Ethan Dahlem may not be able to pull a rabbit out of his hat, but the Upper St. Clair junior is certainly a magician when it comes to leading the Panthers to victories on the football field.
Last week, he rallied USC’s 45-41 comeback win over Woodland Hills. He completed 22 of 33 passes for a school-record 485 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for three more scores. He amassed 560 yards of total offense, including 75 on running plays.
“Ethan was composed and patient,” said head coach Mike Junko. “He made great decisions under pressure and kept us in the game.”
Dahlem has already surpassed the 1,000-yard passing plateau. He has completed 55 of 87 attempts for 1,080 yards and nine touchdowns with a 199.3 quarterback rating.
Additionally, he leads the team in rushing with 284 yards on 67 attempts. He has scored a team-high six rushing touchdowns.
“Ethan has a quiet confidence that serves him well,” Junko said. “He is not easily rattled and he has a great knack for extending the play.
“His ability to use his legs to get out of trouble and find receivers downfield after a play has broken down make him troublesome for defenses,” he added. “He is also very intelligent so he makes really good pre- and post-snap decisions.”
Dahlem’s best decision perhaps wasn’t his own. While he longed to play football, his father, Eric, would not permit it until he entered fourth grade.
It was clear, however, Dahlem was destined for the position and maybe for greatness. His uncle, Wes, played at Penn State.
“All my friends wanted me to play and I always wanted to play,” said Dahlem. “When my dad finally let me, our team needed a quarterback. So I was always a quarterback.”
Dahlem learned his fancy footwork from his father, who played quarterback at Clearfield High School. His receivers, particularly his best friend, David Pantelis, have made him look good.
Against Woodland Hills, Pantelis had 13 receptions for 269 yards and one score. Pantelis leads the team with 30 catches for 616 yards.
“David’s the best wide receiver in the WPIAL, if not one of the top players,” Dahlem said. “If you put the ball in his area, he’s going to get it. He’s going to turn it into a big play. Our other receivers will, too.”
USC has plenty of other receivers as well.
Joe Lackner had four grabs for 102 yards and a touchdown. Brandon Shearer had three receptions for 89 yards and the other score against the Wolverines. Lackner and Shearer each have 139 yards receiving and Mateo Cepullio follows with 112.
While Jaden Keating, Charlie Eberle and Mateo Cepullio had receptions against the Wolverines, Ben Lund, Ethan Hiester, Danny Harkleroad and Kolten Keller are also weapons in Dahlem’s arsenal.
“My receivers make me look good,” Dahlem said. “I use my feet, get out of the pocket and put the ball in an area where they can catch it. The athletes do all the work and that’s a fact.
“It’s not my talent,” he added. “It’s just my ability to execute the game plan, and each week, Coach Junko develops good plays. We just have been executing them well.”
In practices, USC works on a drill for when plays break down.
“Our receivers know what to do and I put the ball where our athletes are so that they get to do what they do best,” Dahlem said.
What Dahlem does best is engineer the offense. He has honed that ability from playing point guard on the basketball team.
“Point guards and quarterbacks have to have the same qualities for leadership and communication skills and making sure everybody is all doing their job,” said Dahlem, whose uncles, Ronnie and John Taflan, excelled in basketball for Bethany College.
Junko agreed. He encourages his football players to compete in multiple sports, but asks his quarterbacks to be “point guards” on the field. That’s a perfect fit for Dahlem.
“He is making a decision on every run and pass in our offense,” Junko said. “His time on the basketball court has served him well as a quarterback in our system.”
Dahlem’s personal make-up fits the USC system. He abides by the Golden Rule.
“All my success, and who I am, is all a credit to my mom,” said the 17-year-old son of Jennifer Dahlem. “She taught me to treat people the way I wanted to be treated. So, it’s not about me. I care about everyone and I want to be nice to them. And, my teammates are very important to me.
“Coach Junko has developed a culture here that we are a family,” he added. “It’s not one person. If we all do our assignments, do our jobs, and let the athletes play, then we’ll be successful.”
Dahlem’s success in his first season as a starter, including his school record, are insignificant if the team fails.
“Holding a passing record is amazing when you think about all the great quarterbacks that have come through here,” he said. “I’m surprised and grateful, but I don’t think about it too much because you have to get your head right for the next game.
“I’m not focused on stats,” he added. “During a game, I want to make the plays and put the ball where it needs to be so we can win. It’s all about the team. If I do my job, then hopefully that helps the team. I want to be the best player, my best self, each night and each game, make the right plays so our team can win.”
With only three returning starters and a rookie signal caller, the Panthers are winning. They are on pace to achieve goals not many expected, especially under the new leadership of Junko.
“During the off season, no one talked about us. No one thought we would be as good as we are now, but we went into the season with the mentality that we wanted to prove that was all wrong,” Dahlem said. “Now, we want to keep it up throughout the year because team-wise we plan to make the playoffs and make a deep run, maybe even get to the WPIAL championships and get into the state playoffs.”
Admittedly, Dahlem is surprised by his and the team’s progress. He says the conference is so good that every team presents a tough matchup. Ahead on the schedule are challenges, including an Oct. 25 regular season finale game against rival Bethel Park.
“We seem to make a surge,” said Dahlem. “We have such a great team bond. I believe in my guys and they believe in me. We believe in each other each game no matter what the odds are against us.
“Sure, I’m surprised with how well I’m playing so far,” he added. “Each game, you try not to get nervous and play your best, but I never thought I’d be where I am now. But, it’s all thanks to my teammates and coaches. All their support and all the hard work that we have done and our ability to execute.”
Can Dahlem do even better?
“I may not be able to top that (record), but maybe get close to it again,” Dahlem said. “While my strengths are when the play breaks down and I have the ability to scramble and find a receiver or run, I can get better and stronger as a passer. It takes hard work in the offseason.”
Junko predicts Dahlem will continue to grow.
“He is a fierce competitor and he is great to have in the locker room. We are excited to see what the future holds for him. Ethan’s a great kid. The kind you love to root for,” Junko said.