Yough forward Hannah Ponitz, right, beating Moon Area defender Sydney Schipani to the ball during a WPIAL playoff game last fall, is sitting out this season while she rehabs from a torn anterior cruciate ligament injury. She scored 17 goals last season.
By Nicholas Tolomeo Tri-State Sports & News Service
It was tough not to hear the doubters this offseason -- Yough girls soccer coach Dann Appolonia certainly heard them.
How were the Cougars supposed to duplicate the success of their 2012 campaign without their top two goal-scorers back?
Last season Yough rose to the top of Class AA Section 1, winning its first section title in program history. Freshman Mikayla Mance burst onto the district soccer scene and led the WPIAL in scoring with 44 goals. Teammate Hannah Ponitz, a sophomore, was second on the team with 17 goals.
Then the offseason happened.
Mance has chosen to play for the Riverhounds Development Academy team this season and Ponitz sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the spring and will miss the entire season. Just like that, Yough was unexpectedly down two of the best goal-scorers in the WPIAL.
"A lot of people were saying, Yough is not going to be any good, they don't have this player returning or that player," Appolonia said.
"Mikayla did score 44 goals last season, but there was a lot of support behind her, Mikayla didn't score 44 goals on her own. The way we have started this season, there is a lot of talent here still."
Yough has just about picked up where it left off last season. The Cougars were 4-1 overall, 2-0 in Section 1-AA. They had wins against two Class AAA schools, Ringgold and Greater Latrobe.
Through five games they had only conceded two goals while scoring 17 before Wednesday's match at Uniontown.
Playing with a starting lineup of mostly freshmen and sophomores, Yough finished 16-4 last season and was a perfect 12-0 in section play to claim the program's first section title.
"It has been a long time coming, bringing the program from where it was to respectability to being on top of the section," Appolonia said.
In the playoffs Yough knocked off Elizabeth Forward, 2-1, in the first round before falling, 4-0, to Moon Area, the eventual PIAA Class AA champions, in the quarterfinals.
"I thought we were very good last season, but we were playing against teams with one or two years more experience," Appolonia said. "This year I am seeing that extra year of maturity. The girls are understanding the game and that definitely makes a big difference."
A lot has been made of what Yough lost from last season but the team returns eight starters.
Junior goalie Leigh Appolonia, the coach's daughter, was named to the all-section team last season. She plays behind a talented and experienced defense with junior Alexandria O'Brien, junior Taylor Powell and senior Ellie Balko.
Junior Theresa Merlino and junior Natalie Luppold are returning starters in the midfield. Junior Danica Pils makes the move from defense to forward this season and she plays at the top of the formation with sophomore Shawna Zaken.
Zaken is the top returning goal-scorer, having scored 17 last season. Senior Samantha Maughan and Franki Berarducci also return to the lineup this season. Both Maughan and Berarducci were starters two years ago but Maughan missed last season with an injury and Berarducci did not come out for the team. Maughan plays on defense and Berarducci plays in the midfield.
Through five games, Luppold had five goals while Zaken had four and Pils two through four games.
"One thing we preached this year is that we need to get scoring from all aspects of the team," Dann Appolonia said. "We cannot rely on one or two players to do the bulk of the scoring right now."
While Yough could count on outscoring most teams last season, this season the Cougars are leaning more heavily on their defense.
"It is an adjustment like anything else," coach Appolonia said. "We have been forced to move girls who played defense up into the offensive zone. We have had to sort of rebuild things from the offensive side. We just need to play defensively as a team and score when we have the opportunity to attack."