Top 10 A-K Valley sports stories of 2021

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Thursday, December 30, 2021 | 4:36 PM


As 2021 opened, high school sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and throughout the region and state were on hold because of ongoing covid-19 uncertainties.

Games, meets and matches eventually went ahead, and individual and team champions were crowned.

The spring sports season returned after it was canceled in 2020 at the onset of the covid pandemic.

The year provided the setting to again see memorable athletic accomplishments not many soon will forget.

Athletes and teams were able to make their marks, paying off many hours of dedication and determination to reach, and in many cases, surpass their goals.

It is time to look back on a number of the top stories of the year in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

10. Fox Chapel swimmers claim titles

Fox Chapel’s Sophie Shao was the hunted entering her sophomore year last December.

After all, she was coming off quite a WPIAL and PIAA debut with championships in the Class 3A girls 100-yard butterfly in both meets.

Shao and hundreds of other swimmers throughout the state weathered all of the covid changes sent down by the PIAA, and she made her mark on the state’s biggest stage at Cumberland Valley High School.

Taking to the pool for the third time in 60 minutes, Shao bested the field in the 100 fly to win gold in a time of 55.59.

Shao is the first swimmer in the history of the Fox Chapel program to claim two individual state titles.

In addition to Shao’s second WPIAL title, two others from the Alle-Kiski Valley brought home WPIAL titles from Upper St. Clair High School.

Freeport junior Alexis Schrecongost captured WPIAL gold for the first time as she won the Class 2A girls 100 breaststroke in a school-record time of 1:06.03.

Fox Chapel sophomore Talia Bugel (100 backstroke, 55.93) and the Foxes 200 medley relay of Shao, Bugel, junior Rei Sperry and senior Vivian Shao (school record 1:45.16) won Class 3A championships.

9.Track, cross country standouts go for gold

It started in the spring as Deer Lakes junior Carson McCoy, the Riverview boys 3,200-meter relay and Apollo-Ridge senior Casey Weightman made the most of their Class 2A title opportunities.

McCoy went the extra mile in the 1,600-meter run at the PIAA championships at Shippensburg. The WPIAL runner-up bested the field of 26 runners, making a late surge to take state gold in a time of 4 minutes, 16.48 seconds. His time was more than two seconds better than his WPIAL finish.

At WPIALs, senior Mason Ochs, juniors Ty Laughlin and Parker Steele, and sophomore Amberson Bauer ran to a first-place finish in 8:17.09. Weightman threw the javelin 121 feet, 7 inches, nine inches better than the runner-up.

The Riverview boys cross country team took the figurative baton in October, and after five straight Class A runner-up finishes to Winchester Thurston, the Raiders topped the Bears for WPIAL gold.

The Raiders, led by Steele, Laughlin, Bauer and senior Lucas Wilton, won with 76 points, 14 better than Winchester Thurston.

8. Plum girls soccer gets its kicks at states

Between the regular season and WPIAL and PIAA tournaments, the Mustangs won 21 games, lost just three and tied once. Plum capped its 2021 fall season with a historic run to the semifinals of the PIAA Class 3A tournament.

The Mustangs shook off their third straight loss to Mars in a WPIAL title game with a pair of PIAA victories over Hollidaysburg in the first round and Mechanicsburg in the quarterfinals. Plum’s win over Hollidaysburg was the program’s first PIAA victory in only its second state playoff game.

The Mustangs saw their season come to an agonizing end with a 1-0 loss to Mars. Plum lost just once in the regular season, a 1-0 setback to Class 4A Norwin, and captured its third straight section title. Plum is currently riding a 34-game section win streak.

Plum landed three players — junior forward Kaitlyn Killinger, senior forward Marissa Liberto and junior defender Kaley Simqu — on the All-WPIAL team, and Killinger went on to earn all-state honors from the Pennsylvania Soccer Coaches Association.

7. David Manelis dives to WPIAL, PIAA championships

The fourth time at states was the charm for Fox Chapel senior David Manelis.

