It never gets old — watching dramatic soccer games played by high school players battling for the glory to bring victory to their schools as well as their local communities — and to have the honor lift a trophy as a team. For all those who compete, it’s a chance to walk away from Pittsburgh’s soccer mecca with an experience that will be worth remembering for a lifetime.
That’s what played out last weekend during the WPIAL high school boys and girls finals and for the past five years at Highmark Stadium — and for many more years before that at Elizabeth Forward High School.
Montour boys head coach, Alex Hobbs, who’s been leading the Spartans program for more than a decade, finally had a chance to experience his dream of coaching his team in a WPIAL championship game. When he told me what the WPIAL finals meant to him struck a chord — and may have best captured the spirit of the competition we see every year in our district’s high school finals.
“It’s a battle in the WPIAL. A lot of people outside of Pittsburgh don’t understand a lot about WPIAL soccer, WPIAL sports in general, in these communities. You saw a great crowd today, it’s so special.,” Hobbs said. “Maybe I’m small minded, but winning the WPIAL is the greatest dream of mine as a coach.”
And this year, along with some help from fellow DK Pittsburgh Sports colleague Long Hong, who provided some fantastic photos of the action on Thursday and Friday evening, we captured the excitement and images of three days of exciting soccer competition at Highmark Stadium.
From a personal standpoint, it was surreal to watch two boys programs — North Catholic and Shady Side Academy — win their respective WPIAL titles — each for the first time.
From 2007 through 2013, I spent two years as coach at North Catholic — then another five at Shady Side from 2007 through 2013. I have very fond memories of coaching at these schools — and so very glad to see each boys program finally reach the top of the WPIAL soccer mountain.
With that, I’ll leave you with some of my lasting impressions on what was another memorable eight games in three days.
15-SEED SHADY SIDE DOES THE IMPROBABLE
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game won or tied with a bicycle kick at the end of regulation.
Off a throw in!
By a 15th seeded team against a top seed!
And then, it pretty much happened again — on a golden goal in overtime.
Are you kidding me?
You can read the full game report here, as Shady Side Academy, which have been competing in boys soccer decades even before WPIAL soccer began, then stayed out of the WPIAL for many years, finally won a boys district title in the most improbable fashion, beating the defending champs, Quaker Valley, 3-2, in overtime.
Quaker Valley owned possession, were putting all kinds of pressure on Shady Side keeper Chester Todd, who came up big numerous times. Andrew Marshall‘s boys were in position to walk away with a ninth WPIAL title holding onto a 2-1 lead with 1:56 left in regulation.
Shady Side turned to its heroes — super throw-in specialist Eric Wolf and a bicycle kick extraordinaire Walter “Wally” Navid. Add Adrian Beckford coming in on the goal in overtime that appeared as he headed the ball forward simultaneously as Navid was making his second bicycle attempt for the game winner.
Wolf’s throw near the end of regulation was probably the highest I’ve seen a ball travel at Highmark Stadium since Hounds interim coach Niko Katic boomed a ball that came to the sideline during a game in 2014 into the sky and fell down next to a game official in the center of the field. (for the record Katic was booked for that).
Even after conceding that goal, on a throw in that landed on the near side of the box, but redirected by a header to the open far post area, you had to think that Marshall had to tell his players that they had to be prepared for the same in overtime.
“We were aware,” Marshall, former Pittsburgh Riverhounds All-USL second team defender, said rather wryly. “Those were two, big tosses, in their game plan today. You’ve got to give them credit. They did what they had to do and all the little things that led to them. They executed their game plan.”
In other words — hidden beneath’s Marshall’s polite, soft-spoken post-game comments and ‘we’re excited and looking ahead to state playoffs’ rhetoric, he was probably as stunned as the rest of us.
BRAGGING RIGHTS, AND A WHOLE LOT MORE
The Norwin Knights girls’ soccer team has been an unstoppable force in WPIAL in recent years. The Knights won two consecutive WPIAL titles, produced all kinds of Division I college players — and ran regular season and section winning streaks stretching to more than 40 games each.
And finally, the team to knock them off their perch atop the WPIAL were neighboring Westmoreland County and section rivals – Penn Trafford. With many players on both sides also playing for the same club teams and a bunch also training together with the Riverhounds Development Academy — familiarity breeded contempt — and in this case — another battle that went more the regulation would allow.
