Northeastern PA enjoyed an exciting year in sports

By Paul Sokoloski - [email protected] | December 31st, 2017 12:24 pm - updated: 12:55 pm.

From state champions to hosting a national championship, Northeastern Pennsylvania enjoyed a banner year on the sports scene in 2017.

In fact, the region experienced so much success, it was big news when one of the Wilkes-Barre area’s amateur or professional sports teams didn’t win.

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins did so much winning. They finished with the best regular season in the AHL and second-best in franchise history, while the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders made their own history by making it to a second straight Governors’ Cup championship series.

But the celebrations weren’t limited to teams who get paid to play.

Dallas became just the second high school baseball team from the Wyoming Valley Conference to win a state title. The Holy Redeemer baseball team, the Tunkhannock and Hazleton Area softball teams along with the Wyoming Valley West and Wyoming Seminary field hockey teams all made splashes with silver medals after playing in PIAA championship games.

And the Nanticoke boys basketball team did what nobody dreamed possible by reaching the state semifinals.

Here is a list of the top sports moments of 2017 as selected by the Times Leader sports staff:

1. Dallas gets the gold

By the time Darren Kerdesky slammed a two-run triple in the top of the seventh inning, Dallas had pretty much sewn up an improbable, season-ending 13-game winning streak and the PIAA Class 4A high school baseball title.

Nick Kocher struck out nine batters in his six sparkling innings on the mound, Will McCrum went 3-for-3 and made a brilliant, run-saving play at shortstop and Dallas defeated South Park 5-0 to become the WVC’s second state champ and first since the 2008 Berwick Bulldogs.

While the Mountaineers scratched out a few runs at the plate, their defense dominated the day. Left fielder Drew Patton, who postponed a planned family trip to Argentina to play in the game, gunned down the game’s potential first run with a cannon of a throw to the plate. McCrum smothered a single to keep the ball in the infield and prevent a run from scoring. And when Kocher left the mound, he moved to left field where he made a sliding catch of a sinking liner in the bottom of the seventh inning.

And when Kerdesky tagged his triple to give the Mountaineers breathing room in the top of the final frame, it was clear Dallas’ drive from a struggling 2-6 team to state champion was complete.

“It’s been an unbelievable ride from 2-6 to a state championship,” Mountaineers closer Josh Lydon said. “It’s pretty unbelievable.”

2. Royals make a rollicking run

Holy Redeemer’s baseball team had to settle for a state silver medal, but made a habit of reaching most of its other goals during a spectacular season.

Behind the one-two pitching punch of Tony Molitoris and Jordan Choman, the Royals rolled to WVC and District 2 crowns, then raced all the way to the PIAA Class 3A championship game.

Choman hit .368 and led five Redeemer starters who finished with a batting average over .300, and Central seemed to be the only opponent to solve Redeemer’s power pitching during an 8-3 victory in the state title game.

“Definitely one of the best hitting teams we’ve seen,” Choman said. “They deserved their state title.”

3. Tigers, Cougars pounce into state finals

Through the past couple decades, Tunkhannock and Hazleton Area have had traditions of success on the WVC softball scene.

But neither had made it to a state title game.

Until this season.

Hot-hitting Tunkhannock and resilient Hazleton Area both played for PIAA championships, and both lost by identical 5-3 scores to earn the first state silver medals for their respective schools.

Tunkhannock narrowly missed getting the gold when a late bases-loaded drive with plenty of home run distance hooked foul during a defeat to Mount Pleasant in the Class 4A state final. Hazleton Area was shut down by Notre Dame-bound Morgan Ryan of Hempfield in the Class 6A final.

But both WVC teams left with their spirits high after a history-making season.

“We never got down,” said Paige Mokychic, Tunkhannock’s senior center fielder who was 9 for 14 in the postseason. “We fought to the end. That was amazing.”

4. Two more for the show

When the Wyoming Seminary and Wyoming Valley West field hockey teams met in an overtime thriller during the regular season, it became clear both were headed for big things.

And while Sem captured the league’s Division 1 crown, both teams took off on runs to state title games.

Valley West won its second straight District 2 Class 2A title, then reached the PIAA finals by stunning Donegal, the second-ranked team in the nation, to reach the school’s second state title game and first since 2003. The Spartans settled for silver while losing 2-1 to Villa Maria in the PIAA championship, but not before Valley West’s Karaline Stelma became the only player to register a goal in the state playoffs against Villa Maria’s vaunted defense.

Sem also suffered a 2-1 defeat in the state finals, when the high-powered Blue Knights couldn’t solve Greenwood. But that didn’t dampen a special season for the Blue Knights, who won the District 2 Class A championship and took a trip to their eighth PIAA championship game.

“I think this game represents what our team has done throughout the whole season,” Valley West co-captain and Penn-bound senior Madison Woods said after the finals. “We never gave up and we kept fighting right to the very end.

“But in this particular game, it wasn’t enough.”

5. RailRiders right at home

The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders hosted the Gilden Triple-A National Championship Game at PNC Field, and for the longest time, it appeared they would play in it.

They won the International League North Division, then made a second straight trip to the Governors’ Cup Finals before dropping the title series to eventual national champ Durham in four games.

Still, the RailRiders made an impact in the International League and on their parent club, as key pieces such as Clint Frazier, Greg Bird and a host of relievers went from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to help the parent New York Yankees make a surprising run to the AL East title and, eventually, to the American League championship series.

After the season, RailRiders manager Al Pedrique accepted a major league coaching job with the Oakland Athletics and popular catcher Eddy Rodriguez retired.

6. Penguins patrol the ice

An incredible regular season didn’t quite translate into a postseason championship for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who were eliminated in five games by Providence in the Atlantic Division semifinals.

