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State College Athletes Excelling Together Since Youth Near End of High School Careers

by and on February 18, 2019 5:00 AM

It’s hardly a surprise when a bunch of a school’s best athletes gravitate to one another, whether it’s socially or joining forces on an intramural team.

However, by most standards, there was an IM team seven years ago that was absolutely stacked with talent.

It was a co-ed, fifth-grade volleyball team, and with all of them now seniors, it turns out that just about everyone in that lineup was destined not only for high school varsity sports success, but also college athletics, and in a few cases, some of the best Division I programs in the nation.

On Feb. 6, those athletes and more from State College gathered to be honored for their success and announce their college choices. In all, 29 Little Lions across 11 sports participated in the National Letter of Intent signing day event, choosing 20 different colleges. With similar events at other area schools, better than 40 Centre County high school seniors have plans for college sports, and more are likely to come.

“The environment that State College has is just outstanding with how they put forth the athletics,” said Makenzie Graham, who has signed to play soccer at Virginia Tech. “To have so many of us going to play college sports, it’s just crazy, and we’ve just known each other for so long.”

Among the athletic talent that gathered in the auditorium at the new high school building – serenaded by a few members of the marching band as everyone entered the room – was a group that has been together a long, long time.

About a dozen young men and women have grown up together since they were lion cubs at Panorama Elementary School, and despite going separate ways to multiple sports as they matured, they remain close.

“It’s really cool to see that,” said Kelsey Love, who is headed to Penn State to play field hockey. “We were all good friends in elementary school, and we’re still friends and now we’re all going to different colleges and supporting each other. I’ve known almost all of them since kindergarten and it’s really cool to see where we’re all going.”

A few moved to town in second or third grades, but most started there in kindergarten. Kayla Moran and Love have known each other even longer – meeting on a playground a little before their first day of school.

Among the others who have bonded through Panorama, Mount Nittany Elementary and Middle School, and now State High, are Leah Henderson, Sally Stahl, Cohen Russell, Luke Knipe, Emma Simon, Cam Renfrew, Tyler Nordbloom, Jack Mangene and Keaton Ellis.

“We call ourselves the Boalsburg Crew,” Moran joked.

Mangene is finishing his senior year at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy as a three-sport standout, just surpassing 1,000 career points in basketball and hoping to play collegiate golf. He has not yet committed to a school. Ellis graduated early, and is a freshman defensive back with the Penn State football team.

Ellis and Mangene were part of that fifth-grade IM volleyball team, which also included Moran, Henderson, Stahl and Renfrew. Some serious pride stemmed from that particular team, especially since others from that group made up a team that finished third in that IM tournament.

“We still have pictures from that,” Henderson said. “It was pretty fun.”

“We’ve always felt like we’ve had that one-up on everyone with that volleyball team,” Stahl said. “It’s carried us through to where we are now.”

The young lions also joined forces for co-ed dodgeball and soccer teams, and plenty of other adventures through the years.

For those who coached and taught them, more than just pure athletic ability was evident.

“I really remember trusting early their maturity level,” said John Stout, a social studies teacher at Mount Nittany Middle School who either coached or taught many group members. “I know so many other teachers that speak highly of these kids. When we look at hard work and understanding how to grow as students and athletes, they all were outstanding.”

The tightness of the group dissipated a little when they reached high school, when they were off in separate sport directions, but having the relationships also was valuable during the first weeks of wandering the halls of the massive high school.

“Coming in as a freshman it was intimidating, especially with sports,” said Henderson, who is headed to Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “But we had each other, if we had any questions or just if we just needed support in the building, it was, ‘Hey, I’m here, I need you to come.’ That’s huge.”

The feeling also was felt by Moran, who has been a part of four District 6-title teams with Henderson in volleyball – perhaps inspired a little by that fifth-grade team.

“The stability, the contact, the connections, having that by my side,” Penn State-Altoona-bound Moran said, “going into high school is already a huge change, but having close, reliable, amazing friends to help really meant a lot.”

The willingness to help others, the hard work and the ability to see more than just the game in front of them has set many of them apart.

“For our young kids, they are great role models,” Stout said. “Their work ethic is incredible. As an educator, we think, ‘These kids don’t work like the kids we used to have.’ … Hard work matters, and not always seeing the fruits of your labor right away, that was pretty special with these kids.”

Even with different varsity sports interests, they remain close. Russell, who will play football at Slippery Rock, called Henderson one of his best friends as they spoke about their childhood memories. And despite disparate practice schedules and summer club locales, they try to stay in contact.

“We hung out during the summers whenever we could,” Russell said. “We all had busy schedules with football and volleyball and stuff like that, but whenever we found time we’d hang out as a group whenever we got the chance to.”

This school year they also have made a point to go to each other’s Senior Night games, making sure each gets a proper sendoff.

“We see each other, sit with each other – it’s kind of nice that we all still support each other,” Stahl said.

Most of them knew way back then they had something special. On the playground, at recess, during gym class, they were the ones leading the way.

“Kickball, basketball, soccer, whatever it was at gym, we were our group and we stuck together,” said Moran, one of six from the volleyball team set to play at the next level. “We grew up with each other, we know each other better than some of the friend(ships) that we’ve formed in high school. Just having that contact is still super important, especially in a bigger school like this – it’s really awesome.”

As for the others from that IM team, Stahl will be playing lacrosse at UMass, and Renfrew likely will study at Penn State but not play a sport.

They will heading off in many directions after next June’s graduation, but they all know if they ever need help, it won’t be that hard to find.

“A lot of people will find their friends in high school or college,” Henderson said, “but I know I’m going to have them the rest of my life, because I’ve had them for the past 10 years.”

SCAHS College Commit List

Cole Urbas, Wrestling, University of Pennsylvania

Kileigh Kane, Girls CC & Track and Field, Penn State

Kelsey Love, Field Hockey, Penn State

Jess Lingenfelter, Soccer, Lebanon Valley College

Lance Hamilton, Track and Field, Penn State

Chase Longenecker, Track and Field, Penn State

Anna Kwasnica, Cross Country & Track & Field, Allegheny College

Tommy Friberg, Football, University of Michigan

Lyndsey Reed, Track and Field, University of Mississippi 

Makenzie Graham, Soccer, Virginia Tech

Erica Feese, Soccer, LaSalle

Erin Lutz, Volleyball, East Stroudsburg

Katie Finlan, Volleyball, Roanoke College

Jess Irwin, Volleyball, East Stroudsburg

Leah Henderson, Volleyball, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Kayla Moran, Volleyball, Penn State Altoona

Sally Stahl, Lacrosse, University of Massachusetts

Elaina Ohlson, Lacrosse, East Stroudsburg

Ryan Franks, Lacrosse, Susquehanna University

Tyson Cooper, Baseball, Penn State

David Shoemaker, Baseball, University of Pennsylvania

Jared Houser, Baseball, Mount Aloysius

Ben Vollmer, Soccer, Messiah College

Adalee Wasikonis, Softball, Pitzer College (Pomona-Pitzer Softball Team)

Cohen Russell, Football, Slippery Rock University

Shane Cole, Football, California University of PA

Jaden Seider, Football, Penn State

Grace Biddle, Field Hockey, Bates College

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Gordon Brunskill
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