South Xtra: Goalkeeper lifts Peters to an upset in title game

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Maybe Peters Township goalkeeper Max O'Hare didn't know it while he was in mid-air, left arm extended in pure desperation to palm away a shot from Upper St. Clair's Joe Bell that seemed destined to ripple the back of the net and break a scoreless tie, but he was about 20 minutes away from hoisting the WPIAL Class AAA championship trophy.

The save was one of a bevy produced over last Friday evening by a goalkeeper who truly stands out from others playing the position -- thickly built with curly blonde hair and an attitude that Indians coach Bob Dyer says drives the team.

"[He brings] emotion and heart, and we live off that," Dyer said.

A quick counterattack sprung in the 64th minute, seconds after O'Hare's stop, gave the Indians the lead. Junior striker Mario Mastrangelo pulled in a pass from teammate Bennett Faloni, cut inside of his defender and fired home his third goal of the playoffs.

The Indians proceeded to knock off Upper St. Clair, 1-0, capturing the eighth WPIAL title in school history. The lengths to which they -- and O'Hare -- defied one of the top teams in the country do not show in a quick glance at a score line.

Peters Township (18-3-2), which went on to defeat Canon-McMillan, 2-1, Tuesday in the first round of the PIAA tournament, fell to then-undefeated Upper St. Clair -- ranked fifth in the nation at the time by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America -- twice during the regular season, surrendering 10 goals over the two contests.

That's about in line with Upper St. Clair's offensive output over the season, as the Panthers averaged 5.15 goals per game heading into last Friday night's contest.

The last time the Panthers (19-1-1) were held scoreless happened almost a year to the day of this year's final, when they were shut out by Canon-McMillan in last year's WPIAL title game on Nov. 3, 2012.

Which all is to say a 1-0 lead -- even with only a quarter of an hour remaining -- is rarely enough against an offense as powerful as Upper St. Clair's.

"Whenever we scored that goal, my first thought is, 'Alright, now we need to step up our game and play harder than we have the entire time,'" O'Hare said.

Upper St. Clair did push, and the Panthers pushed hard.

USC striker Joel Hart, a 30-goal scorer in the regular season, and midfielders Troye Kiernan and Robbie Mertz were ever present on the attack, serving balls into the box and putting anything with a chance on net.

Peters Township's defense solidified. Sweeper Max Lindsay and company shored the backline, while unlikely characters were found defending deep in key situations. Mastrangelo, just moments after scoring his goal, made a desperation slide tackle in the Peters box to take away a point-blank scoring chance.

"I feel like [it really motivates the team]," O' Hare said of Mastrangelo's effort. "If one guy is driving the team, another guy steps up the next turn. It's all about finding the right moment at the right time. We win as one and as a whole unit."

Moments for O'Hare, as the game neared its conclusion, were many.

With a little more than12 minutes to go, a ball lobbed into the box almost averted O'Hare's grasp, but scrambling backward, he was able to tip it over the bar, conceding a mere corner kick instead of a goal.

A header from Kiernan moments later was kept at bay.

Chances piled up, but the defense held and O'Hare shined. A desperate clearance with 2:30 remaining ended Upper St. Clair's final chance at an equalizer.

O'Hare and the Peters Township defense didn't concede a goal over the entirety of the WPIAL playoffs, a span of four games and 320 minutes.

"I was confident in my abilities and I was confident in my defenders' abilities," O'Hare said. "I'm only as strong as my defenders in front of me. If they keep the hard shots away, I figure it's my responsibility to keep the rest out."

Minutes after the game, a gold medal draped over his neck, an exhausted O'Hare, strained air exhaling from his lungs, looked around the setting at Highmark Stadium. After all of the effort he and the Indians' had put forth, only one thing remained on his mind:

"Right now, my energy's all out," he said. "I just won the WPIALs and I'm ready to go home and take a nap."

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