In a season where goals were achieved, the end result yielded disappointment for the North Allegheny boys lacrosse team.
The only unbeaten team in Class 3A, Section 3 with a record of 6-0, the Tigers finished the season with a 15-4 overall record. And, entering the WPIAL Class 3A playoffs, the Tigers were the top seed.
The season had begun with a disappointing 5-3 loss to Mt. Lebanon in the season opener on March 24. Following that setback, the Tigers won eight games in a row before falling to Kiski Prep, 6-5. Kiski Prep plays mostly against prep schools, but does play some WPIAL teams on a regular basis. Following the loss to Kiski Prep, the Tigers then fell to WPIAL Class 2A champion Mars, 12-10, and then ran off seven more wins before falling to Mt. Lebanon, 9-6, in the first round of the WPIAL tournament.
Mt. Lebanon had an unsettled season, and the Blue Devils entered the WPIAL 3A tournament as the No. 8 seed. But Mt. Lebanon caught fire at the right time, and the Blue Devils rode that momentum all the way to the WPIAL final. That's where they lost to Peters Township, 12-11, in double-overtime. Then, they advanced to the PIAA semifinals before falling to Conestoga, 13-3.
While this was going on, it would be easy to imagine the Tigers thinking "That could have been us."
And, it well could have been.
North Allegheny outscored its section opponents 72-20. That's an average of 12 goals scored to 3.33 goals yielded.
Coach John Rullan has his work cut out for him next season. Of the 29 players listed on the Tigers' roster, 17 were seniors. But if there is a coach who can find a way to a solution, it's Rullan. Count on the Tigers being in the hunt next season.
Plenty of experience returns for Mars boys: The Mars boys lacrosse team had high hopes when it was revealed the Planets and other Class 2A teams would be able to advance beyond the WPIAL tournament in the 2017 season.
In previous years -- when the school was competing in Division II -- the farthest a team could advance was to the WPIAL championship.
Mars won the Division 2 championship in 2016, and the Planets could not wait for the 2017 season to begin.
They played like it, too. Mars won its first nine games, swept through section play with an 8-0 record and rolled through the rest of the regular season, vanquishing nearly all of its opponents.
Prior to a 20-9 loss to West Chester Henderson in the PIAA 2A semifinals, the Planets lost just two games, finishing with a 21-3 record. One was a 16-14 setback to Pine-Richland, and the other was to Upper St. Clair, 10-9, in overtime. Pine-Richland was the No. 2 seed in the WPIAL 3A tournament. Upper St. Clair was the No. 4 seed.
On their way to that stellar season, Mars rolled its way through the WPIAL playoffs with an 18-4 victory over Knoch in the quarterfinals and a 17-10 triumph over Hampton in the semifinals before meeting Quaker Valley in the championship game.
The two teams hadn't met before, but the Planets wasted little time in taking control of the game played at Robert Morris University's Joe Walton Stadium.
Scoring the game's first 10 goals, Mars eased to a 19-6 triumph over the Quakers.
First-year coach Bob Marcoux was astounded with his team's quick start.
"No, not at all," he said of the unexpected one-sided victory. "We have a lot of respect for Quaker Valley. They've been a rival for a long time and they have a really good offense. Our guys played really well today. We expected a high-scoring game on both sides."
In that game, balance was the key as Anthony Grieco paced Mars with five goals. Cade Hetzler added three goals, while Luke Miller, Ben Lewis and Hayden Vasbinder added two goals apiece.
The balance didn't surprise Marcoux.
"We've probably had scoring from about 18 kids on this team," he said. "It's been typical of this team all year, so it's tough for an opponent to key on one guy. We've got six or seven guys who can pick it up offensively."
Grieco wasn't surprised either.
"Across the field, we're a balanced team," he said. "It's the whole team that got us through this game from faceoffs with Andrew Moyer killing it, limiting turnovers and we're giving it our all. It's not just me. Our coaches do a great job."
And, many of the players along with the coaches will get a chance to reprise this effort a season from now.
Of the 10 players who started this season, two graduate. Of course, goalie Jack Austin and lock-down defender Joey Crognale, one of the team's captains, played extremely crucial roles. Austin had six saves in the Planets' 18-8 first-round PIAA victory over District 10 champion Erie Cathedral Prep. Another senior, midfielder Joe Horvat scored a goal against Cathedral Prep and dished out four assists.
Early on, though, it appeared as if Mars' first foray into the PIAA tournament would be a short one. That's because the Ramblers held a 2-1 lead and were controlling play all over the field.
Marcoux had seen enough, and he called a timeout.
His message was to the point.
"I told them we had to start playing Mars lacrosse," he said. "I didn't recognize that team that started out. I'm not sure if we were tight or a little nervous or maybe a little overconfident. We didn't come out with our usual enthusiasm. I told them to get back to what we do which is win ground balls and play Mars lacrosse."
The Planets outscored the Ramblers 17-7 for the rest of the game, with
Grieco and Hetzler led the Mars offense with four goals apiece. Sophomore attack Mike Doyle came off the bench to score three goals, while Vasbinder added two goals.
"That's huge," Marcoux said of the balance. "We were missing [midfielder] Ben Lewis, who was out with [an illness]. He's one of our better scorers. Other teams know he's a good shooter."
The Planets had hoped to go one step beyond and appear in a state championship game. With plenty of experience returning and a determination fueled by an attitude to take on 3A competition, the Planets may have the formula to reach that goal.
Tough loss doesn't diminish North Catholic's accomplishment: When it came to the 2017 boys lacrosse season, there might well have been some disappointment for the players, coaches and fans of the Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High boys lacrosse team.
Every team wants to be a WPIAL and/or a PIAA state champion.
But this team far exceeded the expectations of many, advancing to the WPIAL semifinals where it fell to Quaker Valley, 16-14.
North had no experience in the postseason. Two years ago, the team was 6-10. And, three years ago, the team played an independent schedule, losing all seven of its games. Four years ago, the team wasn't playing.
But under coach Don Bryant's steady leadership, the team made significant progress. The 11-6 season a year ago gave way to the 12-5 season this year, and the team found itself playing Gateway -- itself a relatively young team -- in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.
The Trojans showed they belonged with an 18-6 victory. Next came a showdown with Moon, which had started its program in 2011, but the Tigers had some playoff experience.
North, though, hung tough with Moon and earned an 11-10 victory in overtime. Reaching the semifinals was big, but it didn't guarantee a chance to advance to the PIAA tournament. Only the two finalists would advance. And, on this occasion, a gallant comeback by the Trojans would fall just short as Quaker Valley held on to earn a 16-14 victory.
The loss was a tough one, but the Trojans showed they belonged with more-experienced programs. This experience likely will give them the incentive to make the next step toward an annual trip to the postseason.