Going to Hershey to play for a PIAA title was a special homecoming for South Park coach Reggie Wells, a 1975 graduate of Milton Hershey High School.
The homecoming that awaited Wells and his team back in South Park Saturday night was even more special.
After a dominating performance in a 53-38 win against Bethlehem Catholic in the PIAA Class AAA final, the Eagles were greeted back in South Park by an escort that included police cars and four fire trucks all with sirens blaring to lead the team back to the high school where a throng of fans came out to greet the first state title team in program history.
The surreal scene was a fitting ending to a remarkable season that saw South Park finish 28-2, claim a Class AAA Section 5 title, a WPIAL title and a PIAA title.
And the way the Eagles did it made it extra special, especially for the senior class.
As freshmen and sophomores, the seniors played on teams that were eliminated in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs. As juniors they reached the WPIAL final only to be denied of a title by postseason nemesis Hopewell.
The seniors had been around for a 2011 WPIAL first-round loss to Hopewell, a 2012 regular-season loss and WPIAL final loss to Hopewell. Even this season, the Eagles lost to the Vikings in the 2013 Pittsburgh Classic at Ambridge in January.
"If we were going to make it, we had to go through [Hopewell]," Wells said. "That was a fear of ours. We knew they were good. They were our biggest stumbling block, but we faced our fears."
South Park faced its fear in the WPIAL semifinals and PIAA second round, twice defeating Hopewell, 75-55 and 50-46.
Besides Hopewell, perhaps the biggest stumbling block preventing South Park from reaching the PIAA final was a faulty bus.
After attending pep rallies at elementary schools in the district as well as the middle school and high school, the team hit the road for Hershey on Friday afternoon. A few hours into the ride, many of the players had dozed, but were awoken by the sight of smoke outside the bus windows.
As the team waited two hours for a new bus to arrive, the coaches worried. The players, as might be expected of a veteran group, laughed it off.
"At first we were all sleeping and then we look out the window and it is snowing and the bus is smoking," junior forward Halie Torris recalled. "We were just laughing about it. It didn't seem like that long before the other bus came. We were having a good time."
Once the team finally made it to Hershey, they were greeted by Wells' former high school basketball coach and assistant. They practiced at the new Milton Hershey High School gym.
"It was really sentimental," senior center Breanna Raymond said of being able to play in her coach's hometown. "It was the perfect way to top off the year. It was just amazing for it to be in Hershey this year of all places."
In the PIAA final, South Park did to District 11 champion Bethlehem Catholic (28-3) what it had done to so many times during the regular season.
The Eagles limited Bethlehem Catholic to 22 percent shooting from the field, including 0-of-10 shooting from 3-point range. With the score tied at 6-6, senior guard Shelby Lindsay, the leader for the Eagles this season, scored eight of the next 10 points as South Park built a 16-6 lead that it would not relinquish.
Lindsay capped her remarkable career with a 22-point performance in the state final.
After the game, the players received their gold medals during a mid-court ceremony. When it was time for Wells to receive his medal, the public address announcer introduced the coach and then welcomed him home, in a moment some of his players described as emotional.
The outpouring of emotions would continue back at South Park High.
"There were a ton of police cars, they blocked the roads off for us," Raymond said. "We came home to basically our entire high school outside cheering in the cold. It was literally the most indescribable feeling."
First Published March 28, 2013 4:00 AM