The Story of the 2005 State Championship Season
In 2005 the Penn Manor baseball team reached the pinnacle of high school athletics, winning the big-school AAAA state championship with a 2-0 victory over State College High School. And while this accomplishment certainly marks the 2005 team as the greatest in school history, no one would have expected this heading into the season. In fact, it could certainly be argued that the 2004 squad was one of the most talented teams in school history to that point. Featuring a deep pitching staff and likely the best hitting team Penn Manor ever had, the 2004 team went 17-3 in the regular season, capturing the Section 1 title along the way. Unfortunately, two other equally talented teams in District 3 prevented the 2004 squad from winning even more hardware.
A few miles away in Landisville, the Black Knights of Hempfield also had an outstanding squad, equaling the Comets’ 17-3 record and splitting their meetings during the regular season. After winning a Section 1 tiebreaker game to claim the Section Title, the Comets met the Black Knights for the fourth time in the Lancaster-Lebanon League title game, with Hempfield emerging victorious. After a convincing first-round victory over Dover in the District III playoffs, the Comets lost a tight 3-1 game to Chambersburg in round two, ending the Comets season. A week later, Chambersburg met Hempfield in the District title game, with Hempfield emerging victorious. And just over a week after that? Chambersburg and Hempfield met yet again with a berth in the state final on the line, with Chambersburg coming away with the victory and eventually capturing their third state title a few days later. But it could certainly be argued that Penn Manor, Hempfield, and Chambersburg were the three best teams in Pennsylvania that season.
But with Sheldon Witmer (RF) the only every-day starter returning to the starting lineup, hopes for 2005 rested on the pitching staff. Witmer and Shawn Yohe had been starting pitchers during the 2004 season and were expected to lead the staff once again. And the Comets had the luxury of an experienced closer in the bullpen, Josh Squatrito, a hard-throwing righty who loved shutting the door on opponents at the end of games. The question mark in the pitching rotation was a towering 6’-5” senior named Jared Yecker. Although Yecker had shown flashes of potential during his JV career and during his junior season, control issues had limited Yecker’s contributions in 2004. Little did anyone know when the season began, Yecker would put together one of the most dominant seasons any Penn Manor player would ever have, not only on the hill, but at the plate as well, smashing ten home runs during the season, a record that still stands to this day.
The Regular Season
Except for Sheldon Witmer in right field, a new starter manned every other defensive position when the Comets began regular season play in 2005. In the infield, Curran Blevins, an all-league football player who dreamed of being a rock star, manned first base. Evan Slagle played second base, while Shawn Yohe and Josh Squatrito assumed infield positions in addition to their pitching duties at shortstop and third base, respectively. Mike Dommel and Zach Martin filled infield spots when Squatrito or Yohe were on the hill. In the outfield, in addition to Witmer, Kyle Caruthers assumed the center field position full time while Ryan Eshleman and Keith Rutt platooned in left. Behind the plate, Steve O’Neil started the year at catcher before a season-ending knee injury unfortunately ended his season, opening the door for sophomore Andy Drexel to move into the lineup. Jared Yecker, whose development at the plate was just as impressive as his development on the hill, assumed the role of designated hitter. With the roster in place, the 2005 season began with hopes for a solid season, with a goal of keeping up with the other contenders in Section 1, Hempfield and Manheim Township.
The Comets got off to a promising start by sweeping the non-league portion of their schedule. A notable victory occurred against Lampeter-Strasburg, who would later go on to win the AAA state championship. Due to a backlog of games after some weather delays, Penn Manor had to go to the JV squad for a starting pitcher in this game, with sophomore Bobby Adams effectively handling L-S’s potent lineup. Unfortunately, the first round of Section 1 games provided a dose of reality for the Comets, losing close games to both Hempfield and Township and putting them in third place heading into the crossover games against Section 2.
But at this point the Comets were able to put the two losses behind them, reeling off six straight wins against Section 2 teams, and continuing the streak when the second round of Section 1 games followed on the schedule. The winning streak eventually reached ten games as the Comets prepared to play the last regular season game against Manheim Township, with a victory all that was needed to clinch a second straight Section 1 title. Unfortunately some late game defensive blunders and lack of timely hitting resulted in a 4-2 loss, meaning that for the second straight season Penn Manor would finish the season at 17-3 and tied with Hempfied. But no one on the Comets’ roster knew that the loss to Township would be the start of a three-game losing streak that threatened to derail a once-promising season.
Two days after the regular season ended Penn Manor met Hempfield for the Section 1 title. Turning the tables from 2004, Hempfield won the rubber match between the two teams, earning them their 9th Section 1 championship. But despite the two-game losing streak, hopes were high that the talented team that began the year 17-2 could capture their first Lancaster-Lebanon League title since 1976. But in the first-round game against Section 4 champ Annville-Cleona, bad luck once again reared its ugly head. Despite a great performance by Yecker, walking no one and not allowing a single ball to leave the infield, a series of infield hits, well executed sacrifice bunts, and well-placed ground outs that scored runners from third doomed the Comets. As the bats once again fell silent, Penn Manor bowed out of the league tournament a 3-1 loser. If the Comets were going to make a splash in the District III playoffs, the bats were going to have to come alive. It wouldn’t happen until the 7th inning of the first District game against Carlisle.
