led six county wrestlers to claim medals at the Giant Center, and also helped Bellefonte post a 19-2 record — the most wins in school history.

Among the half-dozen PIAA medalists was Caleb Dowling of St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy, taking fourth at 132 pounds, making him the Wolves’ first wrestling place-winner.

Others picking up hardware in Hershey included State College’s Cole Urbas (third, 182 pounds), Bald Eagle Area’s Seth Koleno (fifth, 138) and Gage McClenahan (seventh, 152) and the Rams’ Baylor Shunk (seventh, 106).

7. Penn State wins Big Ten, makes NCAA hockey tourney

A team shouldn’t be able to do what the Penn State men’s hockey team did in a major college sport in just five seasons of existence. Soaring with a high-flying offense that led the nation in scoring and shots, the Nittany Lions rose to No. 1 in the country in January, and after faltering for a stretch, displayed a stunning weekend of resolve at the Big Ten tournament. Penn State won three games in three days, the last two in double-overtime for the conference trophy.

They rode that emotional wave to an astounding 10-3 win over Union in the NCAA opening round before dropping a 6-3 quarterfinal game to eventual champion Denver.

Goalie Peyton Jones made one highlight save after another in the Big Ten tournament, and the offense was paced by 22 goals from sophomore Andrew Sturtz and 19 goals and 28 assists from Denis Smirnov, who led the nation’s freshmen in scoring and became the first Lion chosen in the NHL draft while a member of the team.

The Lions are 11-7-2 to start this season, unbeaten in their last eight, trying to duplicate last season’s success.

8. State College grad Nick Raquet drafted, pitches at Medlar Field

Nick Raquet made local history this past summer. The State College graduate was selected in the third round of the MLB draft by the Washington Nationals in June — higher than any other Centre County high school graduate. The pitcher also became the first county native to play professionally at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park when he started for the Auburn Doubledays against the State College Spikes in late July.

Raquet, a William & Mary product, went 3-2 with a 2.36 ERA in 12 starts in his first season of professional baseball.

His final start of the year in September also was in State College, when he allowed one unearned run in six innings to earn the win as the Doubledays beat the Spikes 4-1.

9. State College piles up points on way to PIAA quarters

The State College football team rolled up a record-setting season with its prolific offense this fall. The Little Lions piled up 562 points in 13 games, seven times scoring at least 45 points, carrying them to the PIAA Class 6A quarterfinals.

Leading that offense was junior quarterback Tommy Friberg, who completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards and 28 touchdowns. He is just the sixth Centre County player to pass for over 2,000 yards in a season. On the receiving end was Brandon Clark, who plans to walk on at Penn State, hauling in 51 passes for 895 yards and scoring a county-record 16 touchdowns.

Four Little Lions finished with all-state honors, the most since they had five in 2011, and the special season ended in a 49-21 loss to eventual state champion Pine Richland, led by quarterback Phil Jurkovec, a Notre Dame recruit.

10. Hard-hitting P-O softball hits PIAA semifinals

The Philipsburg-Osceola softball team flexed some serious muscles last spring. The Lady Mounties crushed a team-record 29 home runs as part of a prolific offense to capture the program’s 12th District 6 title and advance to the PIAA semifinals. They were just one win away from getting to play at Penn State’s Beard Field before the hot bats were cooled in a 4-0 loss to eventual state champion South Park. It was just the second time all season they were shut out.

Eight of the nine P-O starting hitters in the postseason had a batting average over .300, Maggie Peck paced the power hitters with 11 home runs, and Madison Lucas added eight long balls to go with a batting average over .500.

But it wasn’t all offense, with Kam Harris’ pitches tough to touch, especially when it counted. She threw a no-hitter in the district playoffs, and after allowing the first two batters to reach base in their PIAA opener, she retired the next 21 straight. P-O finished 20-4 and lost only three girls to graduation, returning Lucas and Harris among its many stars this spring.

Honorable mention (in no particular order)

Penn State volleyball makes final four, drops marathon semifinal to Nebraska ... State College softball wins District 6 title, falls in PIAA subregional ... Bellefonte softball wins District 6 title, falls in PIAA first round ... State College baseball makes PIAA semis, one win short of Medlar Field ... Penn State women’s soccer makes it to NCAA quarterfinals ... Penn State women’s lacrosse repeats trip to NCAA final four ... Penn State men’s lacrosse rises to No. 1, fades in NCAA opener ... Bald Eagle Area volleyball has undefeated regular season, wins district title ... State College volleyball wins 7th straight district title ... State College girls’ soccer wins 8th straight district title ... State College track and field teams dominate District 6, girls win 12th straight district title.

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