Hard-luck Panthers end football season
After Woodland Hills thwarted Upper St. Clair’s plans to participate in the WPIAL Quad-A football championship game at Heinz Field, Jim Render and 20 of his senior players, most of them starters, left Baldwin stadium last Friday night shaking their heads. They seriously questioned whether they would have rather been lucky than good because, for the second year in a row, the Panthers stumbled against the Wolverines, 28-21.
The Panthers had entered the semifinal showdown with their Southeastern Conference foe seeded No. 1 in the tournament. It was the first loss for USC, which had beaten Woodland Hills, 16-10, in the first game of the 2013 campaign. The Panthers finished the season with an 11-1 overall record.
“Our success was earned and that’s a tribute to these kids,” said Render, who completed his 35th season as head coach. “They certainly had no good fortune.”
Indeed, throughout the season, the Panthers lost one key starter after another due to injuries. In fact, their leading rusher, Trevor Morrow (1.097 yards, 17 TDs), and starting fullback/defensive end, Mac Pope, were so hampered by knee injuries that they saw limited action against the Wolverines. Phil Saracco, Ben Haus and Mike McGuire were among the starters who did not play because of injuries during the regular season.
“When you look at all the injuries and the effort, maybe we went as far as we could go,” said Render, who also had lost a key two-way lineman, David Dougherty, due to a knee injury back on Oct. 11. “We certainly did not have good luck.”
Though the Panthers scored on the opening kick-off, their woes began immediately after Morgan Lee’s 33-yard touchdown run. On its first offensive possession, Woodland Hills knotted the contest when Trevon Mathis gathered in an 80-yard scoring strike from Harry Randall. Randall completed only three of his 10 passes but for 118 yards.
After USC botched a punt attempt, Woodland Hills took advantage of the short field and Randall scored on a 4-yard run with 9:26 to play in the first half. Two minutes later, the Wolverines converted another fumble – this one on a snap exchange – into another score, a 1-yard plunge into the end zone by Miles Sanders. A 1,000-yard rusher, Sanders had not played since the end of the regular season due to an injury. He finished with 55 yards on 17 carries.
Mathis silenced the crowd and shocked the Panthers when he returned the second-half kickoff 96 yards.
While Render could not explain the little mistakes that added up to defeat, he said, “I wish I had an answer, but I know that we did not play our best game.”
Down 28-7, USC, however, waged a valiant comeback. Joe Repischak and Ben Southorn engineered the uprising.
Repischak, who also starts on defense at linebacker, completed 8 of 16 attempts for 169 yards in the game. For the season, he was 78 of 127 for 1,411 yards and seven scores.
After targeting Lee with a pass, Repischak and Southorn hooked up for a 29-yard score, narrowing the margin, 28-114. With 5:12 to go in the third quarter, Repischak capped another scoring drive that featured a reception by Orsini and the 1-2 rushing punch of Lee and Steve Mackowick.
After recovering a fumble, Southorn, who also had an interception in the game, hauled in a 42-yard pass from Repischak. The reception put the Panthers in position to tie the contest. After Mackowick moved the ball to the 2-yard line with his 8-yard rush, the Woodland Hills defense held the line. On a fourth down play, Daechaud Ausbrooks blitzed, putting the pressure on Repischak. Yet, the senior signal caller got a pass off with 2:35 to play. However, Mathis batted away the ball and USC’s chances to compete in the WPIAL championship.
Woodland Hills, the No. 4 seed with a 10-2 record, will face Central Catholic, a 49-10 winner against Penn-Trafford, in the Quad-A final set for 2 p.m. Nov. 23 at Heinz Field.
Meanwhile, USC handed in equipment Monday, the seniors said goodbye and the underclassmen commenced the rebuilding process.
USC graduates many starters, including: two-way lineman Rori Blair, a Pitt recruit; Ben Huss and Zach Morris, both Division I prospects; Robert Plummer, Joe Pateras, Dougherty and Pope.
In addition to Repischak, the linebacking corps will have many openings in 2014. Kyle Page led a defensive unit that recorded six shutouts and surrendered just 94 points. Page finished with 88 tackles. J.J. Conn and Lee were among the other top tacklers along with junior Jesse Slinger.
Other graduating seniors include: Saracco, Southorn, McGuire, Guiseppe Orsini, Mackowick, Morrow, Ben Haus, Terry McLinden and Dustin Hess.
The group compiled a 32-5 record. In addition to the two semifinal defeats, USC also lost twice to North Allegheny during the 2011 campaign, once in the WPIAL championship game as the Tigers went on to win the PIAA state title. USC’s other defeat came last year against Bethel Park.
“The seniors have meant a great deal to this program and they have had a tremendous run in high school,” Render said, citing their three conference championships.
While losing twice in a row in the semifinals was upsetting, Render doffed his cap to the Wolverines and their head coach, George Novak, who is making his 11th appearance in a WPIAL final. “Woodland Hills is an excellent opponent with excellent athletes,” Render said.