Section champion Belle Vernon boys soccer team finds many pathways to victory

Wednesday, October 12, 2022 | 5:49 PM

In many years of following and coaching soccer, Al Yeschenko had never seen a “buzzer-beater” on the pitch.

With about two minutes to play in a tie game against Brownsville last week, the Belle Vernon boys coach began to prep mentally for overtime and even pulled some players so they could be fresh for a post-regulation run.

But then senior Nathaniel Kikel came out of nowhere and struck to stun everyone at James Weir Stadium.

It was like the senior forward was humming the “Jaws” theme as he attacked from the left wing. He definitely incited screams at “The Beach.”

Kikel fired in a goal with 1 second left to lift the Leopards to a 3-2 win over Brownsville to stretch his team’s winning streak to seven, a streak that ultimately reached nine and led to a Section 3 title.

“It was unbelievable,” Yeschenko said. “I’m thinking, did he beat the buzzer? Is it like basketball? What if it hit off someone first? Never saw anything like it.”

Kikel’s thriller was just one way, by one player, that Belle Vernon (13-3, 12-2) has beaten a team this season, its first in Class 2A.

Sophomore Trevor Kovatch also sent a penalty kick in bottom shelf to beat Mt. Pleasant, 2-1, in overtime.

Balance has permeated a deep lineup.

Fifteen players have produced points, 11 of whom have scored goals.

The playoff-bound Leopards also vary their playing style and formation, often making changes on the fly.

With this team, nothing is quite what it seems.

“If I am all the way down at the other end, screaming isn’t going to do me any good,” Yeschenko said. “Our guys know how to move off the ball and share an awareness for what is going on around them. They move as a unit.”

Four or five formations in a game would not be a stretch for the Leopards, who have allowed only four goals during their streak.

“We’re very positive and have good rotations,” Kikel said. “Coach watches a lot of film and teaches us what to do and how to execute.”

Kovatch is having a breakthrough season. He leads the team with 27 goals and 15 assists. Kikel has 11 goals and six helpers, and senior Dylan Rathway has seven scores and six assists.

Sophomore goalkeeper Bryce Burkhart is 13-2 with 66 saves and eight shutouts.

Kovatch has played five positions: wide left or wide right on the wing, attacker out of the midfield and center back.

Yeschenko said every player in the starting 11, with the exception of Burkhart, has played multiple spots.

Other key contributors have been sophomore Brandon Yeschenko (7 assists), speedy senior midfielder Dylan Timko and freshman Preston Rathway (5 goals).

Sophomore Mason Yeschenko, who dabbles in mixed martial arts, has four assists.

“We have a number of guys doing things for us,” the coach said. “We know our strengths, and we know our weaknesses.”

Because most of its opponents don’t have junior varsity teams, Belle Vernon has a stocked bench.

The depth serves multiple purposes.

“It allows us to get kids experience against varsity competition,” Yeschenko said. “But we have kids helping us now. You hear about people saying Belle Vernon is having a rebuilding year because we had some seniors graduate. We never took it that way. We knew we had some good, young players who could complement our older kids.”

Belle Vernon’s drop to 2A did not mean easier competition.

“When we first heard we were (going to 2A), we thought we would roll over everyone,” Kikel admitted. “But it hasn’t been like that. We have adjusted to teams we have never played before.”

Yeschenko takes great exception to the 2A topic.

“I think that is a huge misconception,” he said. “We are playing right where we should be as proven by size.”

Belle Vernon has been more patient offensively, and more players are getting touches and having an impact on scoring.

“We’re a balanced attack,” Yeschenko said. “Sometimes, it’s fast. Other times it’s built, one side or the other. We’re more connected, rather than striking long and fast.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at or via Twitter .


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