Upper St. Clair boys ready to begin title defense
Don't get Uwe Schneider wrong. The players the Upper St. Clair boys soccer coach lost from his team via graduation last year weren't easy to replace.
Joe Conlon, Wes Burdette, Ethan Dysert and Kevin Muck and the rest of last season's talented Panthers senior class are gone after having played in each of the past two WPIAL and PIAA Class AAA championship games.
They will be missed. But that doesn't mean that defending PIAA champion Upper St. Clair plans on being much worse for it during this coming season.
“We're going to go with pretty much the same formation, 4-3-3, as last year, and I think we were able to replace those guys that graduated and that were in the starting lineup,” said Schneider, who is in his 12th season as the Panthers' coach. “I don't think our style will change very much — if at all. And we might even have more speed on the team than last year.”
Depth was a strength of Upper St. Clair's last season. Just because players saw limited playing time doesn't mean they won't be solid contributors now that they aren't “blocked” at their position. Add some quality freshmen and two transfers who have fit in seamlessly, and these Panthers don't figure to fall very far from the ones that went 22-2-1, were the WPIAL runners-up and PIAA champions last year.
“The guys last year already got along really well, and they also quickly integrated all the young players and the two new players to the district,” Schneider said. “With this group, it's always been about the team; we don't really focus on a couple players or so. We want to make sure everybody can play and everybody is incorporating into the system in everything we do. I think we feel good about our team in that regard.”
The primary leadership mantle has been passed to senior midfielder Troye Kiernan, senior defender Sam Russell and junior midfielder Rob Mertz.
Senior Pat Miller makes for an experienced midfield lineup, juniors Hayden Bernhardt and Garrett Blake and senior Anthony Pezzone join Russell on a solid back-line corps, and junior Shane Sibley also figures to contribute.
Schneider projects that senior forward Joel Hart will have a productive offensive season — “He's really fast — and can finish with a great shot,” Schneider said.
Speedy Joseph Bell is a newcomer who also likely will be on the scoresheet often. Senior Will Petley has been groomed as the replacement to Conlon as the Panthers' goalkeeper.
“I like what we have, and I think we'll have a pretty good year,” Kiernan said. “We started with team camp about a month ago, and it's shown we've become very close together as a team, which goes a long way. We played South Park (undefeated in the regular season last year) the other day and moved the ball around really well.”
For a program that's played in three of the past four WPIAL title games and has a WPIAL and PIAA championship over the past two seasons, expectations are always high.
But the Panthers refuse to look too far ahead.
“Ultimately, of course, you want to win a state championship,” Kiernan said. “But there's a long road ahead. First, you work to get a section and then WPIAL and then, possibly, a state (championship).
“That'd be great, but we're just going to keep going hard, training everyday and take it one game at a time and not rush ourselves. If we just play soccer well and work hard, good things will happen.”
Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.