IMPERIAL — Mars’ girls soccer team has won this season while starting four freshmen. The youth movement has played a pivotal role in the team’s success.
That theme continued Monday night.
Freshman defender Gracie Dunaway scored in the 62nd minute for the deciding goal in a 2-1 victory over South Park in a WPIAL Class AAA semifinal at West Allegheny High School’s Joe P. DeMichela Stadium.
Dunaway’s goal was the result of the Eagles’ inability to clear the ball. After a series of throw-ins to the right of South Park’s net, Dunaway took control 25 yards from the goal. She created enough space to get off a shot that headed toward the top left corner of the net. South Park keeper Molly Saylor got her fingertips on the ball, but not enough to prevent the score.
“I’ve seen her score on that same shot about 20 times in training sessions, but never in a game until tonight,” said Planet coach Blair Gerlach. “It was cool to see.”
“I was just praying that it would go in,” said Dunaway, who joined defender Erin Rodgers and forwards Caroline Wroblewski and Ellie Coffield as freshmen in Mars’ starting lineup. “The freshmen have been a big part in the wins and I’m proud to be part of it.”
No. 2-seeded Mars (16-1) will face No. 1 Moon (21-0), a 3-0 winner over Montour, in the district final at Highmark Stadium in Pittsburgh at a time and date to be determined.
The Eagles managed a few pushes on offense late in Monday’s game, but junior keeper Claire Valentine corralled the ball with a minute left to thwart South Park’s last chance.
Eagles’ coach Shelly Thropp was disappointed in her team’s overall effort.
“We didn’t keep possession the way we normally do,” she said. “We got taken out of our game plan tonight.”
South Park was able to take an early advantage in the 14th minute. The Eagles (16-3-1) were awarded a throw-in to the right of the Planet net. A pass brought the ball to Haleigh Finale, whose shot from less than 10 yards was blocked by her teammate, Carly Pcholinsky, but the latter retained possession, turned around and tucked a shot just inside the right post.
Mars keeper Claire Valentine rebounded, making two impressive saves in the next 18 minutes, allowing Taylor Hamlett’s goal in the 32nd minute to tie the game. The shot was taken from a difficult angle to the right of the net, but Hamlett placed it perfectly in between a leaping Saylor and the crossbar.
Wroblewski had two shots just miss the target earlier in the first half. The first hit the crossbar in the 11th minute. Then in the 20th minute, she almost tied the game, but her shot from 15 yards was just wide left.
Gerlach was impressed with his defense’s play, considering the opponent.
“This was the first time this season we faced three very good attack players,” he said. “Conceding just one goal against that, I’ll take it.”
Valentine made five saves in the game. Saylor made four stops.