PITTSBURGH — In a playoff year marked by lower-seeded teams making playoff runs lengthier than usual, the Winchester Thurston boys relied upon superior postseason experience to remain the superior team in their classification.
Once again, the Riverhounds Development Academy tandem of Alex Hauskrecht and fellow senior Oliver Daboo delivered on the big stage for the second-seeded Bears (16-2-1), who held off scrappy No. 8 seed Charleroi (17-3-0) for a 3-2 win and a second straight championship in the WPIAL Boys 1A Final Friday night.
Winchester Thurston became the fourth different school since the WPIAL added a third soccer classification in 2000 to earn back-to-back Boys 1A championships before an enthusiastic crowd of 1,312 that pierced the unseasonably pleasant air above Highmark Stadium.
“That’s kind of been our M.O. the last couple years. When we get down, Oliver and Alex don’t go down,” said head coach Adam Brownold. “We’ve been down before, but our guys dictate, find a way and push it. Charleroi played amazing defense.
“Watching these lower seeds, I hate scoreboard-watching…but it shows how balanced WPIAL soccer is right now, which is a great thing. [My] guys work, and they’re committed, and they want to be here, and that’s why they’re champions.”
The Cougars had patiently pulled even right at the hour mark before Daboo, last year’s state championship golden goal scorer, promptly fired a missile from the edge of the attacking third, well beyond the reach of junior goalkeeper Nate Mazon, to restore the Bears’ lead in the 63rd minute.
“Honestly, I thought it was going to be a tight game, and that both teams might play for overtime,” Daboo said. “But I saw the space, and I took it. There was one about ten minutes earlier where I didn’t get the shot off, and I felt like I should. This time, I knew I wasn’t going to not get the shot off, and I’m just so happy it managed to swerve in.”
Hauskrecht, his midfield partner, had scored a massive set-piece goal in the previous district title match, and he gave Winchester Thurston a 2-1 advantage in the 33rd minute by tucking a low line drive from the arc inside the near post, catching Mazon off guard.
“We’ve overcome some big adversity in tough games, and it showed again. I’m really proud of these boys,” said Hauskrecht, who led the Bears with 22 regular-season goals, and led all players Friday with four shots and three on target. “This season wasn’t a perfect season, but I’ve enjoyed it with these boys, and we’re not done yet.”
Ten minutes into the second half, Hauskrecht nearly repeated history. After a brazen foul, his attempt at a golazo via free kick from the left wing was barely knocked away from the near post. Mazon, who finished with five saves, then punched a loose ball in front of the six-yard box out of danger.
Charleroi got the big break it needed when Hauskrecht was temporarily sent off in the 56th minute for a questionable yellow card on a firm challenge in the Cougars’ half.
The Bears had been content to play dump-and-chase with their lead, dropping a fifth player back in their flexible 4-5-1 and letting Charleroi do the chasing. But Dylan Klinger finally found shooting space atop the 18 and forced a diving stop from Adrian Musekamp, allowing junior forward Joel Chambers to deposit the rebound into the back of the net.
Before Daboo’s subsequent wonder-strike, the Cougars did their best all night to break down the talented Winchester Thurston attack inside the final third. Meanwhile, Charleroi decided the best way to chip away at the Bears’ defense was to shoot around it.
Jordan Poller-Prince, another key figure in last year’s championship match, put a deflected ball from the left elbow into the far corner of the goal to give the Bears the early lead (4′). Junior midfielder Bryce Large, who led Charleroi with 21 regular-season goals, leveled the match from distance a short time later (11′).
Although his courageous Cougars came up short of a first-ever title, head coach Jonathon Ducoli and his Charleroi team were consoled with the second WPIAL berth in next week’s PIAA Boys 1A tournament.
Joining them, and Winchester Thurston, will be Eden Christian, which were defeated, 1-0, by the Cougars in the WPIAL semifinal round.
To wit, Brownold’s boys are immediately shifting their focus to a second state title in a row.
“I grabbed them after the team picture out here and said, ‘Guys, great game. Are you satisfied?’ ‘Absolutely not.’ Same thing as last year,” he said. “Now we’ve got to put our words and our feats together and go to work.”