If there's a juggernaut in Western Pennsylvania soccer, right now it's Upper St. Clair.
The defending PIAA champion Panthers were widely considered to be the best team in the WPIAL entering the season, entered the playoffs as Class AAA's top seed and now, in the WPIAL finals, they're a win away from capturing a sixth WPIAL title.
Standing in their way is long-time rival Peters Township, looking for their seventh.
The pair of Section 5-AAA powerhouses will meet on Friday night at Highmark Stadium. Kickoff is slated for 8:15 p.m.
Still undefeated at 19-0-1, Upper St. Clair took both games in the season series en route to the section title. But the 7th-seeded Indians have been in rich form in the playoffs, pulling off wins three strong sides in opening opponent North Allegheny, quarterfinalist Seneca Valley and semifinal opponent Canon-McMillan by a combined score of 11-0.
"I think there's a lot to prove, but I think they'd tell you the same thing," Peters coach Bob Dyer said. "One game, 80 minutes to decide it. And, you know, I like where we are right now."
Imposing goalkeeper Max O'Hare is the spirit of the Peters Township (16-3-2) defense and boasts size that few other goalkeepers in the WPIAL can match, making him a challenge for any forward to deal with.
At the other end of the field, twin brothers Mario and Nicco Mastrangelo lead the Indians attack. Nicco most recently scored a hat trick against the Big Macs in the semifinals. Upper St. Clair coach Uwe Schneider is aware of the threat the brothers pose.
"They're obviously coming off of a strong run and they just beat Canon-Mac 4-0," Schneider said. "It'll be a tough game no matter how you look at it. And much as we enjoyed beating them twice in the regular season, that doesn't matter much in the final."
The Panthers won each of their games by impressive margins, ousting Mt. Lebanon 4-1 before beating 4th-seed Bethel Park 6-1.
They'll attack the Peters Township defense with forward Joel Hart, who finished the regular season with 30 goals to his name. Midfielder Troye Kiernan's abilities in distribution and with the ball at his feet will be vital for the Upper St. Clair attack, as will the efforts of Robbie Mertz.
Hayden Bernhardt and Doug Hapeman will occupy key roles in the Upper St. Clair defense.
While Schneider is hopeful Upper St. Clair can capture another title, he's most reassured by the fact that, regardless of what happens, his team will live to play another day as it, like Peters Township and consolation winner Canon-McMillan, have all qualified for the PIAA playoffs. All three teams also hail from Section 5-AAA.
"If we win the WPIAL, it'll be great. We fell short last year and we believed this year we'd have a very good shot at winning it," he said. But the most important thing is that the season won't be over after Friday night's game. It'll be the start of a whole new challenge."