The best of 2015 in Centre County sports

Penn State won the NCAA Women's College Cup soccer final against Duke 1-0 in Cary, N.C. on Dec. 6, 2015.
Penn State won the NCAA Women's College Cup soccer final against Duke 1-0 in Cary, N.C. on Dec. 6, 2015. The Associated Press, file

It was another year filled with triumph and disappointment.

But there was one victory that proved quite memorable.

The Penn State women’s soccer team earning its first NCAA Championship was hands-down the leader in a vote of CDT staff for the top sports story of 2015.

The victory kept alive Penn State’s run of at least one NCAA title in the past nine years, with 12 national crowns over that span.

The year also included plenty of other big wins and breakout stars and whetted area fans’ appetites for what’s to come.

The year’s top 10 sports stories:

1. PSU women’s soccer team wins title

For a coach craving and deserving glory; a senior class laden with accomplishments and talent; and a youth movement worth appreciating now and for years to come, the 2015 season was perfect for the Penn State women’s soccer team.

There were blowouts, close calls, a few shortcomings and more than a few moments of brilliance.

And in the end, there was triumph.

The Nittany Lions capped a season-ending 11-game winning streak by capturing the national championship. Penn State defeated Duke 1-0 in the title game on Dec. 6 just two days after downing Big Ten foe Rutgers in the College Cup semifinals.

The title was Penn State’s first-ever as a program, and one the team will never forget.

Coach Erica Walsh, entering her ninth season at the helm of Penn State, had achieved almost everything one could hope for as a college coach. She led the Nittany Lions to seven straight NCAA tournament appearances, earned seven Big Ten regular season titles, was named 2012 national coach of the year and coached 10 NSCAA Scholar All-America honorees.

The only thing eluding Walsh? A national championship.

Walsh’s 2012 team reached the title game, only to lose to North Carolina. But several freshmen on that team entered the 2015 campaign as seasoned veterans, ready to lead the Nittany Lions back to the College Cup once again.

Senior leaders Raquel Rodriguez, Britt Eckerstrom and Mallory Weber had years of experience under their belts, and they played like it all year. Rodriguez used her World Cup experience with Costa Rica during the summer to engineer Penn State’s attack through the midfield, Eckerstrom stood on her head when necessary in net and Weber was deadly with the ball on her feet, tallying eight goals and 11 assists on the season.

But they weren’t alone.

The Nittany Lions were also fueled by a collection of underclassmen. Offensively, sophomore forwards Megan Schafer and Frannie Crouse led Penn State in goals with 13 and 11, respectively. Sophomore midfielder Emily Ogle chipped in seven goals and five assists and was key in keeping possession and balance for the Nittany Lions.

Then there was Penn State’s defense. A combination of freshmen and sophomores on the back line was the Nittany Lions’ backbone, posting eight straight shutouts to end the season. That streak really picked up steam in the NCAA Tournament, a six-game span in which Penn State outscored its opponents 20-0. It was capped in the national title game, as the Nittany Lions held Duke to just three shots on goal.

Hours after Penn State celebrated its championship on the pitch of WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., the team returned to Happy Valley and was greeted by supporters at Rec Hall.

Walsh, Rodriguez, Eckerstrom and the rest of the Nittany Lions walked off the team bus and into a sea of cheers, smiles and selfies.

It was a celebration fit for champions.

And in 2015, it was a celebration fit for the Nittany Lions.

2. Breakout stars give lift to Nittany Lion football

The Penn State football season didn’t see many milestones or notable victories. Instead, Penn State fans received a heavy dose of reality, when they saw some of the same problems on the offensive line, which gave up 38 sacks, and on the offense itself, which finished near the bottom of the nation in total offense, scoring offense and yards per game.

Penn State football, after all, is still a work in progress.

But the bright spots that peeked through — or burst through, in some cases — were so very promising.

True freshman Saquon Barkley took just one carry in Penn State’s historic season-opening loss to Temple.

A week later, he put on a clinic.

His stunning leap over a hapless Buffalo defender on a soggy day that marked Penn State’s 2015 home opener not only prompted the CDT to coin the phrase “Saquontum Leap,” but also paved the way for his ballet-meets-bulldozer, juke-step-shimmy style. He rushed for 1,007 yards and seven touchdowns despite missing almost three games to an injured ankle.

Barkley became the top headline week after week, as he added more hurdles to his resume and put up 194 yards against then-No. 1 Ohio State, and though he has still not been made available to media, stories of his earnest, passionate personality from teammates and former coaches make his future exciting to consider off the field, and intriguing on it.

