Seniors set tone for Mars girls soccer team
The Mars girls soccer team's senior class can be defined by many accomplishments.
It experienced four section titles, three WPIAL championships and a state crown. Along the way, the group helped the Planets rack up an 84-5-4 record.
However, head coach Blair Gerlach believes the biggest measurable for the 11 seniors is character. The Planets certainly showed it this year in the wake of major adversity as seniors Karli Paracca, Lydia Dennis, Olivia Haefner and Maggie Sarver all were sidelined with season-ending knee injuries.
Those injuries helped derail the team's quest for a fourth straight WPIAL Class AA title.
“They set their sights on accomplishing things. They were trying to get a fourth championship, but it just came down to too many things to overcome,” Gerlach said. “Not only did it hurt us come playoff time, with those girls not on the field, in terms of talent, but because of the leadership that wasn't on the field because they were all sitting by me.”
The injured Mars players tried to make the most of their unfortunate situations.
“It was a challenge. They came to every practice, knee braces and all. They encouraged the girls during fitness sessions and practices and games. They asked questions and gave advice,” Gerlach said. “It was like they all turned into assistant coaches. It was great because it was all for the greater good of the team and them helping out in any way they could, rather than any personal gain.
“A lot of kids would walk away and go home and watch TV and go through their physical therapy and be done with it. This group of girls stayed committed to this thing. It is pretty inspiring for those younger kids.”
Paracca, who has a soccer scholarship to Kent State University, helped set the tone early this season.
“She came to me the day she got her ACL. She wanted to do whatever she could to be on the sidelines. She said she'd keep stats or do whatever to help the team,” Gerlach said. “She didn't get to play her senior year, yet she was there every day. Olivia was the same way. That attitude is absolutely contagious.”
The Planets, who graduated eight seniors from 2012, began the year with three of their seniors (Paracca, Haefner and Sarver) out with injuries. The situation became worse when Dennis injured her ACL in the team's sixth match. Paracca and Dennis represented big parts of the team's offensive production.
“With the absence of Karli and Lydia, that was 70 goals. Once you lose really dynamic, big-time goal scorers, you have to play a different way, a little more indirect,” Gerlach said. “You have to win games on quality and not just quickness and athleticism. That was tougher for some of the older players who were used to the old way. The style had to change.”
Mars finished Section 2-AA play with a 14-0 record. Senior Amber Fichter helped pick up the slack as she scored 34 goals, which ranked fifth in the WPIAL. The Planets earned the top seed for the WPIAL tournament and earned a first-round bye.
However, Fichter, a Duquesne University recruit, missed the playoff match against Hopewell after picking up two yellow cards in the team's regular-season finale. The short-handed squad dropped a 2-1 decision to end the year at 15-2-2.
“The youngsters did well,” Gerlach said. “We lost 2-1 and both goals came on corners. I give them credit for hanging in there. If Amber would have played in that game, it would have been a different story. We had to make a lot of adjustments with her being out. She's a key player to miss in the middle of the field.
“We learned that you don't just get a win because you play for Mars; you have to earn it. It's a good lesson to learn because we have been pretty spoiled the last few years.”
Despite the upset loss, Gerlach was thrilled with the character his team showed.
“I am fortunate to have a nice community of kids I trust and they trust me. My reason for coaching is for the relationships involved, not winning titles, which are nice,” he said. “It's a great group of kids and they worked hard. It made this year really rewarding for me even though the only title we won is an undefeated section title.
“I am very pleased with the girls. I think they learned a lot of lessons that'll help them, moving forward. There was a lot of character built and lessons learned and a nice blueprint put forth. I think all the returning players will return motivated and hungry.”
Joe Sager is a freelance writer.