Weather’s no problem for Mars boys soccer in PIAA semifinal victory

Tuesday, November 17, 2020 | 9:55 PM

Mars boys soccer coach Chris Knauff said the ground was clear at his home five miles from the Mars Athletic Complex, so he was quite shocked to see a snow-covered field upon arrival.

What didn’t surprise him was his team’s ability to adapt to the conditions and find a way to win.

Led by a goal and an assist by Nabil Lahlou, the Planets punched their ticket to Hershey with a 2-1 win over District 10 champion Cathedral Prep in the Class 3A semifinals Tuesday.

“I’m proud of my team and impressed by them,” Knauff said. “I think some teams would see a (snow-covered) field like this and feel like it might be tough to play in or that it might not be good soccer, but these guys didn’t care. They were excited to get out there. You could put them in a mud pit, or a perfect field, and it doesn’t matter to them.”

Mars (20-0) will try for the first state title in program history when it faces District 3 champ Northern at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Hersheypark Stadium. The Planets are in the PIAA championship game for the second time with the first one coming in 2007.

“We worked so hard for this all season,” Lahlou said. “We’ve been doubted by a lot of different teams, media and even some of our own alumni, but we had one goal today and that was to get to that state final. Scoring a goal was awesome, but so was having an assist in the first half. Anything I can do to help my team, whether it’s a goal, an assist, playing defense, that’s what I want to do.”

The boys team joins the Mars girls soccer team, which also advanced to the PIAA finals with a 2-0 win over Mechanicsburg.

Lahlou assisted on Eli Wright’s goal in the 33rd minute that gave Mars a 1-0 halftime lead. He scored on a header in the 56th minute to put Mars in front 2-0.

“That kind of surprised me,” Knauff said of Lahlou’s goal. “It was a little bit against the run of play, but he got into a good position. He’s not known to score many goals with his head, but he made a great run and got a piece of it.”

Lahlou’s goal turned out to be crucial because Cathedral Prep was awarded a penalty kick a minute later after a foul in the box by Mars. Jack Foht converted the penalty and cut the lead in half with less than 11 minutes remaining.

The Planets relied on their stingy back line and keeper Jake Gareis to ward off a couple of corner kick opportunities from the Ramblers in the final six minutes. The Planets kept their streak alive of allowing one or fewer goals in every match this season. They have 13 shutouts.

“We’re sky-high right now,” Lahlou said. “We’ve had challenges, but no one has been able to beat us on that scoreboard. We’re not going change to adapt to any team. We’re going to play our game and hopefully bring that state championship back to the WPIAL.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer

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