Hypothetically, if the Ringgold High School boys soccer team was in Class AA this season -- as they were last fall -- the Rams would be a WPIAL championship contender.
But after a move to Class AAA, the question heading into the season was how competitive they would be against a higher level of competition. The Rams couldn't be any happier with the answer.
The "neighborhood" might be a tougher one, but little else has changed for Ringgold, which, to the surprise of some, has quickly become a force in Class AAA.
The Rams, who advanced to the WPIAL Class AA semifinals and went undefeated in their section last season, are back to their old tricks. They are 9-2 overall and 5-1 in Section 4-AAA.
Ringgold coach Frank Perez said he expected his team to be solid, but admitted that the team's goals have changed considerably after a rapid rise that has been somewhat unexpected.
"We came in [to the season] a little tentative," said Perez. "We came into this saying, 'Hey guys, we're going to compete. That's our goal.' Low and behold, I think we figured out that we have a good team here. Now that we've started to win and gain confidence, we not only want to make the playoffs, but we want to win the section [title]."
That self-assurance has grown by not only winning, but by winning big. Ringgold won each of its first five section games by at least two goals, outscoring those teams, 35-2. Overall, the Rams have outscored their opponents, 51-7. Their only losses have been to Butler, 2-1, in the Belle Vernon tournament and to Bethel Park, 2-1, Tuesday in a section match.
The Rams earned a lot of big wins last season on their way to a 17-2-1 season (12-0 in Section 6-AA), and their most significant this season might have been a 3-1 triumph against Mt. Lebanon.
It was the Rams first marquee section matchup, as they played a Blue Devils team that is annually one of the best in Class AAA. In that game, the Rams got goals from senior Nick Cichon, senior Troy Dolanch and sophomore Connor Dudas on their way to the win.
"The boys came out pumped up and ready to play that team," Perez said. "They're a really good team."
Just as the Rams did a season ago when they outscored the opposition, 77-5, and did not allow a goal until the final game of the regular season, they have once again been excellent offensively and defensively.
Dolanch plays a key role in the team's success in both areas. A starter since his freshman season, Dolanch is not only talented, but extremely versatile. He has played a lot of defense in his career, but now plays more of a "holding midfielder" role, according to Perez.
"In my eyes, he's one of the top five players in the WPIAL," assistant coach Ron Fransko said. "He's that good."
Senior Jeremy Reiland, the Rams' first-year starting goalkeeper, has six shutouts. Playing in front of him are a group of defenders that includes seniors George Chettle and Cody Dean, and sophomore Josh Briscoe.
Cichon, a forward, led the team in scoring through 10 games with 14 goals.
"He really is one of the premier strikers out there," said Perez. "The kid is just a good ballplayer."
Also at forward, the Rams have been getting contributions from a group that includes Dudas and junior Nathaniel Patton.
Perez's son, Jeremy, a junior, is a three-year starter at center-midfield. The midfield unit also includes seniors Hunter Homa and Jesse Pry and junior Devin Beck.
"It has been a heck of a start," Frank Perez said. "The success goes to the players. They dedicate themselves year-round. They come to practice ready to work."hssoccer