Eden Christian tops Greensburg Central Catholic in PIAA playoffs

Saturday, November 13, 2021 | 7:22 PM

Down two starters and a decided underdog because of it, Eden Christian was looking for someone to be the hero in Saturday’s PIAA Class A boys soccer quarterfinal against Greensburg Central Catholic.

An unlikely candidate emerged in the clutch.

Junior midfielder Ryan Merrick doesn’t get a lot of scoring opportunities, but he wasn’t letting this one slip away, not with overtime creeping up and his team’s historic season on the line.

Merrick sprang into frame as a corner kick sailed his way and calmly headed the ball onto the net with 1 minute, 19 seconds remaining as the Warriors won a 1-0 defensive struggle as light snow fell at West Allegheny’s Joe P. DeMichela Stadium.

Senior Nathan Lomago delivered the corner on the set piece, and Merrick did the rest on the 80th-minute score.

“The corner kick was on that side, so I knew it was my chance,” Merrick said. “Perfect ball, I go up … might have head-butted (a defender) at the same time, but it went in.”

Eden Christian (20-3-1), which lost to GCC (16-5) in the WPIAL semifinals, 6-5 in overtime, settled the rematch in regulation and with much fewer offensive fireworks.

The Warriors, in the state postseason for the first time, advance to play Winchester Thurston (21-0-1) in the semifinals Tuesday.

Eden also edged GCC early in the regular season 4-3.

“The biggest thing for us was we knew other guys have to step up,” Eden Christian coach Tom Barr said. “We wanted a second chance at them, and we got that. Now we’re looking for a second chance against Winchester because they took the section from us.”

Eden Christian blew a trio of three-goal leads in the WPIAL semis. They had juniors Malachi Manges and Elijah Kuhlman, both of whom scored in the loss, for that game.

With both out this time, the Warriors stressed defense and contained WPIAL runner-up GCC’s top threats, including 29-goal scorer Carlo Denis.

Other players also picked up the slack with Manges and Kuhlman out.

Junior David Ryan, for instance, had not played any varsity minutes all season, but logged 20-plus minutes in the quarterfinal.

“We tried to break through, but their defense was really good,” Denis said. “They played really hard and made us work for (shots).”

Said Barr: “We very specifically in practice talked about we can’t let Carlo get loose. He had a hat trick against us last time. The one thing that can’t happen is, he can’t score. The guys really responded to that.”

GCC had 12 shots — four of them stopped by junior keeper Anthony D’Ippolito — including several close calls.

Just seven minutes in, Denis was fouled in the box, and senior Ryan Reitler lined up the penalty kick.

The shot had velocity, but it banged off the right post and missed. In the 22nd minute, Reitler crossed to junior Kyler Miller, but his shot hit the crossbar.

Junior Jake Gretz ripped a shot in close, but it was stopped by D’Ippolito, who followed that with a jump save on a Miller attempt with 8:40 remaining.

“We generated more than enough chances to win the game,” GCC coach Rob Fabean said. “We missed that PK early, and their keeper made two big saves on Kyler Miller’s shots. You just kind of knew maybe it wasn’t going to be our day.”

GCC senior Mason Fabean moved to the defensive side and played a free safety role in a 3-6-1 formation, helping deny the Warriors’ scoring chances.

That part of the gameplan worked for the Centurions, but a goal never materialized. GCC hadn’t been shut out since the PIAA semis in 2018.

“I knew they wouldn’t score against us,” Rob Fabean said. “If we get that PK, and Kyler’s flick goes in, we would have broken it open.”

Merrick was impressed with his team’s defensive effort.

“We executed our gameplan well,” Merrick said. “It was nice to get a defensive win like that. We changed some things up. It means so much to get to the semifinals. We have all been working so hard. The school is so pumped up.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.

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