A-K Valley boys soccer preview: Plum looking to stand out again

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Monday, September 7, 2020 | 4:07 PM


The Plum boys soccer team put together one of its best seasons in recent memory last season, capturing the section title and going undefeated in the regular season.

But with the graduation of key seniors such as leading goal scorer Tyler Kolankowski, center back Cole Kelly and midfielder Luke Gildea, coach Raf Kolankowski wants this year’s team to carve out its own identity.

“I told the kids they have to go out and make their own story this year,” said Raf Kolankowski, whose team lost to Canon-McMillan, 3-2, in the WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals. “Just say, ‘Hey, we are going to build on what we did last year and try to move forward,’ but they have to have their own story. They can’t try to live up to an undefeated season, a section title because I don’t know if it’s realistic. They just have to build their own legacy.”

The Mustangs return seven starters from a team that finished 16-1-2, recorded nine shutouts and scored three or more goals in 14 games.

Leading the way is senior striker D.D. Flowers, who totaled 16 goals and six assists last season. Flowers has 35 goals since his freshman year, and Kolankowski is looking for another step forward.

“(D.D.) is a senior now, and Tyler last year was the leading scorer and led the team in assists and was a leader,” Raf Kolankowski said. “D.D. was right behind him, and I think he’s ready to take that next step.”

Flowers stepped up in big games last year too, including a hat trick in a 4-2 victory against a tough Norwin team. The teams tied earlier in the year.

A.J. Koma also returns to the front line after scoring 12 goals and five assists. Tyler’s younger brother, Luke Kolankowski, also is back after a solid sophomore season when he finished second on the team with 11 assists and also recorded one goal.

Raf Kolankowski is expecting his team to lean on the experience they gained last year.

“I know everybody is excited, and I know everybody is working hard,” Kolankowski said. “I’m in a position where we have two good goalies, as well, in Gabe Kuhns and Gavin Chandler. I think, overall, the players are excited, and they know how close we were last year in going to a WPIAL championship game, and I think they are going to come in with a chip on their shoulder and will want to prove that they belong.”

Although the Mustangs have a good situation at goalkeeper, they are going to be young on their back line.

“We are going to have a young defense because we lost two seniors, so we are going to have two new players taking over those positions,” Raf Kolankowski said. “But I think we are going to be solid in the midfield, and I’m feeling very confident with our guys up front.”

Other teams to watch

Deer Lakes was one of the best teams in WPIAL Class AA last season under first-year coach Dan Yates. The Lancers finished 17-6 and captured the Section 2 crown with a record of 13-1.

The Lancers lost to Quaker Valley, 4-3, in double overtime of the WPIAL championship game. With a core group of seniors returning, Yates and the Lancers are ready to take a significant step forward.

“We want to get to the final of the WPIAL at a minimum,” said Yates, whose team lost 3-2 in the PIAA quarterfinals to Mercyhurst Prep. “We want to make a deeper run in states because we kind of messed up a little bit in states, and we didn’t stick to our game plan against Mercyhurst.”

Burrell recorded its first winning season since 2015 and made its first playoff appearance since 2014. The Bucs only lost one senior and return their entire starting lineup from a team that recorded six shutouts.

They finished the year winning six of their final eight games, which included a 3-1 loss to Charleroi in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs. The Bucs are feeling confident with a deeper roster and a ton of talent returning.

“The way we played last year, we know we can play with anybody,” coach Andrew Kariotis said. “We have two of the best teams in the state (Deer Lakes and Shady Side Academy) in our section, so I don’t think a lot of people pay much attention to us. But we think that we can beat anybody once.”

The Bucs beat Shady Side Academy, 3-2, last season in their second meeting of the year and also led the Lancers in their first meeting of the year. Both games took place on turf, so Kariotis also is hoping the new turf at Burrell will give them an extra edge.

Freeport went 12-6-2 last season, losing to eventual WPIAL champion Quaker Valley in the quarterfinals. But the Yellowjackets will move from Class AA to AAA, and they are hoping they are prepared for their new classification after testing themselves against the likes of Deer Lakes and Shady Side Academy.

“It’s a big challenge for us, but I think we played in a pretty competitive section the last several years,” Freeport coach Dave Terosky said. “We had WPIAL champions come out of our section, PIAA finalists, so we’ve definitely played some good, quality soccer teams, so I hope that at least prepares us for what lies ahead of us in triple-A.”

Freeport will have to step up in classification without the help of a 10-player graduated class. Terosky does return sophomore Isaac Wetzel.

Springdale went 17-5 a year ago but lost to Greensburg Central Catholic in the WPIAL and PIAA playoffs.

Springdale returns midfielders Chris Mitchell and Roman Liberati, along with junior goalie Andrew Haus. However, the Dynamos must replace a graduating class that accounted for 52 goals.

“It’s hard to replace Mike (Mitchell) and (Matt) Taliani,” Springdale coach Cesareo Sanchez said. “But with Roman Liberati, Bryson (Andrews), and Andrew (Haus) on our defense, then with Chris Mitchell, I think those core group of players will be a solid foundation for our team.”

Highlands is another team that was crushed by graduation as they lost 13 seniors a year after finishing just outside of the playoff picture. But Highlands coach Jason Norris is excited to see what his team can do with a new system.

“We’re implementing a high-tempo, quick-paced game, and the boys have really bought into it since they released us to start practicing back in July,” Norris said. “Really they have been going after it, understanding that is the type of intensity we are going to have to bring because we aren’t going to win the physical 50-50 balls that other teams will.”

Senior midfielder Gabe Norris, who has 38 goals and 42 assists during his high school career, is among the top returners.

Players to watch

• D.D. Flowers, Plum, sr., F

Flowers was one of three Mustangs who earned All-WPIAL honors last season after scoring 16 goals and tallying six assists.

• Chris Mitchell, Springdale, so., MF

Playing alongside his older brother Mike, Chris flew under the radar last year while scoring eight goals and tallying seven assists.

• Devin Murray, Deer Lakes, sr., MF

He had 18 goals and 12 assists last season and contributed to the team recording 12 shutouts, including four in the postseason.

• Gabe Norris, Highlands, sr., MF

Norris is the cog that makes the Golden Rams go. He led his team with 10 goals and 11 assists.

• Mike Sullivan, Deer Lakes, sr., MF

The reigning Valley News Dispatch Boys Soccer Player of the Year helped the Lancers reach their first WPIAL championship game last fall. He finished with 18 goals and 18 assists.

Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at gmacafee@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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