UPPER ST. CLAIR – Mike Junko coaches football in much the same way he approaches life.
“Live each day as it comes and make it the best it can be,” said Junko. “That’s my philosophy. It will take you places.
“In football, if you try to count wins and losses, you are playing a dangerous game. But, if we take the day we are given and make it the best one we have, then the byproduct will be wins along the way.”
Since becoming Upper St. Clair’s head coach, Junko has been making the most of his days. He’s done the little things to assure the Panthers continue the traditions established by Jim Render. The legendary Hall of Fame coach retired in January after amassing 406 victories, five WPIAL titles and two state championships.
“That aspect of following a legend and trying to fill his shoes really hasn’t been something I haven’t had time to think about it because it has been so busy,” said Junko, who played for Render in the early 1990s.
Junko said that not a day went by without making a decision regarding the program. There have been 7-on-7 competitions, boosters meetings and workouts in the weight room to attend. Plus, there was the matter of putting together a coaching staff and welcoming new players to the program.
“Basically, we’ve been wrapped up in what we need to do to put a great product on the field.
While Junko puts his touch on the program by “doing things a little different than in the past,” he will not deviate too much from tradition. The Panthers expect to have a balanced attack but they don’t plan on being predictable. They should have the ability to run the ball when they want to and throw the ball when necessary.
“We want to have the ability to be multiple and do the things that will help us win, but we cannot lose our physicality. That is our identity,” Junko stressed. “One of the things we do not want to lose is our reputation as a physical football team. When people played us, they knew that USC would be physical. We don’t want to lose that element because that has been so good to our program.”
Junko has challenges in that regard, particularly on defense as the Panthers return only two starters from a unit that allowed 18.6 points per game and compiled an 8-3 record. The veterans, however, are good ones. David Pantelis commands the secondary while Brandon Shearer anchors the group from his middle linebacker position. While Pantelis led the team in interceptions, Shearer led USC in tackles.
“Brandon plays the game like we used to play. He’s a throwback kid. He’s physical on the field and a leader in the locker room,” Junko said.
“David started last year and played alongside his brother,” Junko noted of Chris Pantelis, who is now playing at Johns Hopkins. “David always looked to his big brother to see if he was lined up right and doing what he was supposed to do. This year though he is showing a maturity that is very positive. He leads by example and has grown a lot. He has been one of the players that has embraced our new system and has helped get others on board. He’s all in.”
Ethan Hiester, Jaden Keating, Ben Lund, Mateo Cepullio and Ethan Dahlem each are playing in the secondary while Will Phillips, Joe Lackner and Luke Banbury give the Panthers athleticism and physicality at the linebacker slots. Brandon Coe, Danny Harkleroad, Roman Murgi and Brian McCombs combine forces up front.
“I like the potential of our defensive line,” Junko said. “My concern on defense is that we have a tradition of being able to stop the run. So that is our first priority. We need to emphasize that. Be stout against the run and build off that.”
The Panthers need to gain experience on offense. They are rebuilding their line and formulating a new backfield that includes a new quarterback. Leading rushers Antonio Orsini (1,043 yards) and Colin McLinden (375 all-purpose yards) as well as top passer Jason Sweeney (1,553 yards) graduated.
Dahlem, who plays point guard for the basketball team, looks to direct the offense. Heath Erdos, Jamie Smith and Nick Carrick give USC depth at quarterback.
“Heath has a strong arm and good instincts,” Junko said. “Ethan is a fierce competitor. A very athletic and tenacious young man. He’ll make things happen.”
Keating, Banbury and Heister will make things happen on the ground.
“Jaden is a quick runner who brings ability to the position while Luke is a downhill runner and hard to tackle,” Junko said. “Ethan has great speed. It’s nice to have available three running backs that have unique styles.”
Pantelis has a flair for receptions. He and his brother, Chris, were USC’s top receivers last season. Pantelis had 38 receptions. The Panthers have plenty of options at wide receiver with Lackner likely starting alongside Pantelis and Cepullio, Ryan Junko and Ryan McKeever.
Only Murgi returns on the offensive line. The center looks to anchor the unit that includes Wilson Henderson and McCombs at the guard slots. USC also can select from Tim Pollock, Connor Schmidt and Joe Holk to fill the other positions.
“Finding the right pieces to match what we are trying to do on offense is the key for our offensive line. We believe we have the pieces. It’s just finding the right fit,” Junko said.
Junko believes USC’s future success will be much like its past. He is dedicated to preserving the history but he is also carving out a new path for the Panthers. Because he was associated with the program as a player, Junko believes that is one of the reasons he was hired.
“We want to keep the connection and we want these players to know about the program. We want to honor the past not run away from it. But, we also want to embrace the future.”