On the other side of the ball, many (including head coach James Franklin) said Carl Nassib was the best story in college football this year. Nassib, a former walk-on, clawed his way up the roster to become the Nittany Lions’ starting defensive end this year and didn’t stop there. He led the nation in sacks with 15.5, in forced fumbles with six and was second in the nation in tackles for loss with 19.5.

He also became a consensus All-American, won the 46th Rotary Lombardi Award for the nation’s top lineman (offense or defense) or linebacker, the 14th Ted Hendricks Award for the nation’s top defensive end and the Lott IMPACT Trophy.

His story is complete with what is perhaps Penn State football’s quote of the year, by defensive line coach Sean Spencer:

“We got on (Carl), the first time he had a sack in Beaver (Stadium),” he said. “You know, he got up, he pounded his chest, he went like that (Spencer threw his arms out). And you talk to him, and you try to tell him, ‘Listen, man. Don’t do that. Don’t attract attention to yourself.’

“And he goes, ‘Coach, I got to explain something to you,’ and he literally was tearing up in my chair. And he goes, ‘I’ve waited my entire life to make a sack in that stadium, and hear that crowd cheer my name. And for that moment, it had nothing to do with just me. It had to do with me being here, I had that moment to find.’ ”

3. Brown wins wrestling crown at NCAAs

The Penn State wrestling team was unable to continue its streak of team national championships. The run ended at four after finishing sixth and seeing rival Ohio State walk away with the crown.

However, one thing remained the same.

Penn State came away from the NCAA tournament with at least one national champion again.

Matt Brown won the 174-pound title and extended the Nittany Lions’ streak to five years. In that span, Penn State saw Ed Ruth capture three titles, along with Bald Eagle Area graduate Quentin Wright (2), David Taylor (2) and current assistant coach Frank Molinaro (1).

Brown took on Pittsburgh’s Tyler Wilps in the finals and earned a 5-4 controversial win. Brown won thanks in part to Wilps having interlocking hands with one second left. The match saw two challenge calls, one from coach Cael Sanderson that kept Brown in control of the match at 3-1. However, an escape and a takedown from Wilps with 20 seconds left had Brown down 4-3. Earlier, Wilps was called for stalling during the final 20 seconds he was trying to keep control of Brown. With three seconds left, Brown was awarded a stall point to even the score 4-4 before the winning point. Brown used two major decisions to make it to the quarterfinals before using one-point victories over Iowa’s Mike Evans and Virginia Tech’s Zach Epperly in the semifinals and quarterfinals, respectively.

The Nittany Lions finished with four other wrestlers earning All-American status. Morgan McIntosh (197) was the next-highest finisher at third, followed by Jimmy Gulibon (5th, 133), Jimmy Lawson (6th, heavyweight) and Jordan Conaway (8th, 125).

For Centre County wrestling fans, Bellefonte graduate Mitchell Port ended his collegiate career again on the national stage. Port built upon his third-place finish in 2014 by making the finals in 2015. Port, the No. 2 seed, dropped an 11-5 decision to Ohio State’s Logan Steiber to close out his career as a three-time All-American.

4. St. Joe’s runs to PIAA girls’ cross country title

Among the countless team tents and hundreds of participants, it’d be easy for a squad to go unnoticed at the PIAA Cross Country Championships.

But instead of fading into obscurity, the St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy girls’ cross country team stood out.

The Lady Wolves polished off a noteworthy 2015 campaign by making history on Nov. 7, capturing the PIAA Class A title at the Park View Cross Country Course. It was the first PIAA title in the school’s short four-year history, and it was a tight one.

But before SJCA showed up on the big stage, it grew as a team and built a successful side. The Lady Wolves were undefeated in the regular season, highlighted by wins at the Ridgway Invitational and in its first-ever home meet, held at Oak Hall Regional Park. Then the team placed second at the District 6 Class A Championships, qualifying them for the state meet.

In Hershey, coach Jayson Jackson knew things would be close between his girls and runners from District 6 champion Central Cambria. There certainly wasn’t much to separate the two sides. The Lady Wolves pulled out a victory with 90 points, but Central Cambria was on their tail with 97 points.

Like they had all season long, freshman Sera Mazza and senior Lucia Person led the charge. Mazza, the District 6 individual champion, did more than just survive the 5-kilometer course, finishing fourth overall with a time of 19 minutes, 37 seconds. Person was right behind her, placing ninth with a time of 19:55.

