Sep. 4—The WPIAL girls soccer championship games will be back at Highmark Stadium for the second year in a row, and Plum hopes to again reserve a spot in the Class 3A game in early November.
Runners-up to Mars the past two seasons — 2020 at North Allegheny and last year at Highmark — the Mustangs hope to build on a three-year run of success which included a 54-7-2 overall record, three straight section championships, a 34-game section win streak, and a pair of PIAA-tournament appearances, including last year's run to the semifinals before falling to Shaler, 1-0.
It would've been three straight state-playoff trips, but only the WPIAL champion advanced in 2020.
"Last season was an exciting and challenging ride throughout the entire season," said Jamie Stewart, who enters his fourth season at the helm of the Mustangs.
"I think the girls battled through adversity to continue to have success."
Plum kicked off its season Aug. 29 against Section 3-3A rival Gateway, and the Mustangs kept the section streak alive with a 3-0 victory over the Gators.
Senior Kaitlyn Killinger, last year's Valley News Dispatch Player of the Year and an All-WPIAL and all-state performer, scored twice against Gateway. Junior Ava Weleski, who earned VND second-team laurels last year, added a goal in the win.
"It was nice to get on the field and play a really strong game against a good opponent," Stewart said.
"We also had two scrimmages that told us a lot about how the team is coming together with some new faces in starting and reserve roles. The girls are excited to get into the season and continue what we've been doing, which is continuing to build the program and working on the things we need to work on."
As with every season, strong teams lose valuable seniors to graduation. That was the case with Plum, which had to say goodbye to a number of key contributors, including All-WPIAL forward/midfielder Marissa Liberto, who now plays at Point Park; all-section midfield honoree Emma Bennethum (Pitt-Johnstown); and defensive standout Tori Ruggerio (Edinboro).
All three started the PIAA semifinal game against Shaler.
Plum is paced this year by a group of eight seniors.
Killinger, a Pitt commit, led the Mustangs last year with 30 goals, and she added 11 assists.
Fellow Pitt commit Kaley Simqu, an anchor on defense, helped Plum limit opponents to just 14 goals in 25 games as the Mustangs finished 21-3-1.
Senior midfielder Cam Collins gave Plum a third Division I commit when she gave a verbal promise to St. Francis (Pa.) in May.
"It was such a relief to commit. It was a big accomplishment," Collins said. "It was a perfect fit for me academically, and I really love the team."
Collins said having the decision behind her is a relief, and she can concentrate on helping Plum attempt to return to the WPIAL title game and again qualify for states.
Plum is riding a streak of 10 straight WPIAL playoff appearances.
"We're excited and ready to hold our standing and defend what we've accomplished in recent seasons and hopefully go further," Collins said.
"There are a lot of teams who want to come in and beat us. But we have a solid starting 11 and a good bench. We will be ready for any challenge."
Others back hoping to make an impact for the Mustangs include senior defender/midfielder Cam Rogers, a VND second-team selection; senior defender Emily Berrott; senior forward Annabel Arhin; and senior defender Nina Kite.
Four of the top five goal scorers from last year — Killinger, Weleski (17), Rogers (16), and Ahrin (11) — returned to pace the offense.
"The trip to states, the bus rides, everything; it was just so memorable," Ahrin said of last season's success.
"We were able to do that because we put in the work and were ready for each game. We know what we need to do to get there again. We can't let down in any game. We just want to keep working hard and hope for the best."
Plum made it 2-0 overall and in Section 1 play Aug. 31 with a 9-0 win at Greensburg Salem.
The Mustangs were to return to action Wednesday at home against section foe Latrobe. A nonsection match at Montour looms on Saturday.
Plum also is gearing up for section matchups against the likes of Franklin Regional, Penn Hills and Penn-Trafford after two years of battles at the top of the section against the likes of Oakland Catholic and Thomas Jefferson.
The WPIAL playoffs are slated to begin Oct. 20. As is the norm, the top four teams and ties which can't be broken in each section of all four classifications will enter the playoffs.
"We're all pushing forward as a team and are excited to show what we can do," Berrott said.
"We had a really strong preseason of work, and now it's time to win games and accomplish our goals."
Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .