By Matt Popchock


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While Blackhawk was down, Riverside was up in the bottom of the fifth, clinging to a 2-1 lead over District 5 champion North Star.

The Panthers, clawing for offensive traction, were the last hope for the WPIAL after the rest of its baseball pennant-wavers had been scratched from the field.

Anthony Meneice drew a full-count walk before pinch-runner Austin Hall advanced to third on a wild pitch and subsequent ground out. Dylan Jones fought off a first-pitch fastball for a dribbler that handcuffed first baseman Shane Supanick long enough for the junior to hustle it out, and for Hall to score.

Patience was also a virtue for last week’s hero, Riverside first-sacker Tyler Falk, who earned another free pass from otherwise efficient starter Brantley Rice with still only one away. Without much help from the rest of the order, winning pitcher Rob Hardy then helped himself by smacking a bases-clearing triple to the right field wall for his second and third RBI of the misty Monday afternoon contest.

“We’ve had trouble scoring runs, but Rob has really been coming on the last few games…both he and Tyler,” veteran manager Dan Oliastro said. “When you have that happen in the three- and four-spot, good things are going to happen.

“This is a good pitcher. We knew he would be tough, and our kids battled.”

Hardy, specifically, would battle through 5 1/3 innings of this 6-2 PIAA Class AA Semifinal win at Shaler Area High School’s Matulevic Field, striking out six and stranding eight runners in scoring position. It had Oliastro, who’s trying to lead his Panthers to a repeat state title for the second time in his tenure, smiling at the end of a hard day.

Needless to say, he loves a good cat fight.

“Rob is our captain, and he’s basically the heart of the team,” Oliastro said. “There’s been times throughout the year when he had to gut it out, and he had to gut it out those last couple innings, when I could see his pitches were coming up a bit.

“But we also have McCarty, who offers a different style of pitching, and I knew as long as he threw strikes, we’d be fine.”

Sophomore Blaise McCarty obliged, allowing just one run on one hit, fanning a pair, and retiring the Cougars in order to secure the lone WPIAL berth in the 2012 PIAA Baseball Championships. The Class AA game against District 11 champ Pine Grove, an 8-7 extra-inning winner over Brandywine Heights Monday, takes place Friday at 10:30 A.M. at Penn State’s Lubrano Park.

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“Today I had all three, and usually when I have all three, it’s a good day,” Hardy said. “They put up a heck of a fight. They’ve got some great bats in that lineup, and I knew I just had to pitch around them.

“We also knew coming in we would have to scratch and claw runs across, and I knew I’d have to do it too.”

The Panthers managed just four hits off Rice and Supanick on this particular Monday. Unlike last year’s team, which carried a lot of heavy bats, this squad has had to work harder for its runs. Despite that power outage, the Panthers have managed at least five of them in every postseason game, even their 9-7 WPIAL Championship loss to arch-rival Ellwood City.

Riverside nearly erased an early 7-1 deficit in that game, and it did erase a 4-0 deficit last week when McCarty pitched six consecutive shutout innings and Falk delivered a late two-run homer that proved to be a game-winner.

“Last year we had a lot of depth. We’re not that type of team this year,” Oliastro said. “We just have to keep things close, try to get that clutch hit, and pitch well.”

“Whenever you play small ball, there’s not a game you can’t win. We’ve been doing it all year,” Hardy said.

He and outfielder Corey Belonzi were among the seven seniors who helped Riverside win the 2011 WPIAL title in walk-off fashion over Waynesburg before the Panthers captured the PIAA crown from Salisbury Township. This year they are surrounded entirely by underclassmen.

“Only three were there last year, and two were part-time players,” Oliastro said. “But you can’t say these other kids are green anymore.”

Certainly not, considering the valuable playoff experience they’ve gained. Even with that old offensive swagger, Riverside needed to win four one-run games the previous postseason, and this year the team is 6-0 under that circumstance. Those runs will only increase in value against Pine Grove, which has earned a No. 8 state-wide ranking by MaxPreps while hitting a respectable .331 as a team. Regulars Stevie and Ty Zimmerman have combined to hit .362, producing a total of 26 extra-base hits and 54 RBI.

But this is where the Panthers, under Oliastro, have risen to the occasion in the past, and his pitcher is anxious to add to that legacy before calling it a career.

“I’ve been blessed with the coaches and players around me,” Hardy said. “To get one more would be icing on the cake.”

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(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)