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Devin Bierly on boys soccer: Slide tackling is an underutilized skill

I was not the ideal sweeper. I wasn’t fast and, frankly, I wasn’t very good, but I had one skill that seems to be underutilized on the soccer field today: I could slide tackle, legally.

With player safety — rightfully so — at the forefront of all youth athletics, head injuries and high-speed collisions seemed to be getting outlawed in almost all sports.

A runner barreling down the third-base line will be chastised if they run through the catcher. A hard-hitting safety over the middle of a football field is now a pariah.

Playing at St. John Neumann, we barely had enough players to fill out a roster. My final three years, the most kids we had available on game day generally maxed out at 15. Out of a possible 4,320 minutes of game action my final three years — 18 80-minute games each season — I probably played about 4,310 minutes, and I shouldn’t have and it showed by our abysmal record, which I won’t print.

I played defensive back my sophomore and junior years then was moved inside for my senior year. Slide tackling wasn’t in my repertoire as much my first two varsity seasons but it became a staple my final season.

Sweepers generally have better angles to perform a legal slide tackle because they’re usually coming from the side to clean up a mess. Coming from diagonally and not from the front or back allows the defender to make a legal, yet, sometimes ugly, tackle.

If utilized correctly, a slide tackle can be an effective goal-saving tool, or if used in the wrong situations, it can put the goalkeeper in a terrible situation, staring down a penalty kick just 12 yards away.

Some area coaches are for it, but others like Williamsport’s Lee Kaar are not a big advocate for slide tackling.

“Anticipation I think is the key and knowing where you are on the field. Ideally, our guys shouldn’t need to slide tackle,” Kaar said. “I think it’s that anticipation of ‘I may not be able to get my body in front of his so I’m going to slide and get my legs out in front of it.’ Maybe other teams do but we surely don’t teach slide tackling.”

Loyalsock’s second-year coach Ian Scheller, a former defender at Penn College, is for it.

“I preach play soccer and slide tackling is part of the game. It’s kind of like people trying to take headers out of the game. Heading the ball is part of the game and if you teach people how to do it properly, it’s done properly. If you’re not teaching, that’s where you have the issue,” Scheller said, who jokingly said he never committed a foul. “You might every now and again have a very frustrated player side tackling and it’s dirty but what is that? One out of every 50 slide tackles is a dirty malicious tackle. It’s part of the game. It’s in the game for a reason. Anything that’s part of the game, I’m all for.”

Both Williamsport and Loyalsock have some of the better defensive centerbacks around in Wes Engle and Sam Rosario, respectively, and they, when necessary, utilize the slide tackle. Kaar doesn’t want his players sliding inside the 18. To him, the risk outweighs the reward. And if the defender misses and the attacker stays on their feet, it puts the backline and the goalie in a tougher situation playing a man down.

But Scheller doesn’t always wince when one of his players slide tackle inside the 18. It’s an opportunity to make a goal-saving tackle and if done right and legally, those can add up in a full 18-game season.

“Sam is as last-ditch tackling as it gets and I always tell him that you’re eventually going to give up a penalty. But for every penalty you give up, how many goals have you saved with a tackle? I don’t really hold my breath. It’s kind of out of my hands,” Scheller said. “If that’s what my player thinks at that moment, great. If I disagree when we go back and watch film, I can say, hey, as long as you do everything you can to make sure it’s from the side, it’s not studs up, make sure it’s not knee high, go ahead. Whatever you think is best for our team. I trust the guys. It’s not FIFA. At the end of the day, you have to put the decisions into the hands of the players.”

Teaching moment

Wellsboro romped through the middle portion of its schedule, blowing out nine straight NTL opponents by the combined score of, 82-3. Sure the stats were impressive and the goal totals were astounding — scoring more than 11 four times, including an 18-0 win — but not much told the coaching staff how the team would compete come district playoff time. But last Saturday, the Green Hornets (11-3) traveled to Loyalsock to take on the one-loss host and they were beaten, 4-1.

