With the expansion of PIAA/WPIAL boys and girls high school soccer in our region from three to four classifications, a total of eight champions were crowned at Highmark Stadium this past weekend over the course of three days.
I had the opportunity to catch almost all of the action, and every game provided its share of exciting moments, with the spectrum of exuberance and joy of winning hard-earned championships (even caught some of a water bucket dousing during one celebration), and an equal amount of heartbreak for teams that came so far, but only to fall short.
And there were quite a few interesting milestones/things of note:
- After the first two Boys finals were completed Thursday and Friday, we witnessed a streak of five straight boys finals games going back to 2015 that were decided by golden goal.
- One new WPIAL Champion – Freedom won its first district title in its history
- Return to Glory — For North Allegheny, Chartiers Valley, Quaker Valley and Sewickley Academy boys it was a return to the top, as well as for Moon and Shady Side Academy girls. It was NA (17 years) and Char Valley (15 years) boys, and Moon girls (14 years) that had the longest droughts between titles
- It’s not easy to sweep a team three times in a season. The third time was the charm for Shady Side girls, and North Allegheny boys. After failing to beat fellow section rivals and number one seeds Greensburg Central Catholic and Seneca Valley in the regular season, each beat its section rivals in the third match of the season. The only team completing a three game sweep at Highmark, were Moon’s girls, who still needed a late goal to beat section rivals Montour.
- The list of impressive performances is too long to list here, but among the top players that shined in biggest moments included:
- two goals from Emily Harrigan (Rutgers commit) and a penalty kick stop by Sam Wexell to lead Norwin to its second title,
- Eliza Cochran with the clutch free kick to help Shady Side girls upset Greensburg Central Catholic as its defense also shut down the WPIAL’s all-time leading scorer Bailey Cartwright.
- Owen Harkins, a defender for Quaker Valley scored two goals to lead his team past Shady Side Academy.
- Sean Atwater scored a firecracker from distance for the game-winner in OT for the second straight game – to lead North Allegheny to a Boys 4A title.
Having had a chance to see the drama unfold again this year, I was left with some lasting impressions of WPIAL’s 2016 soccer championships from each game:
1.) REPEAT AFTER ME
In the eight classifications, there would be only one repeat champion. And what a champion we have representing the WPIAL Girls’s top tier, now 4A.
The Norwin Knights completed a second consecutive undefeated season in very impression fashion, by beating previously undefeated Canon-McMillan 3-1, in a game that was broken open early in the second half.
This much is certain — you can’t leave forward Emily Harrigan with too much space if she’s anywhere near the goal with the ball at her feet. Two times Canon-Mac learned this the hard way.
Harrigan used her speed on the left side to break free for the first goal in the first half. Then, in the second half, with defenders on both sides of her in the box, she still found room to send a shot through and into goal.
Norwin’s Sam Wexell also stepped up in a big moment. After Harrigan’s first goal, Canon-Mac came back to create a foul in the box, and a penalty kick opportunity for its heralded player, Rutgers recruit Aideen O’Donoghue. Wexell, a junior, anticipated O’Donoghue’s shot to come up with the save, shutting down the Big Macs chance to equalize.
Lexi Kolano‘s goal, moments after Harrigan’s second, made it clear that Norwin has a remarkable ability to strike quickly and put away a quality team like Canon-Mac.
The Knights have run off an impressive streak in almost two seasons with only one loss and one tie, and now have their sights set on unfinished business — claiming a PIAA crown.
2.) LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE FOR ATWATER, NORTH ALLEGHENY
Thursday night’s Boys 4A final featured two section rivals, top-seeded Seneca Valley and North Allegheny.
All had gone according to plan for Seneca Valley all season — and for 77 plus minutes in the WPIAL final. Holding onto a 1-0 lead with less than three minutes remaining, and having surrendered three goals all season, the Raiders were right on the threshold of winning its first-ever WPIAL title.
Josh Luchini had been injured most of the season, but most of those that have watched North Allegheny’s soccer team in recent years would know that he was their most dangerous player in the attack. Still somewhat limited, he made a brief appearance in NA’s semifinal win vs Pine-Richland, and again in the Final, coach Bobby Vosmaer decided to put Luchini in the game halfway through the second half.
Needing a goal in the late stages Luchini came through with a perfectly timed header from a long cross sent his way that stunned the Raiders with 2:33 left in the game to tie the contest.
The Tigers then completed a remarkable comeback, off the foot of a player that would inexplicably end a second consecutive game with a shot from distance in extra time. Sean Atwater scored a golden goal from outside the box in the semifinals to beat Pine-Richland in OT, and sure enough, 10 minutes into the overtime period, drilled a shot into the upper left side of goal, just over the outstretched Dylan Good, hitting the lower portion of the crossbar, and bouncing just inside the goal line, North Allegheny would steal its eighth WPIAL boys soccer title, and first in 17 years.
