The 2014 year in sports in Centre County was a wild ride — right from the very first day.
It started with the Penn State football team suddenly in need of a new coach, and ended with another surprise not expected on Jan. 1 with a bowl game for the Nittany Lions.
In between were national championships, state championships, record-setting performances and major milestones.
While there were quite a few remarkable performances and moments over the course of the year, it was the Nittany Lion football team, and all of the dramatic twists and turns it encountered, which made it the unanimous choice of the CDT sports staff as the story of the year.
As the calendar is turned to 2015, here is one last look at 2014, with the CDT’s vote of the top 10 stories — and then some:
1. Penn State football has dramatic year
As 2013 turned into 2014, the Penn State football team segued into another period of uncertainty.
Bill O’Brien, who had been hired to lead the program through its darkest period in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, decided to jump to the NFL and was hired by the Houston Texans. He was introduced as the Texans’ coach two days later as Penn State administrators began to search for his replacement.
A week later, they had their man. Former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin was introduced as Penn State’s 16th head coach on January 11th, calling it his “dream job.”
The search came with plenty of publicity. Miami’s Al Golden and former Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak emerged as candidates. But both former Penn State players were beat out by the energetic Franklin who had led Vanderbilt back from the doldrums in three years in Nashville.
Immediately, Franklin hit the road recruiting. He filled out O’Brien’s final recruiting class and began work on his first one — a group of prospects that currently ranks among the nation’s Top 10.
Franklin proceeded to lead the Nittany Lions to a 7-6 record overall capped by a 31-30 win in a thrilling Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. Along the way, there were highs and lows. The Nittany Lions began the season in Ireland with a win over UCF in Dublin and had the remaining sanctions levied against them following the Sandusky scandal — two years of a bowl ban and remaining scholarship cuts — lifted by the NCAA shortly thereafter in September.
On the field, results weren’t always positive. The Nittany Lions struggled offensively for much of the season, failing to run the ball consistently and protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Overall, Hackenberg was sacked 43 times in the regular season and the Nittany Lions dropped close games against Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois, got hammered by Northwestern and finished just 2-6 in conference play.
The Nittany Lions weren’t immune to the injury bug. Senior running back Zach Zwinak was felled on the opening kickoff of the Ohio State game and had to be carted from the field. He would not return. Senior safety Ryan Keiser suffered a serious injury in practice when he broke a rib and suffered a torn bowel that required nearly a monthlong stay in the hospital and multiple surgeries.
But the Nittany Lion defense returned to form under new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Led by standout play from linebacker Mike Hull and defensive lineman Anthony Zettel, Penn State turned in the top-ranked rushing defense in the country and ranked in the Top 10 in nearly every major defensive category.
Along the way, the offense got a boost when Miles Dieffenbach made an improbable return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in the spring. Dieffenbach played in the Indiana game and every game thereafter.
Overall, the Nittany Lions will return 17 starters next season.
2. Wrestling continues national dominance
Another year brought another national championship for the Penn State wrestling team.
The Nittany Lions won their fourth Big Ten and NCAA titles under Cael Sanderson and sent two of the programs all-time greats out on the highest of notes as Ed Ruth and David Taylor both won NCAA titles at Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Center in March.
Taylor won his second title at 165 pounds when he beat Oklahoma State’s Tyler Caldwell 6-0 in the finals. Ruth handed Maryland’s Jimmy Sheptock a 7-2 defeat at 184 pounds to become the first three-time NCAA champion in Penn State history.
Taylor finished 34-0 on the season while Ruth went 34-1, his long winning streak snapped by Cornell’s Gabe Dean at the Southern Scuffle. Ruth later avenged the defeat by beating Dean 5-3 in the national semifinals.
At the NCAA tournament the Nittany Lions were aided by strong finishes from Nico Megaludis (125), Zain Retherford (141), James English (149), Matt Brown (174) and Morgan McIntosh (197), each of whom finished as All-Americans in their weight classes. Megaludis brought home third place while Retherford and Brown finished fifth at their weights. McIntosh and English turned in seventh-place finishes.
English’s story was particularly compelling. A rare sixth-year senior who was awarded an additional year of eligibility after numerous injuries forced him to miss the better parts of two seasons, English entered with few matches under his belt in the regular season. He began the tournament as an unseeded wrestler and edged a former champion — Oklahoma’s Kendric Maple — in the seventh-place match.
