CHESWICK, Pa. — The WPIAL Boys Class 2A soccer champions, returning triumphantly to home turf on Saturday, avoided the perils of feeding Gremlins after midnight by starving them at noon.
Deer Lakes (16-1), still riding the high of its first-ever district title, tilted the pitch at Lancer Stadium until a 2-0 result over District 9 champion Karns City (13-2-1) in its PIAA Boys 2A quarterfinal match at Deer Lakes High School put them within two more wins of an unprecedented state crown.
The 2018 runners-up made a PIAA championship bid that was thwarted in the final round loss in OT to Fleetwood that year.
Jim Grenninger’s Karns City squad, coming off a revenge victory over Punxsutawney in the District 9 final, followed by a Tuesday decision over District 5 winner Bedford, each on singular, second-half goals, could not frustrate the persistent Lancers.
These Gremlins were as stubborn as their namesake, playing phenomenal defensive football to complement the poise of sophomore keeper Mallick Metcalfe through a scoreless first half. Finally, following a trio of fruitless corner kicks, senior midfielder Ronan Renter scored in the 50th minute, and senior forward Ryan Rodgers, who set up Renter, doubled the advantage two minutes later, thanks to a passing clinic staged by the hosts.
“I don’t know if I would say they tested our patience. It was never in doubt. They came to sit back. They’ve got a play called ‘RV,’ which means, [like] a bus. They sit,” Deer Lakes head coach Dan Yates said. “I just spoke to the boys at halftime, and I just said, if we move the ball quicker, and move it from side to side, we’ll win the game.”
The Lancers appeared eager from the outset to make Karns City warm up that bus, but before Yates’ advice was followed to a tee, the Gremlins would not acquiesce.
The visitors brought a physical style of play that Deer Lakes embraced, drawing a yellow card on their senior co-captain, Owen Colwell, in the 18th minute, and drawing a penalty moments later. However, Colton Spence’s attempt from the spot went wide of the right post, coinciding with a correct guess by a diving Metcalfe, who unofficially reached double digits in saves Saturday.
Senior defender Kaden Scherer did yeoman’s work in support of Metcalfe up to the intermission, clearing multiple set pieces off the Karns City goal line and out of the six-yard box. But neither he nor his fellow back-liners could do much to inspire a counterattack, as Yates’ starting midfield of Ruger Beer, Ryan Hanes, Michael Butler and co-captains Devin Murray and Michael Sullivan built a turnover factory that seldom gave the Gremlins room to maneuver.
The game’s most crucial sequence saw Deer Lakes deliberately play the ball to Murray on the right wing off a throw-in, and the senior centered the ball perfectly for Rodgers, who promptly found Renter all by his lonesome on the left.
Renter harmoniously dribbled inside the 18-yard box, and Metcalfe’s aggressive play wasn’t nearly enough to keep him from blasting the ball into the upper-right corner of the net.
“The first goal we scored was unbelievable,” Yates emphasized. “If Man City or Barcelona scores that goal, you hear about it for years, and years, and years. That was an incredible goal.”
“I received the ball from Devin and checked my shoulder, and I saw Ronan wide open. I gave him the ball, and that was a great finish in the top corner,” said Rodgers.
“We just seem to find the open person and move it to him, and our shots are going in. I think we’re moving the ball pretty well lately. We’ve just got to keep doing that as we go on in the playoffs, and make the most of our opportunities.”
Deer Lakes amassed at least as many of those in the second half as it did the first. Rodgers, whose cross for Sullivan led to a season-saving equalizer late in last week’s WPIAL final, hooked up with the All-PIAA honoree for another moment of excellence.
That vaunted midfield battled to win back possession after a Karns City throw-in within the Deer Lakes half, and Sullivan played a surgical through ball to Rodgers, right down the middle of the field. Again, Metcalfe challenged the shooter, but Rodgers wasted no time hammering Sullivan’s setup into the vacant goal from a little over 20 yards away.
And just like that, the Gremlins, who had conceded only eight times all season entering Saturday, were all wet.
“That’s why he plays where he plays,” a grinning Yates said of Rodgers’ playmaking abilities. “He drops in, he sets the ball, he can run in behind, he can score headers…he’s not your typical soccer player. But he works his tail off.
“He’s our best option we’ve got in that No. 9 role, looking to do everything. Think of like a Harry Kane [type], back in England. He sets up goals, he scores goals, he heads goals, he takes corners. It’s like layers of an onion. You take one off, he’s got another layer there. He’s a great leader as a senior.”
Perhaps the only thing that stunk, so to speak, for the Lancers in the final 40 was a subsequent bounce off the crossbar that prevented Sullivan from capitalizing on a second penalty opportunity after he was taken down deep in the box.
It didn’t matter, because Deer Lakes maintained control of the proceedings with its superior possession game. As the final horn sounded, the Lancers had given Yates a memorable birthday gift.
“It’s been awesome around here after the WPIAL championship game, but we knew we weren’t done,” said Rodgers. “We want to go to states, and we’ve got a different mindset this time.”
Deer Lakes, winner of 12 straight and producer of three clean sheets in five postseason outings, will take on District 10 champion Fairview (3-1 Westmont Hilltop) in next Tuesday’s PIAA semifinal round, at a site and time to be announced.