Upper St. Clair stands between Woodland Hills and finals berth

| Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, 12:06 a.m.

An 0-2 start has led to another splendid season for the Woodland Hills football team, which is facing a rematch with top-seeded and unbeaten Upper St. Clair in the WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals Friday night at Baldwin.

Upper St. Clair (11-0) prevailed, 16-10, in the regular-season opener, the first of two setbacks for fourth-seeded Woodland Hills (9-2).

“One thing about high school football, it's a challenge every year to coach your team,” Woodland Hills coach George Novak said. “Each year, it's a different team with different kids. You want to mold those kids into something special.

“Sometimes, early in the season, you're evaluating what you have to work with, and sometimes, you end up doing it more in games. Sometimes, you have to do that before you can really make decisions.”

Apparently, Novak made some good choices.

Eventually, his Wolverines picked up speed and haven't look back, winning nine consecutive games, including a pair in the playoffs against 13th-seeded Pine-Richland and fifth-seeded Seneca Valley, after starting off with losses to USC and at McKeesport, 33-20.

“I have a lot of respect for George Novak,” said USC coach Jim Render, the WPIAL's all-time leader with 375 victories. “He's is a remarkable coach, and the only coach they've had.”

The Woodland Hills School District was formed from a 1981 merger of the former Churchill, Edgewood, General Braddock, Swissvale and Turtle Creek districts.

Since 1988, Upper St. Clair (11) and Woodland Hills (9) have appeared in the WPIAL Class AAAA championship game a total of 20 times.

“That's interesting,” Render said, “and we're playing in the semifinals again, so one of us is going to go to the finals again. That speaks pretty good for both programs.”

It's a battle of titanic football programs and coaches to match. While Render is the all-time leader, Novak ranks fourth in the WPIAL in coaching victories with 277. And while Upper St. Clair and Render got the best of Woodland Hills and Novak earlier this year, the Wolverines' fought back to finish as runner-up to the Panthers in the Quad Central Conference.

Both teams were hopeful their workhorse running backs would return to the lineup from injuries.

Woodland Hills' Miles Sanders, who is averaging 9.9 yards per carry and has gained 1,016 yards rushing, has been sidelined throughout the playoffs with a high-ankle sprain. Upper St. Clair's Trevor Morrow (1,009 yards) missed a large portion of the Panthers' victory over North Allegheny with a leg injury.

The season-opening victory was a measure of revenge for Upper St. Clair after losing to Woodland Hills in the 2012 semifinals 42-20.

Though it is a long way back to that Aug. 30 opener, neither coach has forgotten the dogfight.

“They're very good, defensively; well-coached,” Novak said of Upper St. Clair. “They have one of the top defenses in the state.”

Indeed, Upper St. Clair is a stingy bunch, despite giving up a season-high in points during a 41-23 victory over ninth-seeded North Allegheny on Friday.

After giving up 10 points in the opener to Woodland Hills, the Panthers put up five consecutive shutouts and 6 of 7 before allowing just one touchdown in the regular-season finale against arch-rival Mt. Lebanon.

In all, through the WPIAL quarterfinals, Upper St. Clair has given up just 66 points in 11 games, or 6.0 points per game.

“Both of us are a little different than back in the beginning in what we do on offense and defense,” Novak said. “In fact, it's that way with all the teams now.”

Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dmackall@tribweb.com.

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