North Xtra: Pressure-resistant Mars claims girls soccer title
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Speaking about his team before Saturday's WPIAL Class AA girls soccer championship, Mars coach Blair Gerlach almost sounded as if he had forgotten what month it was.
He spoke with the optimism of a coach before the first day of training camp, saying that while the girls were excited to be playing for a third consecutive WPIAL title, there was "no pressure." He wasn't being cocky, but rather he was looking forward to seeing how his team would play against the level of competition that it would be facing in the PIAA tournament.
His tone made it seem as though the season was just beginning, and given how his team waltzed through the regular season unblemished against Class AA opponents, he was right. Mars was hardly challenged at the AA level this season, going unbeaten against teams in that classification.
The Planets outscored their opponents by a combined 149-5. Their only loss was to Class AAA Pine Richland, and they tied with Norwin, another AAA team, to give them a regular season record of 16-1-1.
Using that frame of mind, the Planets are 4-0 and have revealed a lot about themselves after winning three close matches, including a thrilling 2-1 victory on penalty kicks against Moon in the WPIAL title game. They defeated Clearfield, 5-0, Tuesday in the first round of the PIAA playoffs.
Gerlach was pleased with the way his team found ways to win against tougher competition, and said the wins were important to solidifying the team's overall confidence as a group whose season, for the most part, really started when the playoffs began.
"It's nice to play good, competitive teams. It's not enjoyable to play a one-sided game," Gerlach said. "But to play a game against a team you could lose to, that's what makes good soccer players."
The stiffer competition also showed Gerlach how teams generally try to play against them, which is to clog passing lanes and play defensively with the hopes of generating counterattacks. Regardless of whether future opponents employ that strategy, Gerlach believes his team is versatile enough to utilize a variety of strategies, depending on the circumstances.
"We've got the athleticism and the ability to play a number of formations," he said. "That's a testament to the girls."
The WPIAL championship run also proved to Gerlach that he can rely on his defense to be strong, just like it was last year when the Planets won the state title. The Planets have the same back four on defense as last year in addition to returning goaltender Sarah Dailey. Despite letting a shot slip through her hands early in Saturday's championship game, Dailey responded by shutting out the Tigers for more than 100 minutes and making the decisive save in the shootout. Dailey admitted that was the first PK she had ever saved.
The Planets have proven that they have the ability to find ways to win in close matches, and although all signs point to them being the favorite to repeat as state champions, they aren't taking any teams lightly.
"We've been quite spoiled to be this successful," said Gerlach. "We understand that every time we step on the field, we understand our season is 80 minutes from being over."