North Xtra: Defense key to Seneca Valley's success

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Over the past few seasons the Seneca Valley defense has proven it can rise to the occasion.

There was no bigger occasion and no stronger performance by the Raiders defense than in late October and early November of this year.

Facing its toughest competition of the season, Seneca Valley strung together five shutouts, starting on Oct. 23 in the WPIAL quarterfinals and stretching to last Saturday in the PIAA quarterfinals. In between the Raiders captured a WPIAL Class AAA championship, the first for the program since 2009.

Seneca Valley entered its PIAA semifinal game Tuesday night not having conceded a postseason goal. It shut out Canon-McMillan, Upper St. Clair, Bethel Park and Peters Township (twice).

But the Raiders (20-3-1) finally gave up a goal -- one goal -- but that proved to be one too many as they fell to Spring-Ford, 1-0. The loss ended the season for Seneca Valley a game short of its goal. But that still can't tarnish a brilliant season.

"With our program, historically our defense has always been very good," coach Dave Sylvester said. "Our keepers have always been very good. Going into every season we look to build from the back, start from the back, get organized and strong and stay in shape and move forward from there. To have shutouts in all those playoff games is pretty special."

Sylvester did not realize his defense was five for five in postseason shutouts before Tuesday's loss until a reporter asked him about it after the 2-0 PIAA semifinal win against Peters Township.

"I haven't thought of it," Sylvester said. "We just go out and play and hope to score one more goal than the other team."

Although Sylvester wasn't aware of the impressive streak, his defenders and goalie were.

"We were aware," junior goalie Jessica Neill said. "It was a personal challenge for myself and my defense. I know they were really proud of it."

Neill is a three-year starter. On defense, junior Alicia Hart and sophomore Alexis Lambert start at center back, senior Alexis Pucci starts at right back and junior Claire Kocur starts at left back.

Earlier this season Sylvester said, "I am sure Jess would tell you it is nice to have those girls in front of her and the girls would say it is nice having Jess behind them."

Sylvester was right.

"I love playing behind them, it makes my job so much easier," Neill said.

Last season the Raiders only used three defenders during the regular season as Sylvester employed a 3-5-2 formation. For the postseason he decided to use four defenders. The four defenders helped Seneca Valley reach the WPIAL final and PIAA quarterfinals. Following that success, Sylvester kept the four-defender plan this season.

"I like playing with four defenders, having two in the center, they can communicate," Neill said. "I feel like our defense has been pretty solid all season. We just work really hard and we talk to each other and we rely on each other."

To make the move to four defenders last year, Sylvester called up Hart from the junior varsity team and inserted her into the starting lineup for the first playoff game last year.

Despite never having played varsity -- or defense -- this converted central midfielder made a smooth transition to defense.

"Alicia is a good athlete and a good player who can distribute the ball," Sylvester said. "She isn't even a defender but we told her this is where we would like you to play to help us do what we need to do.

"We just try to find big, strong, fast, athletic kids who aren't afraid to bang a little bit. That is a pretty good combination."

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