State College Spikes

State College Spikes begin new season as defending league champions

spikes manager Johnny Rodriguez during practice. Members of the State College Spikes baseball team had their first practice of the season June 14, 2015.
spikes manager Johnny Rodriguez during practice. Members of the State College Spikes baseball team had their first practice of the season June 14, 2015. CDT photo

It finally hit Brian O’Keefe as he walked out of Medlar Field at Lubrano Park to head home last September.

His first professional baseball season was over.

“At that point you want more of it,” O’Keefe said. “You want another game with those guys or another series with those guys and it’s like that might be the last time every guy on that team is ever together again. There’s a good chance of that actually.”

It was also around that time when O’Keefe realized how special it was to be a part of the State College Spikes’ run to the New York-Penn League championship in 2014. At home, his father told him he’d remember winning the title for the rest of his life. Whether he played two years in pro ball or enjoyed a 15-year career, he’d always have that championship.

It’s something O’Keefe reflected on after the season ended and the memories will return when the Spikes open this season against the Williamsport Crosscutters on Friday night at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. State College will recognize the nine returning players who contributed to the team’s first-ever title in addition to revealing the New York-Penn League championship banner in a ceremony starting at 6:35 p.m. First pitch is set for 7:05 p.m.

Josiah Viera, the team’s 11-year-old honorary bench coach, will lead the Spikes onto the field and throw out the season’s ceremonial first pitch. Viera continues to fight progeria, an extremely rare genetic disorder that causes children to age rapidly.

Viera was with the team throughout last season, and he was fittingly with the Spikes when they received their rings during spring training in Jupiter, Fla.

“I think when we got the rings, I think that was kind of like the icing on the cake,” said O’Keefe, a catcher. “It was just that last final part of it, where it was like it’s official now. We were all together again for that one time. You could see on everyone’s face, it was a really cool moment for all those guys. It was surreal almost.”

Spikes manager Johnny Rodriguez led the Rookie-level Johnson City Cardinals to the Appalachian League championship last season. Rodriguez said he saw the intensity level pick up as that team fought to make the postseason.

And that stage provides a valuable experience as players develop.

“They say winning is not all in the minor leagues, but it goes hand in hand,” Rodriguez said. “You get to see players perform at a very high level. They got tools, they got ability, now how do they play when the chips are almost down and you got to be at your best and your best is needed and that’s what I see from them.”

O’Keefe relished the playoff atmosphere.

State College’s first five postseason games were decided by three or fewer runs. They were low-scoring affairs, including four shutouts. The Spikes clinched the title with an 11-2 win at Tri-City in the decisive Game 3 of the championship series.

“Whether you were on the bench that night or in the lineup or even in the stands,” O’Keefe said, “I feel like everyone was just so into the game, every pitch meant so much. It was truly something special and for that group of guys.”

State College’s 2014 season was dominant from start to finish.

The Spikes finished tied for the league’s best record at 48-28 and rolled to the Pinckney Division title, finishing 12 1/2 games ahead of second-place Jamestown. State College boasted the league’s top offense and finished second in the league with a 2.97 ERA.

O’Keefe and the rest of the returning Spikes arrive in State College surrounded by new teammates.

Outfielder Jhohan Acevedo, who played 56 games with the Spikes last season, thinks this year’s group is ready to compete.

And he looks back at last season’s championship with fond memories.

“To play for a championship, there’s guys in the big leagues that haven’t won or haven’t played at all in a championship series,” Acevedo said. “I did that last year. It was a pretty good experience and I hope to do it this year again.”

Notes: Left-hander Ian McKinney is set to start Friday night. McKinney started six games with Johnson City and two games with State College in 2014.