Lance Lysowski | Observer Reporter

Eight starters are gone, including two who accounted for 48 goals, but not much has changed for the Peters Township boys soccer team.

There is still a mentality that every play and every loose ball counts.

While expectations are still high, the Indians are nursing injuries so there is no shortage of learning in practices. That’s necessary because of the players lost to graduation.

Sure, head coach Bob Dyer is curious to see how he can replace dynamic all-state strikers Nicco and Mario Mastrangelo, freshman starters at St. Francis (Pa.), but they aren’t the only ones.

There is defender Jake Valley, who was sensational in the playoffs, using his speed to close on opposing forwards.

Midfielder Dylan Weyers was the backbone, a leader on and off the pitch. Sean Harrison was a shutdown defender. Ryan Ponchione was a selfless midfielder who was talented enough to score, but deferred to his speedy forwards. The list goes on with goalkeeper Josh Deyarmin and midfielder Rylen Faloni.

That group helped the Indians allow just six goals in 24 games, a run that ended with a PIAA Class AAA championship, the program’s fourth and the first since 2007. They also won a WPIAL championship and continued the legacy of Peters Township soccer. Despite the departures of key players, USA Today ranked the Indians No. 9 in the nation in its preseason ranking.

It is going to take more than three weeks of preseason practice to replace not only the skill lost, but the chemistry and leadership on the pitch.

“The biggest thing is just getting experience and getting them through the space of learning how hard you have to work and what the level of expectations are for a player inside this program,” Dyer said. “We aren’t going to fill those positions right off the bat. There will be some growing pains there.”

Dyer will look to the five senior captains: Matt Massucci, Kelson Marisa, Brady Pike, Bennett Faloni and Sam Lindsay. Marisa will be counted on to mark the opponent’s top offensive threat, Massucci is taking on a prominent role after being a reserve the past two seasons, and Lindsay, who sat out last fall after a concussion, will help replace Valley.

“I know we lost some people, but I think those guys set a precedent on how to lead the team,” Marisa said of the 13 seniors who graduated. “That carried on to us captains. We know how to lead a winning team. It’s a successful program. We’re expected to go out every single year and perform like Peters Township soccer does.”

There are two promising strikers with the ability to replace the Mastrangelo brothers. Sophomores Bryce Gabelhart and Logan Brinsky possess similar skills, but are inexperienced at the varsity level.

It won’t happen overnight, especially with a tough non-section schedule to start the season, which includes Central Catholic, Mt. Lebanon, Bethel Park and North Allegheny.

“They bring a lot of skill and talent, plus they bring drive to score goals,” Dyer said. “Those guys are learning that when you lose the ball, don’t drop your head – hunt it. They are very talented players. It won’t take them long.”

For a soccer team to make a run like Peters Township’s last fall, which included 22 wins and outscoring opponents 12-1 in the state playoffs, 11 players must move as one unit. That requires unity and it’s something the Indians are working to develop as they prepare to open the season Friday at home against Sewickley Academy.

It’s not about who is gone but who is back and what those players learned from the class that preceded them.

“We have some young guys who look up to us and you have to be role model,”” Massucci said. “We have to set a positive example and show them how to get things done. I think toward the end of the year is when people start to dig deep and really start to want to win it for their teammates. That’s going to be the motivating factor.”

Despite the national ranking and the respect earned around the WPIAL, the Indians are not the favorite in Section 5-AAA. Canon-McMillan returns seven starters, including one of the top keepers in the district in senior Christian Snatchko plus senior forwards Nick Sodini and Luke Maher.

Upper St. Clair, which lost to the Indians in the WPIAL title game the past two seasons, welcomes back longtime head coach Uwe Schneider, who missed last fall while recovering from an injury from an accident at his home, and a large group of upperclassmen. Growing pains will be prevalent when the season opens, but the Indians are confident that lessons learned from those who are gone will pay off.

“There is a lot of pressure, but it’s a good challenge to have,” Faloni said. “We have a lot of room to grow. If we just listen to our coaches and do the right things, we can definitely play up to the skill level they had last year and shock some people. The underdog mentality is powerful. It can take you to some pretty cool places.”