The WPIAL soccer season is nearly a month-and-a-half old, a period in which the Bethel Park boys soccer team has played some very important games.
The one the Black Hawks play this week, however, will play a big part in defining their season.
"It's quite a monumental week for us, to say the least," Bethel Park coach Mike Galietta said at the beginning of the week.
The playoffs are not here quite yet, but Galietta expects the three games his team plays this week to be similar to playoff games. Bethel Park (13-2 overall, 9-1 in Class AAA Section 4) was scheduled to play its final three section games this week, a run of matchups that includes the teams directly behind them in the section pecking order -- Mt. Lebanon (8-3), Ringgold (7-2) and Baldwin (7-4).
Bethel Park began to run the gauntlet of challenges Tuesday against Mt. Lebanon and edged the Blue Devils, 1-0. Tonight, the Black Hawks travel to Baldwin, before heading to Ringgold on Saturday.
The Black Hawks clinched a WPIAL playoff spot last week and have a shot to retain their section title with a strong showing this week. Their only section loss heading into the week was at Mt. Lebanon, 1-0, on Sept. 20. The Black Hawks have gone on to win their next six games.
"Everything holds in the balance of this week," Galietta said before the Mt. Lebanon match. "We can come out of the week with the section title, which would certainly give us a much better seeding. We've got the three section opponents who are by far the toughest."
Some teams might easily fold under similar circumstances, but for Bethel Park, falling apart and wearing down is unlikely. The Black Hawks are a perennial playoff team that advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals a season ago, and their coach said this is a close-knit bunch that goes hard at all times.
"This might sound cliché, but I think team unity [is one of our strengths]," Galietta said. "Then I think just our willingness to work, not just in games, but in training as well. For us to be successful, we have to play with high energy and be fit, which we are. That work ethic goes a long, long way."
It doesn't hurt to have good players, and Bethel Park sure has its share of those. Among them are junior forward Mike Guerrero and senior midfielder Sean Gallagher.
Guerrero has been the top scoring threat for the Black Hawks, who entered the week having scored 76 goals, an average of better than five per game. Guerrero has netted 14 of those goals, all while freeing up opportunities for his teammates.
"He's been fantastic," Galietta said. "We've emphasized to him that he needs to use his size and hold guys off. He usually attracts two defenders. He's taken some guys out of the mix to give other guys some space."
Gallagher is a three-year starter who played forward as a junior, but dropped back to play center-midfielder his senior season. Gallagher is excellent with the ball and uses his distributing skills to be the team's quarterback, so to speak.
"Sean's job is to create," said Galietta. "With the ball at his feet, in my opinion, he's one of the best kids in the WPIAL. He has very good vision. He creates problems for defenses. His best attribute is when he has the ball at his feet, drawing defenders and feeding it."
Joining Gallagher in the midfield is his brother, T.J., a junior. Senior Jimmy Vehac plays forward and in the midfield, as does senior Nate Saffer. That same versatility extends to reserves Zach Baker, a senior, and junior Brian Kelly. Senior midfielder Nick Salicce is also a key player.
In addition to its strong offense, Bethel Park has been equally adept at keeping the ball out of its own net, having posted eight shutouts. The defense is led by workhorse right fullback Wyatt Meehan. Left fullback Asher Burn has scored some big goals, according to Galietta. Junior Dan Vater and sophomore Anthony Rack are the two center backs.
Junior Quentin Keibler is the starting goalkeeper. He is backed up by senior Zach Schindehette.