Some teams might immediately hang their head after losing in a WPIAL championship game; the Riverside baseball team did anything but that last year.
After losing a tough 9-7 decision in the WPIAL Class AA title game to backyard rival and section-foe Ellwood City, the Panthers thrived in the PIAA playoffs and ended up capturing the program's fourth state championship.
"We lost that [WPIAL title] game, but the kids learned from it," longtime Riverside coach Dan Oliastro said. "We made mistakes in that game, so the kids went on and corrected those mistakes and they didn't make any the rest of the year. We might have lost that game, but we benefited from it in the end."
Oliastro, who returns to the bench for his 45th season at Riverside, welcomes back a senior-loaded core of veterans and believes this year's group should once again compete with the stronger teams in WPIAL Class AA.
"We have our eye on the prize," said senior pitcher Blaise McCarty, who lives in North Sewickley Township. "We want to be playing for another WPIAL and state title, but we're not thinking too far ahead.
"We know we might have a target on our backs, and that's a good thing. That's going to push us to work harder because we know there's a lot of hard work ahead of us in order to be successful."
Entering the season listed as the Post-Gazette's top-ranked Class AA baseball team, Riverside was off to a 3-1 start, earning a 2-1 win against New Brighton on March 30 and also picking up non-section victories against Freedom and Western Beaver. The Panthers lost to Class AAA power Hopewell, 7-5, on Monday and is scheduled to play No. 3-ranked Beaver Area today in their section opener.
"We've been hitting the ball pretty well," said McCarty, a right-handed pitcher who is already committed to play baseball next season for Alderson-Broaddus College, an NCAA Division II program in Philippi, W.Va. "Our fielding is excellent right now. We're really coming together as a team."
McCarty, who went 6-2 with 52 strikeouts last season, headlines Riverside's pitching rotation. Senior pitcher/first baseman Tyler Falk, junior Mitch Connelly, junior Jason Pettner and junior Kyle Robertson also are expected to add pitching depth for the Panthers.
Falk was one of the team's top hitters last year, batting .400 with four home runs and 30 RBIs. Right fielder Ian Sutherland also returns after hitting .464 during his junior season.
"We're hitting the ball and we've had lock-down defense," McCarty said. "If we can hit when runners are on base, we're going to be hard to beat."
Riverside also welcomes back veteran seniors in shortstop/leadoff hitter Devin Kelosky, second baseman Cole McDonough, left fielder Anthony Meneia and center fielder Dylan Jones.
Junior infielder Ross Maietta and sophomore catcher Peyton Pacella also are expected to be starters.
"Attitude is everything, and these kids have great attitudes," said Oliastro, who has lead Riverside to 538 wins, three WPIAL titles and those four PIAA championships during his tenure. "This is a great bunch of kids. They have a great attitude and love to play baseball.
"Sometimes in high school, it's what's between the ears more than the actual skill and ability that really matters. They have the good ability and are definitely good between the ears."
Last year, Riverside went 12-2 in section play and shared the Section 5-AA title with Ellwood City. After losing to the Wolverines in the WPIAL title game, the Panthers won their next four games, including a 5-4 decision against Pine Grove to capture the Class AA state crown and finish the season with a 22-6 record.
"We're going to have to take baby steps to get back there," Oliastro said. "We have a lot of things to iron out. We're playing in a very difficult section. Beaver is coming down from Class AAA, and we're guessing they're going to be the team to beat.
"Shenango and Ellwood City are expected to be good again. Then you have Neshannock, which won a WPIAL title in Class A last year, coming back up to our section. This is going to be an interesting league.
"We just need to be consistent day in and day out. We can't get too high or too low, which is something this group knows about.
"We just need to play well and stay healthy."