Jackson said after the race that Mazza and Person’s combo, running step-for-step, side-by-side together all season, benefited the team greatly.

“To have those two working together, with Lucia being a senior and going through a lot of this, and Sera being a freshman, it’s really a perfect match,” the coach said.

Rounding out the Lady Wolves’ group was Julia Cusatis (33rd, 20:36), Lea Fisher (53rd, 21:13), Kate Ott (63rd, 21:24), Grace Cousins (125th, 22:22) and Jordan Wiser (135th, 22:37).

After the runners crossed the finish line and caught their breath, Jackson was there to congratulate all of them. They waited for the results, which went in the Lady Wolves’ favor, and then had to wait even longer after that — for the trophy ceremony.

When the Lady Wolves took hold of their trophy, they held it high, proud of the program’s first-ever — but hopefully not last — PIAA championship.

5. Penns Valley’s Hazel earns PIAA silver

Penns Valley’s Corey Hazel began the 2014-2015 season looking to become only the second Ram wrestler to capture a PIAA gold medal. His journey ended in the finals of the Class AA 182-pound finals, but it wasn’t on the winning end.

Hazel fell to Franklin’s Dakota Geer 10-3 to close his high school career. He added the silver medal to a fifth-place finish and was a three-time state qualifier. Hazel finished his career as the all-time wins leader for Penns Valley with a 117-17 record.

Hazel’s resume also includes 2014 and 2015 District 6 championships, 2014 and 2015 Southwest Regional championships and three turns as a Mountain League all-star.

Centre County had six other wrestlers make it to the state level. Only Bellefonte’s Brock Port brought back a medal with his sixth-place finish at Class AAA 132 pounds. Hazel’s teammate, Curtis Decker, was the only other wrestler at Class AA and dropped his first two matches at 126 pounds to be eliminated.

Also at Class AAA, Bald Eagle Area’s Seth Koleno and Josh Fye made it at 126 and 285 pounds, respectively. Koleno went 1-2 while Fye went 0-2. Trevor Corl also represented the Red Raiders at 145 pounds but went 0-2. Cory Dreibelbis was the lone representative for State College. He wrestled at 195 pounds and went 0-2.

6. Penn State men’s basketball lands top recruits

Penn State coach Patrick Chambers called it a big day in program history.

On Nov. 11, the Nittany Lions signed their best recruiting class ever. Penn State’s Class of 2016 ranked among the best in the nation and is currently ranked 11th in the country by ESPN — one spot behind traditional power North Carolina. It also ranks second in the Big Ten, behind only Michigan State, which is third in the nation behind Kentucky (No. 1) and Duke (No. 2).

The class includes three players from Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia — guard Tony Carr, forward Lamar Stevens and forward Nazeer Bostick — and Oak Hill Academy forward Joe Hampton. ESPN rates Carr, Stevens and Hampton as four-star recruits, while Bostick is a three-star recruit.

The historic class plans to put Penn State on the map in college basketball.

“I think we all realize that we can make history if we all go to a school like Penn State,” Stevens said on signing day. “This is really our dream but we’re staying focused on just becoming better every day.”

Carr is the No. 1 recruit in Pennsylvania and is ranked the No. 50 recruit and No. 10 point guard in the country, according to ESPN.

When they arrive at Penn State, they will join Roman Catholic graduate Shep Garner on the roster. Garner, a sophomore guard, averaged 14.7 points and 34.8 minutes per game during nonconference play this season as the Nittany Lions took a 9-4 record into the Big Ten.

They’ll also become teammates with another Oak Hill Academy product, freshman guard Josh Reaves. Reaves, a highly touted recruit, impressed with his all-around game during nonconference action and ranked second on the team in steals, blocks and assists.

7. PSU baseball team takes historic trip

An international trip for a college athletic program is becoming more commonplace, but the Penn State baseball team reached a new level in November.

The Nittany Lions went to a country where baseball is practically a religion — and held their own against some of the best teams. Penn State spent a week in Cuba, not only playing the game but also getting an education in many different ways in an economically struggling nation.

“Unbelievable trip,” head coach Rob Cooper said when the team returned. “We talked all along on the leadup to this trip that I felt like it was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them, and I think it was all of that and more.”

The Nittany Lions won one of their four games, beating Mayabeque 9-3 and seeing two other close losses against teams from the nation’s pro league.

