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Mars denies Franklin Regional three-peat in overtime thriller

Dane Beller celebrate the game-winning goal that gave Mars the WPIAL Title win (Photo by Justin Berl)

Mars denies Franklin Regional three-peat in overtime thriller

WPIAL Boys Class 3A Final

FINAL: Mars 2, Franklin Regional 1

There will be no three-peat.

Mars boys soccer won its first WPIAL title since 2009 in dramatic fashion, knocking off the two-time defending champion Franklin Regional, 2-1 in overtime.

It was Dane Beller who scored the golden goal in the 92nd minute to lift the Fighting Planets to title.  Trailing 1-0 at the half, after All-State Forward Anthony DiFalco scored with under a minute left in the first half, Mars fought back in the second half. Tyler Numberg’s brilliant individual effort in the 55th minute equalized the match.

Mars will advance to the PIAA playoffs, to play an opponent to be determined on November 14.

Justin Berl Photo Gallery

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How It Happened

The Mars boys soccer team knew there was a lot on the line coming into this game as Franklin Regional had been a dominant team in Class 3A for the past two seasons — with its sights set on winning three consecutive WPIAL titles. 

But, this undefeated and top-seeded Mars squad accepted the pressure, and were determined to bring a WPIAL boys championship back home. 

When both teams took the pitch. Mars rolled out in a 3-4-2-1 with wing backs and Dane Beller as the lone forward. Franklin Regional came out in a more standard formation, 4-4-1-1 with Anthony DiFalco up top. 

Early on as the game started, Franklin Regional were sharp in possession, finding players wide open.

Mars sat back, felt the game out, but in doing so, started to chase the game. 

Clearly sitting back and absorbing pressure against a dangerous yet patient attacking side could eventually haunt Mars.  

Six minutes in, off a corner kick, All-American forward Anthony DiFalco headed a ball on net towards the back post. Devin Shupp bailed out Mars as he was on the post to make the save.

In the 37th minute, the same identical play would happen. This time with DiFalco using his foot, Mars’ defender Mason Meyer, positioned just inside the right post blocked it from going in. 

Mars was able to stop DiFalco twice.

The third shot on frame for DiFalco would be the charm. 

With 50 seconds left in the half, All-Section midfielder Luke Kimmich, from the right, central side of the field played a ball forward over the defense right to DiFalco’s foot, which he brought down with a soft touch.

 

Jake Gareis the Mars goalie came out to challenge but DiFalco was quick enough to get the shot off – he chipped Gareis — giving the Panthers the 1-0 edge at the end of the half.  

Mars was stuck in unfamiliar territory as this was just the second time only all year they trailed. 

This would be DiFalco’s 85th career goal – and he’s just a Junior.

Certainly by next season he can reach 100 goals – which only a few players have ever done in the WPIAL. 

Mars Head Coach Chris Knauff and his staff decided not to man mark DiFalco specifically all game. Some teams choose to man mark and some teams don’t when facing a powerful forward. Unlike most teams, Mars implores a zone defending scheme against corner kicks. Under Knauff, the team is well-structured.

Down a goal, the Planets came out more aggressive in the second half. Even as the first half came to a close, they began to match Franklin Regional’s possession edge, and brought that momentum with them into the next leg.

The match flipped in the 55th minute.

Tyler Nymberg to make an incredible, individual play to get the equalizer. Nymberg ran down the left side dribbling by two players and slotted a shot home past Gianni Diacopoulos.

“It means the world to me to be able to keep my team in the game”, Nymberg stated.

That brilliant play set off the Mars crowd.

The atmosphere sensed playoff soccer.

Not only playoff soccer – but championship soccer. As the teams battled to the end of regulation knotted up at a goal apiece, heading to overtime, there was a surge of excitement emanating from the stands.

Between the break, a familiar soccer refrain began building from the stands, coming from the Mars supporters.

“I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!

“I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!”

“I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!”

At the start of overtime, Mars may have been a little too overcharged — as they made some costly fouls that could have cost them the game.

The fouls were not close to the box but close enough to set-up a few dangerous opportunities for the Panthers to complete the three-peat — and quiet the Mars chants.

Mars remained poised, with its keeper Jake Gareis not flinching in the face of continued pressure. Franklin Regional, up to that point had 17 total shots, compared to Mars’ five.

With three minutes left in the first OT period, it was almost as if you could sense something special was about to happen.

Nymberg got the ball in the box surrounded by Franklin Regional defenders, so he pushed the ball to his left side to dish a pass over to Dane Beller who bashed it home.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, but I’ll never forget this moment”, Beller with joy said.

