West Allegheny and South Fayette’s tightly-contested non-section match played at DeMichela Stadium in Imperial on Saturday had all the makings of a typical WPIAL playoff match and not an early September friendly.
Played in cold, damp and windy conditions, neither of the two teams would give an inch and the match needed to go the distance before determining a winner.
West Allegheny pulled out a 1-0 win in a rematch of a wild WPIAL semifinal playoff game from a year ago, as last year’s extra-time hero, Evan Blunkosky, did it again — scoring the game-winner in the 76th minute in a match between two teams that know each other well.
“These are rivalry games that are like backyard brawls,” Kevin Amos, West Allegheny head coach, said. “A lot of the kids play on the same (club) teams together, and you can hear them out on the field chirping at each other. It’s a lot of fun.”
Blunkosky was on the receiving end of a few of West Allegheny’s early advances. In the second minute, South Fayette’s keeper Daniel Rodgers beat him to a through ball. Blunkosky then created a shot from the edge of the box in the fourth minute, with a left-footed chance that Rodgers dove to his right to secure.
“It was hard fought obviously,” Blunkosky said. “We kept playing the ball down the line, but we were unlucky in the early part of game. But we fought to the end.”
Blunkosky’s early attempt would be West Allegheny’s only shot on frame in the first half.
As the first half wore on, South Fayette started to get more comfortable and began to connect more passes to create a few chances.
“Give them credit,” Amos said. “They were moving guys around. We were moving guys around. When we moved Nathan (Dragisich) up top to see if we can generate, and we lost the midfield a little bit, that’s when they had more possession.”
“We wanted to keep the game at hand, try to neutralize a lot of their athleticism by taking away a lot of space,” Rob Eldridge, South Fayette’s head coach, said. “We fought hard to win as many second balls. You have to have a certain degree of possession. Otherwise, you’re going to be up against the wall for quite some time.”
In the second half, the Indians turned up their attack a few notches, and were playing downhill for long stretches, but had trouble creating chances inside the final third.
“They kept dropping back a lot of their players. We’d get the ball and move forward, and there were at least three inside the 18,” Blunkosky said. “It was difficult to get balls in.”
Dragisich, a senior who plays for Riverhounds Developmental Academy along with West Allegheny’s Fletcher Amos, Caleb Miller and Gabe Haines, got more involved in generating chances in the second half.
In the early stages of the second half, Dragisich unleashed a shot from 24 yards that forced a save from Rodgers. Then the midfielder stole a ball away from a South Fayette defender in 64th minute, with only Rodgers to beat, but Dragisich bested by the South Fayette keeper.
Even while spending a lot of its energy defending in the second half, the Lions had consecutive counter chances where sophomore midfielder Chad Eldridge worked his way into the final third to get shots from 17 and 20 yards in the 66th and 67th minutes, respectively. Both sailed over the bar.
“We feel like we were able to generate a few chances there on our end, too,” the elder Eldridge said. “Especially there we got it to Chad, and he had a couple goes. He wasn’t really happy with his finishing. He got a little bit back on it, his legs got a little tired there and wasn’t able to focus on his technique. I think he’d like to have those over again.”
With less than five minutes remaining, the Indians brought some of that late game magic out again against their rivals, as Blunkosky, even after stumbling a bit, took advantage of a loose ball that emanated from a free kick from Jaxon Ervin.
“I saw Jaxon over the ball, and I was able to make my run, but I fell down,” Blunkosky explained. “I saw the ball coming in, and I got up as quick as I possibly could, and I was able to put it in the back of the net.”
The loss drops South Fayette to 2-2 overall (1-1 in section), as Eldridge will use these early season games to build his team up for the stretch run and pressure games later in the season. If anything, the Lions showed that they’ll be a team that will be tough for any team in Class 3A to beat the rest of the season.
“We learned a bit about ourselves moving forward today. We walked away with just as many positive as negatives,” Eldridge said, after a second loss in three days to top tier teams in their classification. South Fayette lost to Franklin Regional on Thursday, 3-0.
“It was a good defensive performance today. We know what we need to do as a team in order to compete the rest of the way this year, and when we get into the playoffs.”
West Allegheny remain unbeaten early in the season, with four impressive non-section wins, three of them that certainly enhanced their stock come WPIAL playoff seeding time.
Amos knows that he has an experienced team that is battle tested and already showing that they can take on all challenges.
“We always have goals,” Amos said. “Let’s win the section first. Let’s get into the playoffs and try to win WPIAL. Its a progression. Losing last year in the final, it’s not so much of a disappointment, but a learning experience. There’s a lot of teams that weren’t there, that would love to play at Highmark Stadium.
“I think it’s made them hungry this year. The determination, the will to win is really there. A couple of things they learn from losing championship game, has made them stronger for this year.”