In that first District game Penn Manor faced an outstanding pitcher named Brandon James who would be drafted by the Texas Rangers several weeks later. James baffled Comet hitters all game long, allowing a lone unearned run heading into the 7th inning. Down 2-1 and down to their final outs, Evan Slagle delivered maybe the most memorable at-bat of the entire season, driving a solo home run over the right field fence to tie the game. Slagle, who had struck out in his previous three at bats, would finish the game one-for-five with four strikeouts on the day. But his clutch home run sent the game into extra innings, where the relief pitching of Josh Squatrito and several fortunate blunders by the Carlisle defense allowed the Comets to escape with a 3-2 victory in 11 innings. Incredibly, Penn Manor hitters struck out TWENTY-SIX times in the game while still finding a way to win. After the game, Coach Stuart joked to Coach Zander that “wouldn’t it be amazing if after striking out twenty-six times in our first District game we went on to win the state title?”
In the 2nd round Penn Manor beat Wilson 5-3 and then enacted a measure of revenge against Manheim Township in the semi-finals, defeating the Blue Streaks 8-7, again battling through an 11-inning game to secure the victory and securing a berth in Penn Manor’s first ever District III championship game, against Lower Dauphin. Leading 3-1 entering the 7th inning in the final, the Comets were within reach of finally holding some elusive hardware after an otherwise outstanding season, but four 7th inning runs by the Falcons led to a 5-3 defeat. With the loss Penn Manor entered the state tournament as the # 2 seed from District 3. To reach the state final Penn Manor would need to beat three straight teams from the always-powerful Philadelphia suburbs, beginning with two of the largest high schools in the state, North Penn and Neshaminy. And the Comets did just that, defeating North Penn 4-0 and withstanding a late-inning Neshaminy rally to win 8-6. In the state semi-final Penn Manor met West Chester East, a state champion just two years prior. For the second time in three games, Coach Zander asked Josh Squatrito to step out of his normal bullpen role and into the starting spot, and “Squat” responded with a complete-game 5-0 shutout, joyously sending the Comets to the championship game in Altoona, the first time a boys team from any Penn Manor sport ever advanced to a state final.
The State Championship Game
The Comets headed to Blair County Ballpark in Altoona, the home of the Pirates AA team, for the 7PM AAAA championship game against the State College Little Lions. As the Comets were exiting the bus at the stadium, the Pioneers of Lampeter-Strasburg were just leaving the stadium after an exciting come-from-behind victory in the AAA final, which began at 1:00. Could two L-L teams from bordering school districts really both bring home gold on the same day?
Going into the game, Coach Zander was still pondering one important lineup question: With Yecker on the hill, would each position player hit for himself in the lineup or would a DH be used? There was no doubt that lefty Ryan Eshelman would play left field, but with State College throwing a lefty, would using a right-handed hitter be more beneficial? And if a DH was used, who would it be? Ultimately, Coach Z settled on Keith Rutt in the DH spot despite the fact that he hadn’t had an at bat in several weeks. But due to the fact that he just seemed to be roping the ball at practice recently, Rutt was inserted into the lineup in the 9-spot.
Before the game started, Coach Z gathered the team together and told them to take a look around the beautiful, well-manicured stadium. “Take a look for a second guys…take it all in. But once this game starts, just play the game. The bases are 90 feet apart and the pitcher’s mound is 60-feet six-inches from home plate just like everywhere else we’ve played this year. Just go out and play ball.” And with that, the game started.
In the top of the 1st inning Yecker retired the first two batters of the game but then State College’s Nick Bathurst hit a hard ground ball up the middle. Second baseman Evan Slagle made a great diving play to stop the ball but threw wildly to first. Despite being an infield single, Slagle’s errant throw enabled Bathurst to reach 2nd base giving the Little Lions a runner in scoring position. But Yecker retired the next batter to end the inning, and State College wouldn’t see another base runner until the 7th inning. In the bottom of the 2nd, sophomore catcher Andy Drexel reached first base on a single to left field. With two outs Jared Yecker came to the plate and ripped a 3-2 single to right field, advancing Drexel to 3rd base. With an 0-2 count, Curran Blevins hit a seeing-eye ground ball to right field for a base hit giving the Comets a 1-0 lead. Keith Rutt, the last minute addition to the starting lineup, then came to the plate, also with two strikes, and singled to center field, the first of his two hits in the game, scoring courtesy runner Zac Martin and increasing the lead to 2-0. Neither team would score again.
State College was an excellent team and only struck out four times against the hard-throwing Yecker, but great fielding by the Comet defense kept the Little Lions off the basepaths. The outfield was especially outstanding, with Sheldon Witmer and Kyle Caruthers both making diving catches and Ryan Eshleman, the smallest player on the Comets roster, actually reaching over the left field fence to rob State College of a home run. In the 7th inning Yecker retired the first batter he faced to lead off the inning. But with two outs to go until a state championship and after having retired seventeen straight batters, Nick Bathurst, the only State College player to reach base in the game so far, did so again with a clean single up the middle. With State College fans on their feet and the middle of their potent lineup coming to the plate, nerves were tense throughout the Comet dugout. But the next batter hit a one-hopper right back at Yecker who wheeled and threw to shortstop Shawn Yohe, who then threw to Curran Blevins at first, completing the double play and setting off a wild celebration on the field.
The boys from Penn Manor were the State Champions!
After the game the players received their gold medals and the championship trophy. It took a long time to leave the stadium as family and friends joined the celebration, local media interviewed Coach Zander and the players, and everyone relished the moment.
The players went their different ways after the season. Five members of the senior class went on to college baseball, with two of them, Josh Squatrito and Jared Yecker, eventually getting drafted and playing a few years of pro ball. The juniors enjoyed a productive senior season which unfortunately fell just short of a playoff berth. Most of the players eventually went on to college, some joined family businesses, but all have found personal success in one form or another. Coach Zander continued to enjoy success as head coach before retiring after the 2017 season. But no matter where their lives take them, every member of the team can take pride in saying that for one year, they were the best there was.