Mars soccer story highlight of 2020

Boys, girls unbeaten state title runs unprecedented

January 13, 2021 Cranberry Local Sports

Mars boys soccer players celebrate the team's defeat of Franklin Regional in the WPIAL Class 3A title game in November. The school's boys and girls soccer teams went on to claim state titles in Hershey and finished the season with unbeaten and untied records.

Before seeking out her teammates to join in the celebration, Ellie Howell stood alone in the middle of the field inside Hersheypark Stadium.

The Class 3A girls soccer state championship game had just ended, with Mars prevailing 2-0 over Villa Joseph Marie Nov. 20.

Howell, a senior defender for Mars, helped the Planets win the program's third PIAA title. She had also just played her final soccer game.

“I stood in the middle of the field and began to cry,” said Howell. “That was the moment when I realized it was over. All the emotions waved over me — joy, pride, sadness, relief. It was truly a beautiful moment.”

A moment with dominating play as its prelude. Mars' girls posted the first unbeaten and untied season in program history, going 19-0 while outscoring opponents 111-5.

Just 2 hours later, Mars' boys duplicated the girls' feat, winning a state championship with a 2-1 decision against Northern York.

The Planet boys' season ended with a 21-0 record, scoring 93 goals and allowing just nine.

The twin crowns made Mars the first WPIAL school to claim both a boys and girls state soccer title in the same season.

The Planets' gold times two was voted as the Butler Eagle's top sports story of 2020.

After receiving his championship medal, Dane Beller, a senior forward for the boys team, said: “This is awesome for our school. The seniors on both teams, we've been together for a long time. What a great night!”

A night that may never have happened.

Due to COVID-19 concerns, high school fall sports were in doubt until shortly before the season was scheduled to begin. They were pushed back, but games commenced in mid-September.

This came after the winter sports season was canceled in the middle of state competitions last March and the spring season was completely wiped out.

“When the season started, I thought, 'Wow, we're really playing games,'” said Mars girls coach Blair Gerlach. “But even after that, there was the fear that play would be stopped because of a spike in cases.

“Then we get a couple of weeks into the season and we're still playing.”

Even late in the season, Gerlach had doubts that the state playoffs would be held. But the games continued ... and his Planets kept winning.

Like the boys, Mars' girls won the WPIAL title, then two state playoff games to reach the final.

“We get out to Hershey and I remember thinking, 'After all that went on during the season, we made it! We're playing for a state title.'

“Our girls followed all the rules,” he added. “They did what they needed to do to allow us to have a season, with no positive tests!”

Howell and her teammates were able to make the most of the strange season. She also started as a junior on the 2019 team that won a state championship.

“Both teams were very tight, but with COVID and the splitting (no contact between) of the varsity and JV teams this year, it allowed the starters specifically to get closer to one another,” she said.

The Mars girls program has extremely high expectations. The Planets have played in the district final nine of the last 11 seasons, winning WPIAL crowns during six of those campaigns.

Being the defending state champion and earning a No. 1 national ranking from United Soccer Coaches during the season only added to the pressure in 2020.

“All eyes were on us to see if we would slip up,” Howell said. “That did add some nerves. At the same time, it gave us all motivation to work even harder because we knew what that success tasted like.”

Mars boys coach Chris Knauff said keeping his team focused was easy.

“Every season has its challenges and distractions, but this year, getting on the field was a return to normalcy for the players. It was their outlet,” he said.

As talented as Knauff's team was, it was the Planets' mental approach that he will remember most.

“We ran through different scenarios in practice, things like, what if the other team gets an early penalty kick and we're down the whole game,” he said. “We were prepared for so many different situations and the players really bought in to being the tougher team mentally every game.”

Senior defender Trent Wick said it was early on in the season when he and his teammates realized this year's team could accomplish something special.

“Just a few games in, we could tell the chemistry on the team was so strong. We're like brothers,” he said. “We had some disappointing early losses in the playoffs the last few years, but knew we had the ability this season to go far.”

Derek Pyda

Derek Pyda

- Graduated from Connellsville High School in 1996
- Graduated from Clarion University in 2000 with a Bachelors in Communications
- Have also written for Clarion News (Clarion, PA) and the Herald-Standard (Uniontown, PA)
- Started at the Butler Eagle on April 2, 2002
- Interests include sports, history and geography