Upper St. Clair rallies for win, honors Jim Render

Friday, October 22, 2021 | 11:44 PM

Upper St. Clair held a ceremony Friday night to honor its legendary former coach Jim Render. With a thrilling comeback win over South Fayette, the Panthers also honored him with a 31-28 overtime victory.

The win was set up by a Hail Mary touchdown pass on an untimed down at the end of regulation. The 25-yard completion from Mateo Cepullio to Aidan Besselman was the story of the night.

“Players, not plays,” Panthers coach Mike Junko said. “Those guys took it off the call sheet and just went out and made it work. Credit to those two kids.”

The Panthers trailed 28-21 with 8 seconds remaining in the Class 5A Allegheny Six Conference game.

When a Cepullio pass to the end zone fell incomplete as time expired, it appeared that South Fayette (4-5, 0-4) would grab its first conference victory. However, a pass interference penalty against the Lions gave Upper St. Clair (5-4, 3-1) another chance to tie the score. Besselman made South Fayette pay with an impressive catch.

“He went up and made a play,” Lions coach Joe Rossi said. “We made a lot of plays, too. It was a phenomenal football game.”

Cepullio started the game at receiver and opened the scoring with a 49-yard touchdown reception from Ethan Hiester. With the Panthers trailing late, Cepullio took over at quarterback. After settling in, he tossed an 8-yard touchdown to Besselman with 10 minutes to play.

“We were looking for spark,” Junko said. “He provided that spark. Credit to him and the way he played tonight. He’s just a warrior.”

The Lions had a 21-7 lead at halftime and a 28-13 lead going into the fourth quarter.

Running back Nate Deans scored two touchdowns. Senior quarterback Landon Lutz threw two touchdowns but was intercepted in the fourth quarter twice, both times by Jacob Hugnagel.

In overtime, the Panthers blocked a Justin Caputo 29-yard field-goal attempt. This preceded a 30-yard winning kick from Upper St. Clair’s Bennett Henderson moments later.

“The margin of error in this league is slim,” Rossi said. “You can’t make mistakes. They gave us some opportunities. It’s tough.”

The loss eliminated South Fayette from playoff contention. It’ll be the first time that the Lions have missed the postseason since 2008. Entering on the brink, Rossi was proud of his players.

“Our kids were resilient coming in 0-3,” Rossi said. “I don’t think many people gave us a chance outside of our locker room. I was proud of the kids.”

The win clinched a playoff spot for the Panthers. Junko was proud of the accomplishment in a competitive section.

“It was important to us to continue the success that we’ve enjoyed for many years,” Junko said. “To be back in the playoffs, especially with such a balanced field, is tremendous for us.”

On a night when the Panthers honored Render, the victory made things that much more special.

“We talk a lot about our tradition,” Junko said. “He’s a big part of that. We’re proud to make him proud.”

Watch an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

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