Upper St. Clair has a new cast but same expectations

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Tuesday, August 8, 2023 | 12:01 AM


The Upper St. Clair football program is no stranger to the WPIAL playoffs, holding a 23-year streak of qualifying for the postseason.

Last year’s appearance was a special one. The Panthers came into the playoffs as a No. 5 seed and ended up with their first appearance in the WPIAL championship game in 11 years.

The Panthers fell to No. 2 Pine-Richland, 34-3, in the WPIAL Class 5A title game. In the semifinals, Upper St. Clair upset undefeated No. 1 seed Bethel Park, 17-7. The Panthers started their playoff run with a 24-21 win over No. 4 Gateway in the quarterfinals.

This year, Upper St. Clair will look to capture its eighth WPIAL title with a team that returns just seven starters — four on offense and three on defense.

The Panthers graduated 25 players, with 11 going on to play college football.

“We are going to be a young team, not so much in age but in Friday night experience. We will be learning on the job,” coach Mike Junko said.

“It’s a different group of kids that we will be taking out there on Friday night, but we are excited about it. They are young and they are excited for their chance.”

Sophomore quarterback Ethan Hellmann returns after taking over at quarterback following back-to-back losses to Bethel Park and Canon-McMillan in the middle of last season. Hellmann completed 56 of 90 passes for 920 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions.

Hellmann replaced Julian Dahlem behind center last year. This season, Dahlem, a junior, will see the field at many different spots, but mainly at wide receiver.

Dahlem, who Junko compared to former Pittsburgh Steeler Kordell “Slash” Stewart, led the Panthers with 971 passing yards, 16 touchdown passes and four interceptions. Dahlem also had 345 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns.

“He’s a guy that will do a lot of different things. He knows everybody’s job. It’s nice to put him anywhere on the field, and he embraces that,” Junko said.

“He’s more than willing to play wherever we need him. He’s going to be a kid we are going to find different ways to get him the ball for sure.”

Hellmann will have tight end Cam Phillips returning as a target. Dahlem and Phillips will have expanded roles in hopes to replace the production lost from the graduation of wide receiver Aidan Besselman, who is now playing at Princeton.

Besselman, a Trib 25 all-star team selection, led the Panthers with 817 receiving yards and 12 total touchdowns. On defense, Besselman had three interceptions and nine tackles for loss.

The Panthers will have a new look in the backfield after the graduation of running back Jamaal Brown. The workhorse led the Panthers last season with 1,489 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns.

Upper St. Clair will go with more of a running back-by-committee approach headlined by senior Mason Chambers.

“We are excited about our running backs because they bring a little something different to the table. We’ve done that in the past where we’ve let a couple different people carry the ball, and we had success with it. It’s not something we shy away from,” Junko said.

“Jamaal was excellent at running away from guys. The ones we have now are more downhill guys. They are more the old school Upper St. Clair backs that were physical runners. Stylistically, it may look a little different. They are guys that like to finish runs.”

Upper St. Clair’s offensive and defensive lines will be anchored by senior tackle Marco Carone and junior guard and defensive tackle Nate Stohl.

Carone and Stohl, along with the rest of the offensive line, will play a big part in the success of their running game.

“We got some good running backs this year. We are going to try our best,but we definitely trust the running backs this year,” Carone said.

Behind Carone and Stohl on defense, junior linebacker Van Hellmann will look to build off last season.

“The big thing our defense did last year was preventing the big play. It was very rare that teams were able to put together splash plays against us. The goal is the same for us defensively,” Junko said.

In the last four seasons, a team from the Allegheny Six Conference has qualified for the WPIAL championship. Junko believes it’s important to mature quickly during nonconference play in anticipation of the tough conference schedule.

“Our early nonconference schedule is really important to us,” he said. “We are going to have the right mix and group of kids to help us when we get into the conference.”

Upper St. Clair

Coach: Mike Junko

2022 record: 10-3, 4-1 in Class 5A Allegheny Six Conference

All-time record: 486-196-9

SCHEDULE

Date, Opponent, Time

8.25 Norwin, 7

9.1 North Hills, 7

9.8 at Baldwin*, 7

9.15 Fox Chapel, 7

9.22 at Peters Township*, 7

9.29 Mt. Lebanon, 7

10.6 at Bethel Park*, 7

10.13 at Canon-McMillan, 7

10.20 Moon*, 7

10.27 at South Fayette*, 7

*Conference game

STATISTICAL LEADERS

Passing: Julian Dahlem

63-100, 971 yards 16 TDs

Rushing: Jamaal Brown*

201-1,489 yards, 12 TDs

Receiving: Aidan Besselman*

41-817 yards, 10 TDs

*Graduated

FAST FACTS

• Mike Junko begins his fifth season as head coach at Upper St. Clair, his alma mater. His four-year record as Jim Render’s replacement is 28-16 with four playoff appearances.

• Upper St. Clair has qualified for the WPIAL football playoffs 23 consecutive years. The last time the Panthers missed out was when they finished 5-5 overall and in fifth place in the old Quad West in 1999.

• This is the 65th season of Upper St. Clair football. The Panthers have won seven WPIAL championships and two PIAA titles.

• Upper St. Clair has made 14 appearances in the WPIAL finals in school history with a 7-7 record. Before last year’s WPIAL finals appearance, Upper St. Clair last appeared in 2011 where it lost to North Allegheny, 28-21.

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