TWP SEWICKLEY NORTH. — Building a winning program in any sport does not happen overnight. For the Riverside softball team, the process began in 2013.
“Jamie Zona and I had kids that year,” Riverside head coach Geri Lynn Cummings said. “We didn’t have a local fastball league in that area. We had it at one point, it was when Riverside was winning a WPIAL championship series, but then it went away. We both talked and we knew, with our daughters being young, that we needed to establish a youth fastball league in this community.”
Recent history has not been kind to the Panthers. Over the past five years, Riverside softball has gone 18-49, making only one playoff appearance. After Spring Sports was canceled in 2020, a new wave of young talent has arrived at the practice field just outside Riverside High School.
A sophomore class that was in early elementary school when their coaches started the fastball league years ago, was now looking for their first shot at college playing time. Five of those players are now regulars in the Panthers’ starting lineup. The focus on youth development is finally starting to pay off.
By beating Mohawk 9-8 at home in a division game on Thursday afternoon, the Panthers earned the program’s first winning season since 2014.
Riverside is currently in fourth place in the WPIAL 4-2A section. Although Thursday’s win didn’t officially clinch a playoff berth, it’s almost a lock Cummings’ team will play in postseason softball.
The Panthers may not be the favorites to win the WPIAL, but they are certainly happy with where they are now compared to just a few years ago.
“We knew if we did what we had to do and kept pushing hard, eventually the wins would come,” Cummings said. “It feels really good.”
A young duo on the mound of Aliya Ottaviani and Sam Rosenberger have led the way at Riverside this season. Cummings says the team has no aces, just a pair of young, reliable arms.
“Both girls are leading in different categories,” Cummings said. “They carried us together. They accepted their pitching role 50%. It’s really cool to see their relationship. They are very good friends and they support each other when needed. It’s a very good thing they have for us.”
Ottaviani took the win over Mohawk on Thursday in a spectacular outing to the very end. In the first six innings, the second was brilliant, striking out nine and allowing just two runs on a pair of hits.
However, she got into trouble in the seventh. A Mohawk rally led to five runs on four hits. Ottaviani left the game with two outs and two runners in scoring position. Cummings then turned to Rosenberger to pull out the finale.
With all the pressure on his shoulders, Rosenberger didn’t crack.
The sophomore was able to help the Panthers hang on to win by having Mohawk cleanup hitter Lexi Shiderly return a low ground ball to her on the mound.
“[Rosenberger] wasn’t feeling great today so we didn’t want to cast her unless we needed her,” Cummings said. “She came and did what we needed her to do.
As has been the case many times this year, the Panthers did not lack offense in their victory. Junior Sydney Hale led the way, going 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles and two RBIs in her first game after suffering a concussion.
“Sydney has given us a lot this year,” Cummings said. “She’s done a great job. How she balances that with the track, I don’t know. She’s a potential Division I recruit and she always finds a way to help us be successful as well. I’m not surprised to to see her hit the ball the way she does. She’s so athletic and has so much strength.”
Mia Williams and Taryn Schmidt also had big afternoons for Riverside, each collecting a pair of hits and an RBI. Ottaviani, Rosenberger and Braley Zappia also drove in a race.
Regardless of how this season ends for Riverside, Cummings and his staff are pleased with how far their program has come this spring. For the first time in a long time, the Panthers are winning ball games and, more importantly, playing the ones that matter late in the season.
“A lot of our older girls aren’t used to expecting to win. When you have close games like this and we can win, that’s precious,” Cummings said. “They’ve never played in tight matches where the nerves come out. That experience of playing under pressure is great for us now and in the long run.”