Way back on Aug. 26, Upper St. Clair coach Mike Junko relayed a message to his players after a season-opening 42-6 win at Norwin High School.
“We told our kids afterward, we want to get back here,” Junko said. “This is our field of dreams. It’s not Acrisure. It’s not the big stadium downtown. It’s Norwin High School.”
Yes, plenty of fans lament the fact that only the Class 1A-4A championships will be held at Acrisure Stadium next week, while the Class 5A and 6A title games will take place at Norwin this Saturday. But to Junko and his players, the game could be played at a high school field, in a parking lot or in someone’s backyard for all they care — and you can bet Pine-Richland coach Jon LeDonne and his players feel the same way.
“As a player, I played at Three Rivers,” said LeDonne, who coached Penn Hills to a WPIAL and PIAA championship in 2018. “It’s an awesome experience to play in an NFL stadium, but at the same time, you look around and a lot of seats are empty and people are so far from the sidelines. The overall atmosphere at Norwin in 2018 was awesome. You get to pack the house and it’s loud, and all about what high school football is about.”
No matter the venue, the stage has been set for a monumental clash for Class 5A supremacy at noon Saturday between two of the WPIAL’s premier programs. The Panthers and Rams have both been models of consistency for decades, with Upper St. Clair going for its eighth WPIAL championship while Pine-Richland is seeking its sixth. The Panthers have made 23 consecutive WPIAL playoff appearances, although this will be their first title game appearance since 2011, back when all-time WPIAL wins leader Jim Render still patrolled the sidelines.
Render will be on the sidelines again Saturday, as he was for last Friday’s 17-7 semifinal win vs. top-seeded Bethel Park. He’s only a spectator now, but he’ll be as heavily invested as anybody else on the field — and don’t be surprised if he offers a suggestion or two to his former pupil Junko during the game.
“He’s been really supportive,” Junko said. “He’s a huge Upper St. Clair football fan, and he bleeds black and red. I still have a number of assistant coaches that were on his staff.”
The Rams can’t quite match Upper St. Clair’s longevity as one of the WPIAL’s most consistent winners, but they certainly have the edge in recent success. Since the Panthers’ most recent trip to the title game in 2011, Pine-Richland has raised four WPIAL championship banners and a pair of PIAA championship banners. The Rams will be playing for a WPIAL title for the fifth time in the past six seasons, with last year’s 7-5 finish and WPIAL semifinal exit representing the lone “down year” for the program over the past decade.
Of course, all of those past results are meaningless now, and what we have in store on Saturday appears to be one of the most even matchups a fan could ask for. Both teams like to run the ball and excel at doing so, while it’s extremely hard to run against them. Both defenses love to thump, and both lines are big and physical. Upper St. Clair may have the edge in top-tier athletes with the likes of Jamaal Brown (1,468 yards rushing, 14 TDs) and Aidan Besselman (37 receptions, 743 yards, 10 TDs), but Pine-Richland may have the X-factor in senior quarterback Ryan Palmieri (551 yards passing, 1,343 yards rushing, 22 total TDs). The Rams are 8-0 since Palmieri took over as the starting QB in Week 4.
“They’re really a lot like us,” Junko said. “They made a few midseason changes, found themselves, and they haven’t looked back ever since. The run game gets a lot of attention, but they play really good defense. … They don’t turn the ball over. They’re sound on special teams. They do all the little things right. That’s why they were able to get on this run.”
Palmieri rushed 33 times for 135 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 23-12 semifinal win against Woodland Hills last Friday, including one drive in the second half where he carried the ball all 14 times for 76 yards and a score. He’s perfectly capable of throwing the ball, too, but if teams can’t stop it, why not keep running it?
“I think both defenses are going to be focused on stopping the run, and I think the team that can win that battle at the line of scrimmage is probably going to walk away with the upper hand,” Junko said.
The Panthers will certainly be expecting a heavy dose of Palmieri and Ethan Pillar (912 yards rushing, 11 TDs) on the ground Saturday, and their top-ranked defense in Class 5A should present quite the challenge for the Rams. Upper St. Clair’s defense allows only 11.9 points per game, almost four points less on average than the next-closest team in the classification. Pine-Richland ranks second in Class 5A at 15.8 ppg.
On the other side of the ball, the Panthers rank second in Class 5A in scoring offense at 31 ppg, while the Rams are tied for fourth at 30.5 ppg. The numbers appear to give a slight edge toward Upper St. Clair, but this one is pretty much a dead heat on paper. Time will tell if that proves to be the case, but all signs appear to point toward a back-and-forth battle that will come down to who has the ball last.
“There will be ups and downs and both sides will find a way to fight back when momentum goes against them. I don’t think anybody is getting knocked out in the first round,” Junko said. “This is going to be a classic 15-round battle, and both sides are going to fight all the way to the fourth quarter, for sure.”
And with these two proud programs competing for all the marbles, who would want it any other way?
“I think you’ve got two teams who appreciate and respect the game,” LeDonne said. “They’re there to play football. We emphasize that with our guys all the time. We’re there to play a football game and put on a show, and that’s what we’re going to look to do. … There is the potential to be a blockbuster, for sure.”