GIBSONIA, Pa. — When head coach Jordan Wiegand was preparing for the start of his third season in charge of the Pine-Richland boys’ soccer team, he envisioned a burgeoning group built upon a foundation of stifling defense. On Thursday night he saw his side take its first big step forward, with a supreme team effort on the back line that made North Allegheny, which had beaten its first two opponents by an aggregate 22-0, look like paper Tigers.
The Rams (1-0, 2-0-1) rebounded from an early deficit and withstood a hard push throughout the attacking half by visiting NA (0-1, 2-1-0) to earn an eyebrow-raising 2-1 win in their first Class AAAA-Section 1 contest of 2021 at Pine-Richland Stadium.
In PSN’s first featured high school broadcast of the season, North Allegheny began the evening the same way it did the Canon-McMillan Tournament over Labor Day weekend: by making its North Hills counterparts labor. Evan Anderson netted his team-leading fifth goal of the season before Pine-Richland junior forward Colin Zvejnieks collected the first of his brace right before the break.
It would have been easy for Pine-Richland to become consumed by that disappointment, given that the Rams, under Wiegand, have struggled to find success in the ever-daunting Sec. 1-AAAA.
Certainly NA must have seen fate wink in its direction when Ben McLean flicked a second-chance ball off the crossbar from right in the middle of the box. But that’s when Thomas Cornelius inverted the karma, and the North Allegheny defense.
The senior right back, one of seven returning starters for Wiegand, finished a hard-working run into the box by nutmegging his defender and crossing to his right for Zvejnieks. The junior forward opened his 2021 account into an open net with 1:25 left in the first half.
“That was the perfect time for that to happen. I was talking with my players about what we were going to adjust, but we were lucky enough, before I had to make those adjustments, to cap that play with a goal,” Wiegand said. “We applied some nice pressure late on, and it’s nice for a team to build those kinds of characteristics early in the season. Especially for a group of guys who haven’t necessarily experienced what it’s like to win against a big-name program like that.”
How they earned that signature win was indicative of the pack mentality Wiegand has been trying to create. Pine-Richland came out in a 5-3-2, trying to take away as much of the middle of the pitch from that deep NA lineup as possible, and it earned an indirect free kick on a counterattack.
Practically everybody came forward to meet the incoming ball from junior midfielder Cale Klaff on the left wing, including Zvejnieks and senior defensive midfielder Mason Wells. The Pine-Richland duo fought for it as the Tigers tried to shelter sophomore keeper Dante Accamando.
Eventually, Zvejnieks found a part in the sea of humanity and snuck it past Accamando, who had fallen in search of the second, third and, from varying perspectives, fourth ball.
After a pregnant pause, the nearby official pointed to the circle, where Wells led the celebration in the 49th minute.
“Going back to my time [as head coach] at Deer Lakes, my teams have always made a living off of set pieces. When I came to Pine-Richland, I noticed that was one area we could certainly improve upon. But it just seemed that, year to year, we just couldn’t get those set pieces down. We’ve held this team to a higher standard since last season,” said Wiegand.
“Being able to attack the ball, challenging for the 50-50s, using our size that we’ve had…I think you’re starting to see a greater group that really wants to get after it. It isn’t afraid to scrap in front of the net. That’s something we want to do: to contest.
“Because anything can happen at any given moment on these moving free kicks.”
Wiegand was responsible for helping turn DL into a contender, and he later did the same for the boys’ program at North Catholic. He hopes that set piece goal was the watershed moment this team has been looking for since he took it over.
“I’m still categorizing us as a younger team, as far as Quad-A goes. We have a lot of younger starters. We aim to learn as we progress, and I do think we’re trending in the right direction,” Wiegand said. “I’d like to be able to look back at this game and say that this was the game that finally got us into the top four in our section. That’s how tight it is. Any game you can get against a giant in our section is very, very pivotal, and hopefully, a step toward accomplishing our goals.”
Not only is Klaff another part of the septet that carried over from last year’s starting XI, but he is also a member of Wiegand’s three-man leadership group this fall. Also donning captain’s armbands for the Rams are senior Zach Palko, an offensive midfielder, and center back Ben Rishel, a junior who is poised to bolster their defense after missing his sophomore campaign due to injury.
In the second half of the sectional curtain-raiser, they were under constant pressure from North Allegheny, led by central midfielder Brandon Marzula and punctuated by Anderson. Thanks in no small part to the yeoman’s work done by right back Justin Bang, another returnee, they limited one of Quad-A’s most dangerous units to a scant few high-danger chances.
“Our main focus was always to play within our defensive structure, and to make sure that the shape was there, always, and to make sure we outnumbered our opponent,” said Wiegand. “Then, we could start pressing, in certain situations.”
Pine-Richland should have even more confidence in its ability to win with that style of play if senior keeper Evan Dougall can demonstrate more strong leadership in goal.
Against North Allegheny, he was constantly, and fearlessly, coming off his line to challenge his attackers. He cut down the angle on Anderson twice on balls into the box to force two key misses, with the second coming on a header late in regulation that went just wide of the near post.
Although Anderson did spoil his clean sheet with an impressive right-footed rocket after beating an offside trap in the 26th minute, Dougall could still collect a few before he graduates, if Thursday’s effort was any indication.
“He started for me in his sophomore year, and he’s definitely an example of how the program has been growing. He’s matured especially since last year. Last year, he was under a lot of fire. We were asking a lot out of Evan last year. He faced so many shots, and no keeper should have to go through that,” said Wiegand.
“It’s nice to have some confidence in him, and his ability to hold onto the ball out of the air. His play was definitely pivotal in how we were able to turn the tide.”
So what happens when the tide meets with a Golden Tornado? Pine-Richland will find out at Butler Monday at 7:30, when Sec. 1-AAAA play continues. Two days later, the Rams will host Shaler, followed by a visit to defending WPIAL champion Seneca Valley Sept. 18, as they try to move closer to giving Wiegand his first playoff berth at P-R out of a section that has seldom offered easy games.
The difference this time around is that the Rams, and that defense, have served notice they aren’t an easy team to play anymore.
“Butler is always a big match, but then we have to turn right around and play a Shaler team that gave us fits last year. I told the guys to enjoy this feeling and remember it, because, once we get into training tomorrow, we have to start preparing for Butler,” Wiegand said via phone Friday.
“But if we can keep creating these moments, it’ll be that much sweeter to look back on.”