Leopards boys and girls head to PIAA playoffs
The most storied season in the history of the Belle Vernon Area girls soccer program continues.
Three days after making its first-ever WPIAL Class soccer semifinal appearance, the Lady Leps (18-3-1) downed Central Valley (16-2-2) 1-0 in the Consolation match to earn its first-ever PIAA tournament berth Saturday afternoon.
“I knew this would be a low-scoring game and I thought one goal could win it,” Sasko said. “They are a very good team who went to double overtime with South Park and they have barely given up any goals.
“I am truly excited for the girls and our program to finally make it to our first PIAA tournament.”
And the icing on the cake for BVA?
“We lost to Central Valley last year in the WPIAL quarterfinals on the same exact field,” Sasko said referring to the Lady Leps' 2-0 loss in the 2011 WPIAL Class AA quarterfinals.
“The girls have a good memory.”
The contest was played evenly throughout the first half, and while both teams had a handful of shots on goal, Central Valley had the better chances in the early going.
“We played into the wind in the first half and had it at our backs in the second half and that made a big difference,” Sasko said. “We figured they would try to come out quick.”
BVA controlled the play in the second half and the Lady Leps finally got on the board with 20:02 left in the contest when senior Lauren Kovalchuk made a spectacular individual play for what would be the game's only goal.
“They played the ball out and Lauren picked it up and drove it about 40 yards,” Sasko said. “I knew the shot would be wide or into the back of the net because of the angle, and we were waiting to see the back of the net move and it did.”
The story in the story for BVA is that it played the first half without defensive stalwart Heather Wells.
Wells, a senior, took the ACT exam in the morning and on the way to the match, she got caught in traffic and didn't arrive to Chartiers Valley Stadium until halftime.
Once she arrived, everything clicked.
Without Wells at the start of the game, Sasko moved Kovalchuk back from midfield to defense to keep things in check.
“Heather had to take a detour and didn't arrive until halftime so Lauren went back and we played defensive in the first half,” Sasko said. “Once Heather arrived we were able to play more aggressive.
“I had told Lauren that she could rest more on defense early but then she would have to turn it up in the second half and she did.”
Wells and the defensive unit played a stellar contest and not to be lost in the defensive effort was the play of holding midfielder Rebecca Buza.
The senior marked Central Valley's top player Katie Alexander and Buza barely gave her space to breathe the entire match.
“We started out a little slow in the first half without Heather not here and with Lauren playing in back but we adjusted,” Sasko said. “But we played well defensively and Becca playing (Alexander) so tight was huge.”
Sasko also pointed out the play of goalkeeper Ashly Gagliardi.
The junior goalkeeper made 11 saves to earn her school-record 14th shutout of the season.
“They tested Ashly a few times and she got involved early,” he said. “She was sharp and focused.”
The win finished off a trifecta for BVA in terms of its preseason goals.
“Our first goal was to beat South Park and we did that,” Sasko said. “Then we wanted to win the section title and we did.
“Today we played for our third goal and that was to make the state tournament and we have.”
BVA 2, South Fayette 1
The Belle Vernon Area boys are making it a recurring theme to make the PIAA soccer tournament.
And Jesse Kallam is making it a habit to use his head. Literally.
Ten days after scoring the lone goal in a 1-0 win over West Allegheny in the WPIAL Class AA quarterfinals with a head ball, Kallam, a senior, had a moment of déjà vu.
With BVA's Consolation match with South Fayette scoreless and a berth in the PIAA tournament on the line, Kallam headed in a pass from classmate David Wurmlinger with 6:46 remaining to give the Leps the only goal it would need to advance to the PIAA tournament for the third straight season.
“That was great, absolutely amazing,” Kerekes said of Kallam's goal.
“This is the second time he was on the receiving end of a hustle play by (Wurmlinger) and I'll tell you what, he is in the right place at the right time and he scores goals at the right time.”
Kallam spoke of the play that punched the Leps (15-4) limited-admittance ticket for the “third season”.
“Wurm had the ball in the corner and I saw an opening towards the front near post so I went to it and he played a great ball,” Kallam said. “I was able to head it in.
“We are just so excited because we weren't ready to go home yet and we came to play today.”
BVA was on the offensive for most of the first half, but the Leps could not score.
“I think that we got into our game plan early and in the second half we played exactly the game plan we set up,” Kerekes said. “Against a good team we can't make mistakes.”
The second half started the same way, but the Leps almost recorded a tally with 32:45 left.
Ryan Thomas put a shot on goal that goalkeeper Alex Gedrys blocked but it trickled out in front of the net.
The loose ball was played towards the net in the midst of a scrum, and South Fayette defender Danny Pruss deflected the ball out of bounds a mere foot before it went in the net.
The Leps stayed on the attack for nearly three minutes, but they couldn't capitalize.
Kerekes said that he was confident a goal was coming.
“We knew if we controlled the ball in their end most of the time, that we would get one,” he said. “It's really hard to try to stop (Wurmlinger) when other guys are scoring.”
With 27:20 left, South Fayette (14-6-1) had its best chance to score.
The Lions played a corner kick and it was headed towards the net, but it went high over BVA goalkeeper Alex Robinson and it hit the crossbar.
South Fayette wouldn't get another good chance to score, and BVA controlled the pace until Kallam broke the ice.
Kerekes said that his team's patience was a big key.
“Us moving the ball around and being patient was big,” he said. “We had to limit their chances and not turn the ball over and I think we did a good job of both.”
Another key in the contest, according to Kerekes, was that his team played their type of game whereas they did not in their WPIAL semifinal loss to Mars.
“We played the way we wanted to play and got into our system,” he said. “We didn't do that against Mars.
“These guys don't want to be a one-and-done in the states,” Kerekes said. “Hopefully we play well.”
Both Leopards teams will travel to Fairview, just outside of Erie, for a doubleheader Tuesday against District 10 champions. The Lady Leps will tangle with Mercyhurst Prep (16-4) at 5 p.m. while the Leps will play Harbor Creek (18-1-1) at 7.
Bill Hughes is a freelance writer.