Perennial power Upper St. Clair set for another girls soccer playoff run

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Wednesday, October 16, 2019 | 9:04 PM


There is one constant in the Upper St. Clair girls soccer program: The Panthers annually advance to the WPIAL playoffs.

USC has advanced to the postseason every year that Dave Gray has been head coach. Gray began his coaching career with the Panthers in 2004.

Not surprisingly, the USC girls did it again in 2019.

The Panthers zipped past rival Mt. Lebanon, 4-0, on Oct. 14 to end up 10-4 in Section 2-AAAA and 11-5 overall.

USC clinched this year’s playoff berth thanks to a four-game win streak down the season’s home stretch, defeating section foes Peters Township, 2-1, Bethel Park, 2-0, Baldwin, 3-1, and Brashear, 7-0.

Behind a unique senior pairing at the goalkeeper position, Upper St. Clair posted nine shutouts and allowed only one goal in two other contests. USC outscored the opposition by 34 goals, securing a 47-13 scoring advantage.

Among the Panthers’ five losses were three 2-1 defeats and another by a 1-0 score.

“We’re very pleased with our play this season,” Gray said. “A handful of players that were three- or four-year starters graduated last year. Most of this year’s team are playing their first season with a significant amount of time on the field. They’ve worked hard and have progressed really well throughout the season.”

Juls Gianni and Jill Rocco share goalkeeping duties for the Panthers, and both have made college commitments. Gianni plans to attend Dickinson and Rocco has committed to Akron.

Marissa Krenn, a senior defender and Fordham recruit, anchors the back line that also includes sophomores Eva Rankin, Natalie Gilbert and Mackenzie Dupre.

At midfield, USC is led by seniors Maddy Huzjak and Jen McKenzie and junior Carson Bogan. Senior Sam DiGiorgio, junior Emily Rocco and senior Lex Wehrle are forwards.

Leading reserves on the team include juniors Elle Snyder, Lily Falce and Bri Lang. Lucy Volpatt is a top freshman prospect.

Huzjak, who has a weighted 4.6 GPA and has competed in club soccer for Beadling throughout high school, believes the Panthers’ team chemistry was a strength this season.

“We lost a handful of big-time players last year due to graduation,” she said, “but we definitely compensate for it with our technical style of play and cohesiveness.

“Our motto throughout the season has been ‘11 strong.’ We feel this phrase really (describes) our style of play and the way in which we have approached success this year. We know the only way for us to get results is to collectively buy into our system and play as a unit.”

Huzjac is president of Kids Helping Kids, a Mini-THON executive and a National Honor Society and Future Business Leaders of America member.

“Besides dropping a few close games,” she said, “I think our performance this season has been solid. We won the games we needed to win, so the losses were fortunately ones that we could afford to take.”

The Panthers have been hampered by key injuries to midfielder Brooke Meinert and forward Cara Marsh. Both are seniors.

“Brooke started every game before her injury versus Peters,” Gray said. “She was a huge part of our midfield. It’s taken two weeks to figure out how to play without her. She’s out for the remainder of the season.

“Cara Marsh is the fastest player on the team. She is dangerous in behind the back line. We’re hoping for her return in the next week.”

Huzjak said Meinert and Marsh have been missed.

“Their injuries were definitely setbacks for us because they’re both integral members of our team,” she said.

Moon and Peters Township tied for first place in the section this year with 12-1-1 records. USC took third place, followed by Canon-McMillan in fourth.

“We have the same expectations every year,” Gray said. “We always feel we’re going to be in the mix. The section we play in is very competitive and talented. So even in the years we don’t finish at the top of the section, we know we’re prepared for what’s ahead of us in the postseason — mainly because we’ve played so many competitive games versus teams in our section.”

Gray has been coaching at USC for 14 seasons. He stepped away for two years to coach at Duquense University.

“I’ve been very lucky to have been coaching at USC since 2004,” Gray said. “I’m also very grateful to have had the coaching staff we have.

Gray said his father, Mike Gray, and Greg Wagner have been with him from the beginning. Sharon Sumansky joined the staff when he returned from Duquesne, and Anna Carik came onboard two years ago.

He also noted that two former USC goalkeepers, Jocelyn Alfera and Brittney Kitka, have been working with the team for years.

“It’s always easier when you’re surrounded by great people,” Gray said. “None of our success would be possible with those coaches and their dedication.”

Upper St. Clair landed the No. 8 seed for the WPIAL playoffs and will play at 8:15 p.m. Monday against No. 9 Fox Chapel.

The Foxes, who tied for fourth in Section 1 with Pine-Richland, are 9-7-1.

The winner of that first-round contest will oppose No. 1 seed Norwin (16-1) on Oct. 24. Norwin, Peters Township and North Allegheny drew first-round byes.

“We’re going to take the playoffs one day at a time,” Dave Gray said. “There is so much parity in AAAA. Because there are less sections and only 12 teams get in, the level of play is really high.

“Everyone always talks about the seedings, but I’m not sure how much it matters. Everyone is really good in AAAA. You have to be ready to play every night. The competition is too strong not to.”

Huzjak is looking forward to the start of the playoffs and her team’s first-round home game.

“As always, the road to Highmark (Stadium) is going to be difficult as every team entering playoffs this year is a threat,” Huzjak said. “But I know we’re capable of playing at a very high level.

“We don’t know much about Fox Chapel other than their record. On paper, we have more wins, but Fox Chapel plays in an extremely competitive section with some of the better teams we’ve faced this season. So we are definitely prepared for a good game.”

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