Rag-tag roster powers playoff-bound PSNK men's soccer
Mike Killian didn't know what to expect when he transferred from Duquesne to Penn State New Kensington.
The sophomore forward knew he was going to resurrect his soccer career after a year away from the sport, but his new team had plenty of question marks.
This group would be as eclectic as it was mysterious — at least from what Killian had heard. The roster would be a mish-mash of mid-20-somethings, foreign-born players and former Alle-Kiski Valley standouts.
Making it work was the challenge. Finding roles was the key.
“We were just a bunch of guys thrown together,” said Killian, a Highlands graduate. “I hadn't played so I wasn't sure what I'd be like. We won our first couple games, but we had guys trying to take over and do it by themselves. Coach (Jordan Valentine) sat us down and told us to play to our strengths. I don't think we've shown the best we have yet.”
Led by Killian, the group put together a strong regular season and secured a trip to the Penn State University Athletic Conference playoffs.
“We brought in a lot of freshmen, and they worked from Day 1,” Killian said. “All we asked was for the opportunity to be there in the end. And that's what we have.”
The sixth-seeded Lions (6-6, 5-5) will open the PSUAC Tournament 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at Penn State Brandywine (8-5, 8-1).
The playoffs are nothing new to the Lions, who have qualified every year since beginning intercollegiate play in 2010.
PSNK sealed its fourth straight postseason berth with a 5-2 home win against Penn State Greater Allegheny on Oct. 9.
The Lions have been to the conference semifinals in each of the past two seasons. Despite the influx of fresh faces, the expectations did not change.
“Our team expectations are to challenge for the PSUAC championship,” Valentine, a first-year coach, said. “The team has a unique skill set and explosiveness.”
Killian wasn't the only new roster addition. Goalkeeper Jimmy Cook (Highlands) and others helped coax former Alle-Kiski standouts Zack Ziemianski (Burrell) and T.J. Lubreski (Highlands) to join the team.
Lubreski had been playing at Slippery Rock.
Suddenly, Cooke and another former Burrell player, Casey Cavanaugh, had plenty of help.
With Killian's scoring, Cook's goalkeeping and a strong defensive backline, PSNK has flourished in several facets.
Killian has a team-best 32 points (13 goals, six assists), which puts him ninth nationally in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association.
Valentine has used various defensive schemes and moved players to different positions in an effort to better utilize its personnel.
Freshmen Michael Pyon and Damian Corle, and senior Perry Sciulli all moved from forward to defender.
“Michael (Killian) possesses that special ability to carry and win games by his skill alone,” Valentine said. “Damian and Michael (Pyro) are solid players who can perform highly at any position on the field.”
Freshman Luke Hinderliter is a mainstay in the backfield.
“He's a tank back there,” Killian said.
Valentine did say the offense can, at times, become disconnected from the defense, giving opponents better chances in transition. Improving that aspect could be what a lengthy playoff run hinges on.
The winner of Tuesday's game advances to the PSUAC semifinals Oct. 24 at University Park. The PSUAC champion advances to the USCAA tournament next month.