The seniors on the Central Valley girls' soccer team have never lost a section game.
With their section unbeaten streak of 56 games on the line Monday night, it was up to seven freshmen to stretch it to 57 ... and they did.
In its biggest test of the season thus far, the young Central Valley team rallied from a 1-0 deficit against Hopewell to equalize the score and hold on for a 1-1 tie.
Despite graduating seven starters from last season, Central Valley found itself 8-0-1 overall and 5-0-1 in Section 3-AA and ranked No. 4 in Class AA before Wednesday night's match at Ambridge Area.
The section unbeaten streak stretches back to 2009 when the current seniors played for Center High School, before its merger with Monaca to form Central Valley. Center reached the WPIAL semifinals that season. It also reached the WPIAL semifinals last year as well as the PIAA semifinals, while compiling a 21-3 overall record.
But there were major questions facing coach Mark Perry this year with seven starting positions needing to be filled, including three defensive positions and goalkeeper.
"For us losing seven starters and to be 8-0-1, I am very pleased and a little bit surprised by how well we are doing," Perry said. "We are a very young team but we are off to a good start."
Central Valley owns non-section victories against Montour, Burrell and South Fayette. Within the section it dominated Ambridge, Ellwood City, Riverside and Blackhawk while getting past Beaver Area, 2-1. Its biggest challenge by far came Monday at Hopewell (5-2-1, 5-0-1).
After a scoreless first half, Hopewell took a 1-0 lead four minutes into the second half. Central Valley freshman Hannah O'Connor scored with nine minutes left in regulation to force overtime.
"It was a really good result for us," Perry said. "I would have considered us an underdog before the game. Hopewell is big and strong and athletic, we are skillful but not as big and strong. We had to try and use our skill and play the ball quickly, so we don't get caught in those physical situations."
The new-look defense is anchored by junior Ashley Mutkus, one of the most selfless players on the team. Mutkus, one of the leading goal scorers for the Warriors as a freshman and sophomore and one of the top goal-scorers in the WPIAL, moved to defense to help shore things up despite never playing defense in her career.
"She is sacrificing some of her personal goals this year," Perry said. "If we played her up top or in the midfield, she would score a lot more but it is better for the team. She has never played in the back before but she has done really well. She is as good as a defender as there is."
Mutkus played one of her best defensive games of the season against Hopewell. Mutkus moved to midfield when Central Valley was trailing Hopewell and she moved back to defense after the Warriors tied the game. This season she has also managed to score 11 goals in her limited time playing as a midfielder or forward.
The other defenders are senior center back Danielle Pontus and freshman outside backs Jessica Henderson and Ally Delostrino. Senior Elizabeth Lucci starts on defense when Mutkus is playing elsewhere and freshman Lexi Delostrino also sees time on defense.
Another freshman, Robyn Hampe, starts in net. She is the younger sister of former Central Valley standout Megan Hampe, one of the top goal scorers for the team over the past four seasons.
Perry was able to move Mutkus to defense because the Warriors have plenty of offensive firepower up top with junior forwards Katie Alexander and Molly Delostrino, the older sister of Ally and Lexi Delostrino.
Alexander and Mutkus are tied for the team lead with 11 goals while O'Connor's goal to tie the Hopewell game was her 10th.
"When you have players such as Katie Alexander and Ashley Mutkus, you are going to be in every game," Perry said.
Sophomore Karina Frantangeli starts as a center midfielder. Freshman Olivia Pritt and senior Haley O'Connor start as outside midfielders. Haley is Hannah's older sister. Olivia Pritt's twin sister, Cassie, comes off the bench to play as a forward.
Central Valley will resume section play Monday at home against Riverside.