Belle Vernon soccer optimistic about future

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Monday, November 1, 2021 | 10:09 AM


Belle Vernon boys soccer, like so many teams throughout high school sports in the region, continued to feel the impact of the pandemic in 2021, even as play returned to normal.

In his first season, Leopards coach Al Yeschenko inherited a partially inexperienced group that had its junior varsity team shut down because of covid-19 issues a year prior, preventing many players from gaining valuable game action.

Add in a strong group of seniors that departed last spring, and Yeschenko was left with quite a challenge.

“I’m pleased with how it went, especially with me coming in my first year,” he said. “While I was on the staff last year, we made some changes, and we had to move some things around because we lost some very serious senior quality last year. We had to make adjustments.”

Despite the new faces, the group persisted and thrived, putting up a 13-5-1 record, including an 11-3 mark in Section 3-3A. Belle Vernon finished tied with Laurel Highlands for second place in the section, trailing only Thomas Jefferson.

The good run, however, ended early, as Mars blanked Belle Vernon, 4-0, in the Class 3A first round Oct. 23.

“They were the better team,” Yeschenko said. “I saw them on film, and I knew what to expect going in. I prepared my guys for their style of attack. When you see it in person, it was much stronger, faster and aggressive than it was on film.

“We had our chances, but we didn’t finish them. And they finished theirs.”

The four goals allowed by the Leopards was the most all season, as defense was a catalyst for the team. Belle Vernon began the year with seven straight wins, allowing just five goals in that stretch. But an early-season injury to senior center back Tyler Mocello meant Yeschenko and his team needed to adjust on the fly.

“(Mocello is) a multisport kid who ended up golfing through all of that with one (good) ankle,” Yeschenko said. “Phenomenal athlete. It was a really, really big loss.

“Tyler Kovatch, we had him playing in the midfield. But when we lost Tyler Mocello, we lost a lot of speed in the back. So Tyler Kovatch was the most effective player with speed and confidence in the air that we could use. When we moved him back, we got better defensively, but we dropped off a little in the attack.”

The attack, however, had plenty of pop.

Senior Daniel Sassak ended his high school career with 99 goals, the most ever scored by a Belle Vernon player. He had 29 in his final season.

“The entire team has confidence when you know that you have a pure goal scorer,” Yeschenko said. “When the ball’s around his feet, he’s dangerous. When the team knows that someone else can score, the confidence goes up in the whole group.

“The other thing is, he’s a quality person, a really good teammate. The kids really like being around him.”

A year with only five total losses — and three in section play — is a strong one. But Yeschenko feels there was perhaps more that could have been attained.

“Going down twice to (Thomas Jefferson), I wasn’t pleased about,” he said. “I thought we were a little more prepared than we showed.”

Belle Vernon will lose 10 seniors, but Yeschenko believes his program’s youth — which did get more playing time this year than in 2020 — will be able to keep the standard high, especially since so many of them are year-round soccer players.

“I think what we’re losing most is the speed, strength and quickness of the seniors,” Yeschenko said. “So we’re going to have to close that gap.

“We have some rebuilding to do, losing a 99-goal scorer and some athleticism. But we’ll have a nice, young program coming in. I’m confident with the young guys.”

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