Injuries, graduation aren't slowing Mars girls soccer squad

| Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

There were some question marks surrounding the Mars girls soccer team heading into the season.

And they weren't the usual ones dealing with whom the Planets might beat to win a fourth consecutive WPIAL Class AA championship or how far they could go in the PIAA playoffs.

The questions centered more on how the Planets would overcome the graduation of eight seniors and the loss of three other key players to season-ending knee injuries.

So far, Mars has erased any doubts that it is anything less than a serious contender for another district championship. The Planets have stormed past their first 12 opponents (10-0-2) and are atop the WPIAL rankings.

The adversity continued into the season for Mars as Lydia Dennis, an all-WPIAL striker, joined Karli Paracca, Maggie Sarver and Olivia Haefner as the fourth Planets senior to be lost for the year with a torn ACL.

“I am very impressed with our overall team work rate and work ethic. Hopefully we can keep surprising a few people,” Mars coach Blair Gerlach said. “When someone is injured, it has a ripple effect on our team. But all the girls are committed and they've bought in and are trying to do something people say we can't without these seniors.”

Despite losing a lot of its offensive firepower, Mars has had no problem finding the back of the net. The Planets have scored 82 goals and allowed only six through their first 12 matches.

Depth has been a key for Mars, which welcomed a talented freshman class this year.

“A lot of the youngsters had experience, but maybe it wasn't necessarily a lot on varsity. It was Cup soccer (in the spring) and it was some playing time last year. There was a lot of different exposure for those kids on a lot of different planes,” Gerlach said. “They're jelling. The chemistry is high and the kids have confidence in each other, and that's half the battle.”

The Planets have cruised in Section 2-AA. They outscored their opponents 76-1 through the first nine section matches this fall. Dating to 2009, the squad is 55-0-1 in section play. Seneca Valley was the last team to beat Mars in section action, 2-1, on Oct. 3, 2009. Since dropping to Class AA in 2010, the Planets are 50-0-1 against section foes. The lone tie came against Knoch on Sept. 26, 2011.

“I am not particularly impressed with the overall level of high school soccer in Western Pennsylvania, in general,” Gerlach said. “We're used to having three, four or five solid players on every team and I don't see it on any level. We've played some triple-A teams and I have seen some others. I am just not sure the overall level of soccer in Western Pennsylvania is at the level we all like to brag about.”

The Planets find plenty of competition among themselves.

“Our 11-versus-11 games in practice are of a higher quality than some of our season matches,” Gerlach said. “It's nice to have options. I don't think anything has surprised me about them, individually. Their ability to mesh the different ages together has been nice. They don't miss a beat. I give them a lot of credit for their chemistry.”

Continuing to develop its depth is important for Mars as it strives for the WPIAL's top overall playoff seed.

“We know how important it is to get that No. 1 seed. We're trying to finish the season and section undefeated. There are several titles we're going after and those are two of them. So, there are a lot of things to use for motivational tools,” Gerlach said. “We've played Norwin, Pine-Richland and Hampton and we have Mt. Lebanon at the end of the regular season. That's good. We'll try to play a quality triple-A team before the playoffs.”

The Planets know they won't have any easy matchups against Class AA opponents once the playoffs arrive.

“There are some very good teams in the field like Quaker Valley, Central Valley, Hopewell and Moon, to name a few,” Gerlach said. “It'll be a good challenge for our kids.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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