With All-WPIAL players returning at forward and goalie, the Belle Vernon Area girls soccer team has the offensive and defensive standouts to be a title contender in Class AA this season.
Not only are senior forward Hayden Pascoe and senior goalie Ashly Gagliardi returning All-WPIAL players, both are multi-year starters. Pascoe is a four-year starter and Gagliardi is a three-year starter.
The duo played a key role in Belle Vernon's 2012 season that featured 18 wins, a co-section title and trips to the WPIAL semifinals and PIAA playoffs. Pascoe scored 30 goals a year ago and Gagliardi played a big part in the Leopards recording 14 shutouts.
This season the Leopards were once again off to a solid start having won the season-opening South Fayette tournament with wins against Waynesburg Central and the host Lions and starting section play with a 4-0 win at Thomas Jefferson.
After a non-section 2-1 loss at Class AAA Greater Latrobe, Belle Vernon fell, 4-2, to perennial power South Park in a section showdown last week.
Belle Vernon defeated McGuffey, 9-0, Monday to improve to 2-1 in section play and 4-2 overall. The Leopards were scheduled to play at West Mifflin Wednesday night.
"We have a great group of girls," coach Paul Sasko said. "They are all working together and working hard, that is all I can ask for.
"We try to play a possession game and work the ball. I think we have a little bit of work to do on different things, hopefully we can come together and keep working hard and make some noise in the playoffs."
Overall, Belle Vernon returns seven starters. Along with Pascoe and Gagliardi, senior center back Maggie Lewis and senior midfielder Kelsey Lawson have all started for at least three seasons.
The center of the attack is Pascoe. Belle Vernon usually starts with a 4-5-1 formation that can look like a 4-3-3 with two flankers joining Pascoe in the attack.
"[Pascoe] just has a really high motor and an incredible work rate," Sasko said. "She works so hard and is very quick. She separates herself from defenders and gets a little bit of space and can get a shot off. She can finish with her right or left foot.
"Hayden plays target for us and she is perfect for that spot."
Pascoe has verbally committed to Kent State University. She had 10 goals through her first six games.
Pascoe is joined in the attack sometimes by two outside midfielders who flank her, juniors Samantha Mendecino and Ally Demko.
Defensively, sophomores Marissa Zetty and Courtney Hrycko and senior Stephanie Morgan join Lewis. Hrycko and Morgan are central defenders while Zetty and Lewis play on the outside.
The defense has the luxury of playing in front of an experienced goalkeeper in Gagliardi.
"Ashly is very experienced," Sasko said. "She works real hard. She is very athletic and has great technique for a goalkeeper. Technically, she is very solid and her being a three-year starter, that is a big thing."
The section race will likely come down to South Park and Belle Vernon again and Sasko thinks that Elizabeth Forward will also be in the mix, vying for first place.
Belle Vernon plays host to Elizabeth Forward Monday in a crucial section contest. The Leopards had an inside track on an outright section title a year ago after going 1-0-1 against South Park but they stumbled and lost, 2-0, at Elizabeth Forward, which allowed the Eagles to win a share of the section title.
Sophomore forward Meghan Lovett is one of many players back this season for the Belle Vernon Leopards.