South Xtra: Belle Vernon girls hunt WPIAL title

SOCCER

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The Belle Vernon Area girls soccer team knows a thing or two about unbeaten streaks.

The program had a 64-game section unbeaten streak spanning from 2005 to '10. That streak ended when the Leopards moved to Section 4-AA in 2010 and lost to South Park.

The juniors and seniors on the current Belle Vernon team did not forget that. Earlier this season they had an opportunity to return the favor to South Park, a program with a 67-game section unbeaten streak. The Leopards did just that with a 1-0 victory at South Park, a win that snapped a streak that extended over six years and did so much more.

The win vaulted Belle Vernon to the top of Section 4-AA and sent notice to the rest of the section and all of Class AA that Belle Vernon was a serious contender this season.

Belle Vernon (13-1-1, 9-1-1) has clinched a playoff berth this season and was tied with South Park (11-2-1, 9-1-1) for the section lead before last night's matches.

South Park was heavily favored to defeat McGuffey (4-9, 3-8), but the Leopards had a tougher assignment against Elizabeth Forward (11-3, 9-2), the only team in the section to defeat them this year.

"We were really excited about getting to play South Park," Belle Vernon coach Paul Sasko said. "It was one of those things where the older girls, the juniors and seniors, remembered they broke our streak and they were definitely aware of South Park's streak and they reminded the underclassmen."

The Leopards have reached the WPIAL playoffs seven consecutive seasons but have never advanced past the quarterfinals in that time.

Things may be different this season. It certainly felt that way in games against South Park with Belle Vernon tying the Eagles, 0-0, in their second meeting. South Park had won all four meetings against Belle Vernon since the teams became section rivals in 2010.

"We were definitely up for the South Park game both times," Sasko said. "Both games were really even and the second game was a really intense game, going to double overtime, it was almost like a playoff game. We had a few chances ... they had a few chances -- just a really even game."

Sophomore forward Samantha Mendicino scored the game-winner in the first meeting against South Park. With his team up, 1-0, Sasko moved his best midfielder, Lauren Kovalchuk to center back in an effort to thwart South Park's last ditch efforts to equalize.

Kovalchuk is one of the top talents in the WPIAL. She is part of the U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program.

"Lauren is playing some great soccer," Sasko said. "She doesn't score the same amount of goals as Hayden Pascoe does, but she does all the other things that make our team go."

Kovalchuk is second on the team with nine goals, behind junior forward Hayden Pascoe who has 24. Pascoe is utilized as the lone forward in Belle Vernon's 4-5-1 formation.

"[Pascoe] has been playing really well," Sasko said. "She works really hard, she is a junior now and we have come to expect this out of her. It is a good luxury to have."

Overall, Sasko welcomed back seven starters, including senior center back Heather Wells, senior outside back Kylie Kitka and senior midfielder Rebecca Buza.

Wells is one of the fastest players on the team. Sasko said Buza brings a calm to the team and helps settle down the midfield while Kitka is able to get involved in the attack. She has five goals this season.

Junior Ashley Gagliardi is a returning starter in net. She has emerged as one of the top goalkeepers in the WPIAL.

Flanking Pascoe at the top of the formation is Mendicino and sophomore Caitlin Caldwell. Both lettered last season as sophomores. When needed, both join Pascoe on the attack, making the formation look more like a 4-3-3.

"We have a great group of girls," Sasko said. "They are keeping their heads on straight and they practice hard."

Belle Vernon is scheduled to close out the regular season with non-section contests against Yough and Canon-McMillan tonight and Monday, respectively.

hssoccer


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