South Xtra: South Park coach presumes nothing in rugged Class AA
Senior Mike Pcholinsky, left, beating Steel Valley's Jake Milke to the ball during a match last season, leads a group of nine returning starters for the South Park boys soccer team.
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In his 10 years as head coach at South Park, Jon Cantwell has seen an overall improvement in WPIAL Class AA boys soccer.
He has seen the overall talent level increase. He has seen the pool of title contenders grow. And he has seen the path through the WPIAL playoffs get that much more difficult.
He has also seen his teams reach the WPIAL semifinals nine of those 10 years. The nearly unprecedented run of consistent postseason success has featured six section titles in the past eight years, three PIAA championship games and back-to-back WPIAL and PIAA titles in 2006 and 2007.
Yet on the current South Park roster, there is no player who has been beyond the WPIAL semifinals or PIAA quarterfinals
For as much as the WPIAL semifinals have proven to be a hurdle for the program since 2007, simply reaching the final four of the WPIAL is something that is far from taken for granted.
"We have been stuck on that hurdle since our state championship team [in 2007]," Cantwell said. "It would certainly be great to get past that hurdle, but we reflect and we know how difficult it is just to get to the WPIAL semifinals.
"I don't recall any year where we kind of walked to the semifinal. Five of the last six years have been a battle. Double-A soccer has gotten a lot better, it is eight or nine teams deep every year. It is a sign of the quality and where [Double-A soccer] has come over the last 10 years."
With nine starters back this season, including senior forward Mike Pcholinsky, an all-state selection last autumn, the Eagles would appear to have the talent to make another run at leaping that semifinal hurdle.
"It is always great when you have a skilled player like Mike you can kind of build around," Cantwell said. "He has great versatility, he can play in the midfield or as a forward.
"One of the great things about Mike is his work ethic both in practice sessions and in games. It is great for his peers and underclassmen to see. This guy didn't just wake up one day and become a great soccer player. He has trained hard."
South Park tied a strong Class AAA team in Upper St. Clair, 1-1, in a scrimmage this preseason, but even with nine returning starters, including five seniors,
Cantwell is not ready, however, to anoint his team as a section favorite.
"It is always hard to tell in the preseason," Cantwell said. "Everyone thinks they have a good team until you play a meaningful game and then you find out about yourself quickly.
"There were preseasons I thought went terrible and we were fine and preseasons I thought everything was in place and then one injury or one bad result happens."
South Park won the Section 3-AA title outright last season despite going 0-1-1 against Southmoreland. Section 3-AA has a new look this year with Southmoreland moving out and Belle Vernon Area, a playoff team from a year ago, moving into the section.
The Eagles had developed a rivalry with Southmoreland, with whom they split the 2010 section title, so Cantwell made sure the teams would still see each other. South Park visits Southmoreland in the season opener on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
"We were fortunate to keep them on the schedule. It has been a very well played series for the last four or five years," Cantwell said. "With losing Southmoreland, we are happy to see Belle Vernon coming in, a very solid Double-A program that will represent what we will see in the postseason."
Along with Pcholinsky, the other senior returning starters are midfielder Ryan Eggert, forward Logan Erdar, defender Evan Augustine and goalie Zach Palamara.
The other returning starters are sophomore midfielders Brandon Walbert and Justin Minda and junior defenders Nick Shaw and Jason Yobbi.
The only positions South Park needs to replace from last season are the two outside backs.
Jason Yobbi has two older siblings who were soccer standouts at South Park. His brother, Derrick, was the starting goalie on South Park's 2006 and '07 WPIAL and PIAA championship teams and his sister, Lauren, helped lead the girls team to two WPIAL titles and one PIAA title.