After 3rd season, Leechburg boys soccer trending up

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Tuesday, November 9, 2021 | 10:07 AM


Leechburg’s boys soccer team was nothing if not resilient in 2021.

Brad Walker’s team dealt with it all, including a covid-19 shutdown in the season’s opening week, three players going down with concussions, a goalie battling through a broken finger, a player ruled ineligible and a roster with just 17 players.

“We faced a lot of adversity throughout the year,” said Walker, in his third season leading the program, which began in 2019. “You name it, we went through it. For the boys to combat that and put together the season we had is pretty respectable. Every single player played a very important role this year.”

Leechburg went 9-5-1 overall with a 6-3-1 mark in Section 2-2A, finishing third behind traditionally strong programs in Shady Side Academy and Deer Lakes.

It was the first winning season for the Blue Devils, who finished 7-7 last year and 6-11-1 in 2019.

That said, it wasn’t a glamorous start. After playing two games in early September, the team was hit hard by covid-19 and did not play a game, or practice, for a week.

“We entered our first section game without being able to touch a soccer ball for seven days,” Walker said. “It was nuts. We battled. But with that thin of a lineup, one injury — one anything — could really just throw us through the ringer.”

The Blue Devils were able to qualify for the WPIAL playoffs for a second straight year but fell to Ambridge, 5-1, in the opening round.

“We battled, but we had an injury 20 minutes into the game,” said Walker, who faced off against a Bridgers team led by Ben Fiore, his assistant in 2020. “They had more thoroughbreds than us, and we fell out of our gameplan. When we get behind, it’s tough.”

But the year was a success, and the trajectory of the program is strong. And a large part of that is the team being built solidly down the middle.

Goalkeeper Owen McDermott was All-WPIAL as a sophomore in 2020 and, despite dealing with a broken finger early in the year, was able to patch together another stellar season.

“He missed our first two games, but once he got back and we got our defense back whole, he was our leader,” Walker said.

Ashton Redmond led the Blue Devils with 12 goals and will return for his senior season next year. Jake Mull, whom Walker described as a “dynamic threat,” will be back, too. Centerback Owen Crawford, another junior, was a quiet yet stable presence.

Leechburg loses four senior starters to graduation.

“We’ll miss them, but as long as we can get some better numbers in the program as far as depth and practice bodies, I think we’ll be as good or better next year.”

And that’s the primary goal for Walker and his current junior class, which was responsible for the creation of the program: find more athletes who want to try soccer.

The good news is that, while the program is still in its infancy, it does have two schools to dip into for talent. Leechburg has a cooperative agreement with Apollo-Ridge.

For Walker, that means word of mouth from his players goes a long way.

“It’s like, hey, do you have a buddy who isn’t doing anything? Well, if he isn’t playing football, get him out here,” he said.

It’s Walker’s hope that the rough yet successful 2021 will further bolster an environment of winning. He certainly saw it take steps that way this year, with the Blue Devils playing a tight game with Shady Side Academy and beating Deer Lakes, 2-1, in the regular season’s penultimate match.

Now it’s about harnessing that, and moving forward.

“When we found that team-first mentality, and we started clicking, all of the boys bought into the culture we were trying to put in from Day 1,” he said.

“With all the bumps, bruises and hiccups we had, it took them time to settle into the team-first mentality. Once we found that groove, we thought we could play with anybody.”

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