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‘Super Gritty’ Pine-Richland slows down Seneca Valley en route to a stunning WPIAL Championship victory

With 10 minutes left in the WPIAL Boys Class 4A Championship game on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium, Pine-Richland Head Coach Jordan Wiegand was standing in the top corner of the coaches box all by himself.

Wiegand found himself in one of the most lonely and nerve wracking places for a coach.

As the minutes ticked off the clock, Wiegand stood there, and he couldn’t help but keep looking straight ahead at the giant Highmark Stadium scoreboard which was displaying a countdown clock used exclusively in high school soccer.

When the match reached 10 minutes remaining, Wiegand looked at it for about 10 seconds.

“I kept looking at the clock, and at the play, and at the clock,” Wiegand said, pointing to the scoreboard.

“After 10 seconds rolled off the clock, I said, I better focus on the team. It was the slowest moment you can possibly imagine.”

Moments earlier, Wiegand’s No. 6 seed Rams took the lead, stunning Seneca Valley, the defending champions, top-ranked team in the state and No. 1 seed in the WPIAL tournament, with an opportunistic goal eminating from a long free kick from just inside the midfield line.

It was one of the three team captains, senior Ben Rishel, who scored the goal.

Rishel began his journey with the Pine-Richland boys soccer program in the summer of 2019 when Wiegand also began his tenure.

For four years, Rishel and his fellow seniors stuck things out with the program, despite missing out on the playoffs in their first three seasons.

In 2022, they finally got in.

Playing well heading into the playoffs, especially on the defensive side, the Rams only allowed five goals in their final seven matches.  Pine-Richland made their way to the final by beating Norwin 3-1 in the quarterfinal round, then another fellow section rival, Butler, 1-0, in the semifinals.

When the opportunity arose, Rishel made the most of his chance in the 60th minute of a scoreless championship match to put his team in position to take an improbable lead.

A long free kick was awarded to the Rams following a hard foul on one of their fiesty substitutes off the bench, Finn Kichi.

Tyler Fritz took the kick right into the center of the box.

A handful of Rams and Raiders converged on the ball, and it bounced loose to the right inside area of the box just outside of the six.

Rishel was right there to pounce on it.

After scoring, Rishel made his way to the sideline where he was mobbed by his teammates and coaches alike in a jubilant celebration.

“That’s the only way I score goals,” Rishel said after the match.

“That’s my fifth goal this year, and they were all inside the six (yard box) off of set pieces just bouncing randomly to me. It was a whirlwind. I didn’t see the ball. I just ran straight into the six and hoped it popped to me and it did. I didn’t have time to think. All I could do was hit it home.”

At that point, there were just under 20 minutes to play.

Seneca Valley scored 84 goals in the regular season.  Eight of those came against Pine-Richland, as they beat the Rams 3-2 and 5-0 in the 2022 season, and had won in convincing fashion six straight times against their section rival.

Yet, the third time around against Seneca Valley, Wiegand’s Rams were holding the lead because they confidently executed their adjusted game plan, were on even terms with Seneca Valley and grew into the game.

As expected, the Raiders held a decided edge in possession (59/41) and shots (10-2).

But the Rams were well-organized, in position to make Seneca Valley work harder for every shot attempt, they were intercepting passes, clearing balls and most importantly, they were winning many second balls.

After scoring the goal, Rams didn’t allow Seneca Valley to regain any momentum, and even when under pressure, they were prepared and confident in turning back the Raiders.

What Pine-Richland did well, was jam up in the middle of the pitch, forcing the Raiders to be patient and have to build-up possession to create chances. But time after time, Pine-Richland thwarted and snuffed out advances by clogging passing lanes, blocking shots and clearing balls.

The Raiders were learning in the midst of their bid to win an unprecedented (in the modern era) third straight WPIAL boys soccer championship in the highest classification, that it wasn’t going to be easy to beat a team three times in a season, espeically one that knew them very well.

“We expected exactly what they threw out there,” Seneca Valley coach George Williams said.

Prior to the match, Wiegand said that the advantage that he felt his team had was that they were facing a familiar opponent.

