Short-handed Upper St. Clair wins PIAA quarterfinal with 6 players, volunteer coach

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Saturday, March 20, 2021 | 4:40 PM


Screenwriters might not turn the “Upper St. Clair Six” into a movie, but their improbable story has every element for a covid-era drama about high school basketball.

Only six players were available after team-wide covid-19 testing and they asked a 20-year-old volunteer coach to lead them, yet somehow the short-handed Panthers defeated District 10 champion Erie High, 62-57, in a PIAA Class 6A quarterfinal Saturday afternoon.

Fade to black.

Roll the credits.

“We kind of came in knowing we had nothing to lose,” said senior Luke Gensler, who had tape holding closed a bloody gash on his upper lip. “Six players. No coach. We wanted to win for all of the guys that are at home.

“It was a lot of fun.”

Dave Pantelis scored 23 points, Gensler had 19 and Ethan Dahlem added 14. Upper St. Clair (21-1) took a two-point lead to halftime, opened the third quarter with a 14-5 run and never trailed in the second half.

Pantelis used driving layups to fuel USC’s offense, scoring eight points in the second quarter and 10 in the third. The Panthers’ lead peaked at 52-38 early in the fourth.

Erie High (19-4) eventually was forced to foul, and USC went 13 for 19 from the line down the stretch.

“I know that we really didn’t have all of our guys back, but we had a bunch of people supporting us,” said Pantelis, who made two clutch free throws with 12 seconds left. “Our whole team thought we could pull it off.”

The Panthers advance to the state semifinals Tuesday for the first time in team history. They’ll face District 3 champion Reading (24-2), which defeated Scranton, 68-53, Saturday.

A site and time was to be determined.

USC coach Danny Holzer and his assistants also were unavailable Saturday after covid-19 testing, so the team turned to volunteer assistant Tanner Gensler, a sophomore basketball player at Muskingum University who was called home to help.

“I really didn’t know the strategy because they told me 10 minutes before,” said Gensler, who’s Luke’s older brother. “But I knew if the players knew, they’re smart enough to take control. I told Ethan, Luke and Dave that you’re the coaches on the floor. Whatever you see, tell me. Whatever I see, I’ll tell you.”

The school learned of a covid-19 case involving the team last weekend, forcing the players and coaches all to be tested. Players who tested negative took part in Saturday’s game.

Pantelis, Gensler and Dahlem were the only USC starters available. They were joined by junior Porter Rauch, freshman Devin Hall and sophomore Matt Gaither. With only six players, the team’s strategy was to avoid foul trouble and rely heavily on a 1-3-1 zone defense.

Marquell Darnell led Erie High with 18 points, and Jamie Smith and Marcel Banks each had 11. But against USC’s zone, the Royals went 4 for 24 from 3-point range.

“We were watching film individually and saw that they couldn’t shoot,” Dahlem said. “We were just letting them shoot, see if we could pack it in (defensively) and see what happens.”

For all 32 minutes, Dahlem never left the floor.

“Five or six years down the road, we’re going to be talking about this,” Dahlem said, “and the WPIAL championship.”

The Panthers had only five players available for the final 14 seconds after Luke Gensler left with an ankle injury, but Gensler said he expected to be back for the semifinals. Gensler had stayed on the floor for the entire first three quarters but twice left injured in the fourth.

He left briefly when a collision under the hoop split his upper lip and missed only a possession or two.

“I wasn’t going to not come back unless something was obviously wrong,” Gensler said. “A little cut is not going to hurt.”

Brandon McClester, one of Holzer’s top assistants, joined Tanner Gensler on the bench partway through the first half after testing negative just prior to tipoff. He’d passed a covid test earlier in the week but school administrators told him he needed a more-recent result.

He was ready to be the team’s interim head coach but learned the bad news about 80 minutes before the game. The team didn’t practice all week, but McClester was heavily involved in game planning.

“I was like, ‘What do you mean?’” McClester said. “I called three different MedExpress and one said they could get me in in like 15 minutes. I said, ‘Thank God,’ and the rest is history.”

Tanner Gensler said he felt relieved when McClester arrived. But since Gensler started the game as the head coach, he was the only one who could stand during play.

“He was whispering to me,” Gensler said, “and I was blurting it out.”

Until Wednesday, there was uncertainty whether USC might need to forfeit. Erie High was aware of the team’s covid issues but hadn’t focused on them, coach Tom Koval said.

“We’re playing with seven guys ourselves even though we have 14 (on the roster),” Koval said. “You don’t play a lot of guys in basketball, so I knew that wouldn’t be a big deal. They had three of their first-team all-section kids on the team. They made big plays and we didn’t.”

Upper St. Clair trailed 11-10 after the first quarter but led 26-24 at half and 42-37 after three.

“We always go into games with confidence because we know what we have and we know who we have,” Luke Gensler said. “We don’t care what other people think.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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