WPIAL title contenders USC, Woodland Hills set for marquee matchup
For the first time in a couple decades, the team with the winningest coach will visit the stadium with the most mystique.
Upper St. Clair and Woodland Hills have met in recent years, including twice last season, but not since 1987 has USC entered the Wolvarena in Turtle Creek. It's a marquee setting for two WPIAL title contenders.
“That place was a trip,” said USC coach Jim Render, describing the scene when his Panthers last visited.
Built in 1942, the stadium has seen great games. But just like with last year's season opener at USC, both coaches wish this Quad Central heavyweight matchup came later on the schedule.
“We're still not thrilled (to have USC in Week 1),” Woodland Hills coach George Novak said. “It's a big game to start the season. I think we're pretty even teams.”
“It will be a very difficult opener,” said Render, who leads WPIAL coaches with 364 victories.
Upper St. Clair won last year's regular-season opener, 31-12. Woodland Hills won the rematch in the WPIAL semifinals, 42-20. There's always a chance the two could play twice this season as well, with Woodland Hills ranked No. 3 and Upper St. Clair at No. 4.
In some ways, the teams are similar. Both have strong defenses and first-year starting quarterbacks. But USC has more seniors than Woodland Hills, which likely has more Division I recruits.
“This will show where you are now (as a team),” Novak said. “When I look at their starting defensive unit, they have all seniors and one junior. Offensively, it's the same way. We're a mixture of seniors, juniors and sophomores.”
USC senior Joe Repischak takes over for Pete Coughlin, the team's leading passer and rusher who graduated. Woodland Hills has two quarterbacks: sophomore Jeremiah Jones and senior Harry Randall, who missed much of last season with a knee injury.
Also in Woodland Hills' backfield will be sophomore Miles Sanders, who led the Wolverines last season with 641 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Randall was second with 307 yards on just 28 carries.
USC could use four running backs, led by seniors Steve Mackowick and Mac Pope, who combined for more than 900 yards a season ago.
Three rushing touchdowns by USC's Coughlin in the fourth quarter decided the opener last season. Turnovers helped determine the semifinal winner when Woodland Hills built a dominant 21-0 lead.
“You can't give them the ball,” Render said. “They don't need gifts.”
With many of their recent matchups coming in the later rounds of the playoffs, a neutral site typically has played host. When the WPIAL shrunk Class AAAA to three conferences last season, the two schools were grouped together.
USC's most recent trip to the 71-year-old Wolvarena (formerly Turtle Creek Stadium) was during Woodland Hills' first months as a school, having just merged students from a dozen communities. The teams met in a first-round playoff game that Woodland Hills won.
From the beginning, the Wolvarena has provided a home-field advantage. In the 26 seasons since 1987, no Class AAAA programs have found more success than USC and Woodland Hills. One of the two has reached the WPIAL championship game in 20 of the past 26 seasons. Woodland Hills was there last year, USC in 2011.
They've each won five WPIAL titles since 1987. A victory Friday night could push one team toward winning a sixth.
“We've played each other a number of times over those years, and Coach Render and I have become friends,” Novak said. “Just watching him and his program, I consider him to be the best coach in the WPIAL. So going up against him is tough.”
Both defenses will be strong as usual. Woodland Hills has a talented secondary that includes Randall and senior Travon Mathis.
The Wolverines allowed only 189 points in 14 games last season but must replace a few important players.
“They've got a good program and good kids,” Render said. “George knows what he's doing.”
USC returns nine defensive starters from a lineup that allowed 120 points in 12 games. The Panthers also regain defensive end Rori Blair, a Pitt recruit who missed last season after a stroke.
“Watching their scrimmages, they're a very, very solid defensive unit,” said Novak, who also praised Repischak and J.J. Conn at linebacker, and safety Morgan Lee, all seniors.
With a senior-heavy roster, the stadium setting shouldn't influence them, Render said.
Besides, USC's junior varsity played at the Wolvarena last year, so much of this roster already has visited the 12,500-seat stadium that has been home to many future NFL players.
“We've got kids who have been in big games,” Render said. “They know how to compete.”