PITTSBURGH — Not only did the Plum boys’ soccer team turn the tide in the WPIAL Class AAA Section 4 race Monday night, it made sure that no amount of Tide could salvage another clean sheet for visiting Franklin Regional.
With a resounding 4-1 win at Plum Stadium fueled by a brace, plus a key assist, from junior midfielder Lucas Pittman, the Mustangs (7-1-0, 8-2-1) served notice there is another beast in the east by creating a virtual dead heat atop the group.
Pittman’s early corner kick triggered a goal by another junior midfielder, Tyler Schrecengost, that set the tone for a dominant second half. The physically sound Panthers (8-1-0, 8-2-0) were out-hustled and out-muscled while watching their streaks of seven shutouts and eight victories overall come to an end.
Plum, still flaunting its best form of 2021, is unbeaten in its last eight matches, a hot streak chilled only in the slightest by a goalless draw with non-section Norwin on Saturday.
“I think everyone was hungry after letting the [last meeting] slip away. They knew that this was their game. Every practice leading up to this game, the players were driven, and they responded very well,” said head coach Raf Kolankowski.
Senior middie and co-captain Luke Kolankowski made quality runs throughout, setting up Pittman and freshman striker Aldi Flowers to help Plum avenge a 3-2 overtime heart-breaker at Franklin Regional Sept. 7, its only sectional setback to date.
Also broken that day was the femur of Pittman’s twin brother Ben. In this, the PSN featured high school match of the week, the determined Mustangs made certain the season-ending injury to the elder Pittman was not in vain.
“This whole game was all for him. I wish he could have played this one,” Lucas Pittman said.
“His spirits have been getting better since the injury,” said Kolankowski. “Having him here has been a big motivational tool for everybody.”
Kolankowski, like his counterpart, first-year Franklin Regional head coach Thomas Louisy, earns his living in the real estate industry. They didn’t exactly enter a seller’s market on Monday.
For half an hour, the Mustangs struggled to figure out the Panthers’ fluid 3-4-3 shape, but, in the meantime, stood their own ground as well. The closest Franklin Regional came to breaking the ice was a header from the six-yard box by Billy Christafano that sophomore keeper Owen Zalewski tipped off the bar following a corner kick from the right flag.
In the 29th minute, Kolankowski’s first sub, sophomore forward Tristan Ralph, put Plum in plum position with a blink-and-you-missed-it ball for Pittman. They caught the Panthers grossly out of position as Ralph drove the right wing and centered for a wide-open Pittman, who won his race with Aryan Selokar to the 20-yard mark and easily chipped the keeper for his team-leading ninth goal of the season.
“We cleared the ball, and I saw their right back was a little too tucked in. I stayed wide and looked for the ball, like Coach Raf has been telling me,” Pittman said. “I saw the keeper rush out, and Tristan put up a beautiful ball once I put my hand out.”
It was the first time Franklin Regional had conceded since the first half of their last meeting, in which it erased a two-nil deficit, a run totaling well over 600 minutes of play.
“Basically, it comes down to execution. We finished our chances when we had them, and we did not make any mistakes,” said Kolankowski. “The goal they had today was a great direct kick.
“We’re good when we don’t make mistakes, and a good team like Franklin is going to make you pay for your mistakes.”
Offensive midfielder Colton Hudson, who played a hard-nosed match in defeat, tried to spark his team by drawing a yellow card on Mike Weleski for an ill-fated challenge at the center stripe in the 58th minute. Hudson, in the middle of a crowded 18-yard box, got just enough of his head on Jake Kimmich’s long line drive to beat Zalewski.
That’s as much as the former two-time WPIAL champs could muster against a Plum side that has conceded only twice in its last six matches. Their most notable scoring threat, Anthony DiFalco, was held impressively in check until the Franklin Regional regional All-American was cautioned late in the second half.
“We learned from last time to always have two guys on him, and never let him turn with the ball,” Pittman said, recalling DiFalco’s pivotal equalizer at the death several weeks ago. “We did everything we can to not let him get chances to shoot, and it worked.”
While the Mustangs mirrored the Panthers’ pack mentality in the defensive half, this time their offense left no doubt about the structural integrity of a one-goal lead at the interval.
Four minutes into the half, the “Stang Gang” was sent into a frenzy when a patient Schrecengost followed the bounding ball struck by Pittman from the left corner flag and nodded it past an overwhelmed Seloka.
In the 50th minute, Kolankowski made a remarkable run to get to a through ball on the left side, but Seloka came out to challenge and just got a piece of Kolankowski’s shot. What he didn’t do, nor his mates, was spot a trailing Pittman, who smashed the deflected ball into an empty cage for his tenth of the year.
Freshman striker Aldi Flowers, also left alone, and aided by a perfect, hustling cross from Luke Kolankowski in the far corner, beat Seloka cleanly with a low shot inside the left post in the 62nd to restore the three-goal cushion.
“Luke found two assists, and we’re looking for our midfielders to find holes like he did,” said Coach Kolankowski, as his younger Polish namesake took the team lead in assists, with seven. “He went up front with Lucas for a little bit…and they had some nice combinations.
“I’ve been telling guys all along, you can’t be selfish, and when you share the ball, good things will happen. This guy did a great job today, and we’re very proud of him.”
“We had to execute in the final third,” Pittman added in the wake of that praise. “Just hammer it down and keep going and going while we pushed for that goal. Once we got the momentum, we just kept on going and put the nail in the coffin at the end.”
The Mustangs can score. The Mustangs can defend. Now the rest of Section 4 knows the Mustangs can beat a team that many expected to challenge for Class AAA supremacy once again.
Does this result mean the Mustangs can mount a challenge of their own?
“We just have to keep pushing each other to be the best players we can,” said Pittman. “Hopefully, we can just keep scoring.”
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