USC prepared for playoff run

Published Oct 22, 2013 at 2:22 pm (Updated Oct 22, 2013 at 2:22 pm)

After finishing the regular season with a 17-0-1 record, Upper St. Clair grabbed the No. 1 seed in the WPIAL Class AAA boys’ soccer playoffs. But the Panthers’ 2013 campaign comes down to their game at 8 p.m. Oct. 24 at home against Mt. Lebanon.

“As we go into the playoffs,” said USC head coach Uwe Schneider, “we need to focus on one game at a time and respect every team we play against because playoff games have their own dynamic.”

USC knows that all too well. See, last year, the Panthers lost the WPIAL title to Canon-McMillan. The Big Macs had finished third in Section 5 behind champion, Peters Township, and runner-up, USC. However, the Panthers avenged that defeat in the PIAA tournament and went on to win the state championship.

In Mt. Lebanon, USC faces a squad it had shutout Oct. 5 at Highmark Stadium, which is the site of this year’s WPIAL Championships, Nov. 1-2. The Blue Devils finished 9-1-2 in Section 4. They are 11-6-2 overall heading into their fray against USC.

Lebo’s record should not fool USC. The Blue Devils are hot. They toppled Bethel Park, 3-1, in their section finale before upending Butler, 1-0, in the first round of the playoffs. Matt Stevens scored the gamewinner.

Not only do the Panthers enter the district playoffs as the defending state champion, they are ranked nationally and they have a 4-0-1 record against top five teams in Class AAA.

“Of course, I am proud of my team but we all know that we haven’t really won anything yet,” Schneider said. “We focus on what is ahead and don’t pay much attention to rankings.”

But opponents must pay attention to the Panthers for they are playing particularly well this time of year. They wrapped up the regular season with a decisive victory, 6-1, against Central Catholic, which is seeded No. 3 in the tournament.

In beating the Vikings, Doug Hapeman, Joel Hart, Troye Kiernan, Joseph Bell, Danniel Quiroga and Robbie Mertz racked up the goals. Hart registered two assists. Garrett Blake and Bell also garnered assists.

Only five days prior, the Panthers placed a punctuation mark on their section championship. USC knocked off Peters Township by a similar score. In between those 6-1 triumphs, the Panthers posted a 9-1 win over Ambridge to finish 11-0-1 in Section 5 and blanked Cardinal Mooney from Ohio, 7-0, for their 10th shutout.

Canon-McMillan owns the only blemish on USC’s record. The Big Macs tied the Panthers, 1-1. In that fifth game of the season back on Sept. 10, Mertz scored the equalizer.

“We have been playing well lately,” admitted Schneider. “That’s a result of working hard and having a talented group of players.”

In Hart, USC possesses one of the most talented strikers in the league. The senior spearheads the offensive attack, which has produced 93 goals so far this fall. Hart has pumped in 30 tallies. Plus, he has pitched in eight assists.

Kiernan follows with 12 goals and three assists. Adam Heil and Ball have supplied eight and seven scores while Mertz leads the team with 19 assists. Seniors Dam Dudley and Dom Caruso along with junior Shane Sibley are USC’s other productive forwards.

Defensively, USC has surrendered only 10 goals this season. Juniors Hapeman, Blake Garrett and Hayden Bernhardt along with Anthony Pezzone, Sam Russel and Matt McKenzie anchor the unit along with goalkeeper Will Petley. Senior Frank Cherup is another strong defender as is junior JP Schrott while USC employs a freshman, Mac Dominick, as its other goalie.

Seniors Spencer Davis and Pat Miller along with junior Zach Cherup and sophomores Adam Heil and Quiroga sure up the midfield with Kiernan and Mertz.

“We are successful because we are a well-balanced team that has skill, speed and athleticism and we have great depth from our subs,” said Schneider. “We can play at a high level for 80 minutes and more.”

Often that is required in the postseason as many games are decided in overtime; some even by shootout. Hence, USC may benefit from the first-round bye.

“A first-round bye is neither good nor bad,” said Schneider. “You get a second round game at home and you get to rest some injured players.”

After a nine-day layoff, USC is more than rested and the Panthers are prepared to pounce on the competition. Their track record bears out the fact that as the season is long, so is USC’s progress.

“We try to get better as the season goes on,” Schneider said. “We know that it really starts now.”

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