There was plenty to celebrate on the bus ride home from Penn Hills for the Plum girls soccer team Monday night.
After a 2-0 victory against the host Indians clinched a playoff berth for the Mustangs, the team celebrated its win as it serenaded the birthday girl, senior midfielder Mikayla Ferchaw with a rendition of "Happy Birthday."
Ferchaw was turning 17, which means she was 7 years old the last time Plum reached the postseason.
Plum (8-5-2, 6-3-2 before Wednesday's section finale against first-place Gateway) is postseason bound thanks to its 2-0 win at Penn Hills on Monday night and overall strong play down the stretch, something sorely missing from the last three seasons.
The program appeared headed to the postseason in 2009 when it started section play 4-1, but that was followed by a 1-8 collapse. In 2010 the team started 2-0-1 only to have another 1-8 collapse. Last season through seven section games Plum was 4-3 but it would lose its last five section contests to miss out on the postseason again.
This year Plum seemed to gain steam down the home stretch securing a crucial 2-2 tie at Gateway and defeating Allderdice, Woodland Hills and Penn Hills as it went 3-2-1 over its last six section games.
Freshman Ashley Amato scored in the first half against Penn Hills to give her team a 1-0 lead and junior forward Aaliyah Odom scored on a header in the second half to put the game away and lock up third place in Section 3-AAA.
"That was a big win," Plum coach Mike Proviano said. "We did the job we were setting out to do -- that was our goal, to get to the playoffs. The girls fought hard and we couldn't be happier."
Proviano and his players were well aware of the drought and what was on the line Monday night at Penn Hills. The seniors had been around for the last three seasons when playoff hopes wilted in October as has Proviano, now in his fourth year as head coach.
"We talked about ending the drought," Proviano said. "We knew we had a good, solid team. We played through some injuries and we just hung together."
Missing the playoffs would have been another tough pill to swallow for the team this year, especially considering how close most of its games were.
Plum was involved in five one-goal games as well as two ties. It lost in overtime to Fox Chapel, it also lost in overtime to playoff-bound Franklin Regional.
"We've played in enough overtime games, we are used to it and that is nice come playoff time," Proviano said.
The Mustangs return five starters from last season, but two seniors are starters. They start four freshmen, including goalie Chelsea Hubner. Proviano was well aware of the freshman class he was inheriting, he coached many of the girls since they were 5 or 6 years old in age groups on various cup teams.
"We knew we had a good freshman class coming in," Proviano said. "We have a real young team and sometimes we play like that but sometimes you have to lose to learn how to win and they are getting to that point now."
Odom leads Plum with 15 goals. Freshman outside midfielder Alyssa Proviano, the coach's daughter, has 11 points to rank second on the team. Senior defender Megan Reddick is a two-time all-section player. She leads the defense along with senior Kristina Ioannou and sophomores Alexandra Gipson and Adalee Jacobs.
Freshman Nicolette Casarcia starts as an outside midfielder and senior Kara Ioannou, Christine's twin sister, is a defensive stopper in the midfield. She has been tasked this year with marking opponent's top scoring threats. She defended Gateway's Carly Seneca and Penn Hills' Brie Cook.
"We will probably draw a [section winner] in the playoffs," Proviano said. "But I truly think we are the best third-place team in the WPIAL. We are getting better with each game and the kids know how to win."