From 1997 to 2005, the Houston Astros had a swarm of them. In 1982, the Miami Dolphins had a cluster, too.
In 2022, Upper St. Clair is teeming with its own version of the “Killer Bees” as Mark Banbury, Aidan Besselman and Jamaal Brown are poised to put the sting on their football opponents.
Besselman and Brown provide a one-two punch on offense at wideout and tailback while Banbury protects the nest. All play on defense, too.
They have been three-year starters for the Panthers and all three have been elected captains by their teammates this year.
“They serve as great ambassadors for our program,” said USC head coach Mike Junko. “All three will go on to play college football and enjoy great success at the next level. They will leave behind a legacy of hard work and leadership.”
Banbury: Brains and brawn
Mark Banbury attributes a legacy of learning and knowledge to formulating his approach to football this fall. The Upper St. Clair two-way lineman hopes to help the Panthers win their first WPIAL championship and state title in 16 years while securing acclaim.
“Sure, personally I would like to be named first-team all-conference again and contend for that lineman award,” said Banbury referring to the WPIAL’s Bill Fralic Memorial Award.
“The goal is to be undefeated during the regular season, win the WPIAL and move on to states and I am going to go out and help the team as much as I can. Through watching my brothers play and from what my dad taught me, good teams that go all the way are not selfish. They play for each other.”
Banbury’s father, Matt, played for Mt. Lebanon. He was a fullback on two WPIAL championship clubs in the 1980s before going on to compete at New Hampshire College.
The Blue Devils also accomplished what Banbury hopes to do at USC. In 2021, they ran the table, posted a 15-0 record and won both district and state titles.
“Seeing what Lebo did last year and what my dad accomplished cements my mentality,” said Banbury. “He’s been the biggest influence on me.”
A pair of older brothers has also impacted Banbury.
Matt and Luke Banbury started their careers as he did, playing at St. Louise de Marillac Elementary School.
Matt was a quarterback for four years at Seton LaSalle High School. He currently plays at Hamilton College. Luke, who helped the Panthers win a WPIAL basketball championship in 2021, is a sophomore linebacker at Cornell.
“It’s been helpful having brothers that were the caliber of players that you could look up to as role models,” Banbury said. “None of them though played line.”
Since he started playing football in the second grade, Banbury has always been a lineman. The 6-2, 275-pound senior is a guard on offense and a tackle on defense.
Banbury played every down last year for the Panthers until he tore his ACL in the final regular-season game. The injury not only contributed to USC losing its first-round playoff game to Fox Chapel, 13-10, and finishing 6-4 overall, it also canceled Banbury’s basketball season.
Instead, he endured surgery and months of recovery. Dr. James P. Bradley, the orthopedic surgeon for more than 30 years for the Pittsburgh Steelers, repaired the ligament tear and damage. David Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine Center in Mt. Lebanon performed the rehab.
“Mark is an intense competitor that overcame great adversity,” Junko said. “He has really shown a drive and determination to get back to full strength.”
Of the ordeal Banbury said, “that was one of the hardest processes I had to go through. It feels great now. I’m ready to move on from it.”
Junko has already witnessed that progress.
“Mark is a physical run-stopping defensive linemen and provides us with a versatile guard with great speed and quickness on the offensive side of the ball,” he said.
Banbury is prepared to embrace all his senior season has to offer. The four-year starter is being recruited by several schools, including Brown, Davidson and Amherst because of his 4.3 GPA. He plans to major in business or investment banking. Banbury is also looking to return to the basketball court this winter.
“I do like basketball a lot and it has helped me with my footwork but football is my main sport,” he said.
“I am going to do what I can to help the team. That’s just being real physical, hustling and getting after the ball and being a leader. I’m willing to do that. I think we should have a great year.”
Beyond 2023 is anybody’s guess but Banbury is ready to pursue all angles.
“Anybody has a goal to play in the NFL if they play football,” he said. “If it’s in the cards, I would definitely pursue it.”
Whatever his pursuits, Banbury will take football’s lessons with him.
“In sports, if you don’t put in the time, you will be exposed on the field. There are no cutting corners. Nothing comes easy. You have to work hard for what you want in life.”
Besselman: The best of all worlds
Lacrosse offered Aidan Besselman the best of all worlds in sports. So he focused on the activity more than football and basketball as a youth.
The Upper St. Clair senior traveled around the country competing and gaining accolades. He gained All-America status while playing for the D.C. Dawgs.
“Lacrosse is very fast and physical,” said Besselman. “It combines the agility from basketball and physicality of football into one. It’s super fast and fun.”
Lacrosse is a sport that Besselman started to play in kindergarten. He could continue to play it in college if it weren’t for the fact he has developed into one of the top football players in Class 5A of the WPIAL.
Besselman is one of 10 returning starters on a Panther defense that allowed just 64 points while finishing runner-up in the Allegheny Six Conference. The Panthers finished 6-5 overall after falling to Fox Chapel, 13-10, in the first round of the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs.
Last fall, he also gained all-conference honors as a wide receiver, hauling in 30 receptions for 412 yards and seven touchdowns. In fact, his TD grab during an overtime win against South Fayette ended up on ESPN highlight video.
“That was cool, but it was cooler to be in the moment,” Besselman said. “Winning the game and walking into the locker room was more fun than waking up and watching the clip on television.”
Once he watched his older brother play, Besselman developed a passion and respect for the football.
“Every day, he showed up for practice and worked hard. He inspired me and established a work ethic in me.”
Luke Banbury (Cornell), David Pantelis (Yale) and Ethan Dahlem (Case Western) cemented further Besselman’s commitment to success. As a freshman, he made the varsity football squad. He also played with the trio when USC won a WPIAL championship in basketball in 2021.
