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DOWN WITH A FIGHT: Punxsutawney Gives Undefeated Riverside Best Shot in 8-5 Loss in PIAA Class 3A Semifinals

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. (EYT/D9) — Mike Dickey blinked away tears.

Losses are always hard. They are even more difficult to bear deep into the PIAA playoffs.

But this one hurt more than most.

Dickey, the coach of the Punxsutawney baseball team, had guided his team to this point last season, losing to Central by a run to miss out on a trip to University Park and the state championship game.

Twelve months later, his Chucks were in the Class 3A semifinals against another undefeated team, Riverside, on Thursday afternoon at Jack Critchfield Park on the campus of Slippery Rock University.

Punxsutawney jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning and kept that advantage until the fifth, but Riverside rallied with three in that frame and five more in the sixth for an 8-5 win.

Punxsutawney Area High School sports coverage on Explore and is brought to you by Redbank Chevrolet and DuBrook.


“It’s just gut wrenching and they’re gonna feel it for a long time,” Dickey said. “Until some time passes and they’re able to reflect on what they did for the program.”

Punxsutawney (20-3) jumped out quickly on Riverside starter Ronnie Harper.

Leadoff hitter Zach Dinger reached on an error. Josh Tyger followed with a single, and after a fly out, Carter Savage singled home Dinger for a 1-0 lead.

With two outs and the bases loaded, Zeke Bennett drove home two runs with single up the middle to put the Chucks up 3-0.

Panther coach Dan Oliastro, who is in his 55th season at Riverside, pulled Harper and went to his ace and Duke recruit Christian Lucarelli, who got the final out.

And then put up zeros for the next five frames to staunch the bleeding and keep Riverside within striking distance.

Luccarelli went 5⅓ innings, striking out six and walking five (although two of those walks were intentional). He gave up just one hit, a double by Dinger in the second.

“We had no choice,” Oliastro said of turning to Lucarelli, whose fastball sits in the low 90s with movement and pairs that with an array of off-speed stuff. “We didn’t want to bring him in that early. We were hoping to wait until the fifth or sixth inning, but in a game like this — the season’s over and you’re turning in uniforms the next day if you don’t.

“He’s coming of age,” Oliastro added. “He’s been a work in progress, but today he had a slider that was pretty good and got some pretty good strikeouts on sliders.”

Punxsutawney starter Jake Sikora, though, was matching Lucarelli zero for zero.

Sikora also got some help from his defense.

The Chucks turned two double plays in the first three innings to keep the Panthers off the board.

Riverside (24-0) finally broke through in the fifth. A one-out error put the first runner on and then a single and a walk loaded the bases for pinch-hitter Zach Hare, who delivered a two-run single.

Evan Burry followed with a RBI double to tie the game and chase Sikora.

Tyger relieved him and needed just one pitch to get two outs to end the inning when Ashton Schlosser lined out to Payton Hetrick at second, who flipped to shortstop Nevin Day to double-off Burry.

Riverside seized control in the sixth with five runs, keyed by a two-run double by Darren McDade to make it 5-3 and a two-run triple by Barber that made it 7-3.

The Panthers tacked on another run heading into the seventh with an 8-3 advantage.

“We’ve done this all year,” Oliastro said. “We’ve been behind 4-1 and scored as many as 10 runs in an inning, so I knew we could do it.”

So did Dickey, who felt the time bomb ticking.

“We knew they were good top to bottom and it was going to require a Herculean effort from nine guys and, you know, for awhile there it was looking pretty good,” Dickey said. “But you can’t hold a lineup like that down for seven innings very often.”

Punxsy, though, made things a bit interesting in the seventh, scoring twice against Riverside reliever Drake Fox on a two-run double by Justin Miller.

With the potential tying run on deck with two outs, Bennett hit a rope that Panther first baseman Mitch Garvin caught with a leaping snag to prevent extra bases and end the game.

“That ball gets in, who knows what happens,” Dickey said.

But it didn’t.

Still, Dickey loved the fight.

“We talk about it all the time — there’s no clock,” Dickey said. “As long as there’s not three outs, you still have a chance and we believed. We just couldn’t quite get it done.”

Punxsutawney won a school-record 20 games this season. The Chucks also became the first team to go to back-to-back state semifinals.

Dickey said it will be extremely difficult to replace the seniors who made that possible.

“Great, great group,” Dickey said, holding back tears again. “Like we said in the huddle, it’s hard to say goodbye to a class like that.”

Punxsutawney Area High School sports coverage on Explore and is brought to you by Redbank Chevrolet and DuBrook.