Upper St. Clair, Junko start with ‘blank slate’

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Friday, August 16, 2019 | 3:49 PM


Upper St. Clair returns only three players who started last season, a seemingly tough spot for a first-year coach.

Mike Junko sees things differently.

“We’re kind of excited about that,” said Junko, who was promoted to replace coach Jim Render. “In a lot of ways, with these kids it’s a blank slate for us. We are making a number of changes offensively, defensively and special teams. So we have a group of kids whose varsity experience will be in this new system. I look at that as sort of a plus for us.”

Returning from last season are junior wide receiver/defensive back David Pantellis, senior center Roman Murgi and senior linebacker Brandon Shearer.

Otherwise, everyone else is new.

“When you’re not returning a lot of kids, that can give you a lot of sleepless nights,” Junko said with a laugh. “But the flip side of that for us is, I think we’re picking things up faster than perhaps we would otherwise.”

Upper St. Clair promoted Junko in January to replace Render, who retired after 40 seasons as USC’s coach and 49 seasons overall. Render left as the winningest coach in WPIAL history.

Junko, who worked the past two seasons under Render, said he hasn’t felt any added pressure as the person replacing a coaching icon.

“I get so wrapped up in the day to day preparation and live very much in the present,” Junko said. “I very rarely step back and spend a lot of time worrying about those things. Just too busy.

“I’m certainly trying to continue the tradition that is Upper St. Clair football,” he added, “but I’m also trying to build something that has my stamp on it.”

Upper St. Clair went 8-3 overall last season, 5-2 in the Allegheny Eight and reached the first round of the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs. Gone from that team are the leading passer, rusher and receiver.

The running backs will be Luke Banbury (6-3, 215), Ethan Heister (5-10, 190) and Jaden Keating (6-0, 190). As Mt. Lebanon’s offensive coordinator, Junko oversaw an uptempo, no-huddle offense that substituted often, a style he’ll bring to USC.

“Those three will share carries and they all bring something different to the table,” Junko said. “They all have their own unique characteristics. One’s a slasher, one will run over you. They all complement one another.”

Ethan Dahlem (5-10, 173) takes over at quarterback. Dahlem, Banbury and Keating are juniors, and Heister is a sophomore. The Panthers will rely on a large number of younger players but Junko was quick to compliment his senior class for buying into his staff.

“We’re going to have a lot of young football players out there, but our seniors will also contribute,” he said. “Our style of play will make it so they can get out there and be a part of what we’re doing.”

Defensively, junior Brandon Coe (6-0, 220) and senior Brian McCombs (6-0, 225) will anchor the line. Banbury will play linebacker while Heister and Keating are both safeties.

Junko thought that the defense was physically stronger in some areas than last year.

“One of the big things Upper St. Clair is known for is being a physical football team,” he said. “That’s something we’ve hung our hat on for many, many, many years. We don’t want to lose that element of our game. Schematically it may look different out there, but those tried and true elements of toughness and physicality and hard work are hallmarks of our program.”

Schedule

Coach: Mike Junko

2018 record: 8-3, 5-2

All-time record: 458-180-9

Date, Opponent, Time

8.23, at South Fayette, 7

8.30, at Peters Township*, 7

9.6, Baldwin*, 7

9.13, Woodland Hills*, 7:30

9.20, at West Allegheny*, 7

9.27, Fox Chapel, 7:30

10.4, Mt. Lebanon, 7:30

10.11, at Moon*, 7

10.18, at Chartiers Valley*, 7

10.25, Bethel Park*, 7:30

*Class 5A Allegheny 8 Conference game

Statistical leaders

Passing: Jack Hansberry*

111-207, 1,590 yards, 11 TDs

Receiving: Dom Cepullio*

34-521 yards, 3 TDs

Rushing: Colin McLinden*

178-859 yards, 13 TDs

*Graduated

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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