By Matt Popchock
Two Beaver County teams that aren’t separated by a lot played two baseball games during the regular season that couldn’t have been farther apart in their complexion. That dichotomy disappeared on Wednesday evening, when they battled through the same self-inflicted wounds for a prize bigger than mere bragging rights.
Top-seeded Ellwood City (21-2) bolted out to an early 7-1 lead before staving off a rally by defending champion Riverside (18-6) and holding on for a 9-7 victory in the WPIAL Class AA Baseball Final at CONSOL Energy Park in Washington.
Both neighbors enter the state playoffs after, fittingly, sharing the Section 5 crown, but the Wolverines will do so on the heels of their fifth district title in program history in tow, which is also their first since 2003.
They plated two quick runs in the top of the first thanks to a two-out single by Anthony Carusone, who finished 2-for-4 with a pair of RBI and came around to score on a throwing error by starting pitcher Rob Hardy shortly thereafter. Hardy, who lasted only 1 1/3 innings, took the loss while allowing four runs, two of them earned, on three hits and one walk.
The Panthers answered with two-out lightning of their own in the home half of the first, as designated hitter Ian Sutherland doubled with a man on second to collect the first of his two hits and RBI.
However, Ellwood City then stepped on the gas much as it did in its 13-3 rout of Riverside May 7, which forged that aforementioned section title split. Jason Vetica scored on a botched grounder to third, and Matt Morella, the penultimate batter to face Hardy, scored on a passed ball to make it 4-1 Ellwood City.
Controversy followed the Riverside pitching change when sophomore Blaise McCarty induced a fly ball from Greg Lynn. Sutherland, the new right fielder, appeared to make a sliding catch for the third out, but it was deemed a two-run single, despite the pleas of veteran manager Dan Oliastro.
Carusone’s ensuing double seemed to put the game away early, but the Panthers patiently clawed back in the bottom of the third. Sutherland’s bases-loaded single cut the deficit to 7-2, and after a run-scoring wild pitch delivered by Christian Kerns, McCarty singled in Riverside’s fourth run. An error on first baseman Morella allowed Riverside to trim Ellwood City’s lead to 7-5 before a grounder to second ended the threat.
Another single by McCarty made it a one-run game in the fifth, but Corey Belonzi popped out behind home plate with the tying run on second, and Zach Mathias, who ended 3-for-3 with two runs scored, singled in the first of two insurance runs for Ellwood City in the sixth.
Despite allowing seven hits and six walks without a strikeout, Kerns picked up his tenth win of the year and second against Riverside after going 6 2/3 innings.
Ellwood City will play the District 5 champion Monday while the Panthers take on the District 9 champion.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)