PITTSBURGH — History never repeats itself, Mark Twain once said, but it does often rhyme. And there was something poetic about how the South Fayette boys’ soccer team added to its own incomparable folklore over the weekend.
South Fayette built the first known dynasty in the history of WPIAL soccer during the World War II era, when immigrant mill workers settled in the township, and brought their unique athletic skillsets with them.
The 2023 Lions (13-4-3), echoing that history, eschewed their green collars for blue ones in overwhelming Hampton, 4-2, in the WPIAL Boys Class 3A Final at Highmark Stadium Saturday.
South Fayette put the Talbots (17-3-1) on their hind legs with fervent and clinical ball movement in the attacking third that produced a 3-0 scoreline within the first 22 minutes of the match.
Sophomore midfielder Luke Gillen, whose first-half brace included the decisive goal, punctuated the onslaught with a hat trick in the 62nd minute.
Gillen, whose last hat trick came for his Washington, Pa. based travel team, Victory SC, this past spring, added to an already impressive legacy that includes running track and kicking for the football team at South Fayette.
“Being calm, and just believing in myself, my teammates and my coaches helped a lot,” he said. “We just focus on the task at hand and don’t get ahead of ourselves.”
The Lions not only captured an unprecedented 19th district championship all-time, and their first WPIAL title since 2015, but they followed in the footsteps of the South Fayette girls’ soccer team that struck WPIAL gold in the second period of extra time earlier in the day.
This marks the fourth time in as many years that a WPIAL school has swept the boys’ and girls’ championship round in its classification.
Head coach Rob Eldridge had already made history of his own in the Class 3A semifinals, earning his milestone 300th career victory. No. 301 proved to be the one worth celebrating.
“We try to manifest everything that we have in front of us, even down to how we’re going to celebrate what we do each and every day. You can’t manifest what you have, in terms of your goals, unless you believe in yourself,” said Eldridge. “We believed in ourselves as a team.”
After surviving the gauntlet of 3A-Sec. 2, a group loaded with contenders, and one of the most balanced playoff brackets in recent memory, the upstart Lions suspended disbelief by opening up the game immediately.
Versatile midfielder Adam Thompson earned the first corner kick of the day at the flag to the right of Hampton’s starting goalkeeper, Gavin Guinn. Thompson placed a ball in front of the six-yard box right within reach of fellow senior James Casillo, and the defenseman nodded it past Guinn to break the ice in the 6th minute.
Gillen doubled South Fayette’s advantage in the 9th minute by knocking in a perfectly weighted cross at the right post, in stride, from his midfield partner, senior Nate Belcufine, who had cut into the left corner of the box and danced around All-PIAA selection Luke Fiscus.
“We dropped Adam deep between our halfbacks to try to open up the midfield a little bit,” Eldridge explained. “It allowed passing lanes for our target players. It allowed us a little more time to get into the attack.”
For Hampton, insult was added to literal injury when Guinn had to remove himself from the match with a lower leg issue. The Lions welcomed his backup, sophomore Landen Bierker, to the match midway through the half.
Belcufine fired a ball from 30 yards out right at Bierker. The latter yielded a juicy rebound right to Gillen, who won the footrace and smashed it in behind the underclassman from deep on the left wing.
Hampton, with urgency, dictated the tempo of the second half, taking nine shot attempts to the Lions’ four and finishing with 54% possession overall, but South Fayette remained more capitalistic.
Thompson’s corner kick at the flag to Bierker’s left, moments after the hour mark, landed at the feet of senior midfielder Cole Johnson 12 yards from goal. Johnson one-touched the ball to Gillen out in front, who easily tucked it under the bar.
Whereas South Fayette picked apart their back line, the Talbots struggled to find answers for a 4-5-1 deployed by Eldridge that mostly kept its composure until a questionable call in the 70th minute.
A deflected shot by junior defenseman Dom Jordan from close range, on which senior forward Coleman Docherty appeared to get the last touch, was credited as a goal to the former, even though the ball did not appear to fully cross the line.
Moments earlier, Fiscus had been stopped on a quasi-bicycle attempt from the middle of the box by senior keeper Dylan Janoski, one of his six saves. The Talbots’ leading scorer did give Hampton a too-little-too-late lifeline in the 74th minute by taking a high, arching pass on the right wing from senior defenseman Conner Killmeyer and nodding it inside the far post for his 34th goal of the season.
Nevertheless, these Lions proved that, after all these years, South Fayette is still a soccer “tahn.”
“It feels great, but we’re not done,” said Gillen. “We still have states to win.”
South Fayette begins the state playoffs Tuesday evening at 6:00 p.m. EST, when the Lions host Kennard-Dale, the third-place team in District III.
Hampton, despite being denied a second WPIAL championship in three years, also gets to continue their season Tuesday, visiting District IX champion Bradford for a 7:00 p.m. kickoff.
“We’re super proud of our community, and our soccer community. All the coaches, and the school, have really rallied behind us,” Eldridge said.
“I’m really proud to be a Lion, and this is a very sweet win for us.”