Sensational endings pique county’s interest

Looking back on the 2007 sports year in Centre County, it was one of triumph and turmoil.

It ran the gamut from the Penn State women’s volleyball team winning an NCAA championship, the Bald Eagle Area baseball and Philipsburg-Osceola softball teams winning first-ever PIAA titles, to the messy departure of long-time Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland and the year-long spate of off-the-field incidents involving members of the Penn State football team.

In total, the past 365 days were anything but ordinary.

As a society, we love lists. All-time this, best-ever that, top 10, top 25, top 100. And we here in the sports department, being card-carrying members of that society, feel obligated to address that craving.

So we’ve come up with our own list of the top 10 sports stories that played out in Centre County over the past year. Selecting them was easy, putting them in what seems to be the right order, was not so easy. No doubt if we put them up to a vote among you, our readers, we’d end up with plenty of variations since even among ourselves there were no unanimous choices.

But the majority ruled so here they are.

1. The departure of Portland amidst charges of anti-lesbian discrimination toward former players. After 27 seasons in which she compiled a 606-236 record, Portland left the program in March without so much as a farewell press conference. She was targeted in a lawsuit by former player Jen Harris which was later settled.

Long a feisty advocate for equality for women’s basketball, Portland produced an Olympian, All-Americans, WNBA-caliber players and had one Final Four appearance during her tenure. Penn State won three Big Ten titles outright and shared two others during Portland’s reign.

Coquese Washington, a Notre Dame assistant, is hired to succeed Portland. Washington, who is off to a 9-4 start, became the first African-American women’s head coach and just the second in any sport in school history.

2. After winning its inaugural NCAA crown in 1999, the Penn State women’s volleyball team added a bookend trophy earlier this month when the Nittany Lions subdued Stanford in a dramatic five-game match for the title. Penn State, which triumphed 15-9 in the deciding game, wins its final 26 matches to finish 34-2. Head coach Russ Rose is named the American Volleyball Coaches Association Coach of the Year and is inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame.

3. The Philipsburg-Osceola softball team capped a Cinderella year by breezing past Brandywine Heights 11-6 in the PIAA Class AA title game. The Lady Mounties, whose toughest postseason game was a 1-0 win over BEA in the District 6 finals, became the first team in school history to win a state championship. The win was exceptionally sweet for coach Jim Gonder, who had suffered a heart attack seven months earlier. P-O finished 23-4.

4. Bald Eagle Area’s baseball team, after losing to cross-county rival Philipsburg-Osceola in the District 6 finals for the second straight year, went on a tear in the PIAA playoffs. The Eagles, who hit .359 as a team and slammed 35 home runs, capped the run by beating Kutztown 6-1 in the Class AA state championship game to capture the first state baseball title in the school’s history. BEA finished 21-6.

5. A number of Penn State’s football players wound up in legal difficulties which placed them on the front pages and nightly newscasts, beginning with an assault in a downtown apartment building late last spring and carrying over to the fall when tailback Austin Scott was charged with rape and several members of the team were alleged to have been involved in a fight in the HUB on the night of the Iowa game. Anthony Sciorrotto, Chris Baker and Navarro Bowman are facing trials as a result. Baker was allegedly involved in both the apartment and HUB fights. Five players — Baker, Bowman, Knowledge Timmons, Willie Harriot and Tom McEowen — did not make the trip to the Alamo Bowl for various reasons. The off-the-field issues diverted plenty of attention from Penn State’s performance on the field, where the Nittany Lions entered the year with aspirations of a Big Ten championship. They opened the season with three straight wins, including a throttling of Notre Dame in front of an energized nighttime crowd at Beaver Stadium. But the Lions lost their next two games — at Michigan and Illinois, and went on to finish 8-4 after losing to Michigan State in the season finale when they squandered a 24-7 lead. The loss sent them to the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, where they rallied to a 24-17 win over Texas A&M on Saturday.

6. Bald Eagle Area’s Quentin Wright went 41-0 and won the PIAA 160-pound wrestling title in March. He then won the Penn State Open last month as a high school senior. Wright has signed to wrestle for the Nittany Lions.

7. In March, the PIAA brought its basketball championships to the Bryce Jordan Center. By most accounts the move was an unqualified success and the tournament will return for two more years.

8. The State College and Bellefonte softball teams along with the Philipsburg-Osceola and State College baseball squads captured District 6 titles only to falter in the PIAA playoffs. In softball, Bellefonte lost 2-0 to eventual Class AAA champion Susquehannock, while State College advanced to the quarterfinals before falling 1-0 to Garnet Valley. In baseball, State College bowed out 8-3 in the PIAA Class AAAA semifinals to eventual state champion Seneca Valley while the Mounties advanced to the Class AA quarterfinals before losing 7-6 in a 15-inning, two-day marathon game to Seton LaSalle.

9. The Bellefonte wrestling team took a giant step forward when the Raiders knocked off long-time nemesis Bald Eagle Area 32-28 in the District 6 Class AAA team duals finals. It was Bellefonte’s first win over the Eagles since 1978.

10. Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Zach Duke became the first current major-leaguer to pitch a game in Centre County. Duke allowed three hits and one run in 5 2/3 innings during a rehabilitiation outing with the State College Spikes on Sept. 6. Duke’s appearance attracted a crowd of 4,667 fans to Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. After the game, Duke treated the Spikes to an Outback Steakhouse meal that cost more than $800.

Honorable mention (in no specific order): Eight players with Centre County ties were selected in the Major League Baseball Draft. The group included Penn State’s Drew O’Neil (8th round, Cincinnati), Scott Gaffney (12th, Cincinnati), Craig Clark (14th, San Francisco), Matt Cavagnaro (21st, Pittsburgh) and Gary Amato (48th, Pittsburgh), State College High School graduates Andy Reichard (13th, San Francisco) and Steffan Wilson (28th, Milwaukee), and Philipsburg-Osceola graduate Adam White (9th, Cleveland). O’Neil, who decided to return to Penn State, was the only member of the group who didn’t begin his professional career during the summer. Cavagnaro and Amato played for the State College Spikes. ... The Penn State’s men’s gymnastics team wins its 12th national championship, posting a season-high 221.00 total before the Nittany Lions’ home fans at Rec Hall. ... Penn State’s field hockey team advances to the NCAA championship game before falling 3-0 to unbeaten North Carolina. ... Penn State heavyweight wrestler Aaron Anspach finishes second in the NCAA Tournament, falling to defending NCAA champion Cole Konrad of Minnesota in the final. Phil Davis (197 pounds) places fifth and Jake Strayer (133) is seventh in the event. ... After six seasons and a 119-19-11 record, Penn State women’s soccer coach Paul Wilkins resigns to take the head coaching job at Wisconsin. Erica Walsh becomes the third coach in program history and leads the team to a Big Ten title before the Nittany Lions fall in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. ... State College wrestler Steve Bosak finishes second at 145 pounds in the PIAA Class AAA championships. Bosak has signed to wrestle at Cornell.