For 40 years, legendary coach Jim Render roamed the sidelines at Upper St. Clair, racking up a WPIAL-record 406 wins and five WPIAL titles along the way.
A former Panthers quarterback and 1992 USC grad, Mike Junko is now in his fifth year at the helm as Render’s replacement at his alma mater. And although it’s safe to say Junko is doing things a little bit differently, one constant has remained the same ever since he took over — winning.
Sure, the Class 5A No. 4 Panthers (5-1, 1-1) have yet to reach their ultimate goal of a WPIAL title under Junko’s watch, but they have steadily improved year after year until making their first WPIAL championship appearance of his tenure last season. Many expected them to experience a drop-off this season after graduating a loaded senior class, and they weren’t even ranked in Class 5A to start the season.
A 4-0 start inspired some confidence in the young but talented group, but a 31-0 defeat in a battle of unbeatens at top-ranked Peters Township on Sept. 22 sent USC crashing back to reality. At that point, it was fair to wonder if the Panthers’ fast start was just a facade, and whether they would be able to bounce back from such a crushing defeat.
Consider those questions answered.
With archrival and Class 6A stalwart Mt. Lebanon coming to town for the WPIAL rendition of the “Backyard Brawl” last Friday, USC’s players had two choices — feel sorry for themselves for the lopsided loss against Peters, or pick themselves up off the canvas and punch back against the Blue Devils. And after a relatively quiet start to his senior season, it was Panthers running back Mason Chambers who delivered the knockout blow in a resounding 42-27 win — four of them, to be exact.
“I think the best thing that happened, quite frankly, is having Mt. Lebo on the heels of that Peters game,” Junko said. “The kids focused back in, they kind of flushed that last game, and I really thought they did a great job of getting their focus where it needs to be. It was fun to see a young team get out there and play the way they did.”
A 5-8, 185-pound wrecking ball with breakaway speed, Chambers put on a show for his home crowd with a career-high 202 yards rushing and four scores, delivering a potential star-making performance just when USC needed it most. He is now up to 532 yards and nine touchdowns on 75 carries, good for an average of 7.1 yards per attempt.
“When he got into the secondary [on Friday], he finished runs,” Junko said. “He turned 15-yard runs into 60-yard runs. He broke a few tackles on a couple of those touchdowns. That’s something that’s a part of his game. I think he’s a weapon, and I’m excited that he’s finding success.”
While Chambers has been an unexpected revelation for the Panthers, junior Julian Dahlem was already a known commodity at USC. The difference this year is, rather than splitting time with sophomore Ethan Hellmann at quarterback, Dahlem has ceded the QB position to Hellmann in favor of taking on a multipurpose role as a tailback, slot back, slot receiver, defensive back and kick returner.
Junko admitted he didn’t know how Dahlem would handle the decision at first, but the results speak for themselves. Through the first six games of 2023, Dahlem has 23 carries for 192 yards (8.4 ypc) and a pair of TDs on the ground to go with 15 catches for 197 yards (13.1 ypc) and two more TDs through the air — and those are just his offensive stats. On defense, Dahlem has 13 total tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery and 1 return TD. He’s averaging 40 yards per interception return and 52 yards per fumble return.
“The best thing I can say about him is he’s just an unselfish kid,” Junko said. “It could have been a real problem for our locker room [switching quarterbacks], and he’s been great. He just wants to win and wants to help us win. … It’s really given our offense a lot of flexibility, and he seems to provide a spark when we need it the most.”
A sophomore signal caller with an ultra-bright future, Hellmann has had an up-and-down start to his first full campaign as the starter. He has completed 66-of-104 attempts for 754 yards and eight touchdowns with five interceptions — not too shabby, but maybe not quite the breakout season some were expecting to this point. Still, the most important stat for quarterbacks is wins, and Hellmann has already done a lot of that in his brief varsity career.
“I think he’s going to have a big second half of the season for us,” Junko said. “I’m really happy with his progress. He’s a great leader for a sophomore. He’s a very intelligent young man. I think he fits our system, and I’m excited to see him continue to grow.”
After back-to-back games against nearby rivals Peters Township and Mt. Lebanon, the Panthers will conclude their three-week South Hills rivalry tour with a pivotal showdown at Bethel Park on Friday. The teams split a pair of high-stakes clashes last season, with the Black Hawks winning the regular-season battle to clinch the conference title before USC returned the favor in a WPIAL semifinal rematch.
