It was a late afternoon, the first Monday in May.
But in Ellwood City, it was virtually autumn's Friday Night Lights.
When Ellwood City's Lincoln High School baseball team played host to Riverside High School -- its neighboring district (the schools are located 2.9 miles apart) -- on May 7, fans turned out in numbers and with enthusiasm that would rival many high school football games in Western Pennsylvania.
"It was like going to a Friday night football game," Ellwood City coach Jeff Fotia said. "There were more people there at a regular-season game than at any of the playoff games [this past week]."
"The Steel Valley coach [Tim Vickers] was up here scouting us, and he said he never saw an atmosphere like that for a high school baseball game," Fotia added.
"Both [these schools] love baseball here."
They do. And they also like playing each other. Riverside and Ellwood City have probably played about a hundred games against each other since Riverside High was created around 1960. None will have the stakes their next meeting will.
The No. 1 seed Wolverines (20-2) play the No. 3 Panthers (18-5) in the WPIAL Class AA championship game Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at Consol Energy Park in North Franklin, just outside of Washington.
"This will be one to remember -- believe me," Fotia said. "There won't be a person left in Ellwood City, I'll tell you that."
Both school districts share a post office.
"It's not a big town," said longtime Riverside coach Dan Oliastro. "They're in the middle of Ellwood City, and we're just across the bridge.
"This is really something. To have two teams come out of the same section and be rivals to begin with -- and end up with the identical section record -- and end up playing in the championship ... This is something you would never think would happen. You'd have to roll the dice to get this one."
Oliastro knows perhaps better than anyone the intricacies of the Riverside-Ellwood City rivalry. He began the 1960s as a student at Ellwood City; by the end of the decade he was the coach at Riverside. He's been there for 44 years now.
The year after Oliastro graduated, Ellwood City won its first WPIAL baseball title. The Wolverines won their most recent two championships in 2001 and '03 under Fotia.
Riverside has won three WPIAL titles over the past 16 years, the most recent coming last season. The Panthers also won the PIAA championship last season, too.
They're back in the running for both again this season, despite losing seven seniors off last season's roster.
"At this point, nothing's surprising me about what this group can do," Oliastro said. "We've developed into a solid team that can play with anybody."
"Their pitching just always keeps them in the ballgame," Fotia said. "They defend well, move runners over, create their own opportunities to win. That's the bottom line.
"Danny's been there for about -- how many years? Since the '60s? He's a legend. They named the field after him! I know him very well; he's a great guy, a great person who works real hard."
Listening to the coaches, the Riverside-Ellwood City rivalry is not a hostile one. It could be referred to one based on success: By this time next week, the two teams will have combined to have won five of the past 12 WPIAL Class AA baseball championships.
"They're good -- no question," Oliastro said of an Ellwood City team that carries a seven-game winning streak into the WPIAL title game. "They've got good pitching and good team defense and they're well-coached. You don't get to be 20-2 unless you're doing something right."
One of the Wolverines' losses this season was to Riverside, 1-0, April 20. The other was to Shenango, 5-3, five days later.
But in the regular season-ending rematch between Riverside and Ellwood City, the Wolverines won, 13-3.
"We laid an egg up there," Oliastro said. "They beat up on us; we were just flat, which is very unusual for this group.
"Both teams went 12-2 [in Section 5-AA] and tied as co-champs for our [section], so I guess it's only justice these are the two teams playing against each other [for the WPIAL championship]. It should be a good game."
Thursday, May 24, 2012
• Game: No. 1 Ellwood City vs. No. 3 Riverside, WPIAL Class AA championship game.
• When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.
• Where: Consol Energy Park, North Franklin.
• Skinny: Ellwood City won the previous matchup between the two teams, 13-3, May 7.hsbaseball
First Published May 24, 2012 12:00 AM