Canon-McMillan boys soccer coach Larry Fingers noticed a troubling trend during his first season at the program's helm.
The Big Macs were able to hang with the elite of Class AAA -- including notable Section 5-AAA peers Peters Township and Upper St. Clair -- but they couldn't find a winning edge.
The Big Macs finished 8-6-5 overall in 2011, his inaugural season, with all six losses by a single-goal margin plus the five ties.
"We couldn't score goals," he said. "Last year, I told the kids we were going to try to turn into more of a free-form type of attack, in terms of all the players being allowed to go and attack."
While Fingers noted the team was tentative at first, the Big Macs began to buy into that style as the season continued. Canon-McMillan finished third in its section, but improved its regular season record to 14-4. It didn't tie a single game and won six of its final seven heading into the playoffs, outscoring opponents, 32-4.
The late-season magic didn't stop in the playoffs. The 13th-seeded Big Macs went on their best postseason run ever and captured the WPIAL Class AAA title. Their postseason included victories against section champion Peters Township and Upper St. Clair, the eventual state champion.
After going 0-5-1 in the regular season against the duo in Fingers' first two seasons, the Big Macs compiled a 3-1 mark against the Indians and Panthers in the 2013 postseason, losing to the latter in the quarterfinals of the PIAA playoffs.
Fingers gives a lot of credit to his team for grasping a strategy that isn't very easy to grasp.
"We're really not a conventional team in terms of our style of play," he said. "We constantly change guys through the run of play. ... I try to train the kids on their decision-making, their ability to play within the game. If someone sees a weakness or opportunity, they have the right to go.
"I never anticipated high school players being able to do it on a large scale."
It's a hard standard to ask of professional players, let alone amateurs.
A forward may drop into midfield and draw a defender out, but a teammate must be able to see and exploit the hole. A left back can run by a forward on an attacking run, but someone else must be ready to cover his suddenly unfilled position against a counter attack.
One player who has thrived in the system is senior midfielder Corey McCurdey, one of four returning 10-goal scorers and eight starters.
"We don't really stay in a set position, everyone's allowed to move freely," he said. "Most people won't expect an outside back to go forward or a striker move across the field. We're allowed to do what we have to do."
Senior Ivan Viveros acts as the Big Macs' spine. Typically a center back, he's also deployed centrally in the midfield or, occasionally, as a forward. Essentially, Viveros is moved to wherever he's needed most.
"Once you get the feel of the game, it's easy to transition from center back to center midfielder," he said. "It's a different role, but if you get the feel of the game, it's made easier."
Viveros said the team's tendency to play strong, ball-winning defense in midfield gives the offense the ability to deploy quickly in any situation.
"Once we get possession, our attackers are already looking for runs," he said.
With this effective, fluid style, Canon-McMillan has risen to the upper echelons of Class AAA. At 6-0-1 -- 3-0-1 in section play -- the lone blemish to its record is a 1-1 draw with Upper St. Clair, a result that would have been welcomed in years past, but feels like a missed opportunity now.
"My first year, we played to compete," Fingers said. "Last year, we played to beat the top teams.
"This year, there's something to be said of teams that want to win and those that expect and believe to win. I think that's the biggest change with us -- we believe we can win."
First Published September 19, 2013 4:00 AM