The boys soccer program at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School has produced some pretty good teams over the past few years, and this season's group is still on course to keep that tradition alive.
Chris "Kip" Michel, who played soccer for OLSH and graduated in 1998, believes there's only one difference between this team and the ones in the past.
"Teamwork," said Michel, in his sixth year as Chargers coach. "I'm impressed with how well they've played together. In the past few years we've had some good, talented teams but those teams relied on one or two players. This year, we have a lot of players we can go with to control the game and help win games."
Our Lady of the Sacred Heart has a 7-5 overall record and a 7-3 mark in Section 5-A. The Chargers trail Riverside (10-4-1, 7-2-1) and top-ranked Sewickley Academy (14-0-1, 11-0) in the section standings. All three have clinched WPIAL playoff berths.
"We're in good shape as far as section play is concerned," said Michel. "The guys seem to play better in the second half, and I certainly hope that is the same case this year.
"We still have certain areas where we need to improve. We're still getting the effort, but we have yet to play a full game so we need to work on finishing."
The Chargers opened the season with a 3-0 loss to Class AA power Blackhawk in a non-section match before losing their third game to Riverside, 3-2. After winning their next three games, Michel's team suffered a 4-0 loss to Sewickley Academy on Sept. 22.
"With the games we lost, Blackhawk and Sewickley Academy were simply better teams," Michel said. "There's a lot of talent on those teams. With Riverside, that game was pretty even but they outhustled us in that game. That was one game where we were not really prepared and the kids were not expecting that type of fight.
"We can't ever go into a game and not expect a fight. We learned the hard way against Riverside."
Last season, the Chargers posted a 6-4 section record but still made an impressive postseason run, advancing to the WPIAL championship game and then the PIAA quarterfinals. Michel's team lost to Seton-LaSalle in the WPIAL Class A title game before losing to section-rival Sewickley Academy in the PIAA quarterfinals and finished the season at 14-8.
"Coming off the success we had last year, I thought we'd be able to be competitive," Michel said. "I thought we'd be able to score more, but I think our offense will do better to finish [on scoring plays] and still can improve in the second half."
Sophomore midfielder Dan Shahen, who played football as a freshman, is playing his first varsity season and scored a team-best six goals in eight games. Junior midfielder Dominic DeMino followed with five goals.
"Dan jumped right in and brings a lot of speed," Michel said. "Dom has definitely been a go-to guy. He sets the tempo, controls the ball and makes things happen."
Michel also has been impressed with midfielder Zach Heller and forward Luke Jesikiewicz, both seniors, as well as junior defenders Greg Strong and Joe McNally.
Senior Shaun Spencer also has provided a veteran presence as the team's goalkeeper and has allowed 12 goals in eight games.
"Even though we lost, 4-0, to Sewickley Academy, Shaun made some incredible saves," Michel said. "Shaun is one of those kids who puts a lot of time in and a lot of effort in getting better. He's also shown a lot of good leadership."
Our Lady of the Sacred Heart has played well in recent weeks, winning three section matches in a row to clinch a WPIAL playoff berth before dropping a 1-0 decision to Neshannock Tuesday to end their run. The Chargers showed they could handle pressure by winning three of those matches by one goal and one even went to overtime.
The Chargers dispatched South Side Beaver, 3-2, Beaver County Christian, 3-2 in overtime, and Quigley, 1-0, to clinch the berth before losing to Neshannock Tuesday night.
Michel believes his team has the ability to contend in the WPIAL playoffs, but he also knows his group must work for every victory in order to accomplish that feat.
"We have to stay focused," Michel said. "We have to do everything right and that starts with passing and finishing. If we're not prepared, we're not going to be focused and we have to be focused to play.
"We also have to keep hustling. We have to play hard. If we do all of those things, we should keep winning games."