“I spent a lot of time hanging around those guys. Although they had different personalities, they were all hard-working. That mindset attracted me. I loved that attitude where you do what you are told and you show up when you don’t want to. You outrun and outwork people.”
Besselman outperforms others outside the athletic arena. He owns a 4.37 GPA and belongs to the National Honor Society. He is being courted by several Mid-America Conference colleges but is leaning toward the offers from the Ivy League institutions. He plans to major in business.
“Football ends for everyone at some point,” he said. “The Ivy appeal is that while there is the ability to go professional, the education you receive opens doors. You can put in a lot of extra work, show up and do what everybody else does and not go anywhere (beyond football) but with a degree you can flourish in the business world.”
Besselman has thrived on the field and in the classroom because of his parents. His mother, Autumn, played basketball at North Hills then matriculated to Cornell. His father, Bill, competed in track and cross country at Greensburg Salem before attending Carnegie Mellon. They met while attending the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
While their children, Tyler, 23, and Sierra, 12, focused on lacrosse, Besselman expanded to include football and basketball.
“I would get bored if I were not doing something,” Besselman said candidly. “I think it’s helped me with time management. At it’s core, sports helps you make connections and friendships.”
Those bonds are what drive Besselman. He wants to go out a winner with his classmates.
“The dream is to win a WPIAL and state title. We have the potential because we bring back a lot and everyone is working hard.
“This year, there is a new mindset and it’s about winning. In past years we were just playing but Coach (Mike) Junko has brought a lot of excitement here and an upbeat tempo.
“We have fun when it’s time to have it but lock in when it’s time to lock in. It’s clear we want to win and we are not going to be satisfied if we don’t. We are all working together and when you talk about the good teams, they all have that.”
USC has that and more in Besselman. He has matured into a player eager to do whatever he can for the Panthers.
“Aidan has really grown as a receiver. He has really improved his route running and has become more than just a “speed guy.” While he still presents a home run threat on offense, his best attribute this season will be his ability to attack all parts of the field,” said Junko. “Defensively he is a hard-hitting, run-stopper and a shut-down cover guy. You really have to know where he is on the field because he can cover a lot of ground.”
That suits Besselman just fine. He cares not whether he makes the big play on defense or offense.
“It’s cool to score a touchdown and also to blow someone up,” he said. “It depends on the mood you are in. But I just like football. I’m lucky to play. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Brown: Dog-gone fast and silky smooth
Jamaal Brown credits a pit bull and Michael Jackson for his swiftness and sweet moves on the field.
From the King of Pop, Brown learned to moonwalk. From the dog, he learned to run fast.
“Michael taught me how to have sweet feet,” said the 17-year-old son of Evelyn Frangul.
“Since around 12, I have been scared of dogs. I was chased once and the dog got me in the leg. Took one bite before I pulled him off. I did not run too fast before then but I sprinted after that. That (dog) taught me to run fast.”
Brown runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5. He was a speedster on the track team, competing in the 100-meter dash as well as on the 4-x-100 relay.
After moving from Miami, Brown quickly assimilated into the backfield at Upper St. Clair.
As a sophomore, he rolled up 317 yards rushing on 42 carries for a 7.5-yard average. He scored three touchdowns. Despite an injury-riddled junior year that included a broken ankle, Brown galloped for 328 yards and three more scores on 61 rushes.
“Jamaal is an explosive running back with great field vision. Physically he is in the best shape of his career and mentally he is in a good place about his body and conditioning,” Junko said. “The biggest thing is keeping him healthy and on the field because we have high hopes for him. We are looking forward to seeing him at his best this fall.”
Brown eagerly awaits his senior season. He “hated” missing games because of concussions and cramps as well as the other injuries. He wants to play football, whether that be as USC’s top rusher or its leading tackler from his linebacker slot.
“I have no preference. I just want to play. No matter where I am on the field, I hope to make an impact. I want to make up for lost time.”
Brown added that the 2022 campaign is less about him and all about the Panthers. He wants USC to go undefeated and capture a district championship regardless of where the title game will be held. This year, the Class 5A final will be played at Norwin High School instead of Acrisure Stadium, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I just want to win the WPIAL. I know kids grow up here wanting to play there but for me personally I didn’t grow up here. I didn’t dream about playing there.”
Brown grew up in Miami but moved to Upper St. Clair when his father, Robert Provost, decided he wanted his son to play for his alma mater. A 1983 graduate, Provost played for the Panthers under legendary coach Jim Render.
Brown did, however, grow up thinking about a professional career.
“The goal to play in the NFL has been there since I was younger but I am not worried about younger stuff. I’ve always believed and I have faith but I’ve got to go to high school and play varsity football first. I’m checking that box. So far so good. Things are falling into line.”
Opportunities beyond high school are coming together as well. Brown has as many as 15 Division I college offers. Among them are the military academies as well as the University of Richmond. Brown plans to major in engineering or business.
“I love the sun and the beaches. I do miss that but I am glad that I am here,” Brown said. “It’s better for my future. When you surround yourself in a successful environment, it’s tough for you to fail.”
Because of his “aggressive” nature on the field and the “energy” he brings to the team, Brown doesn’t believe the Panthers will fail in their endeavors. They were conference runners-up last fall but first-round losers in the WPIAL playoffs.
“The better energy we have, the better we will be. If you don’t have energy, you will be beat. If you believe you can win and you have that swagger, then you’ll do great things. You gotta bring the juice.
“Don’t give up and play with passion. When you play with passion you can’t come out with a bad outcome. It will work out.”