If the Baldwin High School girls' soccer team was ever going to qualify for the WPIAL playoffs again, this was going to be the year.
After section realignment, two-time reigning PIAA champion Peters Township was placed in Section 5-AAA. Suddenly, competing for one of the three playoff spots in Section 4-AAA did not seem quite as daunting.
But more importantly, with nine returning starters, the Highlanders had the talent and experience to compete with the remaining postseason contenders in Section 4-AAA, including Bethel Park, Mt. Lebanon and Ringgold.
Baldwin took advantage of the opportunity going 9-3 in section play to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 1993.
Coach Vicki Hritz had been around as an assistant the past three seasons when Baldwin finished in fifth place each year. The program had actually finished in fifth place in Section 4-AAA six consecutive seasons dating back to 2006.
There had been winning seasons such as in 2005 when the team went 15-4 overall, but the program could never play its way into a top-three finish in the section.
The Highlanders (12-6, 9-3) did just that this year by finishing in a tie for second place with Mt. Lebanon.
It was an early-season game against Mt. Lebanon that showed Hritz, in her first season as head coach, that things might be different this year.
Last season when Baldwin met Mt. Lebanon, Baldwin lost a 1-0 heartbreaker in double overtime. The first time the teams met this season, double overtime was needed once again but this time it was Baldwin coming away with the golden goal.
"We knew Lebo is generally always a good team," Hritz said. "That game was a real confidence booster for us and a turning point."
It was games against programs such as Mt. Lebanon, Bethel Park and Peters Township that usually decided Baldwin's postseason fate in the past.
"We have not necessarily always played those teams incredibly tight," Hritz said. "But I feel like we are more and more competitive even if we weren't able to get a win out of them. Those games are not just throwaway games anymore; they are games we can win."
Baldwin graduated just five seniors from last season, including two starters. The only holes to fill coming into this season were at goalkeeper and defender.
Junior Liz Spegar stepped in as the new starting keeper and excelled. The Highlanders have 10 shutouts this season.
"We have a new goalie and she has done really well," Hritz said. "That was basically our biggest hole to fill."
Stephanie Mizla and Nicole Venturino are both senior captains. Mizla starts as a central midfielder and Venturino is a defender. Samantha Yule, a junior captain, plays the stopper position.
Junior Amanda Grmusa plays alongside Mizla in the central midfield.
Junior forwards Lydia Fennell and Alicia Mastroianni are the team's leading scorers. Fennell scored 12 goals and Mastroianni has 11.
"Alicia is very technically skilled, she moves well off the ball and on a breakaway she is very good at scoring," Hritz said.
"Lydia is more of a smash-and-grab player -- she runs through people and she can clean up garbage goals. She is very aggressive. It doesn't always look pretty, but she gets it done."
Fennell and Mastroianni are sometimes subbed out for juniors Katy Pearson and Carly Baumann. In the 4-4-2 formation, Hritz runs her forwards in tandems with Fennell and Mastroianni playing together and Pearson and Baumann playing together.
"Between the four of them we have two combinations," Hritz said.
"We just ask them to give us all they have and then we switch in fresh forwards, so we always have fresh people out there."
First Published October 18, 2012 12:00 AM