CLARION, Pa. (EYT/D9) — State championships. Dramatic postseason runs. Impressive personal performances. Determination in the face of adversity.
The recently completed athletic school year had it all.
And it was one of the more successful and memorable ones in District 9.
Here’s a look at some of the most riveting story lines of the 2021-22 school year as the new sports season rapidly approaches:
PAIR OF DISTRICT 9 WRESTLERS PLACE RUNNER-UP AT PIAA CHAMPIONSHIPS
Brookville’s Owen Reinsel had yet to give up a point, winning his three matches by scores of 16-0, 3-0 and 2-0 at the PIAA Class 2A Wrestling Championships.
The senior was in the 132-pound final, seeking a state championship to go with his four District 9 crowns.
He fell just short, dropping a 1-0 decision to Brandan Chletsos of Notre Dame Green Pond to leave Hershey with a bittersweet silver medal around his neck.
“Yeah, it wasn’t exactly fun,” Reinsel said. “I’ve never went back and watched that match. Ever. And I don’t plan on it. Ever. I just use it as motivation now. There’s always someone better than you out there on any given day.”
Not many were better than Reinsel, a Lehigh recruit, in his career. He went 142-21 with four District 9 championships — in four different weight classes.
Brockway 126-pounder Mark Palmer had a much tougher road to his spot in the final.
But he persevered through some tremendous adversity.
He opened up the tournament with an impressive 17-1 tech fall, but needed an escape with 1:11 remaining in the third period to break a 6-6 tie and then a takedown and a near fall with less than 10 seconds left in the bout to beat Robert Gardner of South Williamsport in the quarterfinals.
In the semifinals, Palmer was cruising 4-0, but was nearly pinned by Kaden Milheim of Warriors Run before holding on for a 4-3 win to advance to the final.
There, he fell to Scott Johnson of Muncy, 9-2.
The senior finished his career with a 94-34 record.
REDBANK VALLEY GIRLS RUN TO DRAMATIC DISTRICT 9 TITLE
It had never happened before.
And the Redbank Valley girls track and field team was unaware it could happen at all.
Entering the final event at the District 9 Class 2A championships in Brookville, it finally became apparent the Bulldogs had a chance to make history and win their first D9 team title.
All they had to was finish ahead of Punxsutawney in the 4×400 relay.
Mylee Harmon (more on her later) got the baton for the final leg and bolted Redbank into a second-place finish. Punxy placed fourth and Redbank Valley won the title by 4½ points.
“It was honestly something I will never forget,” said senior Claire Clouse, who along with the four on that 4×400 relay (Harmon, Ryleigh Smathers, Raegan Beamer and Ally Shoemaker) and Ryley Pago remained to celebrate the historic victory. “It was just the six of us and it was really cool to be there.”
KEYSTONE VOLLEYBALL HANGS A BANNER
It was a long time coming for the Keystone volleyball team.
About 29 years long.
The last time the Panthers had hung a D9 championship banner in their gym was in 1992. The members of the 2021 team wanting nothing more than to put another one up there.
They had come painfully close the year before, falling to Redbank Valley in the final.
This time, Keystone squared off again against the Bulldogs. This time, however, the Panthers stormed to a straight-set win to end the 29-year drought.
“We came to play,” said senior outside hitter Jozee Weaver, who carried around the championship trophy on that triumphant night clutched tightly in her arms. “It was nice to do it in three sets. We were here to win. We knew we were gonna win it.”
“We knew in our hearts we were going to get it,” said junior outside hitter Leah Exley. “We just had so much energy and belief.”
“It was awesome,” said middle-hitter Sydney Bell, who will be a senior this year — along with Exley. The duo figures to power the Panthers’ offense.
Keystone faced its fair share of adversity during the season, including a long shutdown because of COVID and, subsequently, a hectic pace to catch up that including eight matches in 11 days.
There was also some things to iron out within the team.
“Last year we pushed each other so hard that our team was falling apart and we had to reconnect,” Bell said. “We were able to unite and get back that connection we had. I think that’s why we were able to win.”
REDBANK VALLEY BASEBALL KNOCKS OFF UNDEFEATED SERRA CATHOLIC
In the fall, the Redbank Valley football team turned in a stunning upset of a District 7 power (more on that later, too).
In the spring, the Bulldog baseball team did the same.
