Peters, USC, S Fayette, lead 2014 Elite Eleven List
Eleanor Bailey | The Almanac
This autumn, Peters Township, Upper St. Clair and South Fayette dominated the boys’ soccer scene. The Indians charged to championships at the district and state levels. Plus, they capped a 22-2 campaign with a No. 9 ranking in the country by the National Coaches Soccer Association of America.
Unseated as PIAA champions by Peters Township, USC nevertheless experienced success. The Panthers handed the Indians their only defeats while claiming the Section 5 title. They finished runner-up in the WPIAL to Peters Township and ended their crusade to repeat as state champions with a loss in the first round of the PIAA playoffs and a 19-2-1 record.
South Fayette finished third in the WPIAL at the Class AA and fell one game shy of a trip to the state finals for the first time in school history. After that 2-1 sudden-death overtime loss to Lancaster-Mennonite in the state semifinals, the Lions finished 18-5-1.
Based on the success of those clubs, it is not surprising those three teams dominate this year’s edition of The Almanac Elite Eleven. The soccer all-star squad was compiled with the help of the area coaches. After all filled out a survey and submitted final statistics, the team was based on this information as well as games viewed by the sports staff.
While Mario and Nicco Mastrangelo headline the list as MVPS, three of their teammates from Peters Township join the twins. They are Rylen Faloni, Ryan Ponchione and Dylan Weyers. All senior midfielders, each earned all-section acclaim. While none possessed flashy stats, each proved vital links to an offense that racked up 83 goals and a defense that permitted only six goals and produced 19 shutouts. The unit proved impregnable in the playoffs. During the post-season, the Indians outscored the opposition, 30-2, including 12-1 in the PIAA state tournament. Individually, Ponchione scored twice and assisted on four goals. Faloni produced five goals with an assist. Weyers reversed those numbers with one tally and five dishes.
“Ryan sacrificed a lot of his offensive statistics to assist the team. Dylan makes the stops before the balls get to the back and Rylen was intense in the midfield,” said Peters Township coach Bobby Dyer. “They did tremendous jobs and had great years.”
While his numbers did not translate into a third straight state championship for USC, Robbie Mertz capped a great year by securing All-America honors to go along with his All-State, All-WPIAL and All-Section acclaim. The University of Michigan recruite dominated the midfield with his tenacity and talent. He dished up a team-high 26 assists and tallied 13 goals, second-best on the club.
“It is not an accident he was recruited by a Top 20 school, in arguably, the best conference in Division I men’s soccer,” said Bethel Park skipper Mike Galietta. “He may be the most technically gifted player I have seen in the 18 years that I have been coaching in Western Pennsylvania.”
Technique and athleticism are not the only assets Mertz brings to the table, says his own coach. Mike Blatz agreed he is a skillful player, but he noted Mertz is also a leader by example. “He comes to practice every day prepared to get better. Whether running a mile or working on a skill drill, Robbie is full-steam ahead. What he offers is beneficial to all the players on his team. He brings an energy to the game, not to mention a wealth of expert knowledge of the game.”
Garrett Blake and Doug Hapeman brought a high IQ to their play on the pitch. According to Blatz, both matched their intelligence in the classroom on the field. While both excelled in the back on a defense that recorded nine shutouts, each contributed their skills to also producing goals.
A senior, Blake is being recruited by Pitt and West Virginia. He plans to major in petroleum engineering. Noted for his tremendous throw-ins, Blake fired in seven goals and supplied seven assists.Regarding restarts, Blatz said of Blake, “”Garrett has something there that you just can’t teach. For us, it’s an opportunity for a goal and defenses are hard pressed to stop him.”
Overall, Blatz added of Blake, “Garett had a great year. He fulfilled the role we asked of him. There is more to him than his throw-ins. He can strike a ball over defenses, left- or right-footed. Defensively, he was certainly a physical presence. A stabilizing element to our back line,” Blatz said.
A national merit scholar, Hapeman headed in eight tallies and picked up two assists. “As smart as he is in the classroom, Doug is as smart on the field. He is always thinking,” Blatz said. “He’s watching and learning and suggesting what we can do here and there. He’s a student of the game. He finds ways to win games. Even though he is a defender, he can score goals.”
Ditto for Nick McKee. Over at South Fayette, the senior midfielder fired in 12 goals. His play enabled him and the Lions to reach heights never experienced before. After playing for a 3-14 club as a freshman, McKee helped pace South Fayette to a 50-14-6 mark, that included three WPIAL Final Four, one district runner-up title and two state playoff appearances, including this year’s semifinal.
“Nick is a fearless leader that consistently challenges himself and his teammates” said head coach Rob Eldridge. “His investment in South Fayette soccer is a big reason why our program is now on competitive maps in the South Hills and in the WPIAL.”
McKee’s name is also known throughout Pennsylvania. In addition to All-Section and All-WPIAL acclaim, he achieved All-State status. He is the first South Fayette player selected to that prestigious unit since Mike Blatz was named in the earlier 1980s.
At Canon-McMillan, Josh Kruczek garnered accolades at the state level. In addition to All-State honors, the senior claimed All-Section and All-WPIAL laurels. The Lafayette recruit scored six goals and registered eight assists for the Big Macs, who finished third in Section 5 behind USC and Peters. Throughout his career, Kruczek played a variety of positions at Canon-Mac. “This year,” said his coach, Larry Fingers, “Josh was a great team player, forgoing his goal-scoring stats from last year to provide a presence in the midfield. He did what was best for the team. Since his freshman year, Josh could be counted on to score goals, including many game-winners and big-time goals.”
Christian Snatchko stopped many attempts at big-time goals by the opposition. The junior posted back-to-back 12-shutout seasons for the Big Macs. He gained All-Section, first team honors in a league that features USC and Peters.
“Christian has a fantastic season,” said Fingers. “He really started to take over games as the season progressed. Christian has the ability to dominate his box and his feet are as good as any field players.”
In a season or two, Stefano Paolina could be one of those great field players with great feet and skills. The freshman exploded onto the scene this season, scoring eight goals for Upper St. Clair. He also dished up four assists. For his efforts, Paolina earned Almanac Rookie of the Year honors.
“Stefano wants to be a very good player,” said Mike Blatz. “He’s passionate about the game. He brings a bag of balls to practice and he is the last to leave the field. He loves to play and his skills continue to get better and better.”
When it comes to coaching winners, nobody does it better than Bobby Dyer. A champion as a player, he coached his alma mater to its first sweep in 25 seasons. Peters Township captured both the WPIAL and PIAA state championships, a feat not duplicated by the school since 1989. For his efforts in guiding the Indians to a 22-2 season, Dyer has been named Almanac Coach of the Year for boys’ soccer.