Coaches talk often about the difficulty of winning a championship, regardless of the sport.
It takes a certain level of work, dedication, tenacity and an assortment of buzzwords to end a season as the unquestioned best.
But what's even harder than winning that first championship? As the same coaches would tell you, it's winning it again the following year.
It's a challenge that the Peters Township boys soccer team will have to face in 2014. Given what the Indians have, they appear to be up to the task, starting this season as the Post-Gazette's top-ranked team in Class AAA.
Last season, they finished 18-4-2 and defeated Upper St. Clair for the WPIAL championship, giving them their third title in the past six years. From there, they advanced to the PIAA quarterfinals before bowing out to the same Panthers team they defeated for the WPIAL crown.
Eight of Peters Township's 11 starters are back, a group led by its top two offensive players in Nicco and Mario Mastrangelo. The twins, both seniors, combined for 37 goals last season, 20 of which came from Nicco.
That veteran presence extends beyond the Mastrangelos. A productive midfield of seniors Rylen Faloni, Ryan Ponchione and Dylan Weyers returns intact.
A potential area of concern, though, could emerge in goal. The path to the WPIAL championship last year was more than partially paved by goalkeeper Max O'Hare, who didn't allow a goal in the WPIAL playoffs. O'Hare, however, has graduated, leaving a sizable void.
Peters Township won't be the only district high school looking to defend a championship. No. 2 Upper St. Clair is coming off its second consecutive PIAA Class AAA title, a run that included a 3-0 steamrolling of the Indians in the PIAA quarterfinals.
If the Panthers hope to make it to their fourth state championship game in a row, they will have to do so with a new coach. Uwe Schneider, who has four PIAA championships to his credit in 10 years as coach, broke his legs this offseason after falling two stories while hanging shutters on his home, an injury that forced him to sit out this season.
In Schneider's absence, Mike Blatz will take over a talented, albeit slightly inexperienced team that features the likes of all-state midfielder Robbie Mertz, as well as defenders Doug Hapeman and Garrett Blake.
Even with strong returning contributors, Upper St. Clair will have to try to make up for the loss of Troye Kiernan (19 goals) and Joel Hart (37 goals).
Rounding out the projected top trio of contenders in the class is No. 3 Canon-McMillan, which returns seven starters from a team that finished 17-4-2. Among the notable returnees are forward/midfielder Josh Kruczek, a Lafayette signee who scored 20 goals last season, and goalkeeper Christian Snatchko, who recorded 13 shutouts in 2013.
Not since 2006 has South Park finished the season as the WPIAL's top team, but this season, it is poised to end that drought.
With seven key players back from a squad that finished 19-3, the Eagles are the Post-Gazette's No. 1 team in Class AA.
Striker Justin Minda, who scored 44 goals last season, will lead the way for a potent offensive team, one that is defined as much by its depth as its star-power.
Along with Minda, 13th-year coach Jon Cantwell will preside over top senior talents such as midfielder Brandon Walbert, goalkeeper Dylan McCourt and defender Steve Girgash. The roster features 16 juniors, a stout class led by midfielders Ryan Clydesdale and Nick Schwarzel.
Scoring options beyond Minda will need to emerge in order for the Eagles to fulfill their promise, but the potential for a benchmark season is there.
No. 2 West Allegheny, the defending WPIAL champion, returns five starters from a dominant 2013 team that did not lose a game until falling to Holy Ghost Prep, 1-0, in overtime in the state championship match.
The offensive output from the Indians should be significant with top goal scorers Collin Wurst (21 goals) and Mike Cummings (19 goals) entering their senior seasons. There could be concerns defensively, though, as they have an inexperienced goalkeeper and a green back line that had to replace all-state honoree Zach Graziani.
After a 12-6-1 campaign, third-ranked Mount Pleasant has the luxury of nine returning starters, something which few top teams in the class can boast. Highlighting that group of players is junior goalkeeper Robbie Bailey and senior forward Zackery Bednar, who scored 12 goals in 2013 for a team that was bounced in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs by West Allegheny.
Carlynton saw its season end two games short of the WPIAL championship last year, but with nine returning starters, the Cougars just might end up making it this time around.
Experience has been and will be paramount to their success if they hope to build off a 12-7 finish in 2013. Most of the team's starters have two or three years of experience starting together, providing a sense of continuity that enhances its title aspirations.
Forward Logan Schuler (22 goals) and midfielder Ted Ford (13 goals) are two of the team's top seniors, while junior forward Manny Burton will continue to help create strong offensive chances for teammates after tallying 26 assists last season.
Like the Cougars, No. 2 Avonworth brings nine starters back from last season. En route to going 10-7-2 last season, the Antelopes routinely displayed a strong midfield and defense, something that often allowed them to control possession in their games.
Spearheading that collection of players is senior defender Dewey Konopka, an All-WPIAL selection last season.
No. 3 Sewickley Academy is coming off a banner 2013 season in which it won WPIAL and PIAA championships, but just two starters are back from a team that went 21-3. There's only one senior on the roster -- midfielder Thomas Mulholland -- though junior midfielder/forward Matt Teitlebaum and junior goalkeeper Jackson O'Neill give the team some level of experience.
WPIAL soccer rankings
(Records from last season)
1. Peters Township 18-4-2
2. Upper St. Clair 23-1-1
3. Canon-McMillan 17-4-2
4. Central Catholic 14-4-1
5. Seneca Valley 15-3-1
1. South Park 19-3-0
2. West Allegheny 21-1-3
3. Mount Pleasant 12-6-1
4. Ambridge 4-12-2
5. Trinity 7-11-0
1. Carlynton 12-7-0
2. Avonworth 10-7-2
3. Sewickley Academy 21-3-0
4. Riverview 12-5-2
5. Seton-LaSalle 17-4-1