Plum girls soccer gets another crack at nemesis Mars, this time in state semifinals

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Monday, November 15, 2021 | 6:02 PM


The Plum girls soccer team had to endure a pair of 170-mile round trips — two excursions to Hollidaysburg’s Tiger Stadium, near Altoona — for the first two rounds of the PIAA Class 3A playoffs.

Those trips, long as they were, did yield winning results: a first-round 3-1 victory over District 6 champion Hollidaysburg on Nov. 9 and a 2-1 win Saturday against District 3 champion Mechanicsburg.

On Tuesday, the Mustangs will have a rematch with WPIAL nemesis Mars in the semifinals, and this trip won’t be nearly as long: just 16 miles.

Plum will try to exorcise the demons of three straight WPIAL title-game losses to the Planets as the teams meet at 6 p.m. at Shaler’s Titans Stadium.

“It certainly is nice to have a shorter bus ride,” Plum coach Jamie Stewart said. “Thirty minutes is much better than 90 minutes. But the girls will go anywhere now. That means they are still playing, and that is a great feeling. To be one of the final four out of all the (Class 3A) teams in the state is surreal.”

The last time a Plum soccer team, boys or girls, made it this far was the 2005 boys squad, which qualified for the Class AAA state semifinals before falling to District 1’s West Chester Henderson, 1-0.

Mars, meanwhile, is hoping for its third straight trip to the PIAA championship game. The Planets are the two-time defending Class 3A champs, having defeated District 1’s Villa Joseph Marie, 2-0, last year and 1-0 in 2019.

Mars toppled section rival Montour on Saturday, 1-0, in a quarterfinal at North Allegheny. It was the Planets’ fourth victory over the Spartans this year.

Mars, which lost a sizeable and talented senior class from last year, returned with the goal of maintaining the standard of winning it has established. The Planets defense has give up just three goals all season.

“There is a high pride factor in this team wanting to keep going and have another shot at a state title,” Mars coach Blair Gerlach said. “The girls have been consistent and have played well against some of the best teams in the state. At this point, they have already exceeded expectations, at least from those close to the program who wondered if a section title, a WPIAL title and a run at states was realistic after all we lost last year. Those were some unknowns coming into the season. Now, they are excited to still be playing.

“But we know we have a really sizeable roadblock in front of us (Tuesday). There is certainly respect there for the Plum program and the players on that team. We know we are going to have to be very sharp if we want to come out on the good side of this.”

The winner of Tuesday’s all-WPIAL state semifinal will face the winner of District 1 champion Radnor and District 12 champion Archbishop Ryan in the finals Saturday in Hershey.

Plum has one of the three goals given up by Mars, as Mustangs junior attacker and All-WPIAL performer Kaitlyn Killinger found the back of the net in the WPIAL title game.

She has 30 goals to lead the Plum attack, which features five players with at least 11 goals.

“Certainly coming out of the WPIAL title game, the girls were hoping down the line they would get this rematch,” Stewart said. “Now that it is here, we want to go in and play a little better than we did in the WPIAL final. But it, obviously, will be a great challenge. They are always very disciplined, especially defensively. You don’t get many chances, so you have to make them count. On offense, they are super good in the air on corner kicks and on crosses. They can execute so many things.”

Junior Piper Coffield, who has a team-best seven goals over Mars’ six postseason games, scored in the win over Plum at Highmark Stadium. Sophomore Ainsley Ray added the other goal.

“I think the WPIAL title game reinforced for us that we had the ability to win a close game against a very strong opponent,” Gerlach said. “Certainly, knowing Plum has the quality players all over the field, it is hard to attack a specific area. But we felt like it was kind of a coming out party for them to show that they could do this.”

Mars transitioned from the WPIAL title win and scored a 2-0 victory over District 3 third-place finisher Red Land in its PIAA opener.

“I think we had a little bit of a letdown game in the first round of states. It was a chill, low-key relaxed kind of atmosphere,” Gerlach said. “We told them that they weren’t done just because they won the WPIAL. That fire rejuvenated a little bit playing Montour again. It had to, facing them for the fourth time.”

Plum comes into the state semifinals having scored 124 goals and given up 14.

Stewart said the team has been so appreciative of the support throughout its postseason run.

“Through it all, my phone has blown up before and after each game. That’s the same with the girls,” Stewart said. “There is so much support, especially within the soccer community, but also with the school overall in terms of being excited for the girls.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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