The South Park boys soccer team's impressive strength in possession might have created one of its few weaknesses last fall.
Like a bulldozer, the Eagles wrecked through their regular-season schedule, going 18-0, outscoring opponents, 100-8, and recording 12 shutouts. They did not trail once throughout the regular season.
The Eagles thrived by dominating possession, essentially passing through, over and around opponents while limiting chances in the process.
"We usually have possession of the ball a good portion of the game," said coach Jon Cantwell, an 11th-year coach and two-time WPIAL and PIAA champion with South Park. "We don't counter much, don't press much because of possession. We try to keep the ball. ... The best way to defend is for the other team not to have the ball."
That dominance became more difficult to maintain in the WPIAL Class AA playoffs against tougher opposition. South Park overcame its first deficit of the season in the first round and defeated Knoch, but ultimately couldn't find a breakthrough against South Fayette in the quarterfinals and fell in a shootout.
While playing from behind is not a scenario Cantwell wants his team to become accustomed to, it is one he hopes the Eagles, ranked No. 3 in Class AA by the Post Gazette, are prepared for this year as they search for their first WPIAL championship since 2006.
"That's why we set up the non-section schedule that we do. We want to be put under pressure, to be put in situations that are uncomfortable," he said.
"It could be even something as simple as finding a team that will put us down a goal. It could come across as arrogant, but we haven't been down much the last couple of years -- but that's something we need to be able to do, to come from behind."
Through four games, the results have been typically lopsided for South Park, which was 4-0 and had outscored opponents, 22-2. Until Tuesday's 3-2 overtime decision against Thomas Jefferson, the Eagles hadn't been challenged. They were scheduled to play Yough Thursday night in a home section match.
"We've been fortunate. I'm grateful enough and appreciative enough to know that some teams won't even have 22 goals all season," Cantwell said. "So we never take things for granted."
Six of South Park's goals came in an unexpectedly dominant performance against Baldwin, a Class AAA opponent.
Later this season, the Eagles will face Peters Township and Mt. Lebanon, two strong Class AAA teams.
"Those AAA games are a lot faster, and it makes us have to play a lot quicker," junior midfielder Brandon Walbert said. "It makes us get ready for tougher AA opponents."
Walbert, an All-PIAA selection last year as a sophomore, is a prime example of why South Park is able to dominate opponents. A two-way midfielder whom Cantwell describes as the team's "engine," Walbert is as capable offensively as he is motivated on defense.
While Walbert typically plays in an advanced midfield role, he's supported by senior midfielder Nick Shaw. Utilized in a number of roles by Cantwell, Shaw can be deployed as a forward, midfielder or defender.
"He's a great passer of the ball and he keeps possession for us," Walbert said. "It makes it easier for me to go up into attack."
Junior forward Justin Minda leads the front line while third-year starters Justin Yobbi and Jordan Crain, both seniors, round out an experienced midfield. Senior Matt Lizik and junior Steve Girgash are standouts on the back line.
It's a balanced, experienced team that thrives from contributions from everyone. And it's a team that could find its way back to the WPIAL final for the first time in seven years.
"We're taking things one game at a time, but I believe that's a goal this year, to go all the way [to the WPIAL final]," Walbert said.
"I think this is a team that can do it."hssoccer