This game provided a quick exchange of goals at the end of the first half — from an explosive Hannah Nguyen run up the right side that stunned the defending champs to a long Alyssa Victor ball into the box that slipped by everyone to give Norwin the equalizer — the teams remained deadlocked through the rest of regulation.
Norwin couldn’t capitalize on controlling play — taking it to Penn-Trafford in the second half — but goalkeeper Megan Giesey was superb.
Penn-Trafford did previously beat Norwin in the regular season to end it’s WPIAL and section winning streak, but winning the WPIAL finawith a 2-1 win decided on a golden goal in overtime in the headed in by Kiley Dugan on a ball in from Mackeinzie Aunkst, the Warriors not only knocked its rivals off the mantle, they won local bragging rights — and most importantly — a WPIAL crown.
Also, what a wonderful backstory to this contest, learning that the rival coaches were once teammates on youth teams and remain friends.
This time around, it was Jackie Bartko, who played for PT’s last WPIAL winner in 2003, who bested her buddy Lauren Karcher‘s juggernaut Norwin squad.
“It’s so exciting — it’s crazy, the girls deserve it,” Bartko said. “It’s makes the win little bit sweeter — because it’s a hometown rivalry, It’s pretty surreal.”
REPEAT AFTER ME
North Allegheny boys in the past few years have a flair for dramatic wins on the biggest stage.
Last year, they rode a magical — or as famed soccer commentator Ray Hudson would say — ‘magisterial’ – run to a WPIAL title and PIAA semifinals thanks to three straight golden goals from distance from Sean Atwater.
Atwater returned to the fold this year and many others from the 2016 WPIAL champions, but Lehigh committ Josh Luchini and Cameron Yurick were the dynamic duo at the top of the attack this year that really have made the Tigers very dangerous.
Last year, they were shut out in the Final until there were less than three minutes remaining when Luchini headed in the equalizer, then Atwater hit the 24 yard strike that lifted the Tigers past previously unbeaten Seneca Valley.
This year — it was an unbeaten Peters Township team that held a 1-0 lead late in the contest, thanks to a 15th minute clinical finish in the box by Luke Kelly — after a deep advance to the left end line that was cut back and played into the goal box area.
North Allegheny, true to form though, had another spellbinding comeback in store. This time, it started with a little bit of fortune in the 73rd minute.
Then while Peters hadn’t quite recovered, Luchini and Yurick would hook up for the game winner — in the 76th minute to give NA a 2-1 come-from-behind win.
It was a tough way to lose for Peters, much the same way Seneca lost in the top classification last year, and Fox Chapel the year before proving no late 1-0 lead ever seems safe in a WPIAL final.
Shady Side Academy and Greensburg Central Catholic girls teams play each other — on average — three or four times a year.
The two section rivals always seem to meet up in the WPIAL finals (since 2010, they’ve been the only schools to capture girls 1A titles).
For the second consecutive year, it was a 1-0 game decided on a shot from distance. This time it was Sydney Ward delivering the winner for the Centurians from 30 yards out.
For a program that has been carried to great heights by some superbly talented WPIAL record breaking goal scorers Bailey Cartwright and Frannie Crouse, first-year coach Ashley Davis molded a group that drew from past successes, but carved out its own spot in school lore thanks to a total team effort.
“We relied on the whole team — there wasn’t just one person,” Davis said. “We truly played as a team, as a unit, and that was what made the difference in the end.”
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic boys soccer has never been synonymous with soccer success until the past two years.
Last season, with a team carried by talented freshman and sophomores, they reached the WPIAL final, losing 1-0 in overtime to long-time 1A mainstays Sewickley Academy.
This year, there was no stopping the Trojans, who’s only loss was to 4A Pine Richland in a late season non-conference friendly.
This was the third showdown between North Catholic and Springdale — and this time around, the Dynamos were absorbing a lot of pressure in the early stages and holding out hope they could steal a goal.
That was, until CWNC’s Mike Drambel came flying through the center of box for the header early in the second half to give Trojans the coveted lead, and it seemed to break the ice.
