Soccer section brings Westmoreland County teams together
There is no Westmoreland County soccer championship, but this year, the county's Class AAA teams will get to settle things on the field.
Realignment brings Franklin Reg-ional into Section 1-AAA with Norwin and Penn-Trafford for boys soccer this season, as every section in the WPIAL's largest classification now has seven teams.
Joining the Star-area teams in the group are defending champ Kiski Area, Hempfield, Latrobe and the one out-of-county team, Connellsville, that all will battle for three playoff berths from the section.
Below is a look at how each of the local teams shapes up:
The Knights fell one point short of tying Kiski Area for the section crown last season, and this year, under new head coach Scott Schuchert, Norwin will strive to share the title it last held in 2010.
The team has plenty of experienced players from last year, and there is lots of talent at Schuchert's disposal. The first challenge for the new coach is to figure out the best way to deploy his players to let them all shine as individuals, and most importantly, as a unit.
“What we're trying to do now is find the formation that fits our team,” Schuchert said. “A lot of the formations stem from a 4-4-2, but it's a matter of how we want to position our midfield and defining the attacking and defending roles.”
The defensive group has a pair of the team's senior captains — Jaison Victor and Cody Drum — leading the way in front of the Norwin goal. In the net is where the Knights are dealing with an unexpected loss, as senior goalkeeper Gene Grzebyk is dealing with the effects of a concussion suffered last year and is unable to play. That leaves juniors Will Kerr and Steven Phipps as the team's varsity goalies entering the season.
Norwin has plenty of firepower up front, led by another of its captains, Matt Henry, and a player Schuchert said could “see a lot of headlines,” junior Tyler Livingston.
Creating for those two and trying to finish on their own is a deep midfield group that includes the fourth captain, Nate Andreyko, juniors Zac Lakenan and Noah Smith, and a deep group of other players with varying amounts of varsity experience.
“I really think if everyone gets on board and plays at their highest level, the sky is the limit for this group,” Schuchert said.
“Usually, in high school soccer, the teams that make the long runs in the playoffs are the ones with 11 guys that can play as a team.”
Norwin will have its usual season-opening test this weekend when it plays in the Intersection Kickoff Tournament, which also includes Baldwin, Chartiers Valley and Seneca Valley. The first day of play is Friday at Chartiers Valley, and the second day is Saturday at Baldwin. Both days' games begin at 6 p.m.
The Warriors were spectators for the WPIAL playoffs for the first time in more than 15 years last season, as draws at home against Hempfield and Kiski Area and on the road against Connellsville proved costly.
Avoiding those sorts of results, especially at Warriors Stadium, is a priority this season for P-T coach Derek Cuthbert.
“We haven't discussed (last year). We're thinking more about the future than the past,” Cuthbert said. “Obviously, we want to win every game, and we want to try and pick up points on the road. But those ties with Kiski and Hempfield — those are points dropped, and we can't afford to give up points at home if we're to make the playoffs.”
P-T's leading scorer of a year ago, senior midfielder Matt Loughnane, again will be the catalyst for the Warriors. Defender Steve Siebert and midfielder Tyler Novotny also return on the field, as does goalkeeper Bryce Tramuta.
Other players from which good things are expected in new, larger roles are Zach Vought, Jon Watt, Jake Donald and Galen Kreutzberger, and Cuthbert is pleased with the way they have helped the team come along in the preseason.
Cuthbert also said his players could have an advantage in the continuity they have playing for him, as three of the other playoff contenders in the section — Norwin, Franklin Regional and Hempfield — all have new coaches this year.
“I think we're stronger as a team than we were last year,” Cuthbert said. “The mental side of the game is much better. The players are a year older and a year wiser, but we're still a work in progress.”
Penn-Trafford will begin its season in the Shaler Tournament, where it is scheduled to face the host team at 8 p.m. Friday, after Plum and Knoch meet in the first game. On Saturday, the losers of Friday's games will play at 6 p.m., and the winners will play at 8 p.m.
The Panthers, like Penn-Trafford, missed out on last year's playoffs after finishing six points behind third-place Plum in their old section.
A new section and a new head coach give Franklin Regional a chance to start over this season, and the talent to do so is in place.
“There's a lot of quality out there. It's a good group of guys. They're hard workers and very skilled, and I'm anticipating a good season,” said Panthers coach Ryan Montgomery, a former player at Seneca Valley and Robert Morris University who last year coached at Shaler.
Leading the Panthers will be senior defender Nick Bolkovac and senior midfielder Brent Velasquez, while a number of younger players will play major roles in the FR lineup.
Sophomores Tim Jolayemi and Jake Roberge are both attacking options for the Panthers, while another 10th-grader, Chris Ralph, will get the starting nod in goal from Montgomery.
“Some of these sophomores will be big-time players,” Montgomery said.
“Chris Ralph is a guy that has been training with me for a few years. He has great composure and is very skilled, and he should be back there for a number of years.”
One notable absence from the Franklin Regional lineup is senior striker Mike Roberge, the team's leading scorer last season. A Northwestern recruit, Roberge is dealing with an ankle injury that will keep him out to begin the season.
“He will be a starting forward when he gets out there,” Montgomery said.
“We hope to have him, for our sake, but we also hope for him that he can get back out on the field.”
Franklin Regional will not be taking part in a season-opening tournament this weekend, but the team will have its first game at 5 p.m. Saturday on the road against a former section opponent, Gateway.
Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or firstname.lastname@example.org.