PUNXSUTAWNEY â€” Last week at this time, the Chucks soccer team was preparing for a re-match with District-IX defending champion Bradford and the coaching staff was delivering the message every staff would deliver before a playoff game: Don't look past this game.
Well, the Chucks won that game in an overtime thriller over the Owls, and suddenly the focus switched to looking past the game and preparing for the state tournament, which kicks off tonight with a game against the defending state champion and reigning District-VII champion Hampton.
"This is huge," Punxsy head coach Phil Shenkle said of his team's chance to play in the state tournament. "Part of my main job over the past few days has been to get them to not forget about the district title, necessarily.
"We've been validating that for them and telling them to enjoy that win, but for right now, our focus has to be on this next step. This is something we hadn't really even considered, but we're going to make the most of this opportunity."
The Chucks know their competition is stout, which is to be expected at the state level, but facing the defending state champs brings an extra level of respect.
"They were state champs last year, but they graduated quite a few players," Shenkle said. "However, it's one of those things where I'd compare them to a program like DuBois. They're a very good program and there will always be good players to replace those they lose."
Knowing Hampton has a good program doesn't have the Chucks' spirits down either, though, after a reminder from someone close to Shenkle: His wife.
"We basically look at the work we've put into things," he said. "The hard work and effort and things we've been able to do. My wife pointed out to me that we're the No. 1 seed coming out of District IX.
"So it's just about prepar- ing your mindset and seeing that even though they're the No. 1 seed out of District VII, we also have a No. 1 too. So part of it is keeping your mind on the fact that they're soccer players just like we are."
Punxsy also knows they can take something from their season, as well, because they played some tough schools with good competition.
"I'm also reminding them that we play some good competition in DuBois and teams like that, which helps us prepare for games like this," Shenkle said.
One of the toughest things about playing at the state tournament level is a lack of familiarity with the other team's program.
Shenkle said that limited film was available online to see their style of play, but also noted that the most important factor is his own team's game plan.
"They look like what we would expect," he said. "They're athletic, fast in a lot of positions and have some stud scorers that we'll keep our eye on. But for the most part, you go in and make sure you put yourself in position to run your game plan. Stay true to what you know and how you play, and you'll have a good chance to win."
Shenkle says his team is prepared mentally and physically, and he's made sure they know the honor it is to play at this level.
"They're excited and taking on the mindset that you never know if you'll have another opportunity like this again," he said. "So, we'll give it all we've got and do the best we can to be successful."
Though Shenkle and many other Punxsy soccer fans know his squad has already been successful, they'd all like to see the Chucks bring home a win in the opening round at states, too.
Tonight's game starts at 8:15 p.m. in Wexford, but for those who aren't able to make the trip, there's still an opportunity to wish the Chucks good luck and farewell.
A police escort will leave the school parking lot at 4:45 p.m., turn left on to West Mahoning, parade down to a right turn on to 119 South and head up Indiana Hill.View more articles in: