It might seem as though the Norwin High School boys soccer team underwent some miraculous transformation as it neared the halfway point of this season.
After a difficult 1-5-1 start, the Knights have won seven of their past eight contests, the lone loss suffered in a non-section match. At 8-6-1 overall and 8-2 in Section 1-AAA, they hold first place and are in prime position to take the section title. They have two section matches remaining against Greater Latrobe (3-12-0, 0-10-0) and Penn-Trafford (8-4-1, 7-4).
For second-year coach Scott Schuchert's money, aside from some mental adjustments, Norwin has been this good from the get-go.
"It's a tough thing, cause at the end of the day the kids look at the score," he said. "I think, deep down, everyone on the team, including myself, knew we belonged in every game or, sometimes, outplayed our opponent."
Whether it was a brief lapse in defending or just a little lack of touch finishing, the Knights just kept coming up on the short end.
"We weren't executing when we got our chances and we weren't shutting it down when [opposing teams] had theirs," Schuchert said.
"We were a victim of giving up one chance after having several."
All six of the Knights' losses this season have been by a single goal.
"We were also giving up late goals, either end of halves or regulation. We'd play really well and give up a late goal to end the half," he said. "It's a heartbreaking way to lose."
The team began focusing on mental preparation, making sure that the players didn't take their foot off the gas pedal in either the first five or last five minutes of a half.
"We tried to learn lessons from each loss," Schuchert said. "We focused on [correcting errors] and started to see immediate results. The kids really believed that we were winning a lot of these games in the play, but soccer is a weird game where you can suddenly be down a goal and that's it."
Losing one of its best players also seemed to provide a galvanizing effect for the roster. Senior defender Zac Lakenan, previously an All-WPIAL selection, was lost for the season with a broken collarbone during Norwin's eighth game, a 3-1 victory against Latrobe that put an end to that early season four-match losing streak.
After winning a tight game against Connellsville five days later, Norwin pulled off a 2-0 victory against Penn-Trafford, which was tied for the section lead with Kiski Area going into the game. The second of Norwin's two goals came in the game's dying moments.
Schuchert said it showed well for a number of players who needed to step up in Lakenan's absence, and as an end-point to the team's tendency to fade at critical match-points.
"The game against Penn-Trafford set the tone for how we're now sitting, definitely," Schuchert said. "And being a rival, it was a big game. The way we finished it set a tone. I think it really led us into playing such a good game at Kiski."
Norwin defeated Kiski Area, 2-1, in its next section game, its second win of the season against the second-place Cavaliers (9-5-1, 7-2-1).
Senior and four-year-starter Ryan Victor, one of only four returning starters, has been the rock in a defense that has allowed an average of less than a goal over its past eight games. Senior forward Tyler Livingston, the team's biggest threat, sprung to life after a slow start and has scored at least a goal in four in a row.
Having earned victories against the top teams in Section 3-AAA, Norwin has set itself in a position to decide its own fate, in the section and beyond. Just don't tell the team that.
"Our goal right now is to win the next game," Schuchert said. "Our kids love to compete and practice in a tournament style. ... These boys love the feeling of tournament competition.
"The next few games are tournament to us and, hopefully, WPIALs will be the same. We're looking for that competitive challenge."
First Published October 9, 2013 8:00 PM