Riverside, the defending WPIAL Class AA champions, has nearly everybody back this season.
The key word is "nearly." Although the Panthers only graduated two players from a 22-win, PIAA runner-up squad, those two players were one of the top pitcher/catcher battery's in recent WPIAL history.
Pitcher Kirsten Wilson and catcher Nicole Mansfield are now in college, leaving huge voids on the team at positions not easy to fill. Wilson was the 2013 Post-Gazette Player of the Year. She was 22-1 as a pitcher She struck out 271 batters in 150 innings where she allowed six earned runs all season. She tossed six no hitters and 19 of her 22 wins came via shutout.
At the plate, she batted .549 with six home runs while being intentionally walked 27 times. This season at Bloomfield College she has pitched 842/3 innings and maintained a 2.02 ERA while driving in 28 runs at the plate and batting .396.
Mansfield was a four-year letter-winner and all-section choice last season.
Veteran coach Pam McCarty has replaced her fair share of players before and with a track record that includes six WPIAL titles in her 26-year coaching career -- including three in the past six seasons -- rebuilding is not usually in her vocabulary.
"It almost seems like we are rebuilding without Kiersten," McCarty said. "She just mowed everybody down last year. The girls didn't have to play a lot of defense."
Senior Brooke Barker, an all-section second baseman last year, answered the call. After never having pitched before, Barker tossed a few games in the summer and in fall ball and in the winter she sought out a pitching coach in Ohio.
"She worked so hard," McCar-ty said. "She knew she had to step in there. We had nobody else to put in there and she did this for the team. That is saying a lot about this young lady."
Pam McCarty's husband, Paul, is her pitching coach.
"Brooke throws location and has some junk," Paul McCarty said. "She is improving every game. She played second base for the past few years and she could have felt comfortable and stayed there, but she knew we needed someone to step up this year."
Replacing Mansfield at catcher is sophomore Morgan Bailey, a new starter.
The other six returning starters in the field have rallied around Barker.
"We have worked really hard with the girls this year -- they want this," Pam McCarty said. "They were behind Kiersten last year and they are really behind Brooke this year. It is unreal how your team rallies."
Senior first baseman Natalie Pritts and senior third baseman Morgan McElwain are returning all-section choices. Senior Angie Lippman moves from the outfield to second base to replace Barker. Junior Logan Snyder, junior left fielder Caitlin Wass and sophomore center fielder Ashley Boehm are the other returning starters. Morgan's younger sister, freshman Makenzie McElwain, moves into right field.
The Panthers (4-1, 4-1) are not as dominant as last year when they did not lose a game until their final game of the season in the PIAA final, but they are still a team nobody wants to run into in the postseason.
Due to postponements, Riverside's first games were section games. It shut out New Brighton on the road, 3-0, and then rallied from behind to beat Mohawk, 3-2, and Laurel, 8-7.
Everyone knew another undefeated regular season was going to be nearly impossible and Riverside had a major wakeup call against Beaver Area. After allowing eight runs in 23 games all of last season, Riverside was tagged for 15 in a 15-7 loss to the Bobcats (6-0, 6-0), who lead the Section 5-AA standings.
"We had never had a game like that," Pam McCarty said. "We had mental errors, we had seven physical errors. I was shocked. The girls never played like that before. We will rebound, the kids want this."
For the seven players who were on a team that won 22 games last year, winning certainly is not getting old. There is even more excitement with each win this season.
"This team is just different -- they are special," Pam McCarty said. "This team has so much character. We have been behind against two big rivals and we came back and won those games.
"They are so excited and so happy, after those games against Mohawk and Laurel, they were thinking: Maybe we got a shot at this. It really is a neat team."