Top 10 Lebanon County H.S. sports stories
The 2015-16 scholastic sports season was a memorable one in Lebanon County, as evidenced by the players, coaches and teams that made up the top 10 stories list
Much like every pitch and pass, the graduation caps have now all been thrown, and the 2015-16 high school season is consequently in the books.
When read, those books play out like thrillers, dramas and action stories; each packed with great expectation, some realized and others that disappeared into disappointment. But collectively, this year was a classic.
Below are the top 10 stories from this past high school season, ranked by their respective combinations of impact, reach and historic place.
10.) Lebanon baseball program's revival
Two years ago, the Cedars went 2-18.
This spring, they played some of the best baseball in the county and were nearly rewarded with an L-L tournament berth.
Working under the guidance of second-year coach Mike Toomey, Lebanon continued its remarkable turnaround, which began with a bang in a 6-5 victory over Cedar Crest, the program's first since 1994. Next they swept Northern Lebanon and made a final-week push that nearly landed them into the postseason. Their dozen wins were the most in recent program history and the memories made, undoubtedly, were the best of this generation.
9.) Reagan Hess sweeps district golds
Lebanon County has been blessed with many remarkable athletes over the years. By virtue of her performance this spring, Reagan Hess of Annville-Cleona is right there with any of them.
Also a standout soccer player in the fall, Hess does her most eye-opening work in track and field, and this season she outdid herself and then some. Not only did she three-peat as Most Outstanding Female Athlete at the Lebanon County meet in April while setting a new county record in the long jump, Hess pretty much wrecked her competition at the talent-rich District Three Class AA Track and Field Championships, claiming three gold medals - in the 100 and 200-meter dashes and in record-setting fashion in the long jump. She then capped her stellar season with a silver medal in the long jump at the PIAA State Championships with a personal-best leap of 19 feet, 1 inch.
And she's only a junior. As great as this past season was, Hess could be poised for bigger and better things next season as a senior.
8.) Palmyra baseball streaks to district final
Ripping off one of the longest win streaks seen in any season, the Cougars sprinted to the District Three AAA title game.
Palmyra's pitching and defense limited nearly every opponent to two runs a game or fewer over their 10-game streak. Led by junior Isaac Blatt, the Cougars eventually captured the tournament's No. 5 seed, then beat West York, Spring Grove and Bishop McDevitt, before getting shut out in the final against No. 14 Hamburg. Palmyra lastly suffered its only defeat of the season when scoring at least three runs, dropping a tough 7-6 decision against Palmerton in states.
But in the weeks before, they wore the black and orange uniform better than any Cougars squad had in years.
7.) Ron Berman resigns
A beloved mentor and a legendary coach, Ron Berman is a pillar of the community and a tremendous source of pride in Palmyra for his work with the girls basketball program. If there was any doubt of that fact, it was completely erased in March when he stepped down from coaching after a distinguished career on the bench with both the boys and girls hoops programs at Palmyra.
It was his tenure as the girls coach that began in 2000 that was the most impressive. Taking over a program in disarray, Berman guided the Cougars to 15 straight winning seasons and touched many lives along the way, as evidenced by the outpouring of love and support from former players and fellow coaches that followed his retirement decision.
Berman was officially succeeded as head coach by ex-Dallastown coach Mary Manlove this week, but will be difficult to ever fully replace, as the Palmyra community is well aware.
6.) Northern Lebanon football goes 10-1, finishes 8-3
For the second straight season, the Vikings conquered county football. They were the best regular-season team with the best regular-season record. But this fall, there was one catch.
Instead of eclipsing their 9-1 regular-season mark from a year ago with a 10-0 mark they deserved, Northern Lebanon was docked two wins for the use of an ineligible player. Roy Wall's group still managed to squeak into districts, edging county rivals Elco and Annville-Cleona again along the way. However they eventually fell 48-12 in their district opener down at Northeastern.
5.) Elco boys basketball reaches states
Splash, splash, splash.
Through a bevy of 3-pointers, the Raiders made program history by notching their most wins ever in a single season. Seniors Colton Lawrence and Caleb Buchmoyer enjoyed the fruits of their long labor with a 4-1 run in districts and state tournament berth. Ultimately, Elco lost to two-time reigning champion Neumann-Goretti in a first-round game that unfolded closer than outsiders expected.
“I’m proud of these kids. They battled, they played tough," Raiders coach Brad Conners said. “Our seniors did a great job. Man, I love those three kids. Just great kids, absolute dream kids. I love them to death.”
Junior sharpshooter Mason Bossert also asserted himself for the Raiders and joined Lawrence on the 2016 all-county team.
4.) Vikings girls basketball makes history
Perennially a struggling program, the Northern Lebanon girls basketball team turned that underwhelming tradition on its ear in 2015-16 with the most successful season in its history.
Not only did the Vikings, coached by the fiery Ken Battistelli and led by juniors Zoe Zerman and Megan Brandt, capture their first Section Three title in 30 years, they also advanced to the Lancaster-Lebanon League championship game, the District Three Class AAA quarterfinals, and grabbed the first state tournament berth in program history.
It was in the state tourney that Northern Lebanon turned in its most memorable performance, upsetting Lancaster Catholic in the second round after dropping its three previous meetings to the Crusaders, including in the L-L title game and the district quarters.
And wait 'til next season, when the Vikings will return all five starters but will be without their long-held status as an also-ran.
3.) Palmyra field hockey drops state title game, wins everything else
The Palmyra field hockey team fell short of its ultimate goal of a state championship. But that's the only thing the Cougars didn't accomplish last fall.
A consistent title contender/winner for years, Palmyra was much more than that in 2015, collecting Mid Penn Keystone Division, overall Mid Penn Conference and District Three Class AAA championships and advancing to the state title game for the second year in a row.
In 2014, the Cougars settled for a co-state championship after tying Penn Manor in the title game. With that memory driving it, Palmyra was looking for outright gold in its return to the state finals. It was not to be, though, as the Cougars fell to Emmaus 1-0 in overtime.
Still, it was a memorable and highly successful season, one the Cougars will look back on fondly as one of the best in its storied history.
2.) Evan Horn commits to UNH football
Football or basketball?
Division I or a lower level?
Where will he go?
One of the greatest three-sport athletes in Lebanon County history announced on Jan. 20 that he would be taking his talents to play football at the University of New Hampshire, ending years of speculation. Horn ultimately passed on Division I offers in football and basketball to play on the FCS gridiron, where he will have a chance to compete immediately as a safety. The decision between basketball and football came down to the sinking feeling of defeat after Cedar Crest was dominated in its first-round district game at Exeter last fall.
"It was that moment right there walking off the field with Coach (Rob) Wildasin, thinking, 'That could be it,'" Horn said. "I just love football. And I hate being embarrassed."
1.) Northern Lebanon wrestling becomes best ever
It was a wrestling season the likes of which had never been seen before. Not just at Northern Lebanon, but in Lebanon County as a whole. That's why it lands at No. 1 on our list.
The 2015-16 Vikings figured to enjoy a successful winter even before it began, having established itself as force to be reckoned with the past few previous seasons. But this year's Northern Lebanon squad went above and beyond, capturing their fourth straight Lancaster-Lebanon Section Three crown, turning in a thoroughly dominating performance to win the overall L-L Tournament title, before making it a trifecta of championships by reigning supreme in District Three Class AA.
Plenty of individual success also came Northern Lebanon's way, most notably 182-pounder Luke Funck's run to the state tourney that ended with a prestigious fourth-place medal. But the the Vikings' collective greatness was what defined their season and made them the top Lebanon County scholastic sports story for the 2015-16 school year.