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Planets team honored

The 2011 Mars girls soccer team celebrates with its WPIAL Class 2A championship trophy. They would win the program’s first state crown a few weeks later. (Butler Eagle file photo)

Mani Brueckner remembers striding down the hallways of Mars High School and soaking in the support of people in the district.

The Planets knew they had the skill, but were still building the nerve to head to Hershey and take on nine-time state champion Villa Joseph Marie in 2011. The Planets had never before been on such a big stage in the program’s history.

The campaign prior, in 2010, the Planets were 24-0 entering a state semifinal tilt with Mercyhurst Prep. Having not allowed a playoff marker until that point, Mars fell just short of the finals in a 3-0 defeat.

“That was the one time that we were the David compared to the Goliath, playing against Villa Joseph Marie,” said Brueckner, a star forward who moved on to have a successful stretch at Gannon. “They had been to the state championship game so many times, won it quite a few, and that was our first-ever appearance there.”

The story played out the same way it does in scripture.

“Once you win a championship like that, I think at any level, whether it’s high school, college, or professional, I think it just starts to establish that culture,” Planets coach Blair Gerlach said. “Until you win one, you may have the culture or be defined by the team that almost got there.”

In 2011, the girls got over that hump. They’d clear the last obstacle, too, capping the season with a 1-0 triumph over the perennial power and bagging the program’s first state championship.

For its accomplishments, the outstanding squad, which finished 25-0-1, was announced as part of the WPIAL Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022 on Wednesday.

“How cool is that to be recognized after the fact?” said Gerlach, who was then in his sixth year leading the team and is still at the helm today. “It kind of shows that you certainly left your mark and you impacted some people. It’s just very cool to be part of.”

In all but three of the Planets’ 26 outings that year, the offense struck before seven minutes had gone by.

“When that game started, it was kind of like a prizefighter coming out for Round One, going for a knockout in the first 30 seconds,” Gerlach said. “They wanted to put games away early and they were very good at doing it. They started so motivated in every game.”

Brueckner got it going on the right wing, scoring 36 goals and adding 42 assists over the course of the schedule. Opposite her was Crysta Ganter, an effective scorer in her own right. Ganter scored 13 goals and 16 assists.

“Mani had ridiculous stats, as everybody could see on paper,” Ganter said. “But then we had a lot of people who didn’t really get paid attention to as much all around her … We had different pieces to complete the offense and we just had a lot of athletes up top.”

The Planets won 12 matches by at least seven goals, including a pair of 16-0 victories over Valley, a 16-1 trouncing of Burrell and a 15-1 demolition of Freeport.

Forwards Carli Paracca, Kristen McEnzie, and Kristen Check all played roles on the offense. The team netted 185 more goals than it surrendered.

“That team had some ridiculous offensive firepower,” Gerlach said. “If (opponents) would key on Mani and try and mark her out of the game, Crysta would score three goals. If you tried to key on Crysta, Mani would score three goals … Kind of pick your poison.”

Meanwhile, that team’s defense notched 19 shutouts, a half dozen of which came in the postseason. It let up only six regular season goals.

“The offense got an awful lot of attention that year, for good cause,” Gerlach said. “But defensively, when you don’t get scored on, it’s hard to lose, right? From goalkeeping all the way through the defensive unit, we just had such dependability out of that group.”

Jordyn White, Amber Fichter, Erica Schwab, and Shae O’Connor started in front of goalie Sarah Dailey. With the defenders stifling opposing efforts, the Mars’ attack was emboldened.

“Whenever you know there’s such a solid group behind you, it allows for that creativity,” said Ganter, who played collegiately at Slippery Rock. “They really were incredible.”

Mars beat South Park, 2-1, in the WPIAL Class 2A Championship matchup, one of two one-goal wins during the playoff run.

“(The defense’s) big stops are what made it possible for us to have as successful a season as we did,” Brueckner said. “To only have one blemish on our record and that even only being a tie (against Knoch) was pretty exceptional.”

Ganter scored what turned out to be the game-winner in the 21st minute of play.

Ganter eventually rejoined Gerlach, assisting on his coaching staff for three seasons, including the 2019 crew that grabbed the program’s second state crown.

“It was awesome to be able to see a younger group of kids get to go through all those same experiences with the playoffs and being able to go to states and win,” Ganter said. “It was such a dream come true for me as a player. It was almost even cooler as a coach, just to see it from a different perspective.”

Taking home hardware in 2020 and 2021, as well, it was the first of three consecutive state titles for Mars.

For Gerlach, it all starts back with the group being honored.

“Since that team won in 2011, I think now the bar has certainly been set,” Gerlach said. “The program has kind of evolved from them. They were a heck of a building block.”