Though age 76, Jim Render remains hip with the younger generation. The Upper St. Clair football coach is so cool his players want to hang out with him.
“They bug me to have a cookout,” Render said a little dismayed but with a chuckle.
“These kids do a great job of keeping me young. They don’t care what medications I am on or what doctors I have. We don’t talk about that like other old people do. We talk football. I like that and I do like them.”
“We have a lot of players who I really like as individuals. There’s a good camaraderie between me and them and them among themselves. I can’t say that I have had that in all my time of coaching.”
And Render has been coaching a long time. While he started his career as a graduate assistant at West Virginia in 1968, Render enters his 40th season as head coach at USC.
The campaign ahead promises to be challenging, yet successful, because the Panthers graduated only 12 seniors from last year’s 8-4 squad that won the Allegheny Nine Conference and reached the semifinals in Class 5A of the WPIAL.
“This is a very good group. Lot of skill and camaraderie,” Render said of his returning veterans.
“We won the conference last year. So that is always our first objective. I like the conference but it’s a tough one. If we can mature as an offense and defense early in the year, I like our team. Until we become cohesive and we build the best 11, everything is in the potential category. I like our potential though.”
The Panthers have plenty of potential because they return 10 starters, including four-year veteran Colin McLinden. As a freshman, his first start was at outside linebacker against Central Catholic, which went on to win the 2015 WPIAL and PIAA titles.
“That was quite a baptism,” Render said of McLinden’s debut. “Here’s this great team and we start a freshman. But it’s paying off. With Colin, we have a lot of experience packed in there on both offense and defense.”
Last year, McLinden rushed for 859 yards and 11 TDs. He totaled 78 tackles, two interceptions and two sacks on defense.
“Colin is a very mature guy. He has very good speed and he is strong. His football intelligence is as high as his classroom intelligence,” Render said. “In everything, he conducts himself like a veteran.”
Jake Slinger is another veteran. The two-way tackle paves the path for McLinden as well as Antonio Orsini, another solid two-way player for the Panthers. A talented wrestler, Slinger will use some of those skills to his advantage in his line play.
“Jake has the most experience but his strong suit is defense,” said Render. “His wrestling really does help him, particularly when linemen get into one-on-one situations. When you are in pass protect, hand-to-hand combat is critical.”
Critical to the Panthers’ success will be the line play of James Diulliis. A fullback last year, he moves to offensive line, filling in as a center or guard. Quinn Murray, Jake Stevenson, Roman Murgi, Brian McCombs, Zach Falsetti, Jeremy Frank, Wilson Henderson and Danny Harkleroad, who moved from tight end to the line, will also play key roles up front.
“We are trying to build a line out of that group,” Render said. “I like the way they have worked. They all have gotten stronger and they are hungry for playing time.
“Is (our line) a team strength?” he asked. “Not at this point. But we like our prospects.”
While Chris Pantellis (28 catches and six scores in 2017) and his brother, David, are top receivers along with Jesse Fera, Jaden Keating, Mateo Cepullio and Joe Lackner, the Panthers are breaking in a new quarterback to replace Jack Hansberry, who threw for 1,590 yards and 11 scores and rushed for 686 yards and 11 more TDs.
Jason Sweeney takes control at quarterback. The 6-2, 190-pound senior played junior varsity but does not have a lot of “Friday night lights” experience. “He’s a good thrower,” Render said.
“We like the fact we have weapons in the skill positions and we have strong candidates up front. We also like that Sweeney has a live, active arm.”
The Panthers will be quite active on defense as they return seven starters.
Nate Ripley will join McLinden, Diulliis and Brandon Shearer, a junior, at the linebacker slots. Orsini moves into the secondary as a strong safety with the Pantellis brothers. Ethan Dahlem, Fera and Keating also will be factors in the secondary. Slinger, Frank and Harvey Rauch, who will play tight end on offense, all return to the line. Look for Murray to be “a huge factor” at end, says Render.
“Defense will be a strength,” Render said. “We think we have an opportunity to play faster because of our athletes and our experience. Our goal is to run to the ball with more speed and zest.”
While Render continues to exhibit zeal, he does have concerns regarding his team’s depth. Noting most of his players start on both sides of the ball he said, “we’d like to get a guy like McLinden off the field at some time and Pantellis can’t run 50 routes and then defend 50 passes all day.
“But, I’m excited about the season. I still have zest for coaching. I think it is important when you get to my age. You are excited when up get up in morning that you want to get something done.”