West Xtra: As usual, Riverside in playoff mode

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It was just a matter of time before Dan Oliastro started witnessing some positive production from his Riverside varsity baseball team.

After graduating seven starters from last year, the longtime coach of the Panthers entered his 46th season at Riverside with a lot of optimism despite fielding a much younger team this season.

"We started out this year with a pretty inexperienced team, but this group has gotten better as the season has progressed," said Oliastro, who came into this year with 553 career coaching wins. "We're starting to play well now.

"Pretty much everything started to click. We've had some good pitching and timely hitting."

Through Tuesday, Riverside had a 9-3 overall record and an 8-2 mark against section opponents. The Panthers were two-and-a-half games behind undefeated and top-ranked Neshannock (15-0, 11-0) and had won eight of their past 10 games, including four section games in a row last week against Beaver Area, Ellwood City, Beaver Falls and Laurel, respectively.

During that four-game winning streak, Riverside outscored its opponents by a total of 47-7.

"Early on, we were striking out a lot and now we've started cutting those down," Oliastro said. "We went from striking out nine to 10 times a game down to about one or two.

"When you put the ball in play, good things happen. Cutting down on strikeouts has been the key."

Riverside, a perennial Class AA power in Beaver County, won its fourth state crown in 2012 after winning back-to-back PIAA championships in 2011-12. The Panthers also have been to the WPIAL title game four times since 2005 and last won a district crown in 2011.

Last season, Riverside finished behind defending WPIAL champion Beaver Area in the section with a 12-2 mark and went 15-4, losing to Shady Side Academy in the first round of the Class AA playoffs.

"I thought we had enough pieces of the puzzle to be competitive [this season]," Oliastro said. "We brought back four or five seniors who didn't have a lot of experience. They didn't get a lot of chances to play because they were playing behind some other older guys the past few years.

"Now, it's their time to play and they're all starting to come along and play well."

Ross Maietta, a senior shortstop, was pacing the team in batting at .500 (18 for 36) with three home runs and 14 RBIs after 12 games. Junior catcher Peyton Pacella was batting .432 (16 for 37), while senior leadoff hitter and center fielder Vinny Howells followed with a .415 average (17 for 41) and a team-leading 11 stolen bases.

Jason Pettner, a senior right-handed pitcher, has been the Panthers' ace with a 5-0 record and 0.99 ERA. Senior left-handed pitcher Mitch Connolly follows in the rotation and was 3-0 with a 1.75 ERA after four starts.

Against Neshannock on April 11, Riverside suffered its first section loss, 4-1. The very next day, the Panthers dropped an 11-10 decision in nine innings against Mohawk.

"What happened was we played four games in four consecutive days, so I'm not sure if we were just tired or what?" Oliastro said. "Mohawk played very well that game and we didn't. When you come into a game not prepared or ready to play, you're going to get beat."

The Panthers are scheduled to face Neshannock for a second time when they play host to the Lancers Friday afternoon.

"Overall, Neshannock is a good, solid team," Oliastro said. "They're well-disciplined and well coached. They have some good pitching and they're just a good team.

"We have to take each win one at a time. We have to go after that first win and go from there, and we have to be ready to play."

As the Panthers look to close out their regular-season schedule, Oliastro knows fundamentals will dictate how far his team will go in the playoffs.

"We have to play good defense because defense is going to help you win games," Oliastro said. "You can have enough hitting to beat anybody, but you have to be consistent and keep your focus while playing solid defense."

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