Before taking the job at Upper St. Clair this offseason, Natasha Dirda was well versed in the tradition and expectations for the girls soccer program at the school.
When she was a head coach at Class AA Montour, the Spartans would play Upper St. Clair in a non-section match each year.
"[Upper St. Clair has] a very talented group of players," Dirda said. "Their work ethic is off the chart, just very competitive girls. Now it is just learning the style of play and getting used to what the expectations are on and off the field."
Dirda previously was a teacher in the North Hills School District while coaching at Montour. Now she is teaching math at Upper St. Clair High School and has some of her players in class.
"It is really great to see the kids on and off the field," Dirda said. "Some of these kids I have coached at the club level. It is fun to be able to have them in class.
"It was a big time commitment traveling from one school to the next. This definitely lightens the load. I can put more time, not just on the training sessions but film sessions and different types of team-bonding activities."
Upper St. Clair went 11-6-2 last season and reached the WPIAL quarterfinals. It finished 7-2-1 in Class AAA Section 5, behind Peters Township (10-0), which went on to win the WPIAL and PIAA championship.
With Peters dealing with a number of graduations and a few notable injuries, the section appears to be up for grabs this season. Peters has won three consecutive PIAA Class AAA championships, but not three consecutive WPIAL titles. Upper St. Clair knocked off the Indians, 3-2, in the 2011 WPIAL final. A few players from that team remain on the current roster.
"What we have been stressing is that every single game is going to be a battle," Dirda said. "It is a competitive section and our non-section games are preparing us for the section. I think whoever executes and whoever can play a great style of soccer will find a way to get it done, it will be very interesting."
Upper St. Clair opened the season by winning two games in the South Hills Classic at Century United Field in South Park. The Panthers defeated Mt. Lebanon, 4-1, Friday and shut out District 10 Mercyhurst Prep, 1-0, Saturday.
"It is a transition period for all of us, we are just working to all get on the same page," Dirda said. "So far it is going very well."
Upper St. Clair's top returning starters are sophomore forward Emma Asco, junior defender Sami Lackner, junior forward Brianna Erdman and senior attacking midfielder Olivia Belack.
"When I came in, I stressed that I don't really care what they did in the past, I will gauge them off what they do this year," Dirda said. "It was a clean slate, everything was open. We have a lot of talented athletes."
The defense should be a strength for the Panthers with four returning starters, Lackner and juniors Bailey Mielcusny, junior Heather Godwin and Julia de la Para.
"At center back, we need Sami to play a very vocal role this year," Dirda said. "It is one of the things we have been stressing, she is very athletic and a very smart player. We are challenging her to get everyone organized."
In net junior Sarah McMutry and Taylor Smith are competing for the starting job. Dirda, a former goalie herself, said she likes the competition in net. Offensively, Upper St. Clair showed its many scoring options in its first two games with Belack scoring two goals and Asco and seniors Jordan Selep and Megan Ebeck also scoring.
"We are depending on [Olivia and Emma] to have composure and take the leadership reins," Dirda said. "In Triple-A, every game is competitive. We are depending on their leadership."