Penn State also put together a strong dual-meet season in addition to winning the Southern Scuffle for the fourth time. The Nittany Lions went 15-1 overall and 7-1 in Big Ten duals. The regular season saw the Nittany Lions return to the Bryce Jordan Center, where they set an NCAA attendance record with 15,996 fans on hand to watch Penn State beat Pittsburgh 28-9.
In addition, the Nittany Lions hammered the archrival Iowa Hawkeyes 24-12 in Iowa City and suffered their lone loss to Minnesota in Minneapolis.
After the season, Taylor and Ruth joined the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club and Ruth made the U.S. world team after beating Keith Gavin at the World Team Trials in June. Taylor’s bid to make the world team fell short when he was beaten by reigning Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs.
The Nittany Lions also welcomed a familiar face back to the program when former four-time All-American Frank Molinaro was added to Sanderson’s coaching staff.
A familiar face to Centre county wrestling fans also fared well as Edinboro and former Bellefonte standout Mitchell Port was named EWL Wrestler of the Year after a third-place finish at 141 pounds at the NCAA tournament. Port, the No. 1 seed at his weight, lost in the quarterfinals to North Carolina’s Evan Henderson, but rebounded with a vengeance. Port won four matches to post the third-place finish and outscored his opponents 31-5 in the four wrestleback matches. In that span, Port edged Retherford 3-1 and hammered Henderson in a rematch 9-1 to earn third place and his second-straight All-America season.
3. Penn State earns title No. 7 in volleyball
While the Penn State women’s volleyball team is a contender for a national championship, finishing on top this past season was anything but a sure thing when the season opened in August. The Nittany Lions saw six seniors, three of them All-Americans, depart and eight freshmen join the team.
But the Nittany Lions gelled quickly, finished second in the Big Ten and rolled off 20 straight wins to close the season, the last of which was a three-set sweep of Brigham Young in the NCAA title match.
“You know, a year ago I was kind of skeptical about how are we were going to get back there. It’s a long season, got a lot of young girls,” said senior setter Micha Hancock, the AVCA National Player of the Year. “But we got in there. We got in there with the young girls, and looking back they play hard. And they’re really talented girls. And I think juniors and seniors, we really tried to show them the way and it all paid off. So that’s what we do it for.”
Junior Megan Courtney paced the win, earning Most Valuable Player honors for the tournament after totaling 34 kills, 30 digs and 10 blocks against BYU and Stanford in the semifinals.
The Nittany Lions (36-3) only dropped two sets during the final 19 matches of the season, en route to earning their seventh NCAA title, which is more than any other program. Meanwhile, Russ Rose also won his seventh crown as coach to extend his NCAA record, and finished with 1,161 wins, which is also No. 1 all-time in Division I. He passed Hawaii’s Dave Shoji for the top spot during the season and now has 10 more wins than Shoji.
Another record-setter was Hancock, whose devastating serve was especially tough to handle this season. She led the nation in aces, set the career record (380) at Penn State and the Big Ten, and her single-season total of 126 set the Big Ten standard and the Division I record since college volleyball went to a 25-point, rally-scoring system.
Hancock joined Dominique Gonzalez, Nia Grant and Lacey Fuller in a senior class that closed their careers with back-to-back titles.
4. A softball rivalry to remember
They started lining up several hours before the first ticket would be sold at Penn State’s Nittany Lion Softball Field.
They had to get there early to get a seat before all of the standing-room only crowd arrived.
That was the passion the softball teams from Bald Eagle Area and Philipsburg-Osceola stirred among fans last May and June.
The large crowds gathered for something that had never happened before — two Centre County teams meeting twice in the postseason.
The two teams split a pair of one-run decisions in the regular season and both advanced to the District 6 Class AA title game. The Lady Eagles won the rubber match, rallying to win a 5-4 thriller in eight innings as Moreta Dyke’s single plated Olivia Andrews with the game-winner.
But the two Mountain League rivals weren’t done, just yet.
Both teams qualified for the PIAA Tournament and both won their first two games to set up the historic PIAA semifinal matchup against each other. The contest was once again held at Penn State because no other area venue could hold the turnout.
Some fans began buzzing the ticket window at 10 a.m. for a game that started at 5:30 p.m.
