With Upper St. Clair’s backs against the wall going into a senior night showdown against Moon, the Pittsburgh Union Progress tabbed the pivotal Allegheny Six Conference clash as the Week 8 Game of the Week.

Turns out, the Panthers and Tigers decided to put on the Game of the Year instead.

Forget about Gardner Points, head-to-head records and any other tiebreakers. For now, none of that stuff mattered to these two prideful programs waging an unforgettable battle Friday night at USC’s Panther Stadium. In a game when a little-known third-string sophomore named Paul Bronaugh ran for 236 yards and three touchdowns for Moon (4-5, 2-2) while Panthers senior Mason Chambers rushed for 137 yards and two scores, brothers Ethan and Van Hellmann stole the show with a winning 2-point conversion in double overtime — lifting Upper St. Clair (7-2, 2-2) to a heart-stopping 43-42 win that might have just saved the Panthers’ season.

“We’ve gotten better with each game. That was our goal,” said Upper St. Clair coach Mike Junko. “You got to see some of those young guys really grow up, and never give up. … When you play in a game like this and your kids perform the way they did — I’ll let all that [playoff] stuff fall where it may, but I’m just so proud tonight.

“I’ll enjoy this one. We have a memory to last a lifetime.”

Ethan Hellmann is a sophomore quarterback in his first full season as a starter after splitting time a year ago with junior Julian Dahlem, who now excels as a hybrid running back-receiver for the Panthers. Van Hellmann, on the other hand, is a defensive-minded linebacker with a knack for dishing out bone-crunching hits, and he isn’t exactly known for his toe-tap receiving skills on the sideline — until now, that is.

With Upper St. Clair trailing in double overtime, 42-41, after a 14-yard touchdown pass from Ethan Hellmann to Charlie Bywalski, Junko made the call to go for 2 rather than kick the extra point to send it into a third overtime. After a nifty play-action fake to Chambers, Hellmann spun around and fired a strike to his older brother, who had sprung open in the flat and laid out for a full-extension catch right behind the front pylon.

Feet in bounds, ball secured. Ballgame.

“It was pretty sick,” Van Hellmann said about the surreal moment. “I was his first read. We saw they were biting on the run, he threw it to me, and I made the play. It felt great to win that game.”

A raucous celebration ensued as students stormed the field and mobbed the players on the sideline. In that moment, nobody cared that the Panthers are going to need a lot of help next week in order to qualify for the WPIAL playoffs, regardless of what transpires in their season finale at South Fayette. All that mattered to the players, coaches and fans was securing that victory in the final home game of the season and sending everybody home happy.

“We’re going to give it everything we have,” Ethan Hellmann said. “Last game of the season, whether we make the playoffs or not, we’re going to give it our all. We don’t care about that point differential. We’re just here to win.”

On Friday night, the sophomore signal-caller completed 10-of-17 passes for 146 yards and 2 touchdowns, and he added 6 carries for 41 yards on the ground. His older brother was Upper St. Clair’s most productive receiver in the contest, hauling in all 4 of his targets for 84 yards — and that doesn’t even include the winning conversion.

After a trick-play touchdown on a reverse halfback pass gave Moon an early 7-0 lead on the game’s opening drive, the Panthers punched right back with a 1-yard touchdown run by Chambers after a blocked punt by freshman linebacker John Banbury. This would become a running theme throughout the game, as every time the Tigers scored a touchdown to take the lead, Upper St. Clair would answer.

Josh Bladel scored Moon’s second touchdown of the game on a 3-yard run in the second quarter, and Dahlem responded with a 20-yard touchdown scamper to tie the score, 14-14, going into the half. That’s where things stood going into the fourth quarter, just before the floodgates opened.

Moon’s Paul Bronaugh carries the ball as Upper St. Clair’s Charlie Bywalski attempts to bring him down, Friday night at Upper St. Clair High School. Bronaugh finished with 236 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns on only 9 carries, but Upper St. Clair won in double overtime, 43-42. (Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Bronaugh came into the game with only 101 yards rushing on 11 carries this season, but he nearly doubled that total Friday in the fourth quarter. His 85-yard touchdown run down the right sideline gave the Tigers a temporary 21-14 lead, and after Banbury’s 11-yard touchdown reception tied it again, Bronaugh produced a nearly identical 85-yard touchdown run down the same sideline on the very next drive.

Once again, the Panthers showcased their resilience and found a way to dig deep with their season on the line, sending the game to overtime on a 28-yard touchdown run by Chambers with less than four minutes remaining. Of course, 48 minutes wasn’t enough time to settle this wild back-and-forth affair, and neither was one overtime period.

After Dahlem and Bronaugh traded touchdown runs in the first overtime period, the teams went into second OT with the score tied, 35-35. Moon took the ball first and wasted little time scoring on Bladel’s second touchdown run of the game, setting the stage for the Hellmann brothers’ heroics. First came Ethan Hellmann’s touchdown pass to Bywalski, followed by the walk-off conversion from little bro to big bro to clinch the victory.

“He’s always open. If there’s one guy I trust on this field, it’s him,” Ethan Hellmann said. “He’ll go up and get that ball. It’s either his or no one’s.”

Now, Upper St. Clair will enter the final week of the regular season with a sliver of hope still remaining, although the tiebreaker scenarios do not appear to be in the Panthers’ favor. With only eight teams qualifying for the WPIAL postseason in Class 5A, only the top two teams in each of the three conferences are guaranteed playoff berths, along with two at-large bids. Top-ranked Peters Township will receive one of the Allegheny Six Conference’s two guaranteed bids, while the second spot is still up for grabs between Bethel Park, Moon and Upper St. Clair.

Because Bethel Park beat the Tigers and Panthers, the Black Hawks will have the upper hand in most tiebreaker scenarios. Other than head-to-head matchups, the tiebreakers will be determined by the Gardner Points system. Upper St. Clair needed to win by 10 points or more Friday to gain the edge over Moon in that category, but now the Panthers will need to take care of business against South Fayette while also receiving plenty of help next week in order to qualify for the playoffs.

Would it be unfair for a team with an 8-2 overall record against the quality of opponents Upper St. Clair has faced to miss the postseason? Sure. Would it be unprecedented? Possibly. But will that change anything? Of course not. Junko knows that, his assistants know that, and his players know that.

Just don’t expect these Panthers to quit fighting until the last whistle blows.

“There’s something about the DNA of an Upper St. Clair kid. They’re just not going to quit,” said Junko, a 1992 USC grad and former star quarterback. “It’s been kind of our hallmark for a long time, even long before I was here. It’s fun to be around it.”

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.

Steve Rotstein

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.