Ellwood City's first appearance in the WPIAL title game or PIAA playoffs since 2003 very well could have happened last season, instead that didn't happen until Wednesday when they faced neighboring rival Riverside for the Class AA championship.
For the Wolverines, it was worth the wait.
Ellwood City went 15-5 overall and 10-4 in Section 5-AA play in 2011. Those types of records almost always are good enough to be among the WPIAL elite. They're often the stuff of a top-five seed in the WPIAL playoffs.
But by reasons of quirky circumstance, that wasn't even good enough to get the Wolverines into the postseason last year.
"We kind of wondered what might have been," said Jeff Fotia, who is in his third season back as Ellwood City's coach following a prior tenure of 1994-2005.
He led the Wolverines to the 2003 WPIAL and PIAA Class AA titles. The 2011 Ellwood City team finished a game out of the Section 5-AA lead and in a three-way tie for second place.
The Wolverines that season swept section champion Laurel, and no team in the WPIAL had a better overall record or a better section record and failed to miss the playoffs.
Thirty-four playoff teams in WPIAL Class AAAA, AAA, AA and A had a worse record than Ellwood City did -- but the Wolverines were resigned to staying home for the postseason.
Worse, they had to watch as crosstown rival Riverside won the WPIAL and PIAA titles.
The experience, Fotia said, compelled the Wolverines not to take any game for granted this season. It fostered a focus based on the knowledge that any slip-up could mean the difference between a playoff berth and not getting one.
Missing the postseason means playing "what if?" Getting in allowed Ellwood City to prove its 18-2 regular-season record was no fluke.
Regardless of the outcome of Wednesday's game, the Wolverines will open play in the PIAA tournament Monday.
"I'm very proud of this team," Fotia said in advance of the WPIAL championship game.
As might be expected for a team with such a stellar record, pitching is a strength for the Wolverines. Through the WPIAL semifinals, the team had allowed more than two runs in a game five times in 22 contests.
Seniors Christian Kerns and Anthony Carusone have worked the majority of the innings, and senior Vince Magnifico has been strong on the mound, too.
"They've been solid on the mound for us all year long," Fotia said. "They've been stable and have always given us a chance to win."
Considering it won the WPIAL and PIAA Class AA baseball titles last year, Riverside's emergence as a WPIAL finalist and PIAA tournament qualifier this season -- on the surface -- doesn't appear to be too much of a surprise.
Consider the fact that the Panthers had to replace seven key senior contributors from that 2011 team, however, and it's more remarkable that Riverside made it back to the WPIAL elite.
"We started out with a pretty new, young team," longtime Panthers coach Dan Oliastro said. "Most of these kids we have, this is their first year playing varsity, so we were kind of restructuring and green at the beginning of the season. But we've gotten so much better by the end."
Heading into Wednesday's title game, Riverside had won 11 of its previous 12. In games that were decided by less than six runs this season, the Panthers were 9-2. They had won their past seven games that were decided by three runs or fewer.
"Generally, if it's going to be a close game, we're probably going to win it," Oliastro said. "Our kids, they're tough. Real tough mentally."
Riverside will open PIAA tournament play Monday against an opponent to be determined at a site and time to be determined.
First Published May 31, 2012 12:00 AM