MORGANTOWN - The leaves are turning color, the weather is getting colder, and yes, Wheeling Park is headed back to Beckley for the West Virginia State Soccer Tournament.
In what seems like a yearly ritual, Coach Mario Julian's club is making its third trip in four seasons after a 4-0 victory against Preston in the W.Va. Class AAA Region One Final at Mylan Pharmaceuticals Stadium.
''These kids have worked really hard and they deserve this opportunity,'' Julian said. ''This feels great. We want to give it a good showing.''
Wheeling Park defender Mike Zandron clears the ball during Tuesday’s Class AAA Region One Final against Preston.
Photo by Josh Strope
Wheeling Park will face Washington, a 2-1 winner against Bridgeport, in the semifinals at 10 a.m. next Friday. Wheeling Park won the previous meeting, 4-3.
At least Julian will know a little bit about Washington, whereas he had little clue about the Knights. Preston upset Fairmont Senior in the sectional final and set up a meeting of two teams that rarely play.
The Patriots (19-0-3) were aggressive from the outset and the Knights had a hard time gaining position or possession.
Preston made a crucial mistake in the 4th minute as Travis Petak brought down Park's Mike Mauck from behind in the penalty box.
Mauck made good on the penalty shot, burying it to the lower left corner and past Knights goalie Terrence Fanning for a 1-0 lead.
A little more than 2 minutes later, Wheeling Park doubled that as Alex Bauer headed in a corner kick from Eric Davis.
''I really liked the way we came out and attacked and that's what our focus was in practice,'' Julian said. ''We had no idea what our opponent had in store for us. Basically we had a game plan to get the ball down the wings and get it behind their defense and take our chance with corner kicks and throw-ins. My goodness, it worked out perfectly for us.''
Added Preston coach Mike Adams: ''I really wish we would have brought our 'A' game. Hats off to Wheeling Park, that is a really nice team. We just couldn't get anything going and we shot ourselves in the foot with the PK less than 3 minutes into the game.
''Anybody that's been around sports knows how devastating that is. You'd like to go to half without a score and then sort things out after that.''
The fouls kept piling up for Preston, giving a Wheeling Park team that makes a living off set pieces chance after chance.
On two occasions, defender Mike Zandron just missed a leaping Errin Baynes and saw the ball go out of bounds or into Fanning's hands. The third time was the charm as the two finally connected and Baynes headed it past the Knights keeper in the 34th minute.
Coming out of halftime, Baynes added another goal in the 42nd minute.
''When the going gets tough is when Mike steps up to play,'' Julian said. ''Last year, in the state tournament, he was one of our best players. This being his senior year, he showed once again he can raise his level.''
The Patriots have 10 days to prepare for Washington. So what does the top-ranked team in the state have to do with all that time this late in the season to get ready for a big game?
''Get healthy,'' Julian said.