West Xtra: A Hardy band of Riverside Panthers nears another state title

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Rob Hardy said he is "blessed" to be playing in another championship game and "lucky" to be playing for Riverside.

The Panthers have similar feelings reserved for their captain, longtime coach Dan Oliastro said.

"Rob Hardy is a great leader," Oliastro said. "He's our captain, and the kids take his lead."

A three-year starter and standout at the plate and on the mound for Riverside, Hardy will play in a second consecutive PIAA Class AA baseball championship game Friday. The Panthers play Pine Grove 10:30 a.m. at Penn State's Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.

Riverside has played in each of the past two WPIAL title games, too. That's four championship game appearances in a row -- a remarkable run for any team at any level in a single-elimination format.

The phenomenal part is that there was little carryover from last season's team. Hardy is one of only three players who contributed significantly to both teams.

Hardy has been the team's cleanup hitter, batting better than .400 after going 3 for 3 in a 6-2 victory against North Star in the PIAA semifinals Monday. He also threw 51/3 innings, allowing two runs and striking out six.

Hardy is one of only three seniors on the team, so a leadership role is a natural expectation.

"He's actually pretty quiet," Oliastro said. "The kids respect him, and he just leads by the way he carries himself. He's a very pleasant young man."

Hardy, a second baseman when he's not pitching, missed about two weeks over the regular season's stretch drive due to a knee injury. He returned in time for the playoffs.

Riverside (21-6) has lost only once since -- to Ellwood City in the WPIAL championship game. The Panthers are 14-1 in the postseason over the past two years.

"The last two years, we've just gotten hot at the right time," Hardy said. "That's what you have to do in playoff baseball -- play every game like it's your last, and we've risen to the occasion. We've just played as hard as we can for seven innings every game."

Some interesting common themes between the two consecutive deep playoff runs by Riverside: Both seasons, the Panthers lost five regular-season games and in neither did they win an outright section title.

Interestingly, during the final days of each regular season, Riverside sustained arguably its worst loss of that season. In 2011, it was a 12-4 defeat to Laurel (the team's other four losses came by a combined six runs). This season, it was a 13-3 loss to rival Ellwood City.

Both times, Riverside emerged undeterred, going on long and fruitful playoff runs.

"Good teams bounce back," Oliastro said. "And it's still just one loss. You can get killed, and it's still just one loss.

"This is a good team, and that's the mark of a good team -- being able to bounce back. Everybody can lose, but not everybody can bounce back, so I'm really proud of those kids."

Oliastro has accomplished plenty in his 44 seasons as Riverside's coach -- but playing in both the WPIAL and PIAA championship games in consecutive years is something he recognizes as "very difficult."

"Baseball is a game of inches. One pitch can turn the whole ballgame around," he said. "One bad play can change the whole ballgame. Everything has to fall into place. The kids have to play well, and this group has a lot of heart."

Hardy said Friday will feel "bittersweet." Win or lose, it will be the final time he represents the Riverside varsity program.

"Playing for Riverside, there's really nothing like it," Hardy said. "Just the community around us supports us so well, and coach Oliastro and coach [John] Marnicio have been around so long that baseball is just what we do at Riverside. Everybody loves baseball around here, and it's really fun to play for a program like that."

Although Hardy will play American Legion ball this summer, he might not be playing baseball too much after that. Oliastro said, "he certainly could play infield anywhere for someone," but Hardy has other priorities.

He wants to study to be a physical therapist, and he chose his college -- Slippery Rock -- based on that. Hardy said he has not been in contact with The Rock's coaches yet, but will try to make the team as a walk-on.

But not before he tries to win another state championship.


• Game: Riverside vs. Pine Grove, PIAA Class AA championship.

• When: 10:30 a.m. Friday.

• Where: Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, Penn State.

• TV: PCN (8 p.m., tape delay).



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