But through the regular schedule, the Penguins appeared unstoppable while putting up a season for the ages.

They finished 51-20-3-2 for the second-best record in team history, earning the league’s Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy for the AHL’s best record for the first time since 2010-11 and just the second time of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s existence.

And sparked by future goalies for parent Pittsburgh, Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith, the Penguins also proved the stingiest team in the league.

They led the AHL’s regular-season stats by allowing the fewest goals (170), recording the top save percentage (.922) and finishing with the best penalty kill (86.9 percent).

7. Biasi goes big-time

Former Hazleton Area standout Sal Biasi joined a growing list of recent WVC talent selected in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft when the Kansas City Royals chose the Penn State pitcher in the 11th round in June.

Biasi finished his college career with a 10-13 record, three saves and 185 strikeouts in 174 innings at Penn State. In 2017, he put together an ERA of 3.48 ERA, with 88 strikeouts in 72.1 innings for the Nittany Lions.

Another pitcher with Hazleton Area connections, albeit briefly, was chosen in the same draft and caused quite a stir when his name was called. The Phillies drafted Jhordany Mezquita, a 19-year-old from the Dominican Republic who had no college or high school listed next to his name, in the eighth round. It turns out Mezquitahad family in Hazleton and attended Hazleton Area for a semester, but was too old to play on the school’s high school team.

A few hours after Biasi was selected, the Royals dipped into the WVC again when they chose Wyoming Valley West catcher Justin Vought in 31st round (930th overall).

“It’s unreal, man,” Vought said. “It’s awesome — a great feeling, getting picked out of high school.

“It’s every kid’s dream.”

Vought wound up passing on the Royals and attending the University of Maryland — where he had signed a scholarship prior to the MLB Draft.

8. Dale Jr. waves goodbye

During his NASCAR farewell tour, Dale Earnhardt Jr. stopped by twice at Pocono Raceway.

Or, make that sputtered by.

Earnhardt, who retired from NASCAR racing following the 2017 season, blew an engine and finished 38th in the 8 Hour Energy race at Pocono in June. His final race there in July was uneventful. Earnhardt narrowly missed an eight-car crash on the opening lap, received a penalty for speeding down pit road and ran in the middle of the pack for most of the race.

Earnhardt managed to pop in the top 10 on a couple of occasions, but finished 12th and 31.9 seconds behind winner Kurt Busch.

He did win twice at Pocono in 2014, one of the memories that will remain with him as he heads to the broadcast booth next year. Another was his wreck with Steve Park crash at Pocono in 2002,

“The craziest thing I ever witnessed here was (having) a front-row seat when me and Steve Park crashed off turn two,” Earnhardt said, “and when his car hit that fence inside turn two, it spit out between my car and the fence like a bar of soap in the shower.

“I had a front-row seat for that. It was just the most amazing … I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

9. Trojans take off on state run

They didn’t win a league title. They didn’t get to call themselves district champions. And they were nearly left out of the state tournament.

But then, the Nanticoke Trojans showed the kind of heart that captivated the state and won the hearts of their followers.

After fighting off Meyers in the District 2 Class 4A third-place game, the Trojans took off on a trip into their storied past.

They won their first state game. Then another. Then another, as a bunch of kids who had been dreaming big since they could remember suddenly had their fans and their league thinking big.

“We grew up saying we’re going to win the state championship,” Nanticoke senior sharp-shooter Luke Butczynski said after a second-round state game. “And I’m not saying that (will happen). But we’re going to try and keep it going.”

They tried to the end.

Nanticoke ultimately fell to Imhotep Charter 60-23 in the PIAA Class 4A semifinals, but not before inspiring hope that anything’s possible as long as you believe.

10. KFF softball comes through

The Kingston/Forty Fort Little League Junior Softball team made it a summer to remember, maybe for the rest of their lives.

Behind the slugging of an offense led by Julia Franks and the pitching of Jess Skadzien, the Kingston/Forty Fort All-Stars won the Pennsylvania state championship and advanced to the East Regional tournament in Orange, Conn. Once there, Kingston/Forty Fort did more damage, going 4-2 to win the Mid-Atlantic pool.

Their run to glory lasted all the way to the East Regional semifinal round, where Kingston/Forty Fort was eliminated by New England champ Rhode Island 6-1.

“We went down swinging. We didn’t go down crying,” Kingston/Forty Fort manager Jason Hoskins said. “I was really happy about that, that the girls kept fighting to the end. I told them, ‘When you line up, line up with a smile. Appreciate how we got here.’”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. visited Pocono Raceway twice this summer during his last go-around on the track before retiring from NASCAR racing. Earnhardt Jr. visited Pocono Raceway twice this summer during his last go-around on the track before retiring from NASCAR racing. Matt Slocum | AP photo
The Tunkhannock seniors pose with their runner-up trophy after falling to Mount Pleasant in the PIAA Class 4A softball championship game. Tunkhannock seniors pose with their runner-up trophy after falling to Mount Pleasant in the PIAA Class 4A softball championship game. Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader
Nanticoke Area players Zack Cardone (left), Luke Butczynski (center) and Cody Piestrak were part of the inspired postseason play that helped lift the Trojans into the PIAA Class 4A semifinal game. Area players Zack Cardone (left), Luke Butczynski (center) and Cody Piestrak were part of the inspired postseason play that helped lift the Trojans into the PIAA Class 4A semifinal game. Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader
The Dallas Mountaineers became the second team ever from the WVC to hold up a PIAA baseball championship trophy after defeating South Park 5-0 in State College. Dallas Mountaineers became the second team ever from the WVC to hold up a PIAA baseball championship trophy after defeating South Park 5-0 in State College. Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader

By Paul Sokoloski

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