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Photo: Christopher Dolan, License: N/A, Created: 2017:08:19 13:50:41

A front-end loader clears the parking lot of Cooper’s in Pittston following the tomato fight at the Pittston Tomato Festival on Saturday, August 19, 2017.Christopher Dolan / Staff Photographer

Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2017:08:19 10:11:09

Runners cross the Water Street bridge during Pittston Tomato Festival 5k run.KRISTEN MULLEN / THE CITIZENS’ VOICEcv20tomatorunp6

Lori Epler smiled and shouted as she stretched out her hand, hoping to catch a Pittston souvenir.

One of the passing parade floats obliged, and a white T-shirt came flying toward her. Standing on the sidewalk near the Tomato Festival lot, Epler unfurled the shirt to reveal the slogan “I love Pittston” with a tomato in place of a heart symbol.

“I do love Pittston!” she crowed, showing off the shirt to her family. “I can’t believe I got a shirt just for asking.”

The Little Gap resident and her “crew” of family and friends came to downtown Pittston to enjoy the 34th annual Tomato Festival last weekend like they have for the past 10 years.

“We found out about this 10 years ago and we just had to be part of the fights,” she said.

Epler joined the crowd Saturday for the festival’s busiest day of events — the annual 5K race, Tomato Parade, Tomato Fight and others.

She made her way to her usual spot at Cooper’s on the Waterfront to prepare for the Tomato Fight on Saturday afternoon.

Red goggles safely in place, the fighters approached the center line.

Caution tape stood as a barrier between the two sides as they hoisted boxes of tomatoes in their arms, readying their supply of ammunition.

At the sound of the horn, the assault began and tomatoes flew across the divide as each side battled to the bitter end of the annual Pittston Tomato Fight.

The produce flew for more than two minutes as traditional Italian songs played over the speakers. Competitors dipped and dodged oncoming tomatoes and even used the lids of the boxes as shields.

Organizers said nearly 200 people participated in the fight on the third day of the 34th annual Pittston Tomato Festival.

“That was bombastic fun,” said Nancy Beets, who traveled all the way from Prescott, Arizona, to be part of the fight with a group of friends organized by West Pittston native Greg Shiner.

The group wore tie-dye shirts and yellow hard hats and rushed to the front line as soon as the fight began.

“I invited everyone to come out,” Shiner said. “We wanted to get a team together.”

Saturday at the festival began with the annual 5K race and Tomato Parade. Organizer Lori Nocito said the sunny weather and jam-packed schedule brought record-breaking crowds to downtown Pittston for the day’s events.

“It’s been fantastic,” Nocito said after the fight. “I’ve met many people from out of town.”

The parade featured guests like Gov. Tom Wolf and Miami Dolphins great Jimmy Cefalo, who served as grand marshal and even kicked off the Tomato Fight later in the day.

“This has been the most fun I’ve had in a long time,” Cefalo said to the crowd.

On the main stage Saturday, three local teens competed in the Tomato Festival Queen Scholarship pageant — bringing their interview skills and unique talents before a panel of judges for the chance to represent Pittston in the coming year.

Sofia Costagliola, 15, of Pittston, made pizza for her talent and talked about living and working in downtown Pittston at her family’s restaurant, Napoli’s Pizza.

Bella Diana, 14, of Scranton, danced to “99 Red Balloons” and enjoyed participating in the contest after years of watching it.

“I always liked watching the older kids do it,” she said.

15-year-old Britney Cheskiewicz, of Wyoming, was crowned Tomato Festival Queen after her vocal performance of “Taylor the Latte Boy” on Saturday.

“It’s a great opportunity to represent Pittston,” she said. “I love coming here.”

Younger contestants took the stage Sunday morning for the Little Miss and Little Mr. Tomato pageant.

Festivalgoers spent all weekend voting in Sauce Wars, a blind taste-test pitting marinara sauces from local restaurants against one another. By the end of the event, Pazzo restaurant of Jenkins Twp. earned the most votes, taking the title from 2016 winner CrisNic’s of Wilkes-Barre.

Nocito expected about 50,000 people to attend the event and said consistently good weather likely helped the festival hit that mark.

sscinto@pittstonprogress.com, 570-821-2070

@sscintoCV