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Longwell’s brace, Leech’s brilliance send Moon over Mars, 2-0, to return to PIAA Final

Senior midfielder Hailey Longwell scored twice and junior goalkeeper Serayah Leech made six saves to lead Moon to a 2-0 victory against Mars in the PIAA Girls Class 3A Soccer semifinal round match on a wet, cold Wednesday night at North Allegheny High School.

In the highly anticipated rematch of the WPIAL Class 3A final between two teams that have combined for one loss this season and seven PIAA and eight WPIAL titles since 2016, Moon maintained its perfect record (23-0) to advance to the state championship game, to be played in Mechanicsburg on Friday.

“You have two really good teams, and it could have gone either way,” Moon coach Bill Pfeifer said. “We ended up finding the net a couple of times, and that was the difference.”

HOW IT HAPPENED 

For the first half hour of the match, Moon owned possession and were bringing constant waves of attackers, with a mix direct play, trying to get over the top, which clearly wasn’t working, but also using its attacking wingers to try to solve and get around a well-fortified Mars unit that were willing to absorb pressure on the fringe of the box.

The Tigers created a handful of shots and corners, along with a pair of free kicks, but nothing dangerours or challenged Mars’ keeper Kate McEnroe.

The Planets were stepping into passing lanes with interceptions, clearances and, when necessary, making timely tackles.  When they could, Mars aimed to get into the spaces that Head Coach Blair Gerlach noted would be there as long as Moon continued pushing numbers ahead.

For most of the first half, though, Mars couldn’t extend any of their possessions beyond a pair of crosses and one through ball that brought Leech off the line to win a ball and collision.

When Moon earned its fifth corner kick of the match, in the 34th minujte, everything changed in a bizarre sequence.

Following the corner kick, Mars not only cleared the ball from the fray once, but a second boot send the ball out to the 40 yard line (if you’re counting and using the football lines), but Lilly Snyder got to the ball quickly, and resent it toward the box.

At the same time, upon the second Mars clearance, Mars’ back line and everyone else came pushing out and up to get out of the 18.

Using a pure goal scorer’s instinct, Longwell still kept her eye on the Mars high line and Snyder’s attempt to send the ball back over the top.

In that moment, players from both sides froze believing that the play would be called offside.

Sure enough, Longwell slipped behind the line of Mars defenders, got a terrific first touch, then delivered the go-ahead goal to stun the Planets and give the Tigers the lead.

“I think a lot of people, I don’t know, thought it was offside or something,” Longwell explained after the match.

“But we held the line well, and (I) got in behind, took advantage of the mistake, and put it in.”

“Lilly played a good ball in,” Pfeifer said. “I think she was more worried about keeping the ball in so they couldn’t counter attack. Hailey was just in the right place at the right time.”

Longwell felt her team’s persistance in those first 30 minutes paid off to lead to the breakthrough goal.

“We kept at it,” Longwell stated.

“We kept going at the net. I was a matter of time. We were patient, and it was difficult, and there were so many things going on you don’t think about it too much.”

“I almost didn’t react to it. It seemed like everybody did right” Gerlach said, of the pause in play, that led to the goal.

“The whole back line was like, we got it.  I haven’t seen it on film. I am not saying it’s (offside), yes or no. It’s just one of those things, everyone thought she was, and if she wasn’t

The Planets, who prior to its previous loss to Moon, had run through a four-year, 80 game unbeaten streak, showed its attacking capabilities in a matter of seconds immediately after surrending the goal.

Leech was ready for the Mars attack.

Mars forward Sydney Felton beat her defender on the right edge of the box, then found room to send a well-placed ball under the bar,  but Leech extended upward to punch the ball away to make her first and probably her most difficult save of the night to deny the equalizer.

Seconds later, following Mars’ corner chance, Leech had to sprawl to the ground to make another quick reaction save to keep the clean sheet.

Even following a previous clean sheet victory against Mars, Leech felt additional preparation and experience having played the Planets in the WPIAL Championship game helped her the second time around.

“I watched film from the last game, and tried to write down, and think about doing things a lot better,” Leech said.

“I thought I was more hesitant the last time around. So, I made sure I worked on that, and applied that to this game.”

In the second half, Moon continued to control most of the possession, leaving Mars to look for chances to get into transition.

Unlike Moon, which captilized on its lone shot on frame in the first half, Mars’ were creating moments and had numerous shots on frame, but each time, Leech was there to deny the Planets.

“We did enough in that game to score goals,” Gerach said in his post match interview, but knew it would take something special to get one past Leech.

“We just didn’t put the ball away. And that’s just a little bit of lack of quality on our part.”

The Tigers kept coming too.

In the 68th minute, Moon freshman Kendall Dydek had a burst of speed up the right side to the end line to track a ball down, then cut back to send the ball into the goal box.

McEnroe was there to keep it getting through, but couldn’t secure it.

The rebound squirted toward the middle of the goal box.

Longwell was there for the clinical finish.

“She is a phenomenal player. She finishes, she had chances, and she put the ball away,” Pfeifer said.

Longwell, a Duquesne recruit and a finalist for the Moe Rosensteel Player of the Year Award, has scored five goals in the last two wins for Moon, and has 35 for what has been a remarkable season.

From there, in the final 12 minutes, despite additional pressure that came with a few corner and free kick attempts, Moon managed the match efficiently to win the game and win both highly anticipated matches against Mars to make it to the PIAA Championship game for the second straight season, this time at the Class 3A level.

It will be a super quick turnaround for the Tigers, who will try to win their fifth overall state championship at 4 p.m. on Friday when they travel to Mechanicsburg to take on Upper Perkiomen. The Indians (23-0-1), the champions from District 1, defeated Greencastle-Antrim, 3-0, to clinch a spot in the state championship game for the first time in program history.

Leech is taking it one moment at a time, and appears to have her priorities in order though.

“My mind’s on homework right now” Leech said in concluding her interview, as she and her teammates will have less than 48 hours to recouperate and get ready for a match with Upper Perkiomen.

“We’ve been talking about this since the end of last year,” Longwell added.

“It’s great to be going back.”

POST MATCH REACTION 

Hailey Longwell – Moon Midfielder 

Serayah Leech – Moon Goalkeeper 

Mars HC Blair Gerlach 

Moon HC Bill Pfeifer 

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).

PItt MF Michael Sullivan

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