An imperfect inning wasn’t enough to derail Riverside’s perfect season Monday.
Christian Lucarelli gave up just one hit in 5⅓ innings of scoreless relief, and Riverside rallied from three runs down to defeat Punxsutawney, 8-5, in a PIAA Class 3A semifinal at Slippery Rock University.
It was a history-making day for the WPIAL champion Panthers (24-0), who became the first WPIAL team to reach the PIAA final with a perfect record. They will now aim to become the first to win it with an unbeaten mark and capture a fifth state title when they meet the Camp Hill-Saucon Valley winner in the championship Thursday at Penn State.
“It feels great,” Lucarelli said. “We definitely deserve it. We’ve worked unbelievably hard to get here. We just have to go out and compete.”
Riverside found itself in major trouble early Monday against Punxsutawney (20-3), the District 9 champion that eliminated WPIAL runner-up Neshannock in the first round. Punxsutawney raced to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first via an RBI single by Carter Savage and Zeke Bennett’s two-run single. That forced Riverside coach Dan Oliastro to go to his bullpen much earlier than expected. He pulled Slippery Rock recruit Ronnie Harper after recording only two outs and replaced him with Lucarelli, a Duke recruit and one of the top sophomores in the state.
“I was expecting maybe two innings at the end, but coach said to be ready if he needed me,” Lucarelli recalled. “He told me to go get hot, so I had five pitches in the bullpen and went in.”
Lucarelli proceeded to have his way with Punxsutawney hitters, who might have thought it was Groundhog Day due to their inability to hit Lucarelli at-bat after at-bat. He fired the next 5⅓ innings, giving up a single and five walks while striking out six. He kept the Chucks off the board before giving way to Drake Fox in the seventh. Fox surrendered a pair of runs.
Meanwhile, after being shut out for four innings, Riverside’s offense finally broke out in the later innings, tallying three runs in the fifth and five in the sixth. Zach Hare had a two-run single and Evan Burry an RBI double in the fifth. Darren McDade then gave the Panthers their first lead when he hit a two-run double with no outs in the sixth, one that was followed by Sam Barber’s two-run single and Sean Hayes’ RBI single to extend the Riverside lead to 8-3.
“The way our playoffs have been going, we usually haven’t scored in the first few innings. But then we have that one big inning. We knew someone would start [the rally] somewhere,” Lucarelli said.
Lucarelli threw 74 pitches Monday, meaning he is eligible to pitch Thursday.
• District 6 champion Bellefonte (19-5) stormed back from a five-run deficit to beat WPIAL champion Hopewell (14-12), 6-5, at First Commonwealth Field in Homer City. After scoring a run in both the first and second innings, Hopewell used Lucas Arington’s three-run homer in the fourth to take a commanding 5-0 lead. But with its season on the line, Bellefonte answered the bell. The Raiders got one run back in the bottom of the fourth before scoring five runs in the fifth to surge ahead. Duke recruit Trevor Johnson paced Bellefonte with three hits, and Triston Heckman had two RBIs. Hopewell had seven hits, including two each by Ty Eberhardt and Greg Barlion. Eberhardt also scored two runs. The Vikings, who won a WPIAL title as a No. 14 seed, saw its seven-game win streak come to an end. They were hoping to reach their first final since winning their lone title in 1986.