‘Special group’ brings WPIAL boys soccer championship to Hampton

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Saturday, November 13, 2021 | 11:01 AM


Hampton’s journey to the 2021 WPIAL boys soccer championship began when many of the players were still in elementary school.

As 8- and 9-year-olds, they competed on the same Hampton youth soccer teams. They became close friends and grew as teammates. They went undefeated as eighth-graders and reached the 2019 WPIAL Class 3A semifinals as sophomores.

Then on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Highmark Stadium, with the Pittsburgh skyline as a backdrop, they came of age.

“We always knew we had a special group,” said midfielder Zach Panza, one of 10 senior starters in the WPIAL finals. “We’ve played with each other since we were 9 years old. We got to high school, and we knew after freshman year that it’s going to come. This year, we knew it was our year.”

The Talbots’ 1-0 victory over previously undefeated West Allegheny on Nov. 6 in the WPIAL Class 3A championship game gave the program its first district title since winning back-to-back crowns in 2010-11.

Panza scored the winner on a header off a Dylan Beranek corner kick with 16 minutes, 15 seconds to play.

When senior goalie Thomas Bradfield punched away a West Allegheny corner kick as the final horn sounded, the Hampton players rushed the field, and hundreds of fans who had made the trip to the home of the USL’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds cheered.

The Talbots (20-1) opened the PIAA Class 3A playoffs with a 6-0 victory over District 6 champion Hollidaysburg (20-1) on Nov. 9 at Fridley Field. Hampton was scheduled to play Franklin Regional (17-4) in the PIAA quarterfinals Saturday, Nov. 13, in a rematch of the Talbots’ 1-0 victory in the WPIAL semifinals.

“These guys are a special group,” said Matt McAwley, in his seventh season as coach at his alma mater. “I’ve coached a lot of different kids. Sometimes you have teammates that are friends on the field, but then they are not really friends off the field. These guys do everything together. You can’t really teach that as a coach. Having that, on top of their soccer ability, adds a cohesiveness that is just so important to a team.”

After the victory, 25 players formed a line on the Highmark Stadium turf and received their gold medals from McAwley. They posed for photos with their WPIAL championship trophy and gave high-fives to their enthusiastic fans. The Hampton community had rallied behind the Talbots’ surge to the WPIAL title. Mark Ryan of Hampton brought his sons, Seth, 7, and Luke, 5, to the finals. The two boys each held little blue homemade signs that read “Hampton,” and ate cotton candy.

The support was not lost on the Talbots players and coaches.

“It was an awesome atmosphere to be in,” McAwley said. “Being down here in this stadium is just fantastic and having as many people from Hampton come down to support us was just an awesome feeling.”

Panza gave them a lot to cheer about. Not only did he score the deciding goal, but he cleared a West Allegheny scoring chance from the goal mouth in the first half and, again, with five minutes to play and Hampton clinging to a 1-0 lead, he cleared a deflected shot just before it rolled across the goal line.

“It was inches,” Panza said, holding his thumb and forefinger 2 inches apart.

The Talbots’ underclassmen were also close. The 10 senior starters in the WPIAL finals were Bradfield, Panza, defenders Beranek, Brennan Wesley and Frank Galioto; midfielders Zander Plizga and Gabe Viszlay; and forwards Liam Nichols, Holden Pritts and Luke Staggers. The lone non-senior starter was sophomore Luke Fiscus, who replaced injured senior Henry Hughes (ankle) on the back line.

“We’ve played together, like every day, for years,” Galioto said. “They are like my family. It means the world that I got to win this with them.”

The Talbots’ coaching staff included assistants Jonathan McAwley, Matt’s father, Josh Casey and former Talbot Jedd Cordisco, who joined the staff to help out late this season.

After the postgame celebration, the players and coaches hopped on a school bus and made the trip to Robert Morris to cheer on the Talbots girls volleyball team, which was playing Freeport in the WPIAL Class 3A finals. The Hampton boys soccer boosters supplied 11 large pizzas and a bunch of cookies for the jubilant ride.

The journey to the WPIAL soccer championship had started long before.

“We’ve been playing together since we were like 8 years old,” said Bradfield, who made 10 saves in the finals. “We knew this was our last year with each other, and we knew we had to put everything on the field. We did that. We had a lot of adversity. Nobody believed in us, and we’re WPIAL champs now.”

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