Early in the spring, Riverside High School softball coach Pam McCarty told her players that this year's team reminded her of her 2001 squad that won the WPIAL title and finished second in the state.
Recently, she amended that statement.
"I looked at them last week and said, 'They're better than that 2001 team,'" McCarty said. "I just love coaching this team so much."
The 2013 Panthers (22-0) will have a chance to win that elusive PIAA title that the 2001 team could not at 10 a.m. Friday when they take on District 3 champion Brandywine Heights at Nittany Lion Softball Park on the campus of Penn State University.
It will be Riverside's fourth trip to PIAA championship game. The Panthers lost their previous three in 1994, 1996 and 2001.
But McCarty, who was a Riverside assistant coach for seven seasons before being named the head coach in 1997, said the completeness of this season's team separates it from previous Panthers squads.
"This team has the pitching, defense and the hitting," said McCarty. "There's no major weakness.
"Those other teams might have had great pitching or hitting, but there was always one piece missing. This team can just about do it all."
For Riverside, it all starts with senior Kirsten Wilson. A right-handed pitcher, she will play for NCAA Division II Bloomfield College in New Jersey next season. She has been spectacular this season and nearly unhittable throughout the state tournament.
Wilson threw a no-hitter with 15 strikeouts Tuesday in Riverside's 2-0 victory against 2011 state champion Philipsburg-Osceola, the District 6 champion, in the PIAA Class AA semifinals.
This after Wilson threw a perfect game with 13 strikeouts in the state tournament opener against Curwensville and tossed a one-hitter in a 13-0 victory against Ligonier Valley in the PIAA quarterfinals.
Wilson now has shut out 14 of her past 15 opponents, the lone non-shutout coming in a 5-1 victory against Deer Lakes in the WPIAL championship game.
She has given up just seven runs all season, six of which came in two games against section foe Mohawk.
"She's been phenomenal," McCarty said. "She just keeps getting better and better. She's peaking at the right time."
Wilson is also crushing the ball at the plate. She is hitting better than .500 for the season and has six home runs, two of which came in the win over Curwensville.
She is helped at the plate by Natalie Pritts, who is hitting better than .400 and drove in both runs Tuesday with a single in the fifth inning.
The Panthers are averaging 5.9 runs per contest and have outscored opponents, 129-7.
This season's domination comes after Riverside experienced heartbreak in 2012, losing in the WPIAL semifinals to Greensburg Central Catholic, 6-3, and then dropping the third-place consolation match to Neshannock, 3-2, to miss the PIAA tournament.
Meanwhile, Neshannock went on to become the first WPIAL team since Canevin in 1999 to win the Class AA state title. This season, Neshannock dropped to Class A but will also play for a state title at that level on Friday morning.
Now Riverside will try to make it back-to-back Class AA titles for District 7 and bring home the school's first softball championship.
McCarty said the team will approach it just like they have every other game this season.
"They've been playing it one game at a time," she said.
"They're loose. On the bus [after Tuesday's win], they're playing their music and having fun. They're doing the same thing they've done over and over again this season."
First Published June 13, 2013 4:00 AM