Hempfield boys soccer team sees dividends from feeder program

Tuesday, August 20, 2019 | 7:46 PM

It has been eight years since the Hempfield boys team tasted playoff soccer, and that season ended in a Class 4A, first-round loss to Upper St. Clair.

The Spartans, at least, were in the hunt. But there’s been nothing much to show since that 2011 season.

“They’ve struggled here. It’s mostly been (a lack of) numbers,” said Hempfield coach Jason Demko, who is entering his third year with the largest roster of players he has had since taking over the program.

As Hempfield prepares to meet Class 3A Greensburg Salem in its Aug. 31 opener at Spartan Stadium, Demko is finding out a lot about his 27-player squad — up from 21 in 2018. Some of those players have returned to the program after departing during the previous regime.

“We went out and recruited athletes this year,” Demko said. “We took a look at the lacrosse players, the track players, even some of the wrestlers, who we thought might want to stay in shape because the seasons don’t overlap. We have to have bodies to compete.”

But, he said, “To be a successful program, you need players, not just bodies. We need to have that feeder program, and this year, we’ve gotten an infusion of some pretty promising players from the JV team last year.”

Hempfield’s record improved last season from the first year under Demko. The team won four games his first season, five last season.

“Our goal is to get eight this season with the first playoff run in a long time,” he said.

It’s not as though the Spartans haven’t had talented players during their playoff drought. Among those gone from a year ago is defender David Mrva, a foreign exchange student who returned to his native Slovakia, where he went on to play professionally for the Slovakia U18 2 club.

The Spartans graduated eight seniors, including five starters, from a 5-14 team that won three Section 3-4A games.

“This is a powerhouse conference,” Demko said.

One of those losses a year ago was in double overtime to Penn-Trafford, which posted a winning record but narrowly missed qualifying for the WPIAL playoffs.

“They scored the winner off a fluke bounce,” Demko said. “We had very few subs available, and they were subbing all 11 players at one time.”

Demko said the focus this season has shifted to rebuilding the team’s back line after the entire unit graduated.

He decided to move Casey Leonard, one of the team’s top scorers the past two years, along with veteran goalkeeper Austin Midlik, to the back line.

Freshman Owen Kelly, who has been working out at the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Development Academy, will open the season in goal.

“He’s shown the potential to be a very strong goalie, and we’ll work to continue to develop him at this level,” said Demko, a Fox Chapel graduate and former Belle Vernon assistant who played collegiately at North Carolina-Wilmington.

“I’m having fun watching these guys develop, but of course, we want to win.”

Demko also has coached a number of Hempfield’s players in the offseason with a Youngwood-based Beadling Soccer Club team of the Pennsylvania West State Soccer Association.

While Hempfield continues to retool its lineup, there are other veterans returning to give the Spartans hope, among them midfielders Jake Ballantyne and Zach Vanek.

Ballantyne, who is considering attending Pitt-Greensburg, sees potential for rapid progress at Hempfield.

“It’s about developing a program. Our class right now isn’t the strongest,” Ballantyne said. “We still have a lot of young kids coming up and developing. Hopefully, we’re going to be able to integrate some of them into the games.”


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