3.) GIVE ME FREEDOM, GIVE ME FIRE…
Freedom’s girls program had been knocking on the door for some time.
Despite being a WPIAL finalist in 2014, they were not quite ready for the task after getting trounced by Greensburg Central Catholic that season. This year’s group, with two super sophomores, Myla Sharpless and Michaela Watkins scoring two goals each, and completing an undefeated, untied district season (20-0), they would leave little doubt who the best team in Girls 2A was this year.
This is a team that is a legit PIAA contender.
And for coach Colin Williams, who has devoted many years to coaching high school soccer, he was able to win his first WPIAL title.
4.) MOON GIRLS PROVIDE UPLIFTING WIN IN WAKE OF TRAGEDY
A little more than a week prior to the WPIAL Girls 3A Championship game on Friday night, Moon High School students had to absorb the tragic news that one of their own, Michael Trella, who was a sophomore lacrosse player, died in his sleep.
“I am happy for the kids. They’ve worked hard since the beginning of the season,” said Head Coach Bill Pfiefer. “I’ve very happy for the school itself, for everything that’s gone on during the past week. The kids were able to pull the community together, and it was uplifting for everyone here.”
Delaney Snyder (Miami, OH recruit) who scored more than 40 goals this season, was hounded all night long by section rivals Montour. But in the 76th minute, Snyder used her play-making ability to set up Emily Orr with a nice run to the endline, and perfectly placed pass to the far post side. Orr finished her shot — and Moon had captured its first title since 2004.
5.) COCHRAN’S STRIKE ENDS GCC’s RUN OF DOMINANCE
As mentioned, Eliza Cochran needed one opportunity to line up free kick from make-able distance. And her defense shut down the WPIAL’s best player, Bailey Cartwright, and the Shady Side girls team took home its third district title since Girls 1A level began playing in 2010.
In the last WPIAL win, when Cochran was a freshman, it was also another upset win in which she drilled a goal from distance to beat GCC.
After the game, GCC’s Bryan Cartwright, head coach and also Bailey’s father, was cognizant of what might happen if Cochran were given free kick opportunities.
“It’s kind of ironic, but in the last two seasons, the only goals scored against us from Shady Side were free kicks from Eliza Cochran,” Cartwright pointed out.
With the loss, GCC’s impressive 46 game winning streak vs WPIAL teams came to a halt, as did a 17 game winning streak in the season. As long as they’re healthy, they still will be the odds-on favorite to win a PIAA title.
Oh, and also as long as they don’t concede any more free kicks to Cochran.
6.) DEFENDERS CAN SCORE IN BIG MOMENTS
Owen Harkins is a defender. Usually when defenders score goals, it’s either from shots from distance in some moments, but mostly on set pieces pouncing on a loose ball or getting a header in the box.
When Andrew Marshall, now head coach of Quaker Valley, played for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, he didn’t score a lot of goals at Highmark Stadium, but when he did, he was when found his way to a loose ball in the box or would get a header.
Sure enough, Harkins’ two goals from balls sent into the box from set pieces were the difference, as Quaker Valley lifted its eighth WPIAL Championship trophy in winning the boys 2A title — while Shady Side boys still remain a quality program that has yet to win a district title.
“We talk a lot about leadership, about moments and your time to step up and lead the team. Owen’s two moments turned into goals,” said Marshall after the game.
7.) SEWICKLEY TURNS BACK UPSTART NORTH CATHOLIC
Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic for years was a bottom-feeder in WPIAL lowest-tier of boys soccer classifications. But after a move to the Northern suburbs, and under the direction of second-year coach Jordan Wiegand, the Trojans arrived to the big stage with a team that had only one senior, in its first WPIAL playoffs in 20 years, and put forth a championship effort in the Final.
Still, perennial 1A power Sewickley Academy spoiled the Trojans hopes, as last year’s PIAA champs took advantage of a long throw-in in the 94th minute, as Ian Deihle delivered the game-winner.
While the Trojans knocked off one of the long-running top dogs in Class 1A, Seton-LaSalle, they couldn’t pull of the double whammy, and Sewickley picked up its seventh WPIAL title.
With its entire squad likely to return next season, this will likely not be the last we’ve heard from North Catholic.
8.) DEJA VU FOR McKENZIE, CHARTIERS VALLEY
It was 15 years since Garrett McKenzie played for Chartiers Valley Colts team that won a WPIAL championship on a goal from 30-plus yards out (by Neil Kolmeyer).
On Saturday, a decade-and-a-half later as the team’s head coach, McKenzie watched as one of his players, Jimmy Boyle, sent a low ball that skimmed through the Mars back line, and froze Mars goalkeeper Emin Diren for the game’s lone goal.
“It was an identical goal as 15 years ago. From more than 30 yards out. At first your saying, ‘why are you shooting it?’ And then it goes in, and everyone is jumping up and down.”
Chartiers Valley finished the season with 12 straight wins – a remarkable run in what was a very competitive Boys 3A classifications that had a lot of strong teams.