For close to two decades now, Dan Oliastro has been tossed the same question at the end of every season.
“Coach, are you coming back next year?”
Oliastro remembers hearing it first in 2005, when, at the age of 61 and after nearly four decades as a coach, this now retired guidance counselor guided Riverside to its first PIAA title.
“I got it a lot,” Oliastro said. “It was, ‘You won the state championship, why don’t you hang it up and finish on top?’”
“I would just tell people I’m in it for the money,” said Oliastro, tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Under Oliastro, Riverside has been money over the years and has cashed in on a lot of wins and titles. Oliastro has 688 wins, most in WPIAL history. He has also led the Panthers to five WPIAL titles and four PIAA titles (more than any other WPIAL team).
Now 79 years young and in his 55th season, Oliastro is an old dog in the coaching game, but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn new tricks. Tuesday, his Riverside team defeated Mohawk to finish the regular season unbeaten for what Oliastro said was the first time in his more than half-century of coaching. The Panthers (17-0) will enter next week’s WPIAL Class 3A playoffs as the district’s only unbeaten team.
“It felt really good to be able to complete the season the way we did,” said sophomore right-hander Christian Lucarelli, a Duke recruit who fired a one-hitter and struck out 13 in the 10-0 triumph. “We’ve come a long way this season. We’re just mentally closer together as a team. It was just a great way to complete [the regular season] and get [the perfect season] for him.”
When Oliastro, at the age of 25, took the Riverside head coaching job in 1969, Richard Nixon was president, “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies was No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and Three Rivers Stadium was still under construction. All these years later, Oliastro still presides over the Riverside baseball team as he continues to lead the Panthers to sweet success after constructing what has for years been one of the state’s top programs. The baseball field at Riverside High School now even bears his name.
“I feel blessed to be able to coach,” Oliastro said. “I never had any ideas of coaching anything other than high school. This is the group I can make the most impact on. I think a lot of it comes from my faith in Christ. The biggest thing is trying to be a role model for these kids. Everything that our country has been founded on seems to be shaking right now, and these kids need something solid to lean on.”
For nearly his entire stay at Riverside, Oliastro has leaned on assistant John Marnicio as his right-hand man. Marnicio, 75, has been on Oliastro’s staff for 53 seasons. He missed two of the earliest seasons after being drafted by the Army. Oliastro called Marnicio his “nuts and bolts guy.”
“I couldn’t have imagined coaching this long, period. He’s easy to work with, and we get along well together,” Marnicio said of Oliastro, a 1961 Ellwood City High School graduate.
Baseball is and always has been a big part of Oliastro’s life, but there’s much more to his existence than just bats and balls. Oliastro said he has gotten a lot of support from his wife of 20 years. Linda Oliastro owns an antiques store just across the Ohio border, and Dan said he helps out with the business as much as he can. Dan has daughters who live in Grove City, Pa., Grove City, Ohio, and San Antonio, Texas.
The Oliastros also have 12 grandchildren and recently welcomed their first great-grandchild, but don’t mistake “gramps” for being a guy who is always laid-back and mild-mannered.
“He’ll definitely get into us at some points,” Lucarelli said. “If he feels like we’re slacking off the slightest bit, he’ll definitely get us all together and get us fired up. He does a good job of keeping the team as one.”
Speaking of “one,” you have got to like Riverside’s chances of finishing No. 1 again this season. The Panthers won their previous WPIAL titles in 1996, 2006, 2011, 2016 and 2017, and captured their PIAA titles in 2005, 2006, 2011 and 2012. Riverside has been dominant, outscoring its foes, 174-37. After averaging seven runs a game last season, the Panthers have upped it to 10 this season. They have scored at least six in all but one game.
“Last year, our goal was to make the playoffs and go as deep as we could, which we did, but we were young and couldn’t finish it off,” said Oliastro, whose team reached the WPIAL semifinals and PIAA quarterfinals. “This year we concentrated more on our hitting. We had been winning games with our defense and pitching, but this year we’re scoring a lot of runs. The kids are a little more mature and a little stronger.”
Brothers Mitch (a senior) and Hunter Garvin (a sophomore) have been two of Riverside’s best hitters. Their father, Mike, played on Oliastro’s first WPIAL championship squad. Junior Ashton Schlosser (.469) leads the team in hitting, and junior Bo Fornataro (.447) isn’t far behind. Hunter Garvin has a team-high four home runs, and Mitch Garvin leads the way with 22 RBIs. An outstanding pitching staff is headed by Lucarelli, senior Ronnie Harper and Hunter Garvin. Lucarelli has punched out 67 in 31⅔ innings. Harper is one of only five seniors on the team.
Oliastro is pretty much a larger-than-life figure in not only the Riverside School District but also Beaver County. Lucarelli said of his coach, “Almost every single person I know knows him. He’s obviously been around a long time and is probably one of the most famous people around here.”
While many current and former players have been grateful to play for Oliastro, the old ball coach is thankful for some of his former coaches, too. Oliastro mentioned Little League coach Dick Freidhoff and high school coach Bill Spellman as being two of his biggest coaching influences.
A man who has coached in seven different decades has been able to change with the times, something that likely has played a part in Oliastro’s longevity and success as a coach. The big difference between current players and those of the past? Oliastro said it’s attention spans.
“I used to give longer speeches,” he said. “When I talk to the team now, I never go longer than five minutes. You get past that, and you’ll have trouble. These kids grew up on the computer. It’s not their fault. It’s just how it is.”
Why has Oliastro kept with it all these years? His longtime assistant thinks he has the answer.
“I think he just loves the game of baseball that much,” Marnicio said.
Riverside would love to win another WPIAL title — and possibly even another PIAA title — this spring, and the Panthers have the look of a team that might do just that. Whether or not the Panthers reach the district or state summit, their coach will inevitably be asked the annual question when season No. 55 comes to a close.
“Coach, are you coming back next year?”
Oliastro, who will celebrate his 80th birthday on Dec. 3, already knows what his answer will be.
“Hey, I need the money,” he said.
Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.