It was a measuring stick against one of the stronger teams in Class AA and though the result wasn’t positive, what the team takes from it could pay dividends in the coming weeks.

“Moving forward, I think the way we respond to this is going to tell us a lot more,” Wellsboro coach Todd Fitch said. “We’ll continue to work and you take these opportunities to get better and I think that’s what they’ll do. It’s just the makeup of this group.”

It was Wellsboro’s first loss in 31 days, since a 3-1 defeat to reigning Class AAA district champion Athens. The non-conference game against Loyalsock gave Wellsboro plenty of answers and showed what it needs to do to compete at a high level.

At times, Wellsboro looked like the better team at Kenneth M. Robbins Stadium. But other times, it looked like a team that hadn’t been tested. But despite the result, the Green Hornets are better for it.

“We haven’t had a game like this since on September 4 against Athens. Teams like this, they make you better,” Fitch said. “We definitely wanted that and needed that.”

Good Samaritans

On Wednesday night, members of the St. John Neumann boys soccer team helped out a woman whose car ran out of gas in Milton. While eating dinner at McDonald’s after a game, Brady McKimpson, Angelo Fernandez, JerVal Weeks-Shuler and Eli Bartron noticed and helped push the stranded car to safety.

DEVIN BIERLY’S TOP 5 BOYS SOCCER TEAMS

1. Lewisburg (13-0-1) — The Green Dragons’ magical season continued with a 3-2 overtime win over one-loss Selinsgrove and finished off a season sweep of Midd-West, the third-ranked team in the small school rankings, with a 4-2 victory last night. Both of Midd-West’s losses this season have come against Lewisburg and the Mustangs (14-2) have allowed just 11 goals all season, seven of which Lewisburg has scored. The Green Dragons locked up the HAC-II with the win as Ben Liscum notched two assists and Anthony Bhangdia scored twice. They’ve played a demanding schedule and are looking to get back atop the district after a relatively down season last year.

2. Williamsport (9-5) — After a 1-0 HAC-I league loss to leading Selinsgrove, the Millionaires’ hopes for a second straight league title were essentially dashed. But they bounced back with a 1-0 overtime win against league rival Danville. Hemberth Pena-Vasquez scored the game-winner on a Caleb Hill assist and those two have continued to step up their game as the season has gone on. Elliott Wannop continues to be spectacular in goal and is allowing less than one goal per game. The Millionaires very well could win out but will miss out on the top seed in districts for the first time in years.

3. Loyalsock (13-1) — A healthy Brady Dowell has Loyalsock looking as good as ever after posting two hat tricks in the last 10 days. The Lancers have won five straight and have a chance to lock up the No. 2 seed in a vastly talented Class AA. Connor Albaugh has been strong all season and a defensive back line is keeping Caleb Albaugh clean in goal.

4. Hughesville (9-5) — The Spartans’ eight-game win streak came to an end with a 3-2 overtime loss to a soaring Southern Columbia squad that has rattled off seven straight wins. The scoring has slowed down a bit for a skilled Hughesville front but the defense and goalie Austin Sheatler have been stepping up. Blake Sherwood is leading a defense that has allowed just two goals in a game once in the last nine contests and players like Drew Beiber, Aaron Girardi and Jackson Middleswarth have played great on the backline.

5. Milton (8-5) — Like Hughesville, a hot Milton team has cooled off in the last week. Playing two of the state’s best small-school teams will do that in Midd-West and Lewisburg. Despite playing in the challenging HAC-II, the Black Panthers clinched their first postseason berth since 2014 with a 6-0 win over Shamokin. Owen Yoder and Brodey Scoggins each tallied two scores in the postseason-clinching win.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Brady Dowell, Loyalsock — Dowell spent most of the summer on the sidelines with a broken leg but has come back huge this year. Dowell had a hat trick in a 4-1 win against Wellsboro on Saturday afternoon.

“Brady on top of that adds such a depth to this team. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s fast,” Loyalsock coach Ian Scheller said Saturday.

Devin Bierly covered boys soccer for the Sun-Gazette.

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