Facing undefeated WPIAL champion Serra Catholic in the first round of the PIAA Class A playoffs at Norwin High School, few gave Redbank much of a chance to keep its season alive.
Serra Catholic was loaded, undefeated at 23-0 and featured a pitching staff that hadn’t given up more than three runs in a game all season.
The Bulldogs were unimpressed.
Senior pitcher Bryson Bain danced out of trouble all game. Despite eight walks, the right-hander limited the Eagles to just one run.
With the game knotted at 1-1 in the top of the eighth inning, Bain singled home Owen Clouse to make it 2-1, and Ty Carrier made that hold up with a spotless bottom of the frame to complete the upset.
“Redbank 2, Goliath 0,” said Bulldog coach Craig Hibell after the game.
BROCKWAY GIRLS BASKETBALL TEAM WINS D9 TITLE FOR FIRST TIME IN 50 YEARS
Never had the Brockway girls basketball team enjoyed the thrill of a district title.
The program had been around for 50 years, but never had the Rovers gotten to the top of the D9 hill.
Until this winter.
With stars Danielle Wood and Selena Buttery leading the way, Brockway marched through the regular season and into the title clash against upstart Clarion-Limestone.
Fifty years of history in the back of their minds.
Brockway had come close before, including just a season prior when it fell to Keystone in the championship game.
That served as motivation for the Rovers, who had a singular goal and sharp focus all season: win that title.
“When we came into the season, we all set goals,” Buttery said. “I think everybody’s main goal was to win the district championship. I mean, that was our goal last year, too, but we fell a little short. Falling short last year really changed a lot for our team and pushed us to get it. I think it’s really cool that we were able to get it on the 50th anniversary of the program.”
Wood and Buttery combined for 35 points against Clarion-Limestone in a 46-37 win that finally brought Brockway a D9 crown.
“Fifty years — teams have been doing this for 50 years here,” Wood said. “Fifty teams and we’re the one that brought the championship. It means a lot.”
COVID CHAOS TAKES TOLL ON FALL SPORTS
The Central Clarion football team had its scrimmage against Redbank Valley canceled because of COVID in August.
It was the first wave of a tumultuous, rocky fall.
Next, the Wildcats’ season opener against Punxsutawney was scuttled at the last minute. Central Clarion scrambled to find an opponent — Slippery Rock, which had its own season-opener canceled.
Players watched highlights of the Rockets on Hudl on the way to the game to prepare.
The next week, Central Clarion’s game against Moniteau was also canceled because of COVID protocols.
“It’s so frustrating,” said Central Clarion coach Dave Eggleton at the time. “I mean, just the work you put in over the weekend and the week preparing for one team and then you have to throw all that work out the window. I can’t tell you how many hours our coaches put in.”
It was chaos.
And it wasn’t just football teams affected.
The Keystone volleyball team had a COVID outbreak and was shut down for two weeks. When the Panthers returned, they had to play eight matches in 11 days to catch up.
The Karns City volleyball team played without a slew of starters and its coach for a time during the heart of the season.
Most every team in the state felt at least some of the effects of COVID in the fall season.
REDBANK VALLEY FOOTBALL MAKES DRAMATIC STATE PLAYOFF RUN
It’s a play that has earned its own nickname.
Like “The Drive,” and “The Fumble,” it will live on in history — at least in this neck of the woods.
“The Pick Six.”
Chris Marshall’s 98-yard interception return for a touchdown against Bishop Canevin in the PIAA Class A football semifinals on a frigid Friday night in early December turned what could have been a 21-7 Canevin lead into a 14-14 tie. It completely flipped momentum and the Bulldogs went on to win, 23-14, to advance to Hershey for a chance to play for a state title.
“Chris’ performance in the postseason, when we needed him the most and when the stakes were the highest, is what will be remembered the most,” said Redbank Valley football coach Blane Gold.
It may go down as the biggest play in the now 100-year history of Redbank Valley football. It was certainly the biggest play of the season for the Bulldogs, who overcame a season-opening loss to Keystone to roll off 13 straight wins before falling in the state title game to Bishop Guilfoyle.
The ride, though, was the stuff of legends.
Redbank Valley steamrolled teams during the regular season, but found the going a little rougher in the playoffs.
The Bulldogs faced adversity. Conquered it each time.
