PIAA Class AA champions: Riverside Panthers win title, 7-4

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Riverside catcher Joe Jurinko, left, and winning pitcher John Elms hoist the Class AA championship trophy at Blair County Ballpark in Altoona.

By Mike White, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

ALTOONA -- Matt Nemec couldn't come through with a bunt in his final plate appearance yesterday. Good thing.

Two pitches after his failure to do something small, Nemec came through with something much bigger for the Riverside baseball team.

He smacked a three-run double that broke open a tie game in the bottom of the sixth inning and propelled Riverside to a 7-4 victory against Montoursville in the PIAA Class AA championship at Blair County Ballpark in Altoona.

The win pushed Riverside into an elite class. The Panthers are only the fourth team in PIAA history to win back-to-back titles, and only the second from the WPIAL to do the double take. The other was Moon in 2000-01.

A year ago, Riverside won the title with a no-hitter from star pitcher Curtis Brown. This time, there was an unlikely hero, a freckle-faced kid who is a designated hitter and bats last in Riverside's lineup. Nemec, a junior, didn't become the Panthers' starting DH until the second-to-last game of the regular season.

His story is of the "no-name" kid who, with one moment, becomes a high school sports hero.

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Matt Nemec puts down the failed suicide squeeze in the sixth inning that will go down in Riverside lore.
Click photo for larger image.

"He'll be out soon. He's hugging babies and kissing girls in there," Riverside athletic director John Wolf said to a few reporters who waited to talk to Nemec outside the stadium.

"Amazing," Nemec said. "This is like a dream come true."

Riverside (26-1) had trailed Montoursville, 3-1, heading into the bottom of the sixth. But, Riverside tied the score, 3-3, and had runners on second and third when Montoursville intentionally walked Ryan McCandless to load the bases. Then, with the count 0-1 on Nemec, Riverside coach Dan Oliastro called for the suicide squeeze. Nemec tried to bunt, but the ball rolled foul down the first-base line.

It was an understandable move by Oliastro because Nemec had been successful on three other suicide squeezes this season.

"But what I wanted to do this time obviously wasn't the right thing," Oliastro said with a laugh, when discussing the attempted suicide squeeze. "After that, I was just hoping he'd hit the ball hard."

After the bunt attempt, Nemec fouled off a pitch. Then he got a fastball, and hit it into the right-center field gap.

"I thought he might have me bunt again [after the first attempt]," Nemec said. "The funny thing about all of this is one of our assistant coaches [John Rorick] said to me in the fifth inning that we were going to tie up the game and that I was going to be the hero. Although, he said it would happen in the bottom of the seventh."

As it turned out, one of the keys to the game was the PIAA pitching rules. Montoursville's Ryan Miller held Riverside's usually strong offense to one run and four hits in the first five innings. But Miller pitched nine innings in the semifinals Monday when Montoursville beat St. Pius X, 4-2, in 15 innings. That meant he could pitch a maximum of five innings against Riverside.

"Ryan was doing well, but we have all the confidence in the world in our No. 2 pitcher," said Montoursville coach Corey Twigg said of Chad Jacobson. "Do we second-guess anything we did [in the semifinals]? Absolutely not."

Oliastro was happy to see Miller leave after the fifth.

"When they went up 3-1, I was a little concerned because their kid pretty much had us off balance," Oliastro said. "I hate to say this, but the change in pitchers made a big difference. I can't imagine that kid if he had five days' rest."

Jacobson walked Christian Valeriano to start the sixth inning. John Elms then singled to put runners at first and third, and Joe Jurinko was intentionally walked. Steve Lowry followed with a bouncing ball in the hole between second and third. Shortstop Ty Russell got to the ball as Valeriano came home. Russell tried for the out at third, but his throw was wild, allowing another run to tie the score.

After Nemec's three-run double, Montoursville first baseman Brian Johnson made an error on a ground ball, allowing Nemec to score.

Montoursville scored one run in the top of the seventh, but Elms cleaned things up to lift his record to 14-0 this season. He pitched a six-hitter and struck out two, working on only three days' rest.


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