Upper St. Clair loaded with returning starters, ready for another playoff run

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Wednesday, August 10, 2022 | 8:01 AM


After finishing in second place in the balanced Class 5A Allegheny Six Conference a year ago, Upper St. Clair qualified for the WPIAL playoffs for a 22nd straight year.

That postseason run trails only Aliquippa and Thomas Jefferson at 27 years on a row and McKeesport at 24 straight playoff appearances.

What made the Panthers’ success even more impressive in 2021 is it came with a youthful squad.

“We were a very young team last year that steadily improved as the season went along,” Upper St. Clair coach Mike Junko said. “Learning how to win in the playoffs is a big part of the maturation process, and our kids learned a tough lesson last year. I am hoping they draw on that experience moving forward into this season.”

USC was the No. 7 seed in the Class 5A playoffs but lost at home in the first round to No. 10 Fox Chapel, 13-10.

“I don’t think anyone in this senior class is close to being satisfied with our playoff streak,” senior wide receiver/defensive back Aiden Besselman said. “Our whole senior class has done a great job shifting the mindset of the team and holding each other accountable. You can feel how different it is this year then each of my last two years. We’re coming to win this whole thing, not just make the playoffs.”

The Panthers finished 10th in average points per game last fall out of the 18 teams in Class 5A.

Junko would like a little more balance from his offense this season.

“We can’t allow defenses to make our attack one dimensional,” he said.

Upper St. Clair returns eight starters from last season, including quarterback Brady Erdos. The senior hit on 67 of 104 passes for 817 yards and seven touchdowns.

However, there will be competition in the quarterback room.

“(Erdos) has shown steady improvement this summer,” Junko said. “We have more depth at the quarterback position this season with the arrival of sophomore Julian Dahlem and freshmen Ethan Hellmann. I think the competition has helped and will benefit all three signal callers.”

If the offense has a lot of familiar faces back, it’s practically a Panthers reunion on the defensive side of the ball where nearly all of the starters from last fall return.

“We return 10 players on a defense that really improved last year,” Junko said. “I am looking for that unit to take the next step and continue to improve as the season moves along.”

Three seniors lead the way on both sides of the ball in Besselman, running back/linebacker Jamaal Brown and offensive/defensive lineman Mark Banbury.

“Aidan has great speed and ball skills and is very physical on defense,” Junko said. “Jamaal has great power, quickness and speed. He fought a number of injuries last year. We are really looking for him to have a big year on both sides of the ball. Mark is a four-year starter. He suffered an ACL injury late in the season, but he is back and moving well. He will anchor an experienced group of linemen on both sides of the ball.”

Besselman believes that experience allows the bar to, once again, be set at lofty standards.

“Our experience and maturity will be our biggest asset this year. one of the most important points that we’ve been trying to key on is always being ambitious at practice and work hard as one unit. If we’re able to trust each other and do our assignments with the skill and experience we have, the sky is truly the limit.”

While realignment has caused great change up and down the WPIAL football landscape, there was just one ripple effect felt in the 5A-Allegheny Six Conference. Baldwin replaces West Allegheny and joins USC, Bethel Park, Peters Township, South Fayette and defending conference champion Moon this season.

“Our conference has produced a WPIAL finalist team every year for the past three years,” Junko said. “I don’t see it being any different this year. The road to the championship goes through the Allegheny Six. I think what sets our conference apart is just how good the coaches are in this conference. There are no bad teams in this conference, which makes for some roller coaster Friday night games in the South Hills in the fall.”

Upper St. Clair

Coach: Mike Junko

2021 record: 6-5, 4-1 in Class 5A Allegheny Six Conference

All-time record: 476-193-9

SCHEDULE

Date, Opponent, Time

8.26 Norwin, 7

9.2 at North Hills, 7

9.9 Baldwin*, 7

9.16 at Fox Chapel, 7

9.23 Peters Township*, 7

9.30 at Mt. Lebanon, 7

10.7 Bethel Park*, 7

10.14 Canon-McMillan, 7

10.21 at Moon*, 7

10.27 South Fayette*, 7

*Conference game

STATISTICAL LEADERS

Passing: Brady Erdos

67-104, 817 yards, 7 TDs

Rushing: Ethan Hiester*

143-638, 8 TDs

Receiving: Mateo Cepullio*

34-390, 8 TDs

*Graduated

FAST FACTS

• Mike Junko begins his fourth season as head coach at Upper St. Clair, his alma mater. His three-year record as Jim Render’s replacement is 18-13 with three playoff appearances.

• Upper St. Clair has qualified for the WPIAL football playoffs 22 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.

• The Panthers will be celebrating a couple of championship anniversaries this season. Thirty years ago, Upper St. Clair won its fifth district crown with a win over North Allegheny, 10-7, in the 1992 Quad-A finals. Twenty-five years ago, USC edged Penn-Trafford, 28-27, to win the 1997 WPIAL title. In both seasons, the Panthers reached the PIAA title game at Mansion Park in Altoona, losing to Cumberland Valley, 28-12, in 1992 and Central Bucks West, 44-20, in 1997.

• This is the 64th season of Upper St. Clair football. The Panthers have won five WPIAL championships and two PIAA titles.

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