PITTSBURGH — The Winchester Thurston boys soccer team finally scratched a seven-year itch, rallying for its second WPIAL championship in a 3-1 win over Greensburg Central Catholic in the Class 1A Final on a crisp Friday night at Highmark Stadium.
In this battle of the top two seeds in the single-A classification, the Bears (19-0-1) became the beast of the East End after suffering back-to-back losses to the Centurions (15-4-0) in the 2019 and 2020 championship matches, each by a single goal.
Despite conceding for just the second time in postseason play, Winchester Thurston gradually tilted the pitch against an explosive GCC side that had erased two- and three-goal deficits in the semifinal round to capture PIAA District 7 gold for the first time since 2014.
The champs will open the state playoffs at home, against either the District 5 or District 9 runners-up, on Tuesday, while Greensburg C.C., the reigning PIAA silver medalist, will visit the District 5 winner that night.
HOW IT HAPPENED
Nobody could blame the Bears for being wary of a “Groundhog Day” scenario. Last year, they fell behind 3-0 before attempting an epic comeback in vain, but this time Winchester Thurston rewrote that sordid script with a three-goal outburst of its own in the second half.
GCC earned the game’s first two corner kicks within the first eight minutes of play, both of which were cleared away from the six-yard box thanks to heavy congestion around Winchester Thurston goalkeeper Otto Graham.
Junior midfielder Carlos Denis gave the Centurions a 1-0 lead in the 14th minute by accepting a right-wing cross from senior defenseman Ryan Appleby and blasting it from just above the 18-yard box inside the left post, beyond the dive of the fourth-year netminder.
The defending champions seemed that much more comfortable sitting on the advantage having been bolstered by the return of senior Mason Fabean to their starting XI. Fabean, who sat out the semis on a red card, moved from the central midfield to his natural center back position when Greensburg Central pulled ahead.
As the second half unfolded, one couldn’t help but wonder if the Centurions had anything left to give after their instant, extra-time classic versus Eden Christian Academy. Junior midfielder and Riverhounds Academy product Alex Hauskrecht planted the seed of doubt in the 60th minute by pulling off his finest Megan Rapinoe impersonation.
Massimillano Memoli struck a ball from roughly 40 yards out that forced a parrying save from GCC keeper Michael Oldenburg and earned his team a corner kick at the far flag. The right half of the grandstand erupted when Hauskrecht, who led the Bears with 31 regular-season goals, bent the corner perfectly into the back of the net to bring Winchester Thurston level right on the hour mark.
“I had scored off a free kick in the quarterfinals, and again, off a free kick, in the semifinals. When I saw their goaltender positioned how he was, I thought, on the corner kick, put it on goal,” said a rueful Hauskrecht with a smile. “I know the technique. Worst case, they hit it out.
“First time, it bounced around, that close to going in. Second time, 1-1.”
For Hauskrecht, some missed opportunities he had generated in the first half, with the help of senior midfielder Lance Nicholls, were mere harbingers of what was to come. His long ball from the right flank for Nicholls in the 24th had been denied by a well-positioned Oldenburg in tight, and Hauskrecht airmailed a free kick from a dangerous spot moments later.
In addition, the Centurions dodged a tying bullet when Nicholls redirected a last-minute corner kick off the near post before the teams repaired to their dressing rooms.
GCC, however, could not stop the late barrage by the Bears’ attack. Hauskrecht earned a juicy 30-yard free kick that he hoped to curl more carefully on 66′, but it turned into the soccer equivalent of an “at ’em” ball, right at Oldenburg.
Undaunted, Winchester Thurston kept pressing, and junior midfielder Oliver Daboo, already gutting it out through a lingering upper-body injury, put Oldenburg at his mercy. The Greensburg sophomore came off his line to stone Daboo, who, alas, injured the lower half of his body in the process to complement his bandaged arm.
That was before Daboo, Hauskrecht’s RDA companion, saw junior forward Jordan Poller-Prince promptly smash the rebound through Oldenburg’s ready fingertips and over the line to give the Bears the lead for good at 71′.
“I just tried to get back onside, and Michael Miller played in a great ball from the left,” Daboo said. “I just took my touch down, then I got a little bit of a calf cramp there, but luckily, Jordan was able to finish it. And it’s the biggest goal in our program’s history right now.”
“We didn’t lose faith in each other,” said Poller-Prince. “We trusted everybody in order to overcome our deficit and win.”
The desperate Centurions moved Fabean back up front, but a contested 15-yard shot wide to the left of goal was as close as he could come to helping Greensburg Central Catholic perform another Biblical comeback.
A determined Tomer Tuti turned a turnaround shot from right in the middle of the 18 into a perfect postage-stamp goal in the 78th minute to cap the coronation of Winchester Thurston.
Even after waiting all this time to exorcise playoff demons against their longtime parochial rivals, the Bears immediately set their sights on a loftier goal.
“I asked them if they were satisfied, and they said, absolutely not,” 19th-year head coach Adam Brownold said. “We have unfinished business from ’19, when we went to Hershey.
“‘Let’s finish the job’ has been our mantra all year. We’ve got another tournament, and we’re not ready to lose.”