8. Karpenko soars to state title

Veronika Karpenko was the favorite heading into the weekend, and she finished in relatively dominating style. The State College junior flew to the Class AAA triple jump championship at the PIAA Track and Field Championships in Shippensburg in May.

Karpenko posted a winning leap of 40 feet, 1  1/4 inches for her victory, which was nearly two feet better than the event’s runner-up.

It was a satisfying win after her sophomore season, when she held the lead entering the last of six rounds of jumps, only to be passed and finish third.

“I’ve always wanted to break 40 ever since last year, “ Karpenko said. “It was my goal the whole time last year at the state meet, and I didn’t get it. Now I got it. It just feels so good, like a huge weight is lifted off my shoulders.”

Karpenko also grabbed a third-place medal in the long jump that weekend, while the State College boys’ 3,200-meter relay team of Anthony Degleris, Alex Milligan, Nick Feffer and Eric Heatwole broke the school record and took third in 7 minutes, 41.50 seconds.

Other medals were earned by State College’s Megan Fry, who tied for third in the pole vault, and Milligan, who was fifth in the 1,600; and Brian Hackman, of St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy, taking third in the Class AA 1,600. The State College girls’ team also earned their 10th straight district crown.

9. State College football wins Mid Penn, district titles

The State College football team enjoyed a successful season that came to an end against the eventual state champions.

The Little Lions won their first Mid Penn Conference Commonwealth division title since 2009, sharing the championship with Cumberland Valley and Central Dauphin. The trio proved to be among the best teams in the state as State College fell in the PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinals to Pittsburgh Central Catholic and Cumberland Valley outlasted Central Dauphin 62-61 in seven overtimes to reach the PIAA semifinals.

“I’m so proud of our kids and what they’ve accomplished throughout this year,” State College coach Matt Lintal said after the season-ending loss to Pittsburgh Central Catholic.

Pittsburgh Central Catholic then beat Cumberland Valley en route to capturing the state championship.

The Little Lions finished with a 9-4 record, highlighted by a 21-7 win over Cumberland Valley during the regular season and a 48-40 victory over Erie McDowell in the first round of the PIAA playoffs. State College also beat DuBois to capture the District 6-9 Class AAAA title.

The Little Lions started the year with back-to-back losses to Spring-Ford and Bishop McDevitt. After falling to Central Dauphin, they put together a six-game winning streak heading into the PIAA quarterfinals.

Running back Jordan Misher and linebacker Pete Haffner turned in memorable seasons. Misher rushed for 1,444 yards and 21 touchdowns and was named the Mid Penn Commonwealth’s offensive MVP. Haffner filled in effectively at running back at times and earned Mid Penn Commonwealth defensive MVP honors.

10. Centre County softball dominance ends

It’s the equivalent of the “man bites dog” headline. It may seem like a non-story that a team doesn’t win something, but not when it comes to high school softball in this area. Centre County dominates softball perhaps more than any other scholastic varsity sport.

Each of the five county schools that field varsity programs have won PIAA titles, four of the five have earned crowns in the last 13 seasons and five titles have been won in the past decade. Just a year earlier, Bald Eagle Area and Philipsburg-Osceola met in the PIAA semifinals.

But somehow 2015 was not a good year for local softball, with no one capturing a District 6 crown, marking the first time since 1992 the county schools were shut out, and just the third time since PIAA playoffs began in 1975 there were no champions.

Honorable mention stories (in no particular order): Kyla Irwin signs National Letter of Intent with UConn women’s basketball team; State College baseball wins district title; Bellefonte baseball wins district title; Lady Lions have difficult season; Bellefonte’s Colton Schnars third in backstroke at PIAA swimming; State College dominates District 6 in swimming again, sweeps boys’ and girls’ titles; PSU hockey off to best start to season ever, rising in national rankings; PSU’s Casey Bailey among nation’s scoring leaders, becomes program’s first to leave early for NHL, signs with Maple Leafs; PSU volleyball rolls through first half of year, then fades at end; PSU men’s volleyball has rough start, wins EIVA title and makes NCAA semifinals; State College boys’ basketball wins district title; Jan Johnson jumps from PSU football to wrestling teams; State College boys’ soccer wins district title for fifth straight year; State College girls’ soccer wins district title for eighth straight year; State College volleyball repeats district title; State College Spikes just miss another playoff berth; Centre County Baseball League ends season with forfeit in controversial championship series.

Brandilyn Heckman also contributed to this story.