In a field paired down to the eight district champions because of covid restrictions set by the PIAA, he grabbed the lead after the sixth dive of 11 and didn’t trail after that.

Manelis entered the state competition as the top seed. He was Fox Chapel’s first diving state champion and the first Class 3A boys champ from the WPIAL since Penn-Trafford’s Joey Ferrence in 2015-2016.

Manelis, who won his second WPIAL title at North Allegheny a couple of weeks earlier, added the state title to PIAA finishes of 10th as a freshman, second as a sophomore and third as a junior. He now is a member of the men’s diving team at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

6. Leechburg football ends droughts

The Blue Devils broke out in a big way this past fall with their first winning season (9-3) since 1991, the first WPIAL playoff appearance since 1988 and first WPIAL playoff win since 1978.

Leechburg, with the likes of Thomas Burke, Braylan Lovelace, Eli Rich and Logan Kline leading the way, fronted WPIAL Class A in scoring at 41.7 points a game and topped California, 28-7, in the program’s first home playoff game.

Burke, who threw for more than 2,000 yards this season, was selected the Valley News Dispatch Offensive Player of the Year.

The Blue Devils’ only two losses in the regular season came at the hands of perennial power Clairton and WPIAL champion Bishop Canevin.

Leechburg, which became the first Alle-Kiski Valley team to score at least 500 points in a single season, saw its season come to an end with a loss to Cornell in the quarterfinals.

5. Highlands softball makes a run

With just three seniors on their roster, the Golden Rams took everyone on a magical ride during the spring season.

Despite falling one win short of the state finals at Penn State — they lost 4-0 to Beaver in the PIAA semifinals — Highlands captured its first section title since 2005 and played in its first WPIAL championship game.

The Golden Rams came close in the WPIAL Class 3A title contest, but Beaver rallied for a 3-2 victory.

Highlands earned a spot in the state tournament for only the second time in program history. The Golden Rams secured their first playoff win with a 7-1 triumph over District 9 champion Clearfield at DuBois.

They then waited out a several-hours delay and a site change to top District 3 champion Bishop McDevitt in the quarterfinals at Central Cambria.

Highlands pitcher/first baseman Jaycee Haidze was named Valley News Dispatch Player of the Year. Junior Kassidy Cambal, sophomore Abbie Deiseroth, and junior Jess Cekada also were selected VND all-stars.

4. Greb sisters capture WPIAL and PIAA doubles gold

Sophomore twin sisters Lindsey and Emily Greb survived each test through the PIAA Class 2A doubles tournament to claim gold Nov. 6 in Hershey.

They won all four matches in straight sets, including the state final over District 3 champs Emma Perkins and Michelle Timothy of Conrad Weiser

The PIAA title for the Grebs came just a year after Knoch brought home the state team title. The Knights have had representation in Hershey each of the past six seasons.

The Grebs went into this year’s state tournament with momentum after also claiming the WPIAL Class 2A title Oct. 7 at North Allegheny.

It marked the third year in a row that a Knoch doubles team captured WPIAL gold. Ally and Brooke Bauer won in 2020, and Ally Bauer and Libby Conlon were victorious in 2019.

Ally Bauer was the WPIAL Class 2A singles runner-up this fall, and she also made the state semifinals. As a team, Knoch was the WPIAL runner-up and a state quarterfinalist.

3. A WPIAL golf sweep

The Fox Chapel boys and girls golf teams both claimed WPIAL Class 3A team titles Oct. 14 at Cedarbrook Golf Course. It was the first time a school swept the team championships in 3A since Upper St. Clair in 2005.

The Foxes boys defeated Central Catholic by one stroke. Senior Eli Yofan was the individual medalist with a 1-under 71. Davey Fuhrer, Zach Paper, Max Johnson and Owen Delaney also contributed in the top five.

The Fox Chapel girls, paced by senior Nina Busch (fifth with a 6-over 77), carded a five-stroke victory over Peters Township. All four seniors were their scorers, including Erin Drahnak, Grace Rygleski and Baylan Bitar.

