2012 Boys' Soccer Preview: Defending champion Upper St. Clair rates as favorite once again
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Even in the murky realm of preseason predictions, some things are absolute.
For example, if a team is coming off of a championship season and is returning a majority of its roster, it's a pretty safe bet to pick that team for a repeat title.
Look no further than the Upper St. Clair boys' soccer team to back that theory up.
A year removed from a 20-win season and a WPIAL Class AAA championship, the Panthers seem primed to replicate that same level of success headed into the 2012 season, which is why they are the Post-Gazette's No. 1-ranked team.
Seven starters are back assuring a veteran presence. Six of those seniors are expected to start.
Among that group of senior starters are defenders in Wes Burdette and Jon Erdman, forwards in Ethan Dysert and John Gurtanca, and goalkeeper Joe Conlon, who recorded shutouts in 13 of the Panthers' 20 wins last season.
There is no dominant scorer, but the team is balanced with a lot of speed and dynamic play-making ability.
One significant change in the district high school soccer scene is that the City League is no longer sponsoring that sport. The four former City schools that are fielding teams this season -- Allderdice and Brashear in Class AAA and Obama and Carrick in AA -- have joined the WPIAL.
Below is a look at the rest of the WPIAL.
Pine-Richland was among the favorites to win Class AAA last season, but it finished slightly below expectations en route to a quarterfinal exit via a loss to Central Catholic in the WPIAL playoffs.
Six starters return for the Rams, with perhaps the most notable being senior midfielder Tyler McCarthy. The team also is buoyed by strong, experienced leadership.
"Our seniors have been playing at a high level for a long time," said Pine-Richland head coach Jon Conner.
Seneca Valley, which finished right above the Rams in the Class AAA Section 2 standings last season, lost much of the team that made it to the semifinals in the WPIAL playoffs in 2011 and returns just three starters -- senior forwards Ryan Vilella and Anthony Crivelli and senior midfielder Liam Jackson.
After falling two wins short of a Class AA championship last season, No. 1-ranked South Park will look to build from that standout campaign, which included 20 victories.
There are only six seniors on the roster, but the Eagles welcome back nine starters from last season. Senior forward and Post-Gazette all-area player Mike Pcholinsky will look to duplicate an '11 season in which he tallied more than 20 goals. Senior goalkeeper Zach Palamara, who notched 15 shutouts last season, is also back.
No. 2-ranked Montour also features an all-area player in senior midfielder Nathan Dearth, who has committed to Northwestern University.
With 10 or 11 seniors expected to start for the Spartans, coach Alex Hobbs is banking on his team's experience to lead the way to a possible championship.
"We've all matured and been through a lot together," he said. "I have high hopes for this team."
No. 3-ranked Belle Vernon lost, 3-0, to Hampton in the Class AA championship last season and will aim to get back there with a squad that will have five returning starters and 10 seniors on the roster.
The Leopards' strong offense will be headlined by senior forward Dave Wurmlinger, who scored 26 goals in '11.
With eight returning starters, Sewickley Academy enters the this season ranked No. 1. Led by junior forward J.P. Bowell, the Panthers will look to break through what has been an elusive championship barrier the past few seasons.
"We've been close the last couple of years," Panthers coach Jim Boone said. "I want to get them back to winning championships."
Greensburg Central Catholic performed well in coach Tom Sochacki's first season and should be a strong threat again this year with seven starters coming back, including senior defensive anchor Devon Nguyen.
Defending Class A champion Seton-LaSalle lacks significant game experience, having lost five starters from last season, but forward Rocco Gagliardi, among other returning seniors, will keep the Rebels in close contention throughout the season.
(Records from last season)
1. Upper St. Clair (20-2-2)
2. Pine-Richland (10-5-4)
3. Seneca Valley (14-7)
4. Kiski Area (12-3-2)
5. Canon-McMillan (8-6-5)
1. South Park (20-3-1)
2. Montour (13-5-1)
3. Belle Vernon (20-4)
4. Mars (14-4-2)
5. Quaker Valley (11-6-1)
1. Sewickley Academy (15-6-2)
2. Greenburg C.C. (17-5)
3. Seton-LaSalle (19-3-1)
4. Vincentian (1-6-1)
5. Our Lady of Sacred Heart (14-8)
Dante Piccolo, Quaker Valley, Senior, Midfielder
Wes Burdette, Upper St. Clair, Senior, Defender
Michael Roberge, Franklin Regional, Senior, Forward
Nathan Dearth, Montour, Senior, Defender
Ryan Vilella, Seneca Valley, Senior, Forward
Mike Pcholinsky, South Park, Senior, Forward
Matt Loughnane, Penn-Trafford, Senior, Midfielder
Spencer Posey, Mars, Senior, Midfielder
Dave Wurmlinger, Belle Vernon, Senior, Forward
Vinny Barone, East Allegheny, Junior, Forward