After trip to PIAA semifinals, future looks promising for Plum girls soccer

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Sunday, November 21, 2021 | 11:01 AM


The Plum girls soccer team accomplished many things in 2021 and finished with 21 victories through the regular season, WPIAL playoffs and PIAA tournament.

Coach Jamie Stewart said the girls created an air of excitement among many in the Plum High School community with their play throughout the fall. But one goal the players hoped to achieve, he added — a trip to the PIAA championship game in Hershey — agonizingly was not fulfilled.

The Mustangs (21-3-1) ended their run in the Class 3A state semifinals Nov. 16 with a 1-0 loss to Mars at Shaler’s Titan Stadium. Plum had hoped to avenge a 2-1 loss to the Fightin’ Planets from the WPIAL title game Nov. 6 at Highmark Stadium.

“I felt we played well. We did the things we talked about doing,” Stewart said concerning the Mars PIAA defeat.

“The girls played with everything they had and executed the game plan as well as I could’ve ask them to. Unfortunately, Mars got the corner kick and headed it in.”

The game’s lone goal of the semifinal matchup came on Mars’ ninth corner kick of the game. Planets sophomore Ainsley Ray headed home the game-winner within a tightly-packed grouping of Plum and Mars players.

In Plum’s last three games against Mars — last year’s WPIAL final, this year’s WPIAL title game and the most recent contest — three of the four goals for the Planets came off of headers.

“The other one was a cross which acted like a corner,” Stewart said. “Mars is really good in the air. We did what we wanted to on the first eight corner kicks they got. We were able to clear them out, and that’s what we focused on in practice. Unfortunately, they got that ninth one and were able to convert.”

Mars finished with a 6-1 advantage in shots on goal.

“It’s tough for everybody when you get to this point and are not able to move on,” Stewart said.

“The girls really wanted to get to Hershey and play for a state title. To know how close we were, it stings a little. But when the girls sit back and are able to reflect on all they accomplished this year, they will be able to appreciate how it was such a great run.”

Plum rolled through the regular season with just one loss (Norwin) and one tie (Hampton), captured its third straight section championship at 12-0 and earned the No. 2 seed for the WPIAL playoffs.

It defeated Laurel Highlands, Hampton and South Fayette to earn the right to go after the WPIAL title.

The Mustangs were able to rebound from the loss to Mars in the WPIAL final and make history in the state tournament.

Plum’s 3-1 first-round win over District 6 champion Hollidaysburg was the program’s first triumph in the state playoffs.

It then continued on by rallying past District 3 champion Mechanicsburg, 2-1, in the quarterfinals Nov. 13.

“We had a really good run last year, but unfortunately, we weren’t able to go to states,” Stewart said.

“We graduated a number of seniors, but most of the girls who played this year also played a number of minutes last year. The girls came back with a lot of confidence. They got the experience we were looking for. They came into the season hungry. They knew what they wanted, and they worked hard to get it.”

Plum will head into next season owners of a 34-game section winning streak.

Seven seniors — including PIAA-semifinal starters Emma Bennethum, Tori Ruggiero and Marissa Liberto — will be lost to graduation from this year’s team.

Also moving on are Jade Tau, Maura Opina, Julia Gildea and Bailey Walker.

Liberto, who finished with 18 goals, second to junior Kaitlyn Killinger’s 30, and a team-best 15 assists, garnered interest from both Clarion and Point Park, and was deciding on her destination as of this week’s deadline.

Ruggiero will play at Edinboro, while Bennethum will head to Pitt-Johnstown.

“Each senior class sets a standard for the younger classes that follow,” Stewart said. “They’ve experienced three WPIAL finals, two appearances in the state playoffs, and a whole lot of victories. Winning two state playoff games this year is a nice legacy to leave behind. They will be missed.”

With eight of 11 starters returning, including four of the top five scorers in Killinger, sophomore Ava Weleski (17 goals), and juniors Camryn Rogers (16) and Annabel Arhin (11), Stewart feels team is set up to make yet another run next year.

Also back to help form the core of next year’s squad are PIAA-semifinal starters in juniors Nina Kite, Cameron Collins, Emily Berrott and Kaley Simqu; and sophomore goalkeeper Megan Marston.

“Finding those underclassmen who will be able to step in and fill available spots will be a key thing for the team moving forward,” Stewart said.

“We saw some things in our JV season that are promising. We are looking forward to seeing what they can do for us as we move into another season. With that mix of returning talent, the future is bright.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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