Last year's Riverside PIAA championship team was a deep, balanced squad that overpowered its opponents en route to a state championship.
These are not those Panthers.
Riverside has had to scratch and claw on offense this season, but it hasn't mattered. The Panthers are once again one win away from claiming a PIAA title.
Riverside beat North Star, 6-2, at Matulevic Field at Shaler High School Monday to advance to the Class AA championship game Friday.
"It's just as great," senior pitcher Rob Hardy said. "I don't even know what to say about it."
Hardy, one of just three players returning from last year's championship squad, powered the Panthers (21-6) on the mound and at the plate Monday. He threw 51/3 innings, allowing two runs and striking out six.
He also went 2 for 2 with three RBIs, including a two-run triple in the bottom of the fifth that put Riverside ahead, 5-1, and essentially sealed the win.
"We've been having trouble scoring runs," Panthers coach Dan Oliastro said. "Rob's hit, that was clutch. Rob has been coming on the last two or three ballgames."
Riverside had just four hits against North Star's Brantley Rice, who pitched five innings and allowed all six Riverside runs.
Hardy's triple was the Panthers' only hit in their four-run fifth inning. Tyler Falk and Anthony Meneice scored after getting walks, and Dylan Jones reached on an error.
"Whenever you can play small ball, there's not a game you can't win," Hardy said. "We've been doing it all year. We haven't had everybody all come around in one game all year, so it's just something we've gotten used to. It's not like last year where we're hitting all sorts of home runs. We're just battling."
The Panthers jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first inning on an RBI double from Hardy. They tacked on one more in the third when Meneice scored on an error by North Star shortstop Zack Maluchnick.
North Star got a run in the top of the fifth when Tony Strasiser scored on a single by left fielder Cory Bloom.
It looked like the game was heading for a close finish until Hardy's triple gave the Panthers some breathing room.
"It was a hung curveball," Hardy said of his big hit. "I just kept my shoulder in and drove it the other way.
"That's the one mistake he made to me all day."
The Panthers will face either Brandywine Heights or Pine Grove Friday in State College for a chance to win two titles in a row. Riverside won back-to-back PIAA championships in 2005 and '06, so Oliastro knows how difficult it is to repeat as state champions.
A senior, Hardy also acknowledged that it would be special to end his career on top.
"It would just be surreal," he said. "I've been blessed with the players and coaches around me. One more would just be icing on the cake."hsbaseball
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SWernerPG