PITTSBURGH — For Avonworth girls soccer head coach J.C. Mahan, there’s nothing like waiting until the last minute.
It was the last 60 seconds of the first half, and the final 60 of regulation time, that would make or break the Lady Lopes and their dynastic run to the top of WPIAL Girls Class 2A, and Mahan’s side was clinical in both.
A first-class goal by senior forward Gianna Babusci in the 40th minute and resolute defending of a pair of set pieces in the 80th minute helped Avonworth (18-1-2) preserve a 1-0 result against Shady Side Academy (15-4-1) for their third straight WPIAL Girls Class 2A championship at Highmark Stadium Saturday.
Their season began with non-section victories over two other eventual district champs, Freedom (1A) and South Fayette (3A), and it culminated in the sixth three-peat in WPIAL girls’ soccer history. Avonworth is only the fifth different school all-time to accomplish that feat.
The Lopes became the fourth Class 2A team to do it all-time and the first since Mars in 2012. Furthermore, they completed just the second three-peat since the WPIAL expanded girls’ soccer to four classifications in 2016.
“They play for each other. There’s a nonstop work ethic,” said Mahan, who, concurrently, celebrated his 200th career win at Avonworth. “Nobody was going to allow it not to happen for each other. That’s what I love about this team. They’re always playing for each other.”
The Bulldogs, in search of their first WPIAL crown since going all the way in the 2019 Class 1A tournament, tried their best to play rope-a-dope.
The Lopes built up a staggering 65% possession rate in the first half and limited the Section 4 runners-up to a single shot on goal, from Sadie Navid. But USYNT player pool candidate and Alabama commit Fiona Mahan was customarily well marked, and landed only one shot on target all day after banging a dangerous free kick off the woodwork in the 11th minute.
With Shady Side paying special attention to Mahan, that left fellow all-district honoree Babusci, who led the Lopes with 23 goals during the regular season, with some good looks inside the attacking third, including the only one her team would need.
Senior midfielder Allie Nau distributed to Babusci on the left wing. Babusci settled into a spot on the left elbow 25 yards from goal, and, with seconds to spare before the intermission, curled a beautiful ball into the back corner of the net that was way beyond the reach of keeper Maria Ravotti.
“I saw that space, and I knew my team was waiting to get in with me. I saw that space, and that opening in the goal, and I had to take it,” Babusci said. “[Coach Mahan] wants us to take those chances.”
“We were really pressing in the first half, and it would have been nice to get one before the half. It was a great strike by Gia,” said J.C. Mahan. “Their keeper was incredible last year for Aquinas (Academy), and now, coming over this year to Shady Side.
“We knew it was going to be tough to beat her, and that it had to be an unbelievable strike, and Gia provided that.”
It was redemption for an Avonworth side hard done by a questionable call earlier in the half.
In the 15th minute, an in-swinging corner kick from the flag to Ravotti’s left landed on her doorstep, and although senior midfielder Minah Syam appeared to nudge the ball across the line with the Riverhounds Development Academy product trying to secure it, officials awarded a goal kick after a brief deliberation.
“Mistakes are going to happen like that. We knew we were going to get chances, and we couldn’t dwell on it,” said Babusci. “We just had to keep going.”
Shady Side’s best chances to equalize came from indirect free kicks. Caroline Liptak sent a rainbow from near midfield toward goal in the 46th minute that forced junior keeper Elena Zimmerman to elevate in order to snatch it.
In the final seconds of regulation, Syam was booked for time wasting. What followed was a pair of long services from Liptak in the direction of Sarah Kushnir, who, also, had been put on notice, for an overzealous challenge (55′), deep into a crowded 18-yard box.
Kushnir, in both instances, had the best look at goal, but Fiona Mahan, using her height–and her head–and senior defender Emma Luther, acting as a sweeper, helped Zimmerman keep both free kicks off the line.
“We just had to throw in everything we had, because they were throwing everything at us that they had,” Babusci said.
Ravotti made eight saves in defeat, while Zimmerman, recording her second clean sheet of the postseason, finished with six.
Ultimately, the Lopes spent 67% of their possession time in the attacking half.
Avonworth hosts General McLane, the District X runner-up, in the first round of the state playoffs Tuesday evening at 6:00 p.m. EST.
Shady Side heads to Hollidaysburg for a 7:30 p.m. match that night against District VI champion Central High School.