Upper St. Clair stuns Gateway in WPIAL playoffs behind ‘resilient’ QB who’d lost starting job

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Saturday, November 5, 2022 | 12:17 AM


Upper St. Clair quarterback Julian Dahlem lost his starting job last month and hadn’t attempted a pass in weeks, yet the sophomore threw a season-saving touchdown Friday night.

With the offense needing a late spark, Dahlem was inserted at quarterback in the fourth quarter and led the Panthers on an 11-play, 65-yard touchdown drive as No 5 Upper St. Clair stunned No. 4 Gateway, 24-21, in a WPIAL Class 5A quarterfinal in Monroeville.

Facing a fourth-and-11 with the season on the line, Dahlem attempted his first pass since mid-October, a 26-yard completion to wideout Aidan Besselman for a go-ahead touchdown with 2 minutes, 22 seconds left.

“That kid is resilient,” Besselman said.

Dahlem had completed 61 of 97 passes for 954 yards and 15 touchdowns this season but was replaced by freshman Ethan Hellmann after an Oct. 14 loss, the team’s second in a row. Hellmann led Upper St. Clair to wins the past two weeks, but the Panthers’ offense managed only one touchdown in the first three quarters Friday.

So, they turned back to Dahlem, a dual-threat QB who also ran the ball seven times on the winning drive.

“I felt the spark inside of me,” Dahlem said. “I really had this confidence. All week I was kind of sad because I got replaced. But at the end of the game, I was really confident with myself.”

The win sets up an Allegheny Six rematch between Upper St. Clair (9-2) and No. 1 seed Bethel Park (10-1) next Friday in the semifinals. USC lost the regular-season matchup, 27-14, on Oct. 7.

“One of the things that’s kind of been a hallmark of this program is these kids just don’t quit,” USC coach Mike Junko said. “We had a blocked field goal. We had some turnovers. Yet through all of that, they remained resilient. If you want to win a championship, you’ve got to have kids who have that type of character.”

The playoff win was Upper St. Clair’s first since 2019, when this year’s seniors were freshmen. Their high school careers were hanging in the balance on that fourth-and-11 pass.

“I trotted along the line of scrimmage and said to myself, ‘This is my high school season right here,’” said Besselman, one of the team’s 25 seniors. “Big players make big plays. … I beat my guy and Jules threw it up. I’m glad he gave me a chance.”

Besselman is a 6-foot-2, 190-pound receiver with around 20 college offers. Dahlem scrambled to his right to avoid pressure, threw an arching pass toward the end zone and let Besselman make a leaping grab at the goal line.

“I was scared,” Dahlem said. “I wasn’t loose all game. I was tight. I wasn’t ready, but I did it, so I’m proud of myself.”

The Gateway sideline was outraged that a holding penalty wasn’t called at the line of scrimmage on the winning touchdown.

“I think our defensive end and defensive tackle made a hell of an effort to get to the quarterback on the touchdown play,” Gateway coach Don Holl said. “Unfortunately, the guy completed the ball anyway.”

Upper St. Clair running back Jamaal Brown rushed for 160 yards on 21 carries, including an 80-yard touchdown early in the second quarter for a 10-0 lead. The Panthers also got three field goals from standout kicker Bennett Henderson on kicks from 34, 47 and 25 yards.

Another attempt by Henderson — a 42-yarder in the third quarter — was blocked and returned 58 yards for a touchdown by Gateway’s Anez Jordan for a 21-13 lead.

The Gators’ first two touchdowns came on first-half passes by quarterback Brad Birch, who completed 19 of 32 attempts for 189 yards and also one interception. The TD throws came in a 3-minute span just before halftime to give Gateway a 14-10 lead. Birch threw a 1-yarder to tight end Malachi Moore on fourth-and-goal and a 16-yarder to receiver Dallas Harper.

But an odd Gateway miscue in the final minute before half led to one of Henderson’s field goals. The Gators ran a hook-and-lateral but then attempted a second lateral that was stolen by USC’s defense. Henderson’s last-second 47-yarder cut Gateway’s halftime lead to 14-13. Those three points ultimately were crucial for USC.

Holl described Gateway’s loss as “frustrating.”

The Gators had three turnovers, also had a field goal blocked and punted four times. With 78 seconds left, their final possession ended at their own 10-yard line with a failed fourth-down pass.

“We had lots of chances,” Holl said. “We didn’t take advantage of it. One of the goofiest plays I’ve ever seen in my career before the half gave them the field goal. We blocked one for six, but we just didn’t finish drives.”

The last time Upper St. Clair won a playoff game was over North Hills in 2019. USC’s starting quarterback that day was Dahlem’s brother, Ethan. This time, the younger brother provided the playoff heroics.

“In the fourth quarter it felt like we needed a spark, something to give us a little juice,” Junko said. “He certainly provided that with some of those runs. And then to be fourth-and-11 and come through with a big throw? Well, he’s been there before. He’s done it.”

Besselman wasn’t the primary receiver on the winning touchdown play, Junko said. Dahlem was supposed to “peek” at Besselman, but the talented wideout was expected to be covered.

Instead, Dahlem saw an opening to throw and took it.

Dahlem then added a two-point pass to Cameron Phillips for a 24-21 lead. Afterward, Dahlem received congratulations from seemingly everyone, including Hellmann, the team’s other QB.

“I’ve said this for the past three weeks: I have confidence in both of our guys,” Junko said. “They’re fantastic young quarterbacks. They’re competitors. They have an appreciation for each others’ talents. So, we’re blessed and fortunate we have those two guys.”

Watch an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

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

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