2. Freeport girls volleyball rules the WPIAL

The Yellowjackets were youthful this past fall, but their depth and talent prevailed as they captured their sixth WPIAL championship — all since 2010 — with a 3-1 victory over section rival Hampton on Nov. 6 at Robert Morris. It was Freeport’s first Class 3A title after capturing Class 2A crowns in 2010, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2019.

The lone senior on the floor for the title game was hitter/defensive specialist Erica Lampus.

The Yellowjackets also outlasted section rival Armstrong in three sets in the semifinals to punch their ticket to RMU.

Freeport won twice in the state playoffs before falling to Hampton, the eventual state runner-up, in the semifinals to finish 21-2.

1. Burrell wrestlers add to championship streak

A WPIAL-record streak continued as the Burrell wrestling team won its 15th straight WPIAL Class 2A team championship with a 38-18 victory over Burgettstown on Feb. 13 at Canon-McMillan High School.

The Bucs got off to a quick start, winning the first six bouts and taking nine of the 13 contested.

Winning for Burrell were senior Aaron Edwards (138), senior Ian Oswalt (145), junior Damian Barr (152), senior Simon Slahtovsky (160), senior Colby Christie (172), senior AJ Corrado (189), freshman Cooper Hornack (106), sophomore Nicholas Ferra (120) and junior Nick Salerno (132).

Burrell has won 45 consecutive WPIAL playoff matches.

The winning didn’t stop at the team level, as four Bucs captured WPIAL individual titles and Corrado, the 2021 Valley News Dispatch Wrestler of the Year and a Brown commit, added his first PIAA title (160), completing the season at 37-0.

Oswalt (138) finished 24-3 and joined an elite group with his fourth WPIAL title. He went on the claim his second straight PIAA runner-up finish.

Hornack, (29-3, 106) won WPIAL gold in his varsity debut season and was second at states, while Ferra (20-9, 120) captured his first WPIAL title.

Honorable Mention

Spring forward

The covid-19 outbreak wrecked the entire 2020 spring high school sports season as baseball, softball, boys tennis, boys volleyball, boys and girls lacrosse and boys and girls track and field athletes found themselves without the opportunity to compete. But in March, a sense of normalcy returned as spring sports made a triumphant return in the Alle-Kiski Valley and throughout the state. Individual and team champions again were crowned for the first time since May and June 2019. It was a spirited series of championship events which celebrated the competitions everyone missed.

Riverview baseball makes run to title game

The Raiders, with just three seniors, finished the 2021 regular season 8-6 and were runner-up in Section 3-A. Then as the No. 7 seed, they reeled off three straight wins in the WPIAL playoffs — victories over No. 10 Avella, No. 2 Greensburg Central Catholic and No. 6 Jefferson Morgan — to reach the WPIAL finals for the first time in two decades. Their quest for gold, however, ended in the finals at Wild Things Park, as Union’s Jake Vitale quieted the Riverview bats in a 15-strikeout no hitter.

Plum’s McGough pitches in Olympics

Scott McGough had several months of pitching in Japan before he took the mound for Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics in late July and early August. A member of the Pacific League’s Yakult Swallows, McGough helped the Americans top South Korea, firing an inning of scoreless relief with two strikeouts in a 4-2 victory. Team USA finished with the silver medal, winning four of five games before falling 2-0 to Japan in the Gold Medal Game.

Local swimmers compete at Olympic Trials

Fox Chapel senior and Virginia commit Zoe Skirboll and Highlands grad and University of Kentucky senior Bailey Bonnett tested their mettle at Junes U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb. Skirboll, who won WPIAL and PIAA championships as a freshman with the Foxes, survived Wave I when she placed second overall in the 100 breaststroke (1:09.32). Skirboll swam all four of her events in Wave II — the 100 breast, 100 freestyle, 50 free and 200 individual medley. Bonnett, who also swam at the 2016 Trials, earned Wave II cuts in both the 200 breast and 400 IM and also competed in the 200 IM and 100 breast.

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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