When Ryan Finnegan speaks about Riverside High School's 2011 season, it's a little hard at first to tell whether he's talking about baseball or going to an amusement park.
"It's been a crazy, crazy ride,'' said Finnegan, the Panthers' star shortstop/pitcher. "We've come back in games. We've been ahead in games. We've beaten teams pretty badly. We've had close games.
"We've basically been in all the game situations we possibly could go through, so it's just a great feeling that we can keep winning. Anything that comes at us, we seem to overcome it.''
Mirror photo by Elizabeth Franks
Central first baseman?Jared Baird looks for the ball at first in a playoff game against Mohawk.
The next thing coming at Riverside is Central, which will meet the Panthers tonight at First Commonwealth Field in Homer City in the PIAA Class AA semifinals. First pitch is at 6 p.m.
Both teams are 18-5. Central, the defending state runner-up, is the District 6 champion. Riverside won the District 7 tournament.
"They have a nice history. They've been past state champions,'' Central coach A.J. Hoenstine said. "From everything I hear, they are a very fundamentally sound team that's not going to hurt themselves, with a decent pitching staff.
PIAA Class AA baseball
Who: Central Scarlet Dragons (6-1; 18-5) vs. Riverside Panthers (7-1; 18-5)
Where: First Commonwealth FIeld, Homer City
When: Tonight, 6 p.m.
The coaches: Central-A.J. Hoenstine (71-39, five years); Riverside-Dan Oliastro (514-372, 43 years).
How they got here: Central-defeated Ligonier Valley, 11-1, in the District 6 quarterfinals; defeated Philipsburg-Osceola, 5-3, in the District 6 semifinals; defeated Mount Union, 6-5, in the District 6 championship; defeated Mohawk, 4-2, in the PIAA first round; defeated Bedford, 8-1, in the PIAA quarterfinals. Riverside-defeated Freedom, 6-1, in the District 7 first round; defeated Deer Lakes, 9-1, in the District 7 quarterfinals; defeated Mohawk, 7-6, in the District 7 semifinals; defeated Waynesburg Central, 2-1, in the District 7 championship; defeated Karns City, 1-0, in the PIAA first round; defeated Saegertown, 10-7, in the PIAA quarterfinals.
The pitching probables: Central-LHP Tyler Ferguson (sr., 9-2, 2.01, 93 Ks). Riverside-RHP Rob Hardy (jr., 7-0, 2.16, 59 Ks) or LHP Nick Pollio (sr., 3-1, 2.36, 23 Ks).
Probable lineups: Central-RF Pat Schon (sr., .469), SS Austin Cunningham (fr., .338), CF Lucas Runk (sr., .409), 1B-P Jared Baird (sr., .309), C Kasy Hamm (so., .338), 2B/DH Trent Forshey (sr., .286) or 2B Jarron Knisely (jr., .250), 3B Mason Longenecker (sr., .348), 1B/DH Lucas Blattenberger (sr., .267), LF Brandon Negley (jr., .391). Riverside-CF Reese Howells (sr., .250), LF Kenny Wiley (sr., .371), SS Ryan Finnegan (sr., .431), DH Tyler Falk (so., .357, batting for so. 2B Devin Kelosky), 1B-P Rob Hardy (jr., .270), 3B Jake Thellman (sr., .294), RF Sean Strosnider (sr., .304), LHP-1B Nick Pollio (sr., .263), C Royce Kranz (sr., .222).
The winner gets: The winner of the game between Danville (4-1) and Salisbury Township (11-1) on Friday at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park in University Park
Notable: Central is making its second straight appearance in the PIAA semifinals. The Scarlet Dragons beat Mount Union in this round last year and lost to Bermudian Springs in the state championship game. ... Located in Ellwood City, Riverside is no stranger to deep runs in the playoffs. The Panthers won it all in both 2005 and 2006. ... Blattenberger has more home runs (five) than the rest of both teams combined (four). Central is 102-for-115 in stolen base attempts this season. Finnegan will continue to play baseball at Penn State Behrend. Hoenstine could also throw LHP Baird (7-1, 2.36, 69 Ks), while there's a slight change RHP Finnegan (4-3, 2.94, 31 Ks) could draw the pitching start for Riverside.
- Compiled by Philip Cmor
"We're going to have to bring our 'A' games.''
Located in Ellwood City, Riverside was crowned PIAA Class AA champion at Blair County Ballpark at the conclusion of both the 2005 and 2006 seasons. Panthers coach Dan Oliastro is the architect of more than 500 victories in a career that's spanned 43 years.
However, this trip to the state semis would have been very hard to predict.
"I thought [the talent to make a run] was there, but, whether it was going to materialize, I wasn't sure,'' Oliastro said. "This was a team that was 3-9 in [WPIAL] Section 5-AA last year. We didn't have the pitching. The pitching has matured. We've gotten some help from some younger guys, and we've slowly been able to turn things around.''
Riverside's pitching has not just answered the questions, it's become the Panthers' greatest strength. The Panthers only are batting .297 as a team with just two home runs the entire season. Finnegan, who is going to Penn State Behrend, leads Riverside with a .431 average, but he's the only Panther hitting better than .400 and one of four above the .300 mark.
However, the Panthers have allowed one or no runs in 11 wins this year, including four in the playoffs.
That's even despite the fact that left-hander Nick Pollio has been unavailable for much of the season after being hit on the knee by a line drive.
"Our defense has been incredible. We don't miss plays, knock on wood. And our pitching's been great. All our pitchers have done a good job keeping us in the game,'' Finnegan said.
Either Pollio or ace righty Rob Hardy, who is 7-0, will probably get the start on the mound against Central. The Scarlet Dragons, who are averaging 7.5 runs per game and have scored at least four in all five of their playoff games, should pose a suitable challenge.
"They sound like a very aggressive team, a very good team,'' Oliastro said of Central.