East Xtra: Penn Hills emerges as a contender

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Penn Hills senior Mark Osborne couldn't have experienced a much more trying introduction to varsity soccer than he did in 2012.

After spending his first two years of high school focusing solely on travel soccer commitments, Osborne, a midfielder, joined up with the Indians as a junior. Penn Hills finished the season at 2-11-2 overall.

Osborne said the difficulties of 2012 became motivation for an improved 2013 season.

"Last year, we had a horrible year," he said. "We worked hard all summer, and came out with a lot of starting seniors and a good freshman class."

For as difficult as last season was, this year has proven to be the opposite. At 5-2-1 overall, and 3-1-1 in Section 3-AAA, the Indians have been one of the more pleasant surprises in Class AAA and look to be on a collision course with playoff qualification, something they haven't done since 2004.

"Our school hasn't done well in soccer for so long, it's a great feeling," he said. "At our home games now, there's a huge student section for us. It's awesome. I love playing for the school."

Third-year coach Keith Polliard believes a lot of Penn Hills' newfound success can be credited to a change in the team's attitude, from top-to-bottom.

"It's hard when you're changing a losing culture. It's hard to get people to buy into the system," he said. "We focused on structure, on team-unity. I think those are the main things that have happened. Looking now, after three years, you start to see those things taking root with players who have been in the system."

Polliard has been pleased with the growth he's seen from the players under his tutelage, not just in terms of soccer skills, but also in leadership and maturity.

"It's tough," he said. "You take teams when they're not winning, they fight with each other. ... I think the culture has changed now, and that the stronger players don't leave the weaker players behind. I think that's gratifying."

Tactically, Penn Hills operates out of a 4-5-1 alignment and plays a defensive brand of soccer. At the heart of the Indians defense are senior Ryan Bunyaratupan and junior Nate Ferraco. Acting as a buffer between the midfield and back line are holding midfielders Osborne and freshman Marc Alexander.

Penn Hills has also improved by leaps and bounds in attack since 2012. Senior forward Korey Sweeney typically acts as the lone forward, and plays a target-style game, holding the ball to create opportunities for speedy midfielders such as senior Hamilton Rodkey or laying off to 13-year-old freshman Reggie Holt, who already had six goals through seven games.

After scoring 11 goals through the entirety of 2012, the Indians notched their 16th of the season last Thursday in a 1-0 victory against section rival Plum.

The victory gave third-place Penn Hills -- Central Catholic leads the section followed by Fox Chapel -- a four-point buffer between itself and the Mustangs, who sit in fourth place, tied with Allderdice. The top three teams from Section 3-AAA qualify for the playoffs.

"We're sitting in a position that we don't have to rely on anyone [to reach the playoffs]," Polliard said. "We're taking things one game at a time.

"You don't want to look in the rear-view mirror. You look at obstacles in front of you and take care of business."



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