Rivalries in high school sports can come in many forms — and ultimately competition between familiar foes brings out the best in everyone involved. And often more times than not, it’s familiarity that breeds the most intense rivalries.
A perfect example of this took place on Saturday at North Allegheny High School’s Wright Field when Mars and Hampton girls soccer programs clashed yet again — with Mars coming away with a 1-0 victory.
Mars has rolled through the 2018 season without a loss or a tie, but to keep its magical season going and to earn a trip to Highmark Stadium in the WPIAL Girls 3A soccer finals, they would have to beat neighboring rivals from Hampton for a third time in six weeks.
Much like the first two times the teams met (4-3 and 1-0 decisions), the Fighting Planets were pushed to the limits by the Talbots in a hard-fought, closely contested match between familiar foes.
How familiar are these two teams?
Just ask the coaches.
“I’ve known (Hampton head coach) Bill (Paholich) a long time. We played against each other in high school when I played for Deer Lakes, and he was at Mars,” Blair Gerlach, Mars Head Coach reflected after Saturday’s match. “We’ve coached against each other here, and at the club level, and many, many times.”
Beyond the coaches, many of the players have competed against each other since they were in youth levels – and it showed in the early going of the match when neither team took too many chances.
For the first thirty minutes, Hampton’s speedy wingers and forwards were matching Mars talented attackers that have scored more than 70 goals this season, as the teams traded possessions and battled for balls at midfield — the only early chances came from shots from distance and crosses from the width as each team was fairly well organized.
That changed in the 32nd minute.
After a series of deeper possessions into the final third, Mars finally sent a cross that made its way into the goal box.
Taylor Hamlett’s service into the box deflected a few times, the ball came to the feet of Pitt recruit Ellie Coffield by the far post.
Coffield had enough composure from five yards to quickly put the ball in the back of the net.
“Emotions were high, but we got the goal we needed,” Claire Valentine, Mars goalkeeper said.
Less than five minutes later, the Fighting Planets were called for a hand ball in the box, putting Valentine into position to face a penalty kick from a familiar opponent from Hampton and Cleveland State commit Courtney Coholich.
“I had an idea of where she was going,” Valentine said after the match. “I said to myself, I need to save this, or this is going to be an entirely different game.”
Only a few days before, Coholich scored a game-winning penalty kick in the quarterfinals, to beat Ambridge with 21 seconds remaining in overtime.
Sure enough, Valentine went to her left — guessing correctly on Coholich’s PK attempt.
— John Krysinsky (@PghSoccerScribe) October 27, 2018
Maybe Valentine knew her opponent too well.
Maybe she had some intel too.
And maybe, just maybe, she got a head start on her opponent on that penalty attempt, but it was too close to tell on the replay.
What we do know is that she guessed right, and made the save. For Valentine to get her 14th shutout on the season, she would need some additional help though.
On the ensuing corner kick, Hampton had multiple chances to knock in a well-served ball into the box. With Valentine holding in the center of the goal area, the loose ball eventually was booted toward the left side of the goal. Defender Stephanie Cimini, was in the right spot, at the right time, protecting the post area to knock the ball down to deny Hampton’s equalizer.
“Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don’t,” Paholich said of his team’s back-to-back chances to get the game-tying goal late in the first half. “When you’re playing against a team as good as Mars, as long as you have the opportunities, and you get a couple of good chances, that’s all you can ask for. We got our chances, but couldn’t finish them. That changed the whole complexion of the second half, as they probably would not have sat back as much.”
Holding on to the lead in the second half, Mars played as many as five players deeper along the back line — effectively frustrating and thwarting Hampton’s speedy front attacking player enough. As Hampton started pushing numbers forward, Mars started to have plenty of open space on the counter attack.
Hampton’s freshman keeper Sophia Kelly was plenty busy in the second half.
Hampton's GK Sophia Kelly with some good work to keep score 1-0 Mars. Made nice save on Ellie Caufield free kick moments before.
— John Krysinsky (@PghSoccerScribe) October 27, 2018
A few of the late Mars counter chances came from Caroline Wroblewski who kept causing problems for Hampton on the left side. Wroblewski sent a few shots on frame, and also had a golden chance late to give the Fighting Planets a 2-0 lead, but missed left on a breakaway.
Kelly made nine total saves in the match.
For the third time this season, Hampton came up short against its rivals, and couldn’t find the equalizer.
The closest they would come was a hard collision in the box in the 72nd minute, when Valentine and Coholich collided, but was quickly cleared away from danger.
“They’re big. Physical. Strong. Fast,” Paholich said. “We are fast too, and they match up well with us. But they’ve had the better of it this year, and they’re a very difficult team to beat.”
The Talbots (16-5, 11-3), will now play South Fayette in the consolation match on Tuesday.
“Who knows, all we can do is take care of business on Tuesday, and maybe we’ll get another chance to beat them,” Paholich said when asked about a potential fourth match vs Mars this season.
Mars (18-0, 14-0) will try to cap a perfect season in the championship match against Oakland Catholic next week at Highmark Stadium.
“We’re excited. We’ve worked hard for this opportunity to make it to Highmark Stadium for the final,” Valentine said. “We came close last year, and now we’re going to ready this time.”