Riverside knew just one way last season, and that was winning, with the Panthers becoming the first team from the WPIAL to capture a state title with a perfect record.

Then-sophomore Christian Lucarelli also knew just one way, and that was pitching. The team’s ace averaged about two strikeouts an inning and was the winning pitcher in the PIAA quarterfinals, semifinals and championship.

But as loud as Lucarelli’s feats were on the mound, he was silent at the plate. Not only did Lucarelli have no hits last season (or the season before), but he didn’t even have any plate appearances.

“There was no reason to put him in the lineup and no place to put him, really,” Riverside coach Dan Oliastro said of the Duke recruit.

So when Lucarelli ripped a 1-0 pitch over the left-field fence Monday against Ellwood City for his first home run since what he believes to be 13U ball, it didn’t take long for some lofty comparisons to be thrown — playfully — his way.

“shohei?? @clucarelli10,” tweeted friend and New Brighton standout Brock Budacki.

Lucarelli chuckled when a reporter brought up the Shohei Ohtani comparison, saying, “I don’t know. I might have a good year hitting the ball.”

As if Riverside’s opponents didn’t have enough to worry about already.

Riverside returned nearly all of its starters from last year’s team, but after going 25-0 and winning WPIAL and PIAA Class 3A titles, what can the Panthers really even do to top that?

“Just do it again,” Lucarelli said. “I think that’s the only way to improve. We look at it like we’re stronger in every aspect of the game. We didn’t take anything lightly in the offseason, and I feel like we’ve pretty much all improved.”

So far, so good. Riverside (2-0, 1-0 in Section 1) extended its win streak to 27 games following wins against Beaver and Ellwood City. The Panthers’ last loss was to Neshannock, 5-4, in 11 innings in a PIAA Class 2A quarterfinal in 2022.

Oliastro, the team’s venerable leader, turned 80 years young in December and is in his 56th season as Riverside’s coach. A season ago, the coach with the most wins in WPIAL history (698 and counting) captured his sixth WPIAL title (tied for most all time) and fifth PIAA title (most of any WPIAL coach).

“We expected to do well, but you never really expect to go undefeated, especially in baseball, when anybody can beat anybody,” Oliastro said. “They were resilient, and if we were behind they never got down. They always believed they could win.”

That was especially true when Lucarelli was on the mound. Lucarelli was outstanding as a sophomore, as the right-hander went 8-0 with a 1.15 ERA. He allowed only 21 hits in 60⅔ innings while punching out 119. Lucarelli gave up two hits over 6⅓ scoreless innings in the team’s 4-0 win against Camp Hill in the PIAA championship.

Lucarelli is bigger and stronger than last season. He’s 6 feet 3 and said he is up to 208 pounds after playing last season at 180. Lucarelli is throwing harder, too, evidenced by him hitting 97 mph on the radar gun during a throwing session last month.

Lucarelli is just happy to be healthy. He was plagued by elbow discomfort following the last high school season, one in which he said he threw close to 1,200 pitches. As the discomfort escalated, Lucarelli’s velocity dipped early last summer, causing him to seek medical advice. Thankfully it was only a bone bruise and nothing worse, but the decision was made for Lucarelli to take a few months off, which cost him most of his summer. So, this season, Lucarelli said the plan is to limit his pitch count more in some games.

“Obviously, if I need to go a full game, I can do it for the more important games,” Lucarelli said. “But when we’re beating a team by a lot, I really don’t need to be in there throwing any more than like 70 pitches.”

Riverside coach Dan Oliastro gives a medal to Christian Lucarelli after their 4-0 win against Camp Hill in last year’s PIAA Class 3A championship game. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

While you might not see Lucarelli quite as much on the mound, you will see much more of him at the plate and in the field. He and fellow junior right-hander Zach Hare will be the 1-2 punch on the mound and at first base after last year’s starting first baseman, Mitch Garvin, graduated. When one is pitching, the other will serve as the first baseman.

“He’s going to play first base part time and he’ll be a DH sometimes, so we’re letting him hit,” Oliastro said of Lucarelli. “He’s shown in the cage that he can hit, and he’s had a good start.”

Has he ever. After compiling only eight plate appearances and no hits over his first two seasons, Lucarelli is 3 for 5 with a home run, 2 doubles, 2 RBIs and 2 walks in seven plate appearances this season. He doubled for his first high school hit in a season-opening win against Beaver before going 2 for 3 with two RBIs in Monday’s 17-2 six-inning win at Ellwood City, one which was of course highlighted by Lucarelli’s home run to lead off the sixth inning.

Lucarelli said there was no bat flip or any time to admire the home run. And for good reason, too.

“There was actually some doubt as to if it would even go over the fence,” he said.

But it’s Lucarelli’s arm, not bat, that has him on the radar of MLB teams for the 2025 draft. And Lucarelli is off to a strong start there, too, giving up 1 run, 3 hits and 1 walk while striking out 12 over 6 innings of work. He struck out each of the six batters he faced against Beaver and picked up the win against Ellwood City, a team the Panthers host in section action Thursday.

With Lucarelli and so many other key players back from last season, it’s hard to not like Riverside’s chances of repeating as WPIAL and PIAA champions, even if the Panthers should lose a game or two along the way.

“I think if we did lose, I don’t think these kids will get down,” Oliastro said. “I just think it will make them more hungry.”

Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at beverett@unionprogress.com.

Brad Everett

Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at beverett@unionprogress.com.