In each of the past two seasons, the Norwin girls soccer team has been on the precipice of a breakthrough.
During that time span, it has an impressive record of 30-8-2, but it has twice come short of the WPIAL championship, falling in the quarterfinals each time.
In what will likely be a wide-open race for a Class AAA title, no team starts in a better position than the Knights, the Post-Gazette's No.-1 ranked team heading into the new season.
Eight starters are back from a team that finished 14-4-2 last season, giving them the kind of depth and experience necessary for a championship contender.
For all the seasoned players Norwin has on its roster, its best player may be a sophomore -- forward Micayla Livingston, who scored 19 goals last season. Among the other talented players back this season are seniors Sami Farabaugh, Sierra Vecchio, Cayla Imbarlina, Abby Churchfield and Melissa Harris, as well as sophomore Jess Boytim.
Though complacency is always a concern for top teams in pursuit of a title, the Knights feel good about their chances to make it to their first WPIAL final since 2010.
"The talent is here," said fourth-year coach Jeff Palm. "They know what to expect from each other."
Norwin begins the season as the top-ranked team, but there are a handful of other squads in the classification that look nearly as formidable.
Leading that group is No. 2-ranked Upper St. Clair, which also lost in the WPIAL quarterfinals last season but brings back six starters and a roster with many elite juniors -- forward Brianna Erdman, defender Sami Lackner, defender Julia de la Para and midfielder Bailey Mielcusny.
Senior midfielder Olivia Belack and sophomore forward Emma Hasco also return for first-year coach Natasha Dirda.
Not many teams bring back as much talent as No. 3-ranked Fox Chapel, which has eight starters returning after a 16-3 season last year that saw it lose in the first round of the playoffs. However, the Foxes must replace Jessie Thiessen, who scored 19 goals as a senior last season.
Mars ended last season as the best team in the classification, winning the WPIAL championship, and it's where the No. 1-ranked Planets begin heading into the 2013 season.
Less than half of the team's starters are back from last season's squad, but the handful who return are perhaps Mars' most talented. Midfielder Lydia Dennis scored 31 goals last season to go along with the 20 goals scored by fellow senior Amber Fichter, a Duquesne commit. During the 2012 regular season, that duo helped the Planets score an average of 8.5 goals per game.
With eight returning starters, No. 2-ranked Hopewell will be a top challenger in Class AA. The offensive duo of junior midfielder Abby Losco and senior forward Lauren Krawchyk combined for 33 goals last season as the Vikings went 13-3-3 and made the WPIAL quarterfinals.
"This is probably the best team we've had since 2006," said coach Martin Byrnes. "We hope to surpass that."
No. 3-ranked Central Valley returns all but one starter from a team that went 17-6-1 last year. Senior midfielder Katie Alexander, a Miami (Ohio) commit, scored 26 goals in 2012.
After winning both the WPIAL and PIAA championships last season with a 23-1 record, No. 1-ranked Greensburg Central Catholic will attempt an encore in 2013. The Centurions return seven starters from that team, a group highlighted by their top two goal scorers, senior forward Frannie Crouse (55 goals) and senior midfielder Malea Fabean (36 goals).
"They don't worry about complacency," coach Ashley Shasko said. "They like to win."
The Centurions' top competitor will likely be No. 2-ranked Shady Side Academy, which lost to Greensburg Central Catholic in both the WPIAL and PIAA semifinals. Eight starters return for the Indians and first-year head coach Mary Bushnell.
No. 3-ranked Sewickley Academy brings back eight starters from a team that made it to the WPIAL championship last season, a group that includes senior goalkeeper Maggie Dewitt, who recorded 17 shutouts last season.hssoccer