Hayden Pascoe, by all accounts, is a fabulous player, one of the WPIAL's top goal scorers.
Lauren Kovalchuk is a respected senior captain, a Division I recruit who is also capable of being an offensive force.
Their coach at Belle Vernon, Paul Sasko, is happy they are on his soccer team. But he's just as happy to have an experienced group of stellar upperclassmen on his back line and in goal.
“The goal scorers get the spotlight, and they deserve accolades,” Sasko said. “But it starts in the back with us. Our defense has been playing real well and our goalkeeper has been playing real well.”
The Leopards have allowed only five goals all season. Belle Vernon is 13-1-1 overall and 9-1-1 in Section 4-AA play as the regular season heads into its final week.
Junior Ashly Gagliardi has 10 shutouts in her second year as a starter.
“She's probably one of the top goalkeepers in the WPIAL,” Sasko said.
Gagliardi is — and she's made to look even better by the group of two seniors and two juniors playing directly in front of her. The center backers are senior Heather Wells and junior Maggie Lewis; the outside backers are senior Kylie Kikta and junior Stephanie Morgan.
Between them, that foursome has eight years of starting experience at the varsity level, headlined by three-year starter Wells.
“It's a good mix of players,” Sasko said of his back line. “Heather is extremely quick and fast and also skilled. ... Maggie is just a rock solid defender, just very defensive-minded. It's a very strong defense in the center; those two complement each other really well.
“Then on the outside in the back — Steph and Kylie — Kylie has five goals and Steph is good at stepping up as well.”
Two senior captains play in the midfield — Kovalchuk and Rebecca Buza. Kovalchuk was an all-section honoree last year and has verbally committed to play at Stony Brook University. A four-year starter, she is second on the team with nine goals.
Buza is a defensive midfielder.
“She has great foot skills, and is really a very intelligent player with a high soccer IQ,” Sasko said. “She makes the right play, and she knows where to go with the ball. She's a good distributor.”
Junior Kelsey Lawson is another experienced member of the midfield.
Up front, sophomores Sam Mendicino and Caitlin Caldwell play on the flanks, with Pascoe as the target. Pascoe is a three-year starter.
“She's just a great goal scorer with a high work rate,” Sasko said. “She's good in the air, she takes people one-on-one, she has good speed. She just has a knack for scoring goals; she can find the back of the net.”
Belle Vernon has a big game against Elizabeth Forward on Wednesday. The Warriors are the only team to beat the Leopards this season — 2-0 on Sept. 24.
If Belle Vernon can win the rematch, it is assured of at least a share of the Section 4-AA title. And the Leopards went 1-0-1 against South Park, meaning it could claim the de facto championship.
Belle Vernon has been a regular playoff team over the past decade and won at least a share of its section from 2005-09.
“The girls really badly want to win the section this year,” Kovalchuk said. “We definitely want to try to beat EF on Wednesday and get the section, and from there try to get as far as we can in the playoffs. Hopefully, make it to states.”
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