New look, same goals for Penn State New Kensington men’s soccer
Drive past the Penn State New Kensington campus and one might catch a whiff of “new car smell.”
That’s because PSNK athletics are on the verge of change. The Lions have a new leader in athletic director Megan Bratkovich, added women’s basketball and hired a men’s soccer coach in Mark Duffield, who will look to lead a team that finished one game short of playing for a conference title, back to the postseason.
“It’s the perfect time to be here with Megan coming here and the new mindset,” said Duffield. “The stars have aligned, I guess you could say. I’m loving being back.”
Duffield arrives at PSNK already knowing the lay of the land. He was an assistant under former PSNK coach Jordan Valentine before Valentine left to become coach at Defiance (Ohio) following the 2014 season.
“I was here when Jordan was here and helping out with the goalkeepers and that sort of stuff,” said Duffield. “ I kind of had a taste of here being with Jordan. His influence kind of rubbed off on me, and I want to kind of take it to the next level.”
If Duffield’s name sounds familiar to Alle-Kiski Valley soccer fans, it should. The native Englishman helped resurrect a Highlands girls soccer program and led the Rams to consecutive WPIAL postseason appearances, including a run to the 2016 WPIAL Class AA semifinals. He left Highlands after that season.
“After five years (of coaching high school), I thought it was time to make the next step up, and I always wanted to get into the college game,” Duffield said.
Duffield takes over a program that had recent success and is looking to get over the hump and play for a Penn State University Athletic Conference title. The Lions finished with an overall record of 6-7, earned a No. 5 seed in the PSUAC tournament and reached the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Penn State Brandywine, 2-0.
“I’d like to give Brandywine a run for their money,” Duffield said. “Organization is one of my things and going to Brandywine, or wherever, you got to go in there with a plan. I’m pretty confident with the guys that I have here and we’d give anyone a run for their money.”
Duffield’s plan is already working to perfection. He hit the recruiting trail and was able to land 16 players. Gone from last year’s team is all-conference standout Pascal Bikanura, who led PSNK in goals (15) and points (34).
One of those new players is 2018 Kiski Area grad Nolan Johngarlo, who was “all in” when Duffield asked him to play soccer for PSNK.
“A couple of my friends played for his cup team,” said Johngarlo, a business management major. “It’s close to home. It’s Penn State. They had my major, and they did pretty well last year.”
A program’s success is just as good of a recruiting tool as any. Duffield cast a wide net when hit the recruiting trail. He brought in freshman defender Dylan Oditt from Kentucky and freshman center back Zachary Rusek from Meadville. But mostly, Duffield has concentrated on acquiring talent from around the WPIAL. The Lions have 14 players from WPIAL schools.
“I went out and tried to get as many kids as I could,” Duffield said. “I got a good network and know a lot of high school coaches, and we don’t have just bodies, but we have quality as well.”
Duffield, a former goalkeeper, got his keeper when he recruited sophomore Gabe Gaertner.
The PSNK offense will reflect Duffield’s organized management style. The Lions will focus on crisp passes and ball possession to create scoring opportunities, and he’s looking for sophomore Andrew Perenic to lead the attack.
“I think (Perenic) can do a great job at the top,” Duffield said. “He’s a great player and scored some goals last year.”
Sophomore midfielder Mitchell Kuczynski (St. Joseph) returns along with sophomore defender Matt Stanga (Deer Lakes). The Highlands-Duffield connection is still paying dividends too. Former Highlands player Derek McCloud returns to the sport after taking a gap year following graduating high school.
“I did my research about Penn State New Ken and how they were just at the semifinals,” said McCloud.
PSNK will open the PSUAC schedule at home Sept. 19 against Penn State Greater Allegheny.
“There’s some good lads here,” Duffield said. “Hopefully, you’re going to see more and more better players coming to Penn State New Ken, and we’re going to be the ones to watch.”
William Whalen is a freelance writer.