SLIPPERY ROCK — It’s often said that all good things must come to an end, and unfortunately for the Brockway boys soccer team that old saying rang true Tuesday night at Slippery Rock High School.
The Rovers saw their magical 2017 season come to an end one victory short of reaching the PIAA Class A championship game, as Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic pulled out a hard-fought 1-0 victory in overtime. The loss was the first of the season for the Rovers (20-1)
Brockway put up a valiant effort against the WPIAL champs, playing blow-for-blow with the Trojans (23-1) for most of the game despite North Catholic outshooting the Rovers 13-6.
The Rovers had their chances to pull out the victory, particularly in the second half and overtime — when the game was more evenly played after Brockway fought off an initial surge in the opening 40 minutes by the Trojans.
Brockway’s two best scoring chances came after halftime – with junior defender Clayton Heckman having both. Heckman nearly gave Brockway the lead with 26:20 to play on a set play off a corner kick. However, his shot from the top of the Trojans box rang off the crossbar.
Heckman also had a prime scoring chance just under five minutes into overtime when he and senior Carter Adams ran a nice give-and-go. Heckman continued his run up the field from the back on the play and got a return pass from Adams, but North Catholic keeper Keaton Jennings made a nice save on Heckman’s shot from close range.
The Trojans nearly ended the game just over a minute later, but Rovers keeper Austin Moore made a diving save on a hard shot by Braiden Wills to keep it a scoreless game. Moore made five saves in his final game, as he and the Rover defense kept the Trojans big scorer — sophomore Joe Kearney (54 goals this year) — off the scoresheet.
North Catholic then got the proverbial “lucky bounce” both sides were looking for just under four minutes later during a flurry in front of the Rovers net. Brockway defender deflected at least two potential shots by the Trojans before the ball bounced to the feet of Ryan Augustine on the left side of the box.
Augustine wasted little time blasting a shot, which found the back of the net with 5:20 left in OT. Moore didn’t have time to come across goal mouth to cover the far post after the ball deflected to Augustine.
The goal propelled the Trojans into Saturday’s PIAA championship game against defending state champ Camp Hill. It also ended a historic season for the Rovers, one that easily has been the greatest in program history.
Brockway became the first District 9 boys soccer team — and third D-9 soccer team overall — to ever reach the state semifinals. The Karns City girls also reached the state semis in 1996 and 2015, with the ’96 Lady Gremlins needing just one win to achieve that as part of an eight-team bracket.
The Rovers also captured their first two wins in program history in the first two rounds of states — beating WPIAL third-place team Seton-LaSalle, 3-2, and WPIAL runner-up Springdale, 2-1.
The two wins now give Brockway four state playoff victories in program history — which are half of the eight wins District 9 boys teams have since the district started competing in the state playoffs in 1986. The district is now 8-59 in state games all-time, not counting the 1988 season, for which results are not available.
The Rovers outscored their opponents by an impressive 123-12 total on the season, including 14-4 in its five playoff games.
“When you got into overtime in the Wester Finals, it’s great stuff just no for us, but for D-9 soccer and everybody,” said Rovers coach Rich Esposito. “When you get to this stage of the game, you know your opportunities are going to be limited, especially against a team like this, and you have to capitalize on them.
“The first half, I thought North Catholic had a lot more possession, and we made few mistakes that we got away with that North Catholic had some better opportunities on. The seocnd half we went 2-up, and that’s what we played all year, and took our chances. We weren’t going to score one on four, and I thought maybe the second half was more 50-50.
“We had some possession and had some opportunities. In overtime, we had the one chance with Clayton, our defender making that long run up there. It was an opportunity. He also hit the crossbar in the second half off a set play on the one corner kick. We practice that with our defenders, just sucking everybody in and just playing to him (defender) making a run from the back. Zane (Puhala) put a nice ball out there to him.
“I wish good luck to North Catholic. Hopefully the west came bring the state title home. Of course we wish it was us, but we gave them a great game and I’m proud of them. I told them before the game that if you can walk off that field at the end of the day, win or lose, and know you gave your all, we’re good. And, I think they did. I think they can hold their heads held high.
“This (season) is something they will never forget and they should be proud of themselves for what they have done for this program. Even today, we had a big send off from the school. We leave town and the streets were lined with fans. I just want to thank everyone for the support we’ve had throughout this whole playoff run.
“I told the guys they made so many people soccer fans this month, and it’s awesome. And, that gives these younger kids a lot to build on. We lose some really good seniors and some four-year starters that will have to be replaced.
“This should make these (younger) kids hungry and show them they have to come back and work really hard. They’ll start next week practicing for next year. We’ll rebuild and be back next year to give them heck again.”
Scoring chances were limited in the opening 40 minutes, with North Catholic outshooting the Rovers, 6-2. Neither Brockway shot was on the net, while Moore made four first-half saves to keep it a scoreless game at the half.
Both teams had a handful of shots in the second half, with both keepers needing to make just one save. The best scoring chance for either side was Heckman’s shot off the crossbar 13:40 into the half.
Each team then had a prime scoring chance in the overtime period before Augustine found the back of the net to give North Catholic the victory.
The game was the final one for Brockway’s stellar senior class that features Adams, Moore, Anthony Esposito, Angelo Inzana, Nathan Long and Devin Velez.