The Hopewell seniors played their final high school baseball game Monday -- that in itself made their first-year head coach dispirited that the season came to an end earlier than he and his players had anticipated.
"It's difficult because there is no next game," Mike Shuleski said. "It's tough because it's the last game of the season. We talked earlier in the year about how there are about 165 [Class AAA] teams [in Pennsylvania], and only one is going to end the way they want it to.
"It's tough for me because we have so many seniors. Seeing the time and energy they have put into it, for it to end with a loss is hard."
Hopewell ended another successful season with a 5-4 loss to District 9 champion Punxsutawney in a PIAA Class AAA first-round game at Berwyn Park in St. Marys. Hopewell held a 4-0 fifth-inning lead, but Punxsutawney rallied by scoring five runs in the fifth and sixth to pull out the victory.
The defeat was the final chapter of a season that saw Hopewell start 11-0 on its way to winning a section title and reaching the WPIAL championship game. The Vikings finished 20-5.
Hopewell had 12 seniors, seven of whom started in the WPIAL final. The group included shortstop Ryan Cox, third baseman Arion Sepp, center fielder Stefan Mrkonja, second baseman Logan Johnston, first baseman Tim Hughes, pitcher Clayton Covalt and left fielder Joe Kunzmann. Another senior who saw a lot of playing time was outfielder Steve Yoho.
Many of those players were among the WPIAL regular-season statistical leaders. Johnston hit .487 with three home runs, 19 RBIs and 16 runs scored. Hughes hit .486 with three home runs and 20 RBIs. Cox batted .477 with 16 runs. Sepp scored 17 runs and Mrkonja scored 15. Covalt was 4-0 on the mound.
It had been three seasons since Hopewell won a section championship or qualified for the PIAA playoffs, but the 2013 Vikings accomplished both.
"I'm very proud of these guys," Shuleski said.
Hopewell dominated Section 1, finishing with a 9-1 record. The lone loss the Vikings suffered was a 4-3 heartbreaker to West Allegheny. During a 17-3 regular season, Hopewell's potent offense scored at least eight runs in 12 of its wins.
The Vikings were given the No. 2 seed in the WPIAL playoffs and went on to defeat Derry Area, 1-0, Blackhawk, 13-3, and West Allegheny, 4-0.
Against Derry, Sepp's single scored Cox in the seventh to help the Vikings survive a scare. Against Blackhawk, Hughes and Kunzmann had three RBIs apiece. Against West Allegheny, Covalt threw a four-hitter and drove in the game's first run.
Unfortunately for Hopewell, it's 20th win was its last. The Vikings let a 3-0 lead slip away in a 4-3 loss in nine innings to South Park in the WPIAL championship game. It was the longest WPIAL title game since 1975. Johnston slugged a two-run home run for the Vikings.
Hopewell's stay in the PIAA playoffs was even more frustrating. Leading by four runs, and nine outs away from moving onto the quarterfinals, Hopewell saw Punxsutawney fight back and eventually win the game. The Chucks scored two runs in the fifth and three in the sixth.
"In both of those innings, they definitely capitalized on the handful of mistakes we made," Shuleski said. "All five of the runs were unearned. There was a little bit of everything."
As the team bus made the three-hour drive from St. Marys back to Hopewell High School on Monday night, those on board had plenty of time to reflect on the season that was.
Shuleski spent much of it thinking about his seniors.
"The thing I'm most proud of is the transition they have made from eighth graders," he said. "I think of them then and how they eventually became a group of seniors of whom I couldn't ask anything more.
"It was a great group of kids to coach. Especially with this being my first year, I'll always have fond memories of this team."