Dane Beller’s golden goal lifts Mars past Franklin Regional in Class 3A title game

Thursday, November 5, 2020 | 10:44 PM

Mars and Franklin Regional are very similar teams, both in talent and playing style. They both play deliberate, possession soccer and look to create opportunities in the midfield.

But top-seeded Mars switched to a more direct, attacking style in the second half, which produced more opportunities on net and ultimately propelled the Fightin’ Planets to a championship.

Senior forward Dane Beller redirected a deflection in close with 3:53 left in overtime to lift Mars to a 2-1 victory over No. 2 Franklin Regional in the WPIAL Class 3A boys soccer title game Thursday night at North Allegheny’s Newman Stadium.

On the deciding score, senior midfielder Tyler Nymberg, who had a goal in regulation, crossed in front, but Franklin Regional could not fully clear it. The still-unbeaten Planets (18-0) kept it alive, and Beller scooted it past Panthers’ keeper Gianni Diacopoulos to ignite a celebration Mars had not experienced in more than a decade.

“We’ve always been a counter-attacking team,” Mars coach Chris Knauff said. “We wanted to get our two dynamic players (Nymberg and Beller) more chances. We just happened to get a couple through.”

Franklin Regional (16-3) was seeking its third straight title but fell victim to two unanswered scores by the Planets, who celebrated a title for the first time since 2009.

It was their third overall championship. They had not played in the WPIAL final since 2016.

“It was a brilliant effort there by Tyler,” Knauff said of the game-winning setup. “We had everyone contribute tonight. It was going to come down to the smallest things tonight. The difference between winning and losing was toenail or a hair on someone’s head.”

Panthers star junior Anthony DiFalco knocked in just the fifth goal allowed by Mars all season, and broke up another potential shutout, which would have been Mars’ 13th, with a goal with 50 seconds left in the first half.

DiFalco took a long, over-the-top through ball, kept the ball low and then reared back and fired. Mars keeper Jake Gareis came out to the 5-yard line, and DiFalco lofted the shot into the center of the net for a 1-0 lead.

DiFalco put nice touch on the ball for his 37th goal of the season and 85th of his career.

But the Planets kept the Panthers out of the cage for the rest of the night.

“We had a lot of corners but didn’t get anything to go in,” Panthers coach Rand Hudson said. “I knew one wasn’t enough going into the second half. We had a lot of guys with lower body injuries, and that hurt us tonight. They beat us up physically.”

The Fightin’ Planets came back with 25:16 to go in the second half. Nymberg bumped over Cole Kaforey down the near sideline, ran wide and cut back before zipping a shot right of Diacopoulos to make it 1-1.

The change in the Planets’ attack was a tough adjustment for Franklin Regional.

“They changed, and it was send it, send it, send it,” Hudson said. “We tried to answer by trying to hit the home run with Anthony. We were doing what we didn’t want to do. That was not us.”

Franklin Regional had two quality chances inside the final three minutes of regulation. Lorenz nearly scored on a free kick from about 50 yards but Gareis made the save.

Knauff said the Planets were not going to let the moment, the heat-lamp pressure of the finals, get to them. The Planets did not look fazed as they stopped a number of DiFalco attempts early — and it wasn’t all Gareis.

Brady Nihoff, Zaccheri Campagna and Devin Shupp all got in the way of the Panthers’ attack, kicking quality shots away.

Franklin Regional, which had lost just four times in three years before the title game, had allowed just eight goals and posted 12 shutouts.

The Panthers were trying to become the first team to three-peat in WPIAL boys soccer since Quaker Valley in 1993.

Only three programs have won three straight WPIAL boys soccer titles. Springdale (1968-71) and Peters Township (1986-89) won four in a row, while Quaker Valley captured three straight championships from 1991-93.

“It’s hard,” Hudson said. “There is no safety cushion (with the PIAA playoffs). Normally you say, ‘OK, let’s rest up and get healthy and get back at it.’ It’s very abrupt.”

Gareis made nine saves for Mars, which advances to the PIAA playoffs to host District 6 champion Hollidaysburg next Saturday.

The WPIAL did not hand out medals this season because it did not order them early enough with uncertainty about a fall season, and due to safety concerns over the spread of covid-19. Instead, players were acknowledged one-by-one after the game and teams posed with “prop” trophies.

Champions will get trophies and medals mailed to their schools later.

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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