‘Bar has been raised’ for Belle Vernon boys soccer team

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Wednesday, October 14, 2020 | 4:22 PM


More of a formality than a confetti-filled celebration, the observance of Belle Vernon’s second section title in as many years was different.

It was all business when the Leopards clinched their fifth section title. Maybe that’s because this is a boys soccer team with more on its mind than section plaques.

“I think last year it was much more unexpected where this year we’re focused on something bigger — which is a good thing,” Leopards coach Rob Miele said. “The bar has been raised, so to speak.”

Belle Vernon (12-1, 10-1), No. 5 in the Tribune-Review Class 3A rankings at the start of the week, secured the Section 3 title when it thumped Laurel Highlands, 11-1, on Saturday.

Belle Vernon never had won back-to-back sections. The feat gives credence to the Leopards, which is nice and all, but again, they want more.

“I think that shows consistency in a program,” Miele said. “That you’re not a one-year wonder team.”

This year is looking oddly similar to last in that the Leopards only had only one loss heading into Wednesday night’s game against Thomas Jefferson, and that loss was to Trinity.

The setback came against the Hillers, 2-1. Trinity also ended the Leopards’ bid at a perfect regular season last year with a 7-0 win.

“We didn’t come out and play a full 80 minutes and, unfortunately against a good team, you can’t afford to do that,” Miele said. “The second half we made some adjustments and had the field tilted pretty hard our way but couldn’t get that equalizer. Their goalkeeper made a few saves that really was the difference in the second half.

“We definitely had some positives to take away from that loss, but we’ve never been about moral victories so it was still a tough one to swallow.”

Last year, the Leopards earned the No. 4 seed in the WPIAL playoffs and reached the quarterfinals before losing to Blackhawk, 4-1.

The Leopards’ record book has made room for new names along the way this season, a nice bonus for one of their better groups.

Junior forward Daniel Sassak broke marks for goals and points in a game, with six and 15. Sassak had six goals and three assists against Laurel Highlands.

In addition, Sassak moved into fifth place on the program’s goals list with 62.

Senior goalkeeper T.J. Watson, meanwhile, posted his 17th clean sheet to tie him for third in shutouts. Sassak leads the team with 25 goals and 12 assists, and senior midfielder Nick Nagy, who had a hat trick against Laurel Highlands, has 14 goals and 12 assists.

Nine players have scored this season, but Sassak and Nagy have 39 of the team’s 59 goals.

Watson has a 1.04 goals-against average and five shutouts.

“I always tell them any time we have a player break a record or receive an accolade, it’s because of the team,” Miele said. “Even though that individual is the one who receives the recognition, he couldn’t have done it alone, and I think that goes back to the idea that this group is a pretty close-knit group.”

Belle Vernon lost only two players to graduation. Experience is paying off, especially when the Leopards get tested.

“Our team is best at keeping our touches to two or three touches,” junior forward Tyler Kovatch said. “And when we make a mistake, we forgive each other (quickly) and pick each other up. We also fight to the end.”

While the Leopards have pizzazz in the form of a high-scoring offense that averages 4.5 goals a game, and an open style of play, the team’s defining characteristic might be its closeness and willingness to share the ball.

“You hear coaches talk about success and chemistry and what happens first, but they truly don’t care who gets the accolades, the press, the goals (etc.),” Miele said. “They just want to win, and it’s shown up in every game. Their team-first mentality really is a staple.”

Holding midfielder Logan Kolodychak, Miele said, has been a pleasant surprise. He filled the void left by the departure of Maverick Selvoski, who played that spot last season.

“He’s a completely different type of player compared to (Selvoski), but it works for this team. He was in a position battle through the summer and into early camp. Props to him for taking advantage of that. He’s done very well for us.”

Senior captain Austin Martin also has been a constant in the lineup. A three-year starter, Martin has elevated his play “to new heights,” Miele said, at one defender spot.

“I’m not sure as coaches we saw it coming,” Miele said. “He’s really been a catalyst for us in the back.”

Belle Vernon’s schedule took a hard left turn because covid-19 restrictions. The team was scheduled to play Lackey (Md.), a state playoff team from last year, in an early-season tournament. But that game was canceled.

Belle Vernon’s annual Paul Sasko Tournament was canceled on Labor Day weekend.

Nonsection games against Elizabeth Forward and Southmoreland also were wiped out by schedule conflicts.

“I think our section provides some pretty good competition with Trinity and Thomas Jefferson,” Miele said. “Ultimately, we don’t have full control of the schedule, especially this year, so we have to play who we are given.”

Miele said his players are grateful to be competing this fall. WPIAL sports were in question late in the summer.

“With all the uncertainly we had all summer, they are truly taking it one game at a time and maximizing every opportunity because they know it could be gone at any point,” Miele said. “They’ve seen teams miss out on games because of covid and realize it’s a real thing.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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