Mars beats Belle Vernon, advances to 3rd straight WPIAL Class AAA championship

Monday, October 28, 2019 | 10:50 PM

Top-seeded Mars entered Monday night’s WPIAL Class 3A semifinal matchup with No. 5 Belle Vernon having scored 14 goals in playoff wins over Trinity and Thomas Jefferson.

The Leopards brought the Fighting Planets back to earth a bit by limiting their goal total, but it wasn’t enough to pull off the upset as BVA suffered a 2-0 loss at Canon-McMillan.

“That is a great program, and I think we played with probably one of the best teams in the state,” BVA coach Tracy Lovett said. “They are very skilled, very fast and they counter attack really well. I thought we played them well, and I’m not disappointed in my team, I’m proud of them.”

With the victory, Mars (17-0-1) advances to its third consecutive WPIAL Class 3A championship game. The Fighting Planets will take on second-seeded Plum later this week at Highmark Stadium.

“I think this is a testament to the kids. They’ve got a pride factor that they carry around with them when they put that jersey on,” Mars coach Blair Gerlach said. “They want to make sure they’re going to outdo every group before them, and that’s the goal for everybody. They’re a great team, but they’re even better kids.”

The Fighting Planets pressured BVA (16-4) heavily in the first half, but the Leopards found their way into passing lanes and denied plenty of shots.

Goalkeeper Grace Henderson was a big reason for the Leopards’ success as she made several key first-half saves, including a diving stop on a shot by Pitt recruit Ellie Coffield in the final minute.

Henderson made 10 saves.

“Grace stood out tonight and kept us in that game,” Lovett said. “They just peppered her, and she came up big. It wasn’t just her saves, it was also her positioning and the way she controlled the back. I have been seeing that from her as the season has gone on, but she has seemed to stand out in our big games recently.”

Mars finally capitalized on an opportunity with under eight minutes remaining in the first half as Coffield took a shot from around the 10-yard line and beat a diving Henderson to give the Fighting Planets a 1-0 edge that they took into halftime.

Taylor Hamlett earned an assist on the goal.

“I think our energy was good, and I think we created a ton of scoring chances, but I was surprised we didn’t put one away a little bit earlier. I’m not taking anything away from (BVA), though, they defended very well,” Gerlach said. “They’ve got good athleticism, and they compete hard. I just felt like we had a couple of balls fall to us in good areas and couldn’t get that final piece.

“After we got the first one, everybody settled down a little bit and it allowed us to play a little more of the style we like to play with a little less pressure.”

Mars, which finished with 19 shots, continued to fire away at BVA’s net in the second half.

The Fighting Planets picked up an insurance goal around the 23-minute mark as Hamlett scored on a header off a corner kick by Anna Kurpakus.

The two-goal edge was plenty for the Fighting Planets, who held the Leopards without a shot.

Gerlach said his team placed an emphasis on ensuring BVA wouldn’t be able to slip passes behind its back line.

“That is something I know they like to do, and I know they have a couple of girls with pretty lofty goal totals,” Gerlach said. “We wanted to show them a defense that was a bit more organized than what they’re used to, and we never wanted them to feel like they were one-on-one. We always wanted them to feel like they had to beat pressure and cover.

“I feel like we were able to defend zonally pretty well and I also feel like when their players had the ball, they weren’t all that comfortable.”

Despite being held without a shot, the Leopards were able to develop a few chances, including a corner kick opportunity midway through the second half.

But Mars’ defense was just too strong and didn’t let anything near goalkeeper Courtney Lisman.

“Their defense is just very solid,” Lovett said. “I would have liked to test their keeper, but we just couldn’t get by them.”

BVA (16-4) will still have an opportunity to qualify for the PIAA tournament as it will face off with No. 3 West Allegheny in the third-place consolation game later this week.

“I told the girls, ‘Don’t hang your heads, hold your heads high,’” Lovett said. “This is not over and we’re still fighting. I believe in them and I believe we can make it to the PIAA playoffs.”

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