Like falling behind 14-0 to against Port Allegany in the D9 playoffs, then rallying to win 35-14. Like watching a 21-0 lead against Union/A-C Valley evaporate into a 21-21 tie before regrouping to win 28-21. Like trailing 7-0 and 14-7 against Northern Bedford County to win 21-14.
Even in the state title game, Redbank Valley hung with Bishop Guilfoyle and its unusual single-wing-like offense, tying the game twice at 7-7 and 14-14 before dropping a 21-14 decision.
“Just to get here was special,” said senior quarterback Bryson Bain, who was playing his first year of football and turned in a stellar season with 30 touchdown passes.
“When you look at how the season started, a lot of people were really questioning what this team was made up of, if they were the real deal or not,” Gold said. “The most memorable things for me are what they did to overcome adversity and what they did to battle back. That’s what football is all about. They battled … and it went right down the the very last snap of their careers.”
DuBOIS CENTRAL CATHOLIC BASEBALL, CLEARFIELD SOFTBALL SNAG STATE TITLES; DCC SOFTBALL RUNNER-UP
The DCC baseball team and Clearfield softball team took a very different path to state championships this spring.
DCC bludgeoned opponents on the way to the title; Clearfield took a more dramatic approach.
DuBois Central Catholic steamrolled its way through the postseason, winning a District 9 title and then beating its three opponents in the state playoffs 15-5, 7-1 and 12-2 to reach Penn State and the title game.
There, the Cardinals routed Halifax for the Class A crown, 12-2.
“It goes back to the approach,” said DCC coach Adam Fox. “Obviously, there’s some ability there and we obviously have some pitching. It’s just a trust factor. These kids have learned the game, I think, at a higher level. They’ve accepted it. They’ve worked hard.”
Clearfield’s playoff run had a lot more handwringing and fingernail biting.
They were “Cardiac Clearfield.”
There of the Bison’s four state playoff wins — including the state championship games — came in their final at-bat.
It started with a 4-3, walk-off win over Franklin when pinch-runner Paige Houser scampered home on the wild pitch for a victory. Following a 4-0 win over Hamburg in which Clearfield star pitcher Emma Hipps fired a one-hitter, Ruby Singleton delivered a game-winning infield single to end Beaver’s 42-game winning streak, 2-1.
In the state title game against Tunkhannock, Alexis Bumbarger blooped a single into shallow left field to score Singleton for the 4-3 win and a Class 4A crown.
“I have no idea (where that came from),” said senior Lauren Ressler of Clearfield’s penchant for walk-off heroics. Ressler’s two-run homer in the fifth inning erased a 2-0 deficit against Tunkhannock. “We’ve been picking each other up when we’re down. There was no individuality on this team this season. We were all one and I appreciated that. I feel like that’s what helped get us here.”
TRIO WINS PIAA TRACK AND FIELD GOLD
Union/A-C Valley senior Baylee Blauser and sophomore Hayden Smith were on a collision course with a state title for most of the season.
Blauser, who suffered a devastating ankle injury toward the end of her junior campaign and had a disappointing finish at the state meet in the long jump, stormed through the dual meet season, routinely winning four events — the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, long jump and triple jump.
At the District 9 championships, she won golds in the 100, long jump and triple jump.
At the state meet, she jumped 18 feet, 6½ inches on her first attempt. That held up and Blauser won the state title.
“It feels amazing,” Blauser said, a smile wide and beaming. “I’ve been working for this for a long time, since my freshman year (when she placed eighth) and I felt like I could do it. Ever since then, I’ve been practicing and it finally paid off. I’m so happy.”
Smith’s climb to the top of the state podium was meteoric.
He was good in the event as a freshman, but his sophomore campaign was remarkable.
Smith cleared 6-foot-6 in the high jump at the Rock Relays, then later went 6-9 at the Redbank Invitational.
He easily won the District 9 championship and then went on to Shippensburg where he ran into a bit of adversity.
Because of the weather, the Class 2A high jump was held indoors. One problem. Smith didn’t have indoor shoes.
So, he had to take the shoes right off the feet of the father of teammate Evie Bliss, who had her own dramatic second-place finish in the javelin after barely squeaking into the finals.
He jammed his size 11½ feet into the size 10½ loaner shoes and went out and won the state title, clearing 6-5.
“I just kept calm, no nerves really,” Smith said. “I’m speechless. I don’t even know what to say. It’s awesome.”
What Redbank Valley’s Mylee Harmon did defied descriptors.