Then just eight minutes later, the super sophomore tandem, Bryce Kopchak and Joe Kearney, who’ve combined for more than 70 goals this season, combined for a nice goal to put the Trojans ahead 2-0 for a lead they would see through to the final whistle — and the first ever WPIAL soccer title in the history of North Catholic.
WAYNESBURG GIRLS MAKE STATEMENT
Waynesburg Lady Raiders have been an unstoppable goal scoring machine this year.
Not even a match-up against the defending 2A girls champions, and undefeated Freedom would slow them down.
The Lady Raiders took an early lead, and even as they struggled in the late stages of the first half to add to the lead, and were tied 1-1 early in the second, they exploded for three goals to put away Freedom to cruise to a 4-2 win.
Like some other teams this past weekend, it was a first-ever WPIAL soccer title for a program that’s been knocking at the door for a few years now.
Head coach Joe Kijowski was so happy for his team — he was lost for words…
Quite simply — the Lady Raiders may have had the most dominant performance of the weekend — and have a great chance to make a deep run in the PIAA playoffs.
FULFILLING A DREAM, THIRD TIME WAS CHARM FOR MONTOUR
While some other teams couldn’t hold on to second half leads this weekend, the Montour boys were determined to hold on to its precarious lead.
After all, they had lost to section rivals West Allegheny twice this season after scoring the first goal.
This time goal keeper Brian Duggan would step up to deny some late scoring chances for West Allegheny — providing the Spartans with its first-ever WPIAL title with a 1-0 win over the Indians in the final game played on the weekend.
After eight games, I finally got a chance to do a post-game interview with a goalkeeper.
For Montour, it was the realization of achieving a dream WPIAL title after many years of being on the precipice of being a top-level program. Having to battle the likes of South Fayette, West Allegheny and Chartiers Valley to get to this point year-after-year, it was a very satisfying win for coach Hobbs and his squad.
“I’d envisioned this moment all the time as we’ve come a long way, going back eight years when we weren’t making playoffs, failing to meet expectations,” Hobbs said. “I’m so happy for our seniors. They worked so hard and deserve this.”
MOON SHINES BRIGHTEST
A very young and talented Mars team, with only three seniors, were playing up and down — and back and forth against a defending WPIAL and PIAA champions and unbeaten Moon in the Girls 3A final on Friday evening.
The first two times Moon jumped ahead — the Planets had an answer — and proved to be a persistent and tough opponent for the Tigers.
“I thought the game could goes two ways. Either it would be very interesting as it was — or it would ugly early,” Blair Gerlach, Mars head coach said. “When you play team like that — they score goals in bunches. If you don’t weather the storm for the first 10 minutes — and an emotional roller coaster takes over. Before you know it, it’s 2-0.”
Mars never let it get to 2-0. Instead, they responded with a terrific strike after a burst of speed from freshman Caroline Wroblewski in the 10th minute, then after a rare Moon defensive mistake misplaying the ball back to the keeper in the 65th minute, Mars found an equalizer that made this real tense — with a 2-2 lead with only 15 minutes remaining in regulation.
However, in the 74th minute the Tigers found the back on the net for the third time on a play that began on a corner kick.
This time, the team’s leading scorer and Miami (OH) commit Delaney Snyder who scored the first goal in the first five minutes of the game putting a loose ball in the from close range, set the stage for the game winner.
Snyder’s work while drawing multiple defenders deep in the right corner — forced a corner kick, that Emily Orr served into the near post area, connecting with sophomore Kylee Evans — who managed to get a header on the ball among a scrum — sending the ball under the cross bar, then bouncing behind Mars keeper Claire Valentine.
“That last one was really good — we’ve been very confident in our corner kicks,” Pfeifer said. “We’ve been running them a lot and it really paid off for us tonight.”
PLAYERS OF THE GAMES:
4A Boys – Josh Luchini & Cameron Yurick (North Allegheny)
4A Girls – Kiley Dugan & Hannah Nguyen (Penn-Trafford)
3A Boys – Bryan Duggan (Montour)
3A Girls – Delaney Snyder (Moon)
2A Boys – Walter Navid & Eric Wolf (Shady Side)
2A Girls – Madison Clayton (Waynesburg)
1A Boys – Joe Kearney & Bryce Kopchak (Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic)
1A Girls – Sydney Ward (Greensburg Central Catholic)