Central Catholic coach Terry Totten and his team thought they had a pretty good idea of Upper St. Clair's strength.
"We had a good week of practice and we assessed Upper St. Clair as a very good football team," Totten said, "but not someone who could do this to us."
"This" was like no WPIAL playoff game in the history of Central Catholic.
Upper St. Clair pounded Central Catholic, 38-0, in a WPIAL Class AAAA quarterfinal game Friday night at Baldwin High School. The Panthers were superb defensively and took advantage of four Central Catholic turnovers that led to scores.
But while Upper St. Clair's victory might not have been surprising -- the Panthers are the No. 3 seed in the playoffs -- the final score was somewhat shocking. Central Catholic has made the WPIAL playoffs 19 times since joining the league in the mid-1970s. This was the worst playoff loss the Vikings have suffered.
The previous largest margin of defeat for Central Catholic was a 36-0 loss against North Hills in 1987. That '87 North Hills team finished ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Today.
It got so bad against Upper St. Clair that the mercy rule went into effect in the fourth quarter. Under the rule, the clock runs continuously when a team gets ahead by 35 points or more in the second half.
"We're not 38 points better than them on most nights," said Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render, who has guided the Panthers to the semifinals for the 16th time in his 34 years.
The most recent time Central Catholic was shut out in a WPIAL playoff was 24 years ago. Coincidentally, Upper St. Clair was the opponent again -- and the Panthers defeated Central Catholic, 7-0, in the WPIAL title game at Three Rivers Stadium.
"I thought this might be a 13-10 or 10-7 game," Render said.
Upper St. Clair (10-1) held Central Catholic (8-3) to six first downs and 97 total yards. Central Catholic had 60 yards rushing and 37 passing. Junior halfback Luigi Lista-Brinza, Central Catholic's leading rusher, was held to 68 yards on 14 carries.
Upper St. Clair wasn't overwhelming on offense as the Panthers had 224 total yards. But the Panthers took full advantage of the four turnovers. Central Catholic quarterback J.J. Cosentino threw two interceptions and fumbled the ball away once. Central Catholic's Niko Thorpe also lost a fumble on Central Catholic's first possession.
The turnovers gave Upper St. Clair short fields, and the Panthers turned every turnover into points. After the turnovers, Upper St. Clair took over at the Central Catholic 30-, 9-, 11- and 43-yard lines. Central Catholic's Mitch MacZura also had a 39-yard field goal blocked near the end of the first half.
"Our defense played extremely well, but the turnovers were huge and we were able to capitalize," Render said. "We didn't have too many 70-yard drives.
Upper St. Clair quarterback Pete Coughlin completed 6 of 7 passes for 83 yards. He scored on a 7-yard touchdown run in the second quarter and threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to John Rutkowski in the third quarter.
"We worked on some things all week that we were not able to do offensively," Render said. "But they wanted to take Pete away on a lot of stuff."
Upper St. Clair also got two touchdowns from Mac Pope on runs of 5 and 4 yards. Steve Mackowick scored the other touchdown on a 5-yard run. Ben Stalnaker opened the scoring with a 22-yard field goal in the first quarter. Upper St. Clair led at halftime, 17-0, and held Central Catholic to 17 yards offense in the second half.
"This [Upper St. Clair] team is an enigma," Totten said. "I'm not so sure they're not pretty darn good."
Render is pretty sure he likes where his team is at this point of the season.
"They seem to be enjoying the journey," said Render, who is seeking his sixth WPIAL title. "I've had teams where you could sense that some of them were tired. Basketball season was starting. I've had teams where you just didn't see that oomph.
"These kids are having fun, and you have to have fun. You have to enjoy this process. It's long. The WPIAL tournament is not for the faint. ... Ol' Jim is having fun, too."
Especially Friday night.
For more on high school sports, go to Varsity Blog at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh. First Published November 10, 2012 5:15 AM