Harmon’s heroics in Shippensburg will be long remembered.
As a freshman, Harmon had no idea what to expect coming into her first high school season.
Sure, she excelled in junior high, but high school track and field was an entirely different animal.
Harmon quickly showed her mettle.
She broke the school record in the 200-meter dash several times. The 400, too. Also the high jump.
By the time the sun was down and a haze filled the thick air at Brookville High School at the end of the District 9 Track and Field Championships, Harmon had three gold medals around her neck.
She shattered her school mark in the 400 with a time of 58.73 seconds.
The best was yet to come.
At the state meet, she was running fifth in the 400 when she made her final turn, but her kick over the final 100 meters allowed her to surge into first by a whisker at the finish line to capture a state gold with a time of 57.15.
It was a run for the ages.
“My plan was to stride it out for the first 300 meters,” Harmon said. “Once I saw I was in fifth, I knew it was time to kick it in. When I passed the fourth girl, I thought I was going to get third or second. But once we hit 50 meters, they started to slow down, and my strides got bigger, and I pushed myself.
“I just got the right mindset,” she added. “I had the determination.”
Harmon also left her mark on the basketball court at Redbank Valley. She averaged 12.6 point, 3.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game to help the Bulldogs win the District 9 championship.
CLARION VOLLEYBALL’S PEAK EXCELLENCE
A look back at the school year cannot be complete without recognizing what the Clarion Area High School volleyball team has been able to accomplish, not just last fall, but for the better part of two decades.
Clarion won its second consecutive PIAA Class A championship. It was another dominant run for the Bobcats, which lost just two sets all season and finished 20-0.
Clarion also won the state title in 2020, going 24-0 and losing just one set.
They also earned a sweep to win that title.
The Bobcats are the first team in Class A to win back-to-back state crowns with sweeps.
“I’m gonna try my best not to cry,” said senior outside hitter Korrin Burns, who will play this fall at Division I St. Francis University. She failed — one of her few failures in the 3-0 dismantling of Sacred Heart Academy in the state title match. “This bas been a big part of my life for four years. It’s been an amazing journey.”
By the time this season rolls around in September, it will be 1,000 days since Clarion has lost a volleyball match.
“I just feel like if I take a step back and look at it, it’s crazy,” said Jordan Best, a senior libero last fall. “I’m just like, ‘Wow.’ It’s surreal.”
Clarion has won three state championships overall (2012, 2020 and 2021), all under coach Shari Campbell.
The program is now a machine.
“It definitely is surreal, especially in a time that doesn’t always feel so great outside of sports,” Campbell said. “It’s great to have moments like this, and for these kids to bring that to all their fans and their families and for them to feel good about something.”
Clarion had a big question mark entering the season.
Four-time all-state selection, setter Brenna Campbell, graduated and senior Noel Anthony was next to step into the breach.
She did it well, making the all-state team herself after a stellar season.
Anthony worked tirelessly during the summer to get ready for the very important role. It was made easier by the fact she had big-time stars around her at the net.
Burns had a staggering 581 kills as a senior and 1,630 in her career.
Junior Aryana Girvan overcame an ankle injury to post 207 kills and senior Payton Simko added 148 kills.
Anthony ended up with 914 assists.
Clarion will have more question marks this season. No team can replace Burns and the Bobcats will also have to find people to step in for Anthony at setter and Best at libero.
But the 2021 championship will long live in Clarion lore.
“It was amazing to see us leave it all out on the floor,” Anthony said. “We gave everything we could and we couldn’t have done it any better. We went to the very end and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with any other team. This team is amazing.”
SOME OF THE BEST OF THE REST
The Forest softball team reached the D9 championship game for the first time. … Katelyn Reott became the first Moniteau swimmer to place at the PIAA Swimming and Diving Championships. … The Elk County Catholic boys basketball team stunned Union-New Castle in the quarterfinals to reach the PIAA Class A semifinals. … The Moniteau competitive cheer team placed third at the PIAA championships. … The Karns City softball team won its first-even state playoff game. … Karns City’s McKenna Martin scored her 100th career goal in honor of her mother, who is battling cancer. … Redbank Valley’s Owen Clouse scored 39 goals to set the Bulldog boys soccer program’s single-season record. … Redbank Valley’s Bryson Bain and Chris Marshall reach 1,000 career points in the same game.