Some would view a 7-5 season as so-so. Not Mike Junko.
The always-optimistic, first-year field general considered Upper St. Clair’s 2019 football campaign spectacular.
The Panthers opened the season with a stunning upset win over South Fayette, the 2018 WPIAL Class 4A champion, and preceded to clinch a playoff berth in the challenging Allegheny Eight Conference before being eliminated in the quarterfinals of the WPIAL Class 5A tournament.
“I’ve been around enough to know that I have played on some good teams that didn’t win so much and on teams that had lesser talent and did very well,” said Junko, who quarterbacked the Panthers and starred at at Akron University before settling into his teaching profession and coaching career. “The key is chemistry and there was a lot of that between all of the classes. We did have success.
“As we look back on the season, we took a real young team and certainly improved week to week up to the end. We got the kids to believe in what we were doing, offensively and defensively. Sure, we would have loved to win more games but in terms of the kids we had, it was a joy working with them. Yes, we are upset not to be moving on but we enjoyed being around each other. The good chemistry is what we’ll miss the most. These kids truly loved each other.”
Junko attributes the team’s camaraderie to his seniors. The Class of 2020 included 17 “special” players: Heath Erdos, Jorge Echeverria, Nick Carrick, Daniel Kyle, Kolten Keller, Ben Lund, Ryan Junko, Jeffrey Warmbein, Joseph Lackner, William Phillips, Brandon Shearer, Wilson Henderson, Brian McCombs, Roman Murgi, Joshua Conn, Daniel Harkleroad and Robert Mueller.
They were warriors. For example, Murgi tore his ACL on Oct. 4 against Mt. Lebanon but finished out the season. McCombs tore is MCL but continued to play on it as well. Shearer, who led the Panthers in tackles with 91 and had 14.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks, bruised his heel and was on crutches before and after but played in the entire quarterfinal match against Penn-Trafford.
“If not for the seniors, we would not have been fighting to win that football game,” Junko said. “They made sacrifices. They got knocked down a few times. I am proud though of the way they got themselves and their teammates ready to play. In terms of character and discipline and the importance of family, they got it.
“Our seniors were a great group. They established the culture and the type of program I want to have here. They showed the way. The hope now is that the younger kids continue on that path.”
If their play is any indication, the underclassmen will surely continue their growth. USC returns the majority of its playmakers.
Ethan Dahlem leads the Class of 2021. The junior led USC in rushing with 951 yards and 15 touchdowns. The signal caller also threw for 2,218 yards (142-for-210) and 17 more scores.
David Pantelis was on the end of many of those receptions. The junior grabbed 77 aerials for 1,169 yards and eight TDs. He provided the Panthers with 1,879 all-purpose yards, 586 coming on kick-off returns. Pantelis led the defense with five interceptions.
Mateo Cepullio ranked ahead of Lackner (19 for 212) Shearer (11 for 183) and Harkleroad (4 for 95) in receiving yards with 372 on 17 grabs. He contributed five scores.
Sophomore Ethan Heister provided 425 yards rushing on offense then picked up 50 tackles and two interceptions on defense while Jaden Keating, another junior, rushed for 305 yards. Luke Banbury averaged 9.3 yards per carry and were part of USC’s sack attack on defense with Brandon Coe and Joseph Houck. All are juniors though Harkleroad led the front liners with 61.5 tackles and 5.5 sacks.
Regarding the future, Junko said the Panthers are excited. “We say all the time around here that the arrow is point up. We return a lot of kids that played varsity football and we are excited about our younger classes.”
Those classes include a successful freshmen unit. Before this fall, USC did not field a freshmen squad for three years. This year’s group competed well against its 6A opponents so Junko feels they will be ready to compete in a much improved 5A division. Next year, South Fayette will move up to Class 4A while Pine-Richland will move down from 6A because of population changes in those school districts.
Because of the WPIAL push for more regionalization, Junko expects South Fayette to move into the Allegheny Eight Conference.
“They would be a a great addition in terms of location and because they are a quality program,” he said. That being said, it won’t make it easy for any of the current teams to challenge for the conference championship no matter how many veterans return.”
To improve upon their record and become the championship club they anticipate being, the Panthers must do the things all winners do.
“With the kids we have coming back, we certainly expect to be competitive in the conference but our kids need is to have a great off-season and possess those intangibles and learn those lessons that our seniors have taught us about how to be a good teammate. We work on making those things a reality, then the sky’s the limit for this crew,” Junko said.
Junko is equally enthused about how the community, student body and administration has rallied around the players and the program.
“That’s been one of the greatest things,” Junko said as he reflected upon his first season at the helm. “One of the coolest things was how the community got behind this team and support it through thick and thin. Another was seeing how special how kids were and how much they love playing football. The sport is very important to them and this town. So as a program we, as coaches, are thankful for how supportive everyone is. We want those relationships to continue to grow and get stronger. The future is bright but there is a lot of work to do.”
And less than a week removed from the last loss of the 2019 campaign Junko was anxious to get started.
“We’re looking forward to getting back to work,” he said.