USC tackles Woodland Hills

Published Nov 12, 2013 at 12:44 pm (Updated Nov 12, 2013 at 12:44 pm)

The highway to Heinz Field is pocked with potential pitfalls. Just ask the Upper St. Clair football team.

For after dispatching the three-time WPIAL Quad-A champion, North Allegheny, 41-23, the Panthers advanced to their third straight semifinal. Upper St. Clair (11-0) tackles Woodland Hills (9-2) at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15 at Baldwin stadium.

“Our message to the players is that this is a tough tournament,” said USC head coach Jim Render. “There is no easy path (to the championship). You are going to face a good team every week.”

USC’s opponent this week is a familiar one. The Panthers opened the 2013 season with a 16-10 triumph over Woodland Hills on their way to an undefeated conference championship. The Wolverines are also the same squad that handed the Panthers a devastating defeat, 42-20, in the 2012 semifinal also at Baldwin.

“We are in the same position at the same stadium against the same opponent as last year but we are looking for better results,” Render said. “We got behind early. A 21-point deficit in the first quarter,” Render recalled. “Anything better than that will be a positive.”

In its quarterfinal contest last week against NA, USC’s start was anything but positive. Not only did the defense surrender 23 points after only allowing 30 total during the regular season, it permitted the Tigers 70 yards in six plays on their opening drive. NA scored when Pitt recruit Elijah Zeise hauled in a 5-yard TD reception from Cage Galupi. Even though USC trailed, 17-13, and 23-20, the Panthers prevailed, thanks in part to defense as well as the play of Joe Repischak.

Repischak racked up 300 yards of offense. The senior signal caller, who also starts at linebacker, completed 11 of 14 aerials for 256 yards. He tossed second-half TD passes of 76 and 31 yards to Ben Southorn and Dustin Hess. Repischak also rushed for two scores of 3 and 2 yards.

Jesse Slinger blocked a punt and Andrew Bartusiak pounced on it in the end zone for USC’s final score. A linebacker and punter as well, Slinger finished with four tackles as did J.J. Conn. Kyle Page (6), Stephen Mackowick (5) and Zach Morris (5) led the defense. Morris, Page and Robert Plummer all had sacks while Morgan Lee and Southorn had interceptions.

Defense will play a pivotal role if USC is to be successful against Woodland Hills. The Wolverines, who finished runner-up to the Panthers in the Southeastern Conferene, defeated Seneca Valley, 28-14, in their quarterfinal playoff. Quarterback Harry Randall rallied the Wolverines to victory. Randall rolled up 172 yards on the ground. He scored touchdowns on runs of 54 and 2 yards.

“Randall requires a lot of attention,” said Render. “Each of our defenders has got to be in position and has to do his assignment. Randall can start one way and come back another. That’s how he was able to run so much (against Seneca Valley).

“You can’t chase him. You have to be disciplined on defense to stop him. Most of the time, we are.”

While the Panthers missed some assignments that enabled NA to score on passes, Slinger assures USC will be ready for Woodland Hills.

“If we come out swinging and come out like we have all year, then we will win the game. No question,” he said. “We have to splay smart and get more settled on defense. Play our game. Every player has to play the way they’re supposed.”

Render assured, “Our coaches will have them lined up and ready to play.

Randall is not USC’s only concern. While Woodland Hills has a competent secondary—the Wolverines turned two picks by Donte Broadus and Jahid Brown into 55- and 100-yard touchdowns—Miles Sanders is a 1,000-yard rusher, who sat out the victory due to an injury.

“(Woodland Hills),” said Render, “has a couple of other running backs that are good. Their best running back was out.”

USC’s best running back sat out all of the second half against NA due to an injury to his left leg. The Panthers are “hopeful” that Trevor Morrow will return to the line-up against Woodland Hills.

The senior tailback rushed for a 14-yard TD against the Tigers. He left the game in the second quarter after racking up 60 yards on nine carries. Morrow leads USC with 1,069 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns for a team-high 72 points.

USC is also “cautiously optimistic” that Mac Pope may return to action. The senior started at fullback and defensive end before suffering a knee injury against Mt. Lebanon. “He makes good progress every day,” said Render regarding Pope’s recovery.

On reason why the Panthers have rolled to victories in all 11 of their contests is because of their ability to find capable replacements when injuries have arisen. Sophomore Brandon Ford has plugged a hole on the line when David Dougherty hurt a knee earlier in the regular season. Marcus Galie had a strong performance against NA, with a team-high 63 yards rushing on six carries. Mackowick and Bartusiak also adds depth in the backfield.

“Definitely,” Slinger said. “We are a team and we play together. Not one individual person shines. When one goes down, the others step in and step up.

“We play our hearts out,” Slinger continued. “We may not be deep in talent but we are deep in heart.”

Render concurred. “They have a lot of heart and experience. In the past two years, this group has experienced the heartbreak of overtime at Heinz Field,” he said referring to a 28-21 loss to NA in the 2011 WPIAL championship. “Then there was last year’s semifinal loss. It’s an experienced group. We have kids who know how to step up and get it done.”

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