HERSHEY - After one of their local media members gathered the Council Rock South senior baseball players together for a group photo following their PIAA Class AAAA semifinal win on Tuesday, he asked them how it felt to advance to the state championship in "easy'' fashion.
One of the Golden Hawks jumped in quickly to correct him.
"I wouldn't call it 'easy,''' he said.
"It wasn't easy,'' added winning pitcher Brian Donnelly. "That kid they had on the mound was really good. We rode the [three-run] first inning all the way through.''
For a team the Hawks had beaten 4-0 on Monday afternoon at Hershey Area High School's Memorial Field and which really didn't mount a threat against Donnelly in the only game Council Rock South had seen it, Altoona Area High School still garnered a measure of respect from the twice-beaten District 1 runners-up.
It seemed only fitting. The 2012 Mountain Lions used outstanding, deep pitching, steady fielding, clutch hitting and a never-say-die attitude that resulted in numerous comeback wins to go 17-6 and advance to the state final four for the first time in program history.
"It stings right now. We were really hoping to make it to the state championship. That's all we were talking about for the last few weeks,'' said Juniata College-bound senior Lion catcher Anthony Lombardo. "We came up a little bit short. But it was a great season. Overall, we had a really good season.''
In addition to prevailing in state playoff games over the top two finishers in the WPIAL, Altoona won its seventh District 6 title and the Curve Classic and finished runner-up in the Ron Fiochetta Classic.
Altoona won five games by one run, including the 6-AAAA final against Central Mountain.
"These kids were a good group. We mixed some talent with some hard work and team unity,'' Lion coach Tom Smith said. "I wish all my teams had that. If you could get that as a coach, I think you'd be happy year in and year out.''
The Lions came into this season having bowed out of districts in the first round three straight years. Last year's 1-0 setback to Central Mountain culminated an eight-win campaign for a team that had fairly high aspirations. Smith's three most-utilized pitchers from that squad had graduated, leaving a huge void.
The Mountain Lions, though, used the previous year's disappointment as fuel.
"We lost in the first round of the playoffs the last three years. The guys on the team knew what it felt like, and it didn't feel too good,'' senior shortstop/pitcher Christian Helsel said. "We came out with fire in the playoffs and played well.''
With all of the Lions' accomplishments, one stood out above all others to Lombardo.
"Definitely winning the District 6 championship. That was great. That was amazing,'' Lombardo said. "It was awesome playing in the state playoffs.''
Although it had minimal playoff experience and no postseason success before this season, Altoona believed it could go far, even contend for a state title.
"The last few games we really played good. We really got our confidence up,'' Lombardo said. "We really came together as a team this year. We really bonded. We were all best friends this year. We wanted to get there, and we believed we could do it.''
Lombardo was one of seven seniors on the team. Five of them started, including left fielder J.D. Green, center fielder Dylan Oswalt and second baseman Chris Sinisi. Jason Douglas was one of the Lions' top starting pitchers in the regular season, and Trevor Arnold hit .500 off the bench.
And, of course, there was Helsel. Already a three-time Altoona Mirror all-star with a scholarship to Mississippi, Helsel batted over .400, hit both of the team's home runs, scored 25 runs, and picked up five saves on the mound before turning starter and throwing three complete games in the playoffs.
"I'm very pleased with how I've played here at Altoona,'' Helsel said.
Even in defeat, he and his teammates made an impression on Council Rock South.
"They're a very good team. The kid on the mound [Helsel] was very good. We knew he was good,'' Donnelly said. "We had to try to come out and get on them early and try to deflate their team.''
Two of the team's top hitters - Ben Wyland and Colby Fink - will be back to lead the team in 2013, along with right fielder Shea Stayer and slick-fielding shortstop Jaret Berardinelli. Wyland and Alec Lytle are proven arms to head up the pitching staff.
The Lions built a loyal fan following that the players said helped them, too. At the conclusion of Monday's game, Smith thanked them, then he gathered his players and tried to put things into perspective.
"We're extremely proud,'' Smith said. "Hopefully the kids will see past [Monday's loss]. We're already trying to tell them that. Focus on the positives. We did go this far and have a lot of good memories. Hopefully they'll keep that.''