Wiegand knew going into the match he had to make additional tactical adjustments for his Rams to be able to stay with the Raiders, who regularly look to play at a furious pace and try to wear opponents down using large numbers of substitutions, can control the middle of the fieldand possess the ball with two all-State midfielders Beaux Lizewski and Connor Oros.

“Actually, they have three oustanding midfielders,” Rishel explained. “We focused on man-marking them, and then I sat underneath them. If any of them got beat, I was there to back them up.”

In addition, while Williams often uses his team’s depth to their advantage, rolling out players in and out of the lineup in large numbers, Wiegand matched Williams seemingly player-for-player, leaning on using a regular rotation that included using five players off the bench for a total of 136 valuable minutes.

Pine-Richland’s tactics were working, as Seneca Valley were not getting the ball out to their speedy wingers as much as they typically do and couldn’t create too many wide-open, clear cut chances.

“We are a team that if we get up one-nil, you’re not scoring on us,” Rishel boasted.

As sturdy as Pine-Richland was in defending as a unit, they faced 18 total shots, and needed goalkeeper Caden Bennett to come up with 10 saves.

None were bigger than in the final moments of the match, when Bennett made a couple clutch saves.

First, in the 73rd minute, following a well-placed corner kick, Lizewski got into perfect position to snap a header with lots of pace right under the cross bar, but Bennett reacted in the nick of time to keep the clean sheet intact.

Then, in the 77th minute, Bennett put himself in excellent position to stop Will Bruno’s shot, after the Seneca Valley winger broke behind P-R’s last defender on left side.

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“Caden’s been fantastic all year, he’s an incredible goalie,” Rishel said.

“He was fantastic today. Weathered storms. Even in the round before, Butler were on the front-foot in the second half and he came up big for us.”

As the minutes turned to seconds, Wiegand finally could move away from his lonely corner, breathe a huge sigh of relief after the last Seneca Valley free kick from behind the midfield line was cleared away, back over to near his sideline, where his team could start to celebrate a monumental victory.

“All the respect in the world to Seneca Valley. They’re a proven champions over there,” Wiegand, who had previously led two other schools, Deer Lakes and North Catholic to the WPIAL finals but never won a title, stated.

“It was a stand-up performance and we knew that we needed to have it. We knew it could come down to a set piece, and it’s nice to see that come to life.  We had to weather the storm. We did enough on both sides of the ball, and we did just that.”

“We knew they were going to try to slow us down,” Williams added.

“Bottom line, we didn’t speed it up enough and we didn’t score when we had our chances, so they won the game.”

Pine-Richland made the most of their best chance, on a set piece no less.

“We’re a super gritty team,” Rishel exclaimed.

“We had to work extra on things like that, and that hard work came through for us.”

For three seasons, Pine-Richland missed out on the playoffs, suffered six straight losses against their Butler County neighbors to the North, while they watched them lift the WPIAL trophy twice.

Rishel and his teammaters could hardly imagine that they could be in that position too. However, when they had an opportunity to end a three-peat bid, Pine-Richland put it all together to pull off one of the biggest upsets (if not the biggest) in WPIAL Soccer Championship history.

“Missing playoffs each year, you never really could imagine this happening,” Rishel said.

“We trained more than any other team. We went to four sessions a week in the summer. We grind. It was the perfect group to do it with under pressure.”

Against all odds, in the 2022 WPIAL playoffs, it was Pine-Richland’s time to shine.

“We knew at some point somebody had to beat them,” Weigand said.

“We have all the respect in the world for them. They are proven champions, and we knew it was going to take a performance. We talked it over and thought maybe it would take something off a set piece, and it was nice to see that come to fruition.”

ED THOMPSON PHOTO GALLERY

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POST MATCH INTERVIEWS

Pine-Richland’s Jordan Wiegand, who has led three different boys soccer programs to the WPIAL finals, finally wins a district championship, pulling off the improbable upset against section rival Seneca Valley.

Ben Rishel, a defensive midfielder, has scored five goals this season, so he’s not always the go-to scorer, but was there on the end of a long free kick to give the Rams the lead in the 60th minute.

 

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

Riverhounds MF Danny Griffin

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