By Pete Sirianni
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – The Brockway boys’ soccer team made history Saturday becoming the first District 9 boys’ team to advance to the PIAA semifinals – and just the third District 9 team ever to reach the semifinals with a 2-1 win over WPIAL runner-up Springdale.
(Cover photo: Brockway’s Zane Puhala. Submitted photo. Photo by Thomas Weible)
Zane Puhala’s game-winning strike with 13:08 remaining lifted Brockway, the District 9 champion and winner of 20 straight, to the win breaking a 1-1 tie and lifted the Rovers into Tuesday’s state semifinals against WPIAL champion Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic. Brockway joins the 1996 and 2015 Karns City girls as the only District 9 soccer teams to reach the PIAA semifinals.
“It’s awesome,” Puhala said. “I love playing for the seniors. I love to help them out and don’t want their season to end. It’s crazy that we’re finally over that hump and won a couple state games. It feels really nice.”
Veteran Brockway head coach Rich Esposito was proud of his team’s effort in front of a large and loud contingent of Brockway fans, cheerleaders and parents at Slippery Rock High School.
“I keep saying the same thing every game,” Esposito said. “These kids just don’t care who they play. They play their brand of soccer. They don’t get worked up about anything. They play whoever on the field. They don’t quit. They have a lot of heart. We don’t get to see these teams around here much and we don’t have a lot of film and we just go by what we read, phone calls here and there. These guys just come out, play our game and move the ball around nicely.”
With Brockway in the semifinals, it’s believed to be the first time a District 9 boys’ soccer team has advanced to the final four of a state tournament.
“This is the furthest we’ve ever gone,” Esposito said. “I’m just proud of these guys and try to get one more and get to Hershey.”
All it took was Esposito’s halftime message to his team to simply relax.
“I don’t know what happened in the second half,” Esposito said. “Maybe they realized they can compete with the WPIAL and play with these kids. Maybe they came out more relaxed.”
Brockway took a 1-0 lead on a Puhala goal but the lead lasted just 65 seconds before Springdale equalized with 12:45 left before intermission. Then Brockway, as it did in the first half, came out of the break and dominated possession. Except this time, the team never let up as Springdale struggled for possession and chances.
“The flow of the game the second half…we took over,” Esposito said. “They can’t score if we have the ball and our game is a possession game with nice passing and try to slice and make those through balls. It just worked well for us tonight.”
The difference in the game was Puhala and fellow midfielder Hunter Allenbaugh controlling the middle of the field and the tempo of the offense.
“Hunter, Zane controlled that midfield pretty much the whole game,” Esposito said. “Our big guys are stepping up. At this level right now, you have to.”
After Brockway controlled possession for the first few minutes of the game, Springdale got its footing, mounting an attack that created numerous corner kick opportunities. The Dynamos took nine corners on the day – compared to just one for Brockway – but generated only four shots, two of which were on goal.
Puhala opened the scoring with a left-footed strike in the center of the penalty area with 12:45 left in the first half, giving the Rovers, which took 16 shots and put 12 on target, a little cushion.
The Dynamos’ Jared Denmore got the equalizer with 11:40 left in the half. However, it was one of the last major threats Springdale would make in the game, as Brockway continued to control the ball and were helped out by a defense that didn’t give up the big play.
“Our defense, to hold them to one [goal] I thought was pretty impressive because they have a lot of speed, a lot of skill out there,” Esposito said.
Springdale had an opportunity to take the lead with 14:40 left in the game when Sammy Rzeszotarski lined up a straight-on free kick about 22 yards out from Brockway’s goal, but the Rovers’ wall blocked the attempt. Then with 13:08 left in the game, Puhala scored his second of the afternoon which held as the game-winner.
“I was so pumped,” Puhala said. “I thought we could definitely drop in and defend them. I was pumped. It was just an awesome feeling…nothing better than it.”
Esposito said he was impressed with a number of fans the Rovers brought to the game, despite Penn State’s football team having a kickoff just two hours before Brockway took the field.
“We cannot get over how many fans we bring that follow us,” Esposito said. “All I heard all week since Tuesday was ‘We’re all coming, we’re all coming.’ The student section here, the fans. I had a bunch of people call me who are Penn State diehards that skipped the Penn State game to come here today. It energizes these guys. We say it every game that our fans give these kids so much energy, especially in close games.”
The Rovers now match up against North Catholic, which beat Mercer, 1-0, in the game preceding Brockway and Springdale.
“Win or lose we want to put on a good show for our fans for supporting us,” Esposito said. “I hope they all make the trip Tuesday.”
MERCYHURST PREP 2, KARNS CITY 1
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – It wasn’t as if Karns City and Mercyhurst Prep are strangers in girls soccer.
Before Saturday’s girls PIAA Class 2A quarterfinals at Slippery Rock High School, the two schools met in a scrimmage back in August. The Lady Gremlins came out on the short end that time, falling 4-1.
A few season-ending injuries and formation changes later, Karns City found its way to a rematch against the Lady Lakers, but two quick first-half goals were too much for the District 9 champions to overcome, falling 2-1.
“We scrimmaged them in our first game of the season,” Karns City head coach Tracy Dailey said. “We lost 4-1 to them, so we knew they were very textbook soccer. Getting it, playing it to feet, playing it down the line, into the center mids. They are a very well-coached team and they just played textbook soccer.”
Mercyhurst advances to Tuesday’s PIAA semifinals against District 5 champion Bedford.
The Lady Lakers (18-4-2) opened the scoring at the 36:50 mark when Sydney Johnston scored and then doubled its lead with 13:38 remaining before halftime.
“We just had to win the 50-50 balls,” Dailey said. “We just got beat to the balls in the first half. We sat back and had to be reactive instead of making them be reactive. I just said be the first one to the ball. Beat them to the ball. That’s the big key. We did that in the second half and we were able to get more pressure on them. It’s unfortunate it was a half too late. Coming from two goals down, we scored one. We had more opportunities. We just didn’t come out and be the first one to the ball in the first half.”
Out of the intermission, the Lady Gremlins started to get some offensive traction, working the ball in the middle and then down the flanks to create some pressure. Senior Haley Scherer converted her chance seven minutes into the second half to cut into the lead with a shot from inside the penalty area.
“We’ve been in that situation a lot this season battling back,” Dailey said. “I knew they were capable, but it is a little bit hard. They kept battling. In the second half and at halftime, I asked them to come out and improve from the first half and they did that.”
Scherer had another chance to score seven minutes later on a through ball pass from Hannah Knoll, but the attempt got away.
In the waning moments, Hunter Dittman got off a clean turn-and-shoot opportunity from the top of the penalty box with 50 seconds left, but that shot was saved by the Mercyhurst goalie.