Mike Junko knew it wouldn’t take long to get his first victory as Upper St. Clair’s football coach because he believed in his players.
His young charges carried the Upper St. Clair banner and in Panther tradition outmuscled South Fayette, 27-13, for a Week Zero victory.
“It’s so exciting,” said Junko, who replaced longtime USC head coach Jim Render.
Render retired in January with 406 victories — the most in WPIAL history.
“I’m so happy for the kids because they worked so hard. They put so much into this. So the joy is really for our kids and everything they have done.
“At no one point in the game did they ever lose faith and trust, and when you believe, magic happens,” he said during the postgame celebration.
Veterans and newcomers provided the magic for the Panthers.
Returning defensive starters David Pantelis and Brandon Shearer both had interceptions. Shearer’s came at a critical moment with 3:45 to play. Pantelis’ interception occurred in the first quarter. Both turnovers resulted in scores.
Pantelis scored on a 28-yard reception from Ethan Dahlem at 5:53 in the first quarter in response to SF’s 21-yard field goal by Justin Caputo three minutes earlier.
The earlier interception, combined with a fourth-and-2 conversion grab by Dany Harkleroad, set up Mateo Cepullio’s 24-yard touchdown grab from Dahlem.
Dahlem, a first-year starter at quarterback, completed 13 of 19 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns. The sophomore also rushed for a 26-yard score with 3:52 remaining in the third quarter to lift USC into the lead for good.
Though Caputo tacked on another field goal to start the final quarter, Luke Banbury capped a strong rushing drive by the Panthers with his 1-yard plunge into the end zone with 4:45 to play.
Though USC surrendered 360 yards passing as Naman Alemada completed 34 of his 53 attempts, the Panthers picked off four, including a second by Pantelis and another by Ethan Hiester. Additionally, Harkleroad, Pantelis, Roman Murgi and Joe Houck managed tackles for losses. Murgi and Houck were credited with sacks.
“Physicality has been a part of USC football a long time and we don’t want to lose that,” Junko said. “It really showed and it helped us win the football game at the end for sure.
“All credit to our defense,” he added. “You’ve seen South Fayette make plays, but our defense kept making play after play. I couldn’t be happier.”
Dahlem led all rushers with 104 yards on 19 attempts. Pantelis had four catches for 49 yards while Joe Lackner finished with three receptions. Ben Lund and Cepullio had two catches for 39 and 30 yards, respectively.
For Junko, the first victory was special for so many reasons. He is a USC graduate and excelled on school’s only WPIAL championship team in 1992. He played quarterback at Akron.
“To be at USC means so much to me,” Junko said. “I stood in front of the kids and told them before hand that to be their coach creates such a family atmosphere and to come here to play against this storied program and win in their stadium makes it extra special,” Junko added of the dynasty Joe Rossi has created at South Fayette with two state championships and four WPIAL titles in 12 seasons.
While disappointed in the defeat, Rossi agreed the Week Zero game was good preparation for next week’s conference opener against Beaver.
“Hats off to USC,” Rossi said. “We played a game in front of a great crowd against a good football team. Now we just have to make our corrections. Only way to get better is to experience this kind of pressure.
“We learned a lot about our team. We will get better,” he said. “Conference play is all that matters.”