At the start of the 2013 season, people kept asking Bethel Park girls soccer coach Jon Gentile the same question: "How are you going to replace A.J. Baroffio?"
Baroffio scored 35 goals and 13 assists in 2012, helping lead the Black Hawks to their third section title in program history and advance deeper into the postseason -- the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals and PIAA first round -- than they'd ever been.
Baroffio now starts as a freshman at Duquesne University.
But if teams thought there would be a drop-off in play from Bethel Park this season, it didn't take long to see that wasn't the case.
In their third game of the season, Bethel Park knocked off three-time defending PIAA champion Peters Township, 3-2. The Indians handed the Black Hawks two of their three losses in 2012.
"That was a huge win for our girls," Gentile said. "We always talk about our goals at the start of the season, and our first goal was to beat Peters. Playing Peters is always good because it shows you where you are and where you need to go.
"I know they lost some players, but they're always a great team. It was a big measuring stick for our team."
The Black Hawks were 12-1-1 overall, 8-0-1 in Class AAA Section 4 before Wednesday night's showdown against Baldwin (10-2-2, 8-0-2).
As for who was going to step up and fill Baroffio's shoes, senior Tatiana Ruzzini showed in the game against the Indians she was up to the challenge. Ruzzini netted two of the team's three goals and, had 19 tallies through 13 games.
Ruzzini scored 12 goals last season while playing outside midfielder, but moved into Bethel Park's lone striker position this season.
"We haven't replaced A.J., because you can't," Gentile said. "Tatiana is a different player, but she's been excellent. She has 19 goals and her speed puts defenses on their heels."
Ruzzini has the benefit of having one of the better playmakers in the WPIAL feeding her the ball in Halle Hammer. A junior midfielder, she scored 22 goals last season, and had 14 goals and nine assists through 13 games this season.
Joining Hammer in the midfield of Bethel Park's 4-1-3-1 formation are two of the team's three captains -- Chelsea Conway and Sarah Buczkowski. Junior Megan Barr is also a key contributor in the midfield for the Black Hawks.
Additionally, Lauren Toth plays behind Hammer, Conway and Buczkowski in a defensive midfielder role, where she plays a key part in the team's counter attack.
But the strength of the team is without question the back line. The Black Hawks returned all four starters from their defense, including four-year starter, center back and captain Lindsay Boss. She is joined by senior center back Rachel Gaddis and senior outside backs Jess Horgan and Alexis Machi.
"Our back four is phenomenal," Gentile said. "They only allowed one shot against Mt. Lebanon and one shot against Baldwin. Defensively, we've been very strong."
That has been key because the Black Hawks have had to endure two goalkeeper changes since the end of last season.
Senior Laura Page and junior Tara Nath both competed in the preseason to replace last season's goalkeeper, Alexis Kiebler, who graduated. With Nath being a strong outside midfielder, Gentile decided to go with Page to have both in the lineup.
After Page started the season 7-1 with six shutouts, she sustained a knee injury (torn anterior cruciate ligament) in a freak accident a few weeks ago.
So Nath transitioned back to goalkeeper for the team's Sept. 20 game against Mt. Lebanon, and has recorded three clean sheets in three contests.
"Tara has been great so far," Gentile said. "It does hurt our offense a bit with her having to go back to goal, but we're hoping that some of the younger players will step up."
Gentile knows he'll need more scoring punch if the team wants to play at Highmark Stadium for the WPIAL championships.
Since Nath went to goal, Bethel Park has scored just three goals in three games.
"Defensively, we're very strong," Gentile said. "But the major key going forward will be being more creative on the attack. Tatiana's speed and Halle's creativity and hard shot have bailed us out so far.
"But moving forward we'll need others to step up to get where we want to be."hssoccer
First Published October 9, 2013 8:00 PM