HARRISON: The late season slump by the Highlands soccer continued Tuesday night where it hurt the most — in the playoffs.
The Golden Rams were eliminated in the first round of the WPIAL Class AA playoffs by dropping a 3-0 decision to the Ambridge Bridgers at Nick Staresenic Stadium.
Ambridge (12-3-3) moves on to quarterfinal play against Moon later this week. Highlands concluded its season at 14-4 after losing four of its last five games.
A late goal in the first half by reserve forward George Strano proved to be a key goal.
“It’s a shame when you’ve got to go out this way,” said Highlands coach Mike Spagnolo. ” It was still a pretty good season, 14-4 isn’t bad.”
Bridgers coach Sean Cummings had a feeling his team would draw Highlands to open the postseason.
“I was following Highlands throughout the year,” Cummings said. “I anticipated playing them, and I saw what a great job they were doing. They were losing late in the year, but I told our players they still had a quality team.”
Playing through a cold, driving rain that started right around the time the national anthem was being played, Highlands had a couple of opportunities in the first half but couldn’t get on the scoreboard.
A header by Greg Myers, the Alle-Kiski Valley’s leading scorer, hit the crossbar with 24:17 remaining in the first half. Mike Duffy almost scored on a corner kick three minutes later, but defender Sean States scooped up the ball before it crossed the goal mouth.
A shot by Ambridge forward Brian Nesbitt hit the left post with 11:21 on the first-half clock, but somehow failed to go inside the goal. It set up a later shot by Strano that gave the Bridgers a 1-0 lead.
“We thought our best opportunity was to drag the keeper away from the goal,” Cummings said. “We had hoped for a 1-0 lead by halftime because we always have the intensity in the second half to put a team away.”
“I knew from the start of the game we were in trouble,” Spagnolo said. “That whole team was hustling, and our guys were waiting around.”
Sophomore goalkeeper Josh Bonnett kept Highlands in the match with four oustanding saves in the second half, including an open shot from Anthony Paganie with 33:17 left in the match.
Paganie, however, broke through five minutes later as he scored off an inbounds kick that landed like a parachute near the Highlands goal.
A last-ditch surge by Highlands was halted as Billy Cook was bottled up near the Bridgers goal with 1:48 to go. Ambridge scored an insurance goal with six seconds left off the foot of Brian Blum.
The outcome ended a three-year playoff run for the Golden Rams, who lose eight senior starters.
“We’ll be rebuilding next year. We only have three juniors coming back,” Spagnolo said.
The PIAA will establish new enrollment classification barriers for soccer and other sports during the offseason, although it’s expected Highlands will remain in Class AA.