Riverside seniors enjoy their golden year of baseball
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Behind more experienced players on the depth chart during his first three years of high school, Tyler Whitlatch became the every-game catcher for Riverside as a senior.
His patience paid off in a PIAA championship.
The Panthers lost the vast majority of their personnel from last season, when they won WPIAL and PIAA Class AA championships. But that didn't matter. Not to a program so accustomed to winning.
At another school, maybe Whitlatch would have been a three- or four-year starter. But then, being elsewhere would have meant he would have missed out on a team successfully defending its state championship.
"It definitely was worth the wait," Whitlatch said the day after Riverside's 5-4 victory against Pine Grove in the Class AA title contest Friday at Penn State. "Baseball is the only sport I play, so it's my only athletic love. I love playing; it was definitely worth the wait."
Whitlatch's plight is probably more common at Riverside than at a lot of other WPIAL schools. Baseball is emphasized there. Crowds are bigger for Riverside games than at many larger schools.
Maybe it's the fact Dan Oliastro has been the coach for 44 years. Maybe it's the record four PIAA titles and the fact that success breeds success.
Whatever the reason, baseball is serious business at the school.
"Basketball and football are always big no matter where you're at _ they're spectator sports," Whitlatch said. "But at Riverside, baseball is a spectator sport, especially when we're good."
That's quite frequently. The Panthers have won two WPIAL and four PIAA championships over the past seven seasons.
"I just believe I've been blessed with great kids who bought into the program and a great set of parents who have backed the program," Oliastro said. "And tradition helps. Once you form a tradition, you've raised the bar and your kids are always trying to stay above that bar. And I think that's part of it."
Whitlatch and third baseman Corey Belonzi are seniors who waited behind what was a talented 2011 senior class -- it formed the core of last year's team. Then they got their chance this season.
Pitcher/second baseman Rob Hardy was the only other senior on the roster this season. A three-year starter, Hardy was the Panthers' top pitcher. He earned the victory in the comeback win Friday.
"These seniors meant a lot," Oliastro said. "Three really good kids. You can't put into words the leadership of Rob Hardy. The kids all looked up to him. They know he was a real leader, and he took on that responsibility and did a real nice job.
"Corey and Tyler were really good kids who rose to the occasion as seniors to play."
With a roster so young relative to last season, the Panthers came out losing three of their first five games. They also would lose in blowout fashion, 15-4, to Shenango and 13-3 to crosstown rival Ellwood City in the regular-season finale.
The Wolverines also got the better of their rival in the WPIAL championship game, 9-7, on May 30.
None of that mattered in the PIAA tournament, where Riverside defeated Brookville, South Fayette and North Star en route to the championship game.
"If you sit back and look at it," said Oliastro, "Ellwood City and Riverside both had a 12-2 record in our league and tied for the section championship. They end up winning the WPIAL championship, and we end up winning the state -- all from the same section. I think that says something about the baseball in our area and how tough our league is for that to happen."
Losing only three players off its roster, can Riverside make it a three-peat?
"There's always a chance when you have players who are as talented as [this season's underclassmen] are and people who care enough to work hard like we do," Whitlatch said. "They'll be ready next year. They'll be tough to beat."
First Published June 21, 2012 12:00 am