Upper St. Clair faces similar challenge as past North Allegheny teams
The WPIAL football season isn't like climbing a mountain, it's more like climbing that same mountain twice.
“After you climb it and go 9-0, they tell you to go back down and do it again,” said Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render, whose No. 1-seeded Panthers continue their second climb in Friday's quarterfinals.
It takes four games to win a WPIAL title, and then three more to climb the PIAA bracket. USC's most recent title-winning trip was in 2006, when the Panthers went 16-0 and won WPIAL and PIAA titles.
But it's a route Render knows well.
“They're all big games,” Render said. “This is a one-and-done tournament. It can be done, but it's a challenge.”
USC's next opponent knows that well.
No. 9 North Allegheny (5-4) won the past three WPIAL Class AAAA championships along with PIAA titles in 2012 and 2010. The Tigers haven't lost a WPIAL playoff game since 2009.
The postseason pedigrees of these two programs adds flavor to this No. 1 vs. No. 9 matchup. So, too, does their well-established rivalry.
Despite being in different conferences, this will be the 13th time Upper St. Clair and North Allegheny have met since 2002. NA has won the past three, including a 28-21 victory in the 2011 WPIAL championship. But USC has won eight of the past 12.
The rivals meet at Baldwin.
“They're still the defending champs,” Render said.
But roles have reversed since their matchup two years ago at Heinz Field, when North Allegheny was the WPIAL's No. 1 seed. This time, it's Upper St. Clair who's the favorite.
“They're the No. 1 team in the state, the No. 1 team in our tournament, and we're not,” NA coach Art Walker said. “We don't have that pressure on us.”
Led by an experienced defense that starts 10 seniors and one junior, USC has allowed just 43 points in its first 10 games with six shutouts.
Inside linebacker Kyle Page (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) leads with 73 tackles and 3 1⁄2 sacks. The other linebackers are J.J. Conn (6-3, 190), Joe Repischak (6-3, 190) and junior Jesse Slinger (6-1, 175), who has 48 tackles.
The line includes Pitt recruit Rori Blair (6-3, 225), Ben Huss (6-3, 275), Robert Plummer (6-0, 225) and Zack Morris (6-0, 280). Huss has 41 tackles and four sacks.
Morgan Lee, who has 46 tackles, leads a secondary that includes Stephen Mackowick and Ben Southorn.
“As a unit, they've played really well,” Render said. “They've all had big plays. They've all had their moments.”
The offense has relied on senior tailback Trevor Morrow, who has rushed for 852 yards and 11 touchdowns. Fullback Mac Pope has 300 yards and nine touchdowns. Repischak has passed for 936 yards and four touchdowns.
Since a 16-10 victory over Woodland Hills in Week 1, USC has scored at least 28 points every week. USC averages 38 points and beat Kiski Area, 44-13, in last week's first-round matchup.
“They play smart on offense because the defense is so strong,” Walker said. “They play field position, punt the ball when they have to, and hang their hat on a very stout defense. That's a good decision.”
It's much like the formula North Allegheny used to win its 2010 titles.
Graduation ended NA's run atop the Quad North, but injuries also played a part. Now relatively healthy, the Tigers beat rival North Hills, 31-0, and No. 8 seed Bethel Park, 28-0, in the past two weeks.
But NA will be without quarterback Jeff Clemens, who tore an ACL in Week 9. Senior Cage Galupi led NA to its past two victories.
The team's biggest threat has been senior wideout Elijah Zeise, a Pitt recruit who has 42 catches, 831 yards and eight touchdowns.
Senior tailback Isaac Weaver leads North Allegheny's running back committee with 467 rushing yards, just ahead of teammates Sean Idowu (315) and Josh Bergman (303), who both recently returned from injuries.
Weaver had 120 yards and three touchdowns on six carries last week.
“We were beat up from Week 2 on,” Walker said. “As soon as we got somebody back, we lost somebody else. We're finally getting some consistency.”
In the past decade, five of the 10 WPIAL Class AAAA titles were won by No. 1 seeds. That list includes North Allegheny in 2012 and 2011, and Central Catholic in 2007 and 2004.
However, No. 1-seeded Central Catholic teams fell short in 2010 and 2005, along with top-seeded Gateway teams in 2009, 2008 and 2003.
“You have a target,” Walker said, “and everybody's gunning for you.”
But Upper St. Clair has welcomed its first No. 1 seed since 2006.
“I don't think there's any added pressure,” Render said. “There are a lot of good teams still playing. I've always said, if you're looking for an easy way to Heinz Field, you're in the wrong tournament.”