ADAMS TWP — The girls and boys soccer programs at Mars are consistently mentioned when the top teams in the WPIAL are discussed.
This season has only added to that reputation.
Entering this week's play, both squads had undefeated section records, with the girls sporting an overall record of 14-0 and the boys standing at 15-1-1.
The experience the girls team gained during last year's run to the district title game and state quarterfinals has proved invaluable. Four freshmen started in 2017 for head coach Blair Gerlach.
“We are still a young team and I still consider us a work in progress,” he said. “We start six sophomores and one freshman. The younger players, it's easy to get them motivated and they're excited about playing for the varsity team. They know the high expectations that we have.”
The scoring has been spread out for the Planets, who feature five players with double digit goals — Caroline Wroblewski, Taylor Hamlett, Gracie Dunaway, Ellie Coffield and Sami King.
“Some teams try to mark certain players, but then someone else steps up for us,” said Gerlach.
“Having all of those strong players on offense makes us a better team,” said senior defender Kaitlyn Pietrusinski. “They feed off of each other.”
The Planets are averaging five goals per game. The team has given up just five goals all season, thanks to the play of senior goalkeeper Claire Valentine and the defense in front of her. That group includes Dunaway, Ellie Howell, Erin Rodgers and Pietrusinski.
“The defensive effort has been consistent and Claire has done really well in goal,” Gerlach said.
Valentine started last year and has earned the trust of her teammates.
“We have a lot of confidence in Claire to make the big save,” said Pietrusinski.
Gerlach knows what it takes to reach the pinnacle of high school soccer. His 2011 squad won the PIAA title. Staying grounded despite dominating the competition is key.
“We tell the girls, 'Why are teams ranked? They're ranked because people like to see which teams rise to expectations or see a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1.'
“We don't discuss how far we can go. We just take it one game at a time.”
With the district playoffs looming, the Planets are bound to find themselves in a tight game, unlike the vast majority of their contests in the regular season.
Pietrusinski is confident she and her team can answer that challenge.
“We've all come together this season,” she said. “We are an unselfish group, we lift each other up and are a very resilient team.”
With a win over Kiski Area last week, Gerlach earned his 200th victory as girls coach at Mars. Planet boys coach Chris Knauff had 198 wins entering Tuesday's regular-season finale against Ambridge.
The latter has been impressed with the way his team has used disappointment from last season as motivation for 2018. The Planets had lofty hopes entering last year's playoffs, but lost to Blackhawk in the first round.
“The players have been focused and motivated,” he said. “We haven't had a letdown and I'm very pleased with the season so far.”
“We think back to how last year ended and that has been our fuel,” said senior midfielder Shane Lisman. “For the most part, our goal is unspoken, but everybody knows what it is. We want to make it as far in WPIALs as we can. We just have to go do our thing.”
The only blemishes on Mars' slate this season are a 2-0 loss to Pine-Richland and a scoreless tie against Upper St. Clair, both non-section opponents.
“Both of those games came the same weekend,” Knauff said. “We didn't score a goal in those games, but it was the best thing that could've happened to us. You learn a lot more from losing a game than from winning.”
Scoring has not been a problem since as Mars has scored no less than two goals during its 13-game winning streak.
Like the girls team, the boys feature several consistent scoring threats. Dane Beller, Lisman and Austin Rocke each have at least 12 goals.
“The more threats opponents have to worry about, the better,” Lisman said.
Two different goalkeepers have contributed to the section title — senior Nathan Paras and sophomore Jake Garies. The duo has allowed just five goals all year.
“It's a nice luxury to have,” Knauff said of being able to count on two capable players in net. “You're lucky if you can stay healthy, but both of them have had injuries this season. Nathan injured his thumb and Jake injured his ankle. They have been able to come in for each other, though Nathan has started most of the games. If we could only count on one, we may have had an issue.”
“Our goalkeepers have a lot of experience and we have confidence in both of them,” said Lisman.
Defensively, the Planets were dealt a blow with the loss of senior Garrett Riddle, who is done for the season with a knee injury. The unit is led by senior D.J. Carter.