MARS, Pa. — In 2020, the Planets were in their own solar system. For the first time ever, the Mars boys’ soccer team finished with a perfect record, and despite the trials and tribulations of the COVID-19 pandemic, the boys celebrated their unblemished report card in Hershey as the first PIAA champions in team history.
Three years and a couple postseason toe stubs later, head coach Chris Knauff and his team are trying to recapture that magnificence as they prepare for a treacherous Class 3A bracket in the WPIAL Boys’ Soccer Playoffs. The journey begins for the Planets, the No. 6 seed in this year’s tournament, against No. 11 seed Franklin Regional Saturday at 1:00 p.m. EDT at the Mars Athletic Complex.
“We’re excited to play Franklin Regional. They are a highly skilled team, and they’re battle tested,” said Knauff. “They’ve played a lot of close games against top teams, and I think we’ll need our best to get past them.”
Mars (9-2-1, 11-3-1) punched its ticket by winning its last five regular-season matches to secure second place in 3A-Sec. 1. The Planets, featuring senior goalkeeper Kaden Gratton, have posted four consecutive clean sheets entering Saturday, beginning with a 3-0 victory over neighborhood rival North Catholic in that team’s annual charity game.
That night, at soggy J.C. Stone Field, they avenged a 3-0 loss to the Trojans at the MAC in the first half of section play. Exciting sophomore Max Davis, lining up at the front of Knauff’s starting XI, set the tone with a classy 25-yard strike in the 33rd minute.
“My guys were very excited to get a little bit of revenge, because they’re a good team, and they’ve improved a lot,” Knauff said. “I think North Catholic could be a team to look out for in the playoffs.”
New North Catholic coach Scott Schlegel, for his part, delivered equally high praise for the poise and composure with which the Planets have played throughout a daunting schedule. Section champion Hampton, another natural rival, handed Mars its only other section loss and battled the team to its lone draw this year.
“We don’t have high emotional peaks and valleys. I think my team is pretty level and has a good understanding of the game, and how you need to go where the game takes you,” said Knauff. “I think they’re pretty good at rolling with the punches.”
Franklin Regional, like the Trojans, is a third-place team with a chance to disrupt the Boys 3A field. Either the Panthers, representing Section 4, or the Planets will play the winner of Saturday’s match between defending WPIAL champion Moon and Ringgold, the third-place team in Section 3.
The other third-place team, South Fayette out of Section 2, faces a particularly compelling test against upstart Latrobe in the first round, which has attracted Knauff’s attention.
“One thing that I really stress is that you can never look ahead,” he said. “We found that out last year the hard way that teams that make the playoffs are always quality teams. You just have to prepare for one game at a time.”
Last year, Mars bowed at Bethel Park, 1-0, in its playoff opener. Knauff credits the maturity of the 2023 Planets, especially his keeper, for erasing the memory of that tough loss this season.
Gratton, a three-year starter he describes as “a real keystone for our team,” wears the captain’s armband and has allowed only one goal during the team’s winning streak.
Junior midfielder Zach Angoff, who scored the second goal for Mars in its triumph over North Catholic, represents the versatility that has helped the Planets average 4.0 goals per game during that streak, more than half a goal better than their 3.4 season average.
“He’s been a defender, and, at times, a defensive midfielder, throughout his soccer career, but he’s playing as our No. 10, or as a forward,” Knauff explained. “We’ve been leaning on him a lot more offensively, which isn’t something he is used to, but he’s adapted a lot.”
An eight-man senior class has provided support up and down the pitch. Midfielder Jack Scanlon has demonstrated he can contribute at both ends, and defender Liam Quinn has fortified the back line.
Forward Landon Rocke, furthermore, has provided some big goals, including an overtime tally against section rival Indiana Sept. 12, and offensive midfielder Aiden Savona, counted on to provide a spark off the bench, registered a hat trick in a mercy-rule win over Highlands Sept. 20.
Most importantly, they were freshmen during that magical 2020 campaign–an experience that could serve them well as the Planets try to embark upon another lengthy playoff run.
“These players were there. They were along for the ride. They got to see that firsthand. There’s lessons learned from that; taking it one game at a time and handling those emotions will be really crucial for us,” Knauff said. “We definitely have the capability to put it together. It’s going to take a full team effort. We don’t have a 20- or 30-goal scorer; my guys are all in single digits, and we spread out the scoring really well.”
Mars has fielded a varsity soccer team for over 30 years. Knauff, a former player and a coach whose family has been involved for all but a few, embraces the challenge of battling one of the deepest playoff fields in Boys 3A in recent memory.
“We’re at a good place as a team, and we’ve played some of our best soccer, as a team, in the second half of the section [schedule],” he said. “We’re a pretty deep team, with a lot of skillful players, and the guys are very excited to get this thing going.”