Although Bethel is only 2-4 overall under new coach Phil Peckich, Junko is well aware how misleading that record is and just how dangerous the Black Hawks can be. After all, the schedule Bethel has faced so far is as tough as anybody in the WPIAL — and at 1-0 in conference play, the Black Hawks are currently perched right above the Panthers in the Allegheny Six Conference standings.
“Our guys are fighters,” Junko said. “It’s kind of the hallmark of an Upper St. Clair kid. They’re very slow to quit, and they’re very proud of the tradition. We talk a lot about wearing the black helmet and what that means, and they take it to heart. They understand it’s a responsibility. And we coach them hard.
“We’re going to get everybody’s best — especially down here in the South Hills. We’re in the meat of our schedule, and I think for a young team, it’s good for us, because we need to be battle-tested.”
No word yet on whether beating Bethel will prompt Junko to re-create his dance moves captured in a since-deleted tweet of USC’s locker room celebration following last Friday’s win, but he did admit that the raucous celebration video showed a part of who he is as a coach — someone who the players on the team can relate to, and somebody who isn’t afraid to let his emotions show.
“It’s very rare, but every now and again, I do promise that if we get the win, I’ll dance with them. And that was a dance game. I had to make good on my promise,” Junko said with a laugh. “They work really hard, and when they earn a victory, it’s OK to celebrate and enjoy it. We like to have fun, too, and it’s not an arrogant thing. … I love the kids and how much joy they get out of the game, and I love sharing it with them. That was just one of those moments.
“When I interact with them and I speak with them, I want them to know I’m genuine. We talk a lot about life and becoming a man, and we’re not afraid to talk about our emotions. And sometimes we put those emotions on our sleeve. That’s really what that’s kind of all about, letting those guys know I care about them. I see how hard they work, and I’m having as much fun as they are in those moments.”
Qureshi continues sizzling start for University Prep
If you thought Westinghouse was the only City League team capable of creating some major fireworks on offense, think again.
For the second time this season, No. 2 University Prep won a game by a margin of more than 65 points when the Wildcats pulverized Perry last Friday, 70-0. University Prep (4-2, 1-1) also crushed Carrick by a score of 66-0 in its second game of the season on Aug. 31.
It’s no secret how the Wildcats plan on attacking opponents every time they step on the field — with a heavy dose of senior quarterback Max Qureshi and wide receivers Xair Stevenson and Daniel “Boy Boy” Cain. Qureshi completed 8-of-12 passes for 149 yards and five TDs in Friday’s win, with Stevenson hauling in a pair of scores and Cain scoring on a 15-yard reception as well as a 44-yard punt return.
For the season, Qureshi has completed 75-of-129 attempts for 1,217 yards and 18 TDs, and the electrifying Cain leads the team with 29 receptions for 512 yards and 11 scores — including three return TDs. Only a junior, Stevenson (6-1, 175) has 10 catches for 184 yards and five TDs while leading the team in tackles.
After a 2-0 start that included a dramatic season-opening win in double overtime at New Castle, University Prep dropped back-to-back contests against Steubenville (Ohio) and City League rival Westinghouse. But the Wildcats rebounded in impressive fashion with a 36-17 win at Wheeling C.C. (W.Va.), followed by the 70-0 drubbing against Perry — proving that the City League is more than just a one-team show this season.
Clairton cruising back into Class 1A title contention
After back-to-back shutout losses to open the season, it seemed like Clairton’s lengthy stay as one of the premier Class 1A programs in the state may have been coming to an end.
Then again, those two defeats came at the hands of Westinghouse and Washington, two teams that could easily be playing for the Class 2A state title in a couple of months. And judging by the Bears’ recent performance in putting together a four-game winning streak, it appears the rumors of their demise were greatly exaggerated.
After crushing Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, 38-7, to pick up its first win of the season on Sept. 8, Clairton (4-2, 3-0) kept rolling with a pair of one-sided wins against Riverview and Leechburg. The Bears then took on another tough challenge against Greensburg Central Catholic last Friday and emerged victorious, 40-28, after a back-and-forth affair that saw six fourth-quarter touchdowns.
Junior running back Drahcir Jones had a game for the ages in the win against the Centurions, rumbling for 271 yards and four second-half TDs to carry Clairton to victory. Jones is now up to 758 yards rushing on 100 carries with eight TDs on the year.