BEA left no doubt in the fourth matchup, winning 7-3 as Mikala Smith and Marissa Tobias each drove in two runs and Makennah Dyke pitched a seven-hitter.
The Lady Eagles would falter in the final, dropping a 13-5 decision to Central Columbia.
Both teams return the majority of their lineups in 2015.
Bellefonte also won the District 6 Class AAA title, beating Johnstown 7-2. The Lady Red Raiders fell 8-3 to Thomas Jefferson in the opening round of the PIAAs.
5. Spikes win first New York-Penn League title
After falling a win short of the New York-Penn League championship the previous season, the Spikes captured the title in 2014.
State College dominated Pinckney Division play as second-place Jamestown finished 12 1/2 games back. Outfielder Rowan Wick sparked the hot start with a franchise-record 14 home runs in 35 games before he was promoted to Class-A Peoria. He still captured the New York-Penn League slugging title in his shortened season.
State College went into the postseason tied for the league’s best record and beat Hudson Valley in the semifinals to set up a rematch of the 2013 championship series with the Tri-City ValleyCats.
This time, the Spikes got the best of Tri-City, clinching their first championship in Game 3 with an 11-2 victory.
“To have a season where it all kind of came together and to have that culminate with the New York-Penn League championship,” Spikes general manager Jason Dambach said, “it was really the capper to a dream season.”
State College scored six runs in the first inning, and Spikes starting pitcher Daniel Poncedeleon went six scoreless innings to earn the win.
“It’s extremely special, man,” Spikes manager Oliver Marmol said that night. “It’s a good group. Not one guy carried this team, it was a team effort. And it really came together towards the end and made a run for it. That’s what makes it special.”
The State College pitching staff gave up five earned runs in 52 innings during the postseason run.
Pitchers Will Anderson and Fernando Baez each put together 10-strikeout outings to set single-game franchise records, while third baseman Danny Diekroeger set a club record with a 21-game hitting streak in August.
After managing State College the past two seasons, Marmol has been promoted to manage the Advanced Class-A Palm Beach Cardinals in 2015.
The St. Louis Cardinals announced in December that Johnny Rodriguez will manage the Spikes this summer, the 10th year in the franchise’s history.
6. Philipsburg’s Adams delivers for Cardinals
Philipsburg native Matt Adams was still looking to prove himself after a productive 2013 season for the St. Louis Cardinals.
“I went into spring training knowing that I was still having to fight for a job,” Adams said in May. “And I just wanted to build off the year that I had last year.”
Adams, a Philipsburg-Osceola graduate, hit .284 with 17 home runs in 108 games in 2013 as a backup to Allen Craig.
He earned the starting job at first base for the Cardinals and hit .288 with 15 home runs and 68 RBIs in 142 games in 2014. Adams was second on St. Louis in hitting behind Jon Jay (.303), third in homers and third in RBIs to help the team win the NL Central.
He then provided one of the highlights of the playoffs in October.
Adams smacked a go-ahead, three-run home run to lift the St. Louis Cardinals to a 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, sending St. Louis to the National League Championship Series.
Adams’ homer came on an offering by Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, who later won the NL MVP and Cy Young awards. It was the first home run Kershaw ever gave up on a curveball to a left-handed hitter in his career.
Adams went 7 for 30 (.233) with three home runs and seven RBIs in the playoffs.
The Cardinals were eliminated in the NLCS by the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants.
Adams has a career batting average of .283 with 34 home runs in 277 games.
7. Irwin picks UConn
It’s not unusual for a local athlete to continue his or her athletic careers in college. Better than three dozen Centre County student-athletes each year join programs at some level of college. What is unusual is when the college program of choice is the Connecticut women’s basketball team — arguably the most dominant of Division I women’s sports programs. The Huskies have won nine NCAA titles and been to 15 Final Fours while cranking out tons of WNBA and Olympic talent.
Making that commitment to UConn is State College junior Kyla Irwin, who has been hoping to play for the Huskies since she was in fourth grade and jumped at the chance to follow that dream when she got a scholarship offer in late October.
“I imagined it back then, but I always thought of it as a dream,” she said.
Irwin, who was also an All-State selection in volleyball, then kicked off her junior year of basketball by becoming the fifth Lady Little Lion to surpass 1,000 career points since her mother, Bethany, became head coach 22 years ago.
