Norwin's girls soccer section rises in difficulty
Six teams were named champion of a Class AAA section in girls soccer last year. Three of those teams now have to play for first place in the same section.
As is the case with its boys team, Franklin Regional's girls soccer team moves east into Section 1-AAA — which now houses all the Class AAA schools in Westmoreland County — for this season's play.
The Panthers were champions of Section 3-AAA last year, while Norwin and Penn-Trafford split the Section 1-AAA title with matching 11-1-0 league records. Joining them in the section are Kiski Area, Hempfield, Latrobe and Connellsville, as a league known for being top-heavy just got heavier in the battle for three playoff berths.
Below is a look at each of the local teams entering the season:
The Panthers are a relatively young team, with just four seniors and four juniors on the varsity roster, but many of those players were key contributors to FR's section title last season.
The seniors are all returning starters, and they will cover all parts of the field. Goalkeeper Kristen Moore will anchor the back line, which now includes Karli Popko, who will move from a forward position to the defense. Katie Gvozden returns in the midfield, and Courtney Hanchey remains one of the top goal-scoring threats for FR.
Among the younger players, junior Cassidy LeDonne is a strong defender who also has a nose for the goal on set pieces, junior Gionna Fonseca brings a speedy threat to the outside of the midfield, and sophomore Jackie Cepicka brings playmaking ability to the attack.
Other key young players include sophomores Melanie Renda, Morgan Vensel and Hannah Smith, while freshman Bria McMahon has earned a starting spot in the midfield, according to coach Rich Garland.
“Coming out of this section, if you're able to make the playoffs, you're going to be able to advance,” Garland said.
“This season is going to be a lot of fun. We're looking forward to playing Norwin, P-T, Hempfield, all teams that bring it every night. It's fun to play with team that are skilled, and I think we're going to present a game that will challenge them.”
The Panthers open their season with a 7 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Gateway, after the conclusion of the boys team matchup between the two schools.
The Warriors reached the PIAA tournament last year by advancing to the WPIAL semifinals, but very few players remain from the team that took the field in the state playoffs.
“We have a lot of questions that we have to answer,” P-T coach Rick Nese said. “There's some people that need to get experience, but hopefully, we can come together by the end of the season and get ourselves into the playoffs.”
Sophomores Casey Aunkst and Kristen Swope saw extensive action as freshmen, and junior Kayla DiPaolo is returning to her starting position in goal. Miranda Wallace, Alexa Williams, Amy Clegg are among the seniors with some amount of varsity experience that will need to provide leadership for Nese.
Apart from that group, many of this year's Warriors will be players who spent last season on the JV squad, which has left Nese trying to put the pieces together before his team opens the regular season.
“This preseason has been like an NFL preseason for us,” Nese said. “We're not using the girls we know we're going to start in the regular season as much as the ones we want to see how they perform.”
Penn-Trafford opens its season by taking part in the South Hills Kickoff Classic at the Century United field in South Park. The team begins the year against Peters Township on Friday at 4 p.m., and it plays in the final match of the event at 8:30 p.m. Saturday against South Park.
The Knights have only four seniors, but they won't be totally without experience on the field.
Captains Marissa Antrilli and Rachel DelleFemine will return to the starting lineup, while seniors Brea Bolden and Kensey Johnson will take on an expanded role this season.
Junior Sierra Vecchio also has been a frequent starter in her first two years, while junior Abby Churchfield is geared up to hold down the outside defender position opposite Antrilli this season. Another junior, Samantha Farabaugh, came on late last season and gives Norwin a good aerial presence.
“I think we're a lot further along than I thought we'd be,” Norwin coach Jeff Palm said. “It hurts to lose some talented seniors, but we have a talented group coming in behind them.”
The Knights have two junior goalkeepers with limited experience, Cayla Imbarlina and Tarin Dawson. Dawson currently is dealing with an injury, which means Imbarlina will open the season as the No. 1 netminder.
Beyond those players are very deep sophomore and freshman classes, and Palm expects many of those players to be able fill roles when called upon, even in a more challenging section.
“I'm a lot happier with our new section. I think it's one of the strongest in the WPIAL,” Palm said. “The ultimate goal is to win a state championship. I hope not to lose any games, but losing against a good team will help us more than playing against weaker teams will.”
Norwin begins its season later than most teams, as its first game isn't until Sept. 6, when it goes on the road for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff at Baldwin.
Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or firstname.lastname@example.org.