PITTSBURGH — Mars girls soccer coach Blair Gerlach was being sincere, but it was strange to hear.
Gerlach’s goal was for his team to keep the WPIAL Class AAA championship game against Moon close Friday night at Highmark Stadium.
The peculiarity is that, even with a young roster, the Planets are one of the WPIAL’s blue-blood programs.
Mars was facing off against a more dominant goliath in the Tigers, who have won 39 straight games. So, it wasn’t a contest Gerlach could be confident of a result.
Until Moon defender Kylee Evans headed in the game-winning goal with a little more than four minutes remaining, there was little to indicate who would break a 2-2 tie.
That goal held up and Moon escaped with a 3-2 win over Mars.
“It’s just about competing,” Gerlach said. “There’s something to be said about being the underdog. Some of these girls are too young to even know what kind of memories they are going to have about this game. For us to come back twice, against a team like Moon, who barely ever concedes goals, shows a lot about their character and toughness. I’m proud of this team and this group.”
The Planets will play District 9 champion DuBois in the PIAA playoffs at a site and time to be determined. Mars (16-2) fell to 5-2 all-time in WPIAL championship games.
Moon (22-0) appeared to have things figured out early. The Tigers pressured from the opening whistle. They broke through when Delaney Snyder scored her 45th goal of the season on an 8-yard blast in the sixth minute.
Mars played her aggressive throughout the match, trying to limit her opportunities.
“Strength in numbers,” Gerlach said. “It’s an impossible task with a special player like that to ask anyone to do it by themselves. It’s also tough to play a regular system and let her sit in gaps and find pockets. The plan was to make it uncomfortable and make it difficult for her and see if we could hold her to one.”
Less than five minutes later, Caroline Wroblewski made it a game. The Mars freshman forward got in on the cage and slid a hard-angle shot into the back of the net.
“Defensively, I feel like we gave them too much respect,” Moon coach Bill Pfeifer said. “We watched them on film and knew they could get in. There was a lot of space on this field, as big as this field is, we had to make the adjustment there.”
What helped Moon was its size advantage. The Tigers second goal came after a failed corner clearance by Mars. Lauren Baumgartner flicked a header on frame, which Abigael McEnroe headed into the net with 22:08 remaining.
Forced to press forward again, Mars capitalized on a gift six minutes later. A Moon defender had a pass back to goalkeeper Madison Sleva stop short. Planets sophomore forward Taylor Hamlett beat Sleva to the ball and poked it by her to tie the game.
“I saw the defender make the mistake,” Hamlett said. “I just thought I want to win this so bad. I had to keep going for it.”
Evans made sure Mars didn’t take the game to overtime.
She tracked down a corner kick hit by Emily Orr and headed it off the crossbar and just over the line.
Losing by a few inches didn’t crush Mars’ spirit.
The Planets felt they did better than keep it close.
“It shows good character,” Hamlett said. “All season they’ve been playing well. We just thought we could win this and kept trying. The resulted wasn’t what we wanted, but we put the effort in.”