8. Record-setting runs for Little Lions
The State College boys’ track and field team was downright fast last spring, breaking records along the way.
The foursome of Will Cather, Kyle Adams, Mason Post and Chris Golembeski won the PIAA Class AAA title in the 3,200-meter relay with a time of 7 minutes, 41.99 seconds. The time broke the school record of 7:42.2 that had stood since 1969, and closed the year as the 12th-best clocking in the event in the entire country.
“We had a lot of potential,” Post said. “This is obviously what we’ve been shooting for the whole time.”
Earlier in the year, the group of Adams, Cather, Post and Jon Smith raced to a school record of 3:23.13 in the 1,600 relay at the New Balance Indoor Nationals in New York, the 24th best time in the U.S. indoors in 2014.
9. Another Big Ten title for Lady Lions
The run of two consecutive Big Ten women’s titles was supposed to end.
Penn State had Maggie Lucas, but who else? Ariel Edwards, Dara Taylor and Talia East answered.
The four seniors guided Penn State to its third consecutive regular-season league title and to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
Lucas earned her second consecutive Big Ten Player of the Year honor, and finished her career second on the school scoring chart with 2,510 points. She also broke the league record with 365 career 3-pointers. She played in the WNBA with the Indiana Fever, which advanced to the championship finals.
Edwards joined Lucas on the All-Big Ten First Team and is playing professionally in Spain. Taylor was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year and East earned an honorable mention selection.
Coquese Washington picked up her third consecutive Big Ten Coach of the Year honor after leading Penn State to a 22-7 overall record, including 13-3 in league play.
Penn State defeated Wichita State (62-56) and Florida (83-61) at home before falling at Stanford (82-57) in the NCAA Tournament.
T-10. Glen makes assist; Hope in Hockey Valley
The Penn State men’s hockey team picked up its most impressive assist off the ice in January, when forward David Glen had hematopoetic stem cells harvested from his body so he could donate them to a woman in her 50s whom he had never met who was battling leukemia. Glen had to miss three games while recovering from the procedure. He had signed up to be on a national registry and found out in the fall his blood was a match for the woman.
“A few games is well worth the sacrifice to give this lady a second chance to live her life and beat her struggle with cancer,” Glen said.
On the ice, the team has been off to a hot start, climbing to a 9-6-2 record heading into the new year. The Nittany Lions also are leading the Big Ten, and are ranked for the first time in program history — 20th in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll after pulling off a sweep at Wisconsin.
Back in the spring, they hit a number of other milestones, including three wins over Michigan. The first gave Penn State its first Big Ten win in program history, the second was in Ann Arbor for the first road conference win, and the third came in the Big Ten Tournament.
T-10. Bastardi leaves his mark
Garrett Bastardi had been showing flashes of golf talent the last few years, but it started to come together in 2014 for the St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy senior.
Bastardi rolled through the high school regular season, winning every dual meet and tournament in which he was entered. He then added the District 6 Class AA individual title with the best round for any district golfer regardless of class, was sixth at the PIAA West Region tournament and finished tied for 19 th at the PIAA Championships.
He also set the course record at Mountain View Country Club with a 61, and has unofficially broken 60 there.
Honorable mention stories (in no particular order): Sandy Barbour named Penn State’s new athletic director after Dr. David Joyner retires. ... Penn State women’s soccer team wins Big Ten, advances to NCAA quarterfinals. ... Penn State men’s soccer team has hot start to season, rises to No. 3, then cools off. ... Penn State field hockey team advances to NCAA quarterfinals. ... Penn State men’s volleyball team advances to NCAA semifinals. ... State College football team overcomes poor regular season to make PIAA quarterfinals. ... State College girls’ basketball team wins District 6 title, makes PIAA second round. ... Bald Eagle Area’s baseball team advances to PIAA tournament. ... State College baseball team wins District 6 title, makes PIAA first round. ... State College girls’ volleyball team wins District 6 title, falls in PIAA first round. ... Bald Eagle Area girls’ volleyball team wins first District 6 title in program history, falls in PIAA first round. ... State College boys’ volleyball team wins District 6 title, loses in PIAA quarterfinals. ... State College girls’ soccer team wins seventh straight District 6 title, falls in PIAA first round. ... State College boys’ soccer team wins fourth straight District 6 title, falls in PIAA opening round.