After losing in the finals in 2015 and 2016, Mars capped a perfect, undefeatedseason (18-0) in district play.

“All season we have been doubted and overlooked,” Midfielder Nabil Lahlou said, “Tonight, we showed the whole WPIAL what Mars soccer is all about.”

Along their journey, they beat Laurel Highlands 5-1 in the first round. Beat Hampton 1-0 in the quarterfinal, won 3-1 against South Fayette in the semi’s and won 2-1 in the final. Overall, they outscored playoff opponents 11-3.

The Planets only allowed six goals all season in 18 games, including 12 shutouts.

During that playoff run, it would be four individuals scoring all the offense for the Planets:

Dane Beller – 7G, 2A | Tyler Nymberg – 1G, 3A | Nabil Lahlou – 1G, 1A | Nicholas Porter – 1G, 1A

Statistically up to this point in their senior years, Beller scored 32 goals along with 16 assists. Nabil Lahlou in the midfield added 14 goals and 17 assists. And, Tyler Nymberg produced 16 goals and 12 assists. Sometimes separating great players from good players comes down to not only their goals, but their assists as well. All three of these players showed their playmaking abilities all season long.

Rand Hudson and his side came so close to making history, as they were a goal away from pulling off the three-peat. Only Gene Klein’s, Quaker Valley won three straight WPIAL titles back in 1991-93. With DiFalco returning as a senior, they’ll most likely be a threat next season.

For Franklin Regional, Blake Cooper and Zach Lorenz added to their dangerous attack, as their speed and shooting ability proved difficult to contend with and Isaac Gamwa on the right side made an impact from box-to-box. He was one of the fastest players on the pitch.

In recent years, the runner-up would qualify for PIAA playoffs, but in 2020 only the district champions will move on to the state playoffs. This puts an added damper on Franklin Regionals prospects to take home a state crown, like some other schools have done in the past, even after losing its district championship game.

Mars’ opponent is yet to be determined. They’ll face another district champion in the first round of the PIAA state playoffs on Tuesday, November 10th.

 

Gameday Updates

We’ll provide updates here once the game kicks off.

Our coverage team will include Jordan Smith (reporting) and Justin Berl (photography).

Look for the game recap, postgame reaction & photo gallery here after the match.

Key Storylines / Preview 

There hasn’t been a WPIAL boys soccer program that has won three straight district titles since Gene Klein’s Quaker Valley Quakers back in 1991-93. This is rare and impressive feat is what Franklin Regional is looking to do with a win on Thursday night at North Allegheny.

They’ll have to do it against top-seeded Mars. The Fighting Planets have continued to win section titles and have regularly make it as far as the WPIAL semifinals, but haven’t progressed to the WPIAL final since 2016, when they were topped by another Section 2 school, Chartiers Valley. They also lost in the WPIAL final to South Fayette, when current PSN contributor Jordan Smith hit the golden goal in OT.

When talking with long time Mars coach Chris Knauff after his team’s latest playoff win, he paused for a moment and realized that Mars has never faced Franklin Regional in his time as coach.  Considering that both schools are regular contenders at the 3A level in recent years, that might make some sense, but prior to the PIAA going from three to four boys classifications, Mars was a Class 2A program, while Franklin Regional was at the highest level based on school enrollments.

Entering the playoffs without a loss and only surrendering three goals in the regular season, Mars earned its top seeding — even Franklin Regional’s Rand Hudson acknowledged that. In the quarterfinal round, much like West Allegheny, they were pushed to the limit against its section rivals, Hampton. In a match that remained scoreless until overtime, Dane Beller’s game-winner gave Mars the win.  In the quarterfinal round, they were pushed in a tough match against South Fayette, but held on for a 3-1 win.

Despite being the 2-seed, Franklin Regional are the two-time defending WPIAL champions. FR’s potent attack is starting to peak with a 7-0 win vs Knoch, then a 4-0 win against Indiana in the first two rounds of the playoffs, then against a very good opponent, West Allegheny, it’s biggest attacking threat couldn’t be contained, as All-State and All-American Anthony DiFalco came through with the game-winner.

DiFalco is the straw the stirs the drink for the Panthers, as their go-to scorer and playmaker. But, they’re a deep and experienced team that includes seniors on the back line (Cole Kaforey, Luke Kimmich, Jake Sciorilli) and in net (goalkeeper Gianni Diacopoulos) who have been through their share of playoff battles.

If Mars takes away DiFalco, they better be prepared to deal with Blake Cooper & Zach Lorenz in the midfield.

Interview with Mars’ Chris Knauff 

Interview with Franklin Regional’s Rand Hudson 

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