As defending WPIAL champions, the Upper St. Clair boys soccer team has a target on its back, with opposing teams shooting to knock off a team that was not only the best in Class AAA last season, but already ranks as one of the best this season.
While this added pressure would be newfound to a lot of teams in Upper St. Clair's position, it's really not the case for a Panthers team accustomed to playing the favorite's role.
"To be honest, even if we weren't the defending champions, year in and year out it seems like the team that plays us, it's one of their big games," Panthers coach Uwe Schneider said. "All of the games are pretty hard for us to be in. We always have to make sure we're ready to play. If we don't, we're going to be in trouble."
So far this season, trouble has been averted. The Panthers were 5-0 (3-0 in Section 5) going into Thursday night's section clash against Moon. The Panthers, who are ranked No. 1 in Class AAA, had outscored their opponents, 19-1, through five matches.
Schneider's team brought back a lot of experience, with seven starters returning from last season's PIAA finalist (the Panthers lost to Conestoga, 1-0, in the championship match). Of the starters back, two are forwards, one is a midfielder, three are defenders and one is the goalkeeper.
It's that goalkeeper who is leading the way. Senior Joe Conlon is in his second year as a starter and is coming off a junior season in which he posted shutouts in 13 of the Panthers' 20 wins. Schneider said Conlon continues to be outstanding, and shined brightly in the Panthers' toughest battle to date, a 2-1 triumph against Canon-McMillan last week.
"I think my goalkeeper, Joe Conlon, has been phenomenal," said Schneider. "Against Canon-Mac, he stopped a breakaway and a penalty kick. He's been very solid."
Conlon has an experienced defense in front of him, but Schneider said that group is still a work in progress. Senior center back Wes Burdette is one of the team captains and leads a unit that typically keeps the quality chances of its opponents to a minimum. Burdette has been on the varsity squad since he was a freshman.
Joining Burdette in the back is senior Jon Erdman and sophomore Garrett Blake. Junior Pat Miller, who can also play in the midfield, has provided some strong play off the bench.
Senior Kevin Muck is the Panthers' top midfielder. Sophomore Doug Hapeman has been one of the top reserves.
The forward position is one of the team's strengths. Senior captain Ethan Dysert is joined by junior Troye Kiernan. Senior John Gurtanca is another threat up front.
As is typically the case, the Panthers don't rely on one or two players to do the bulk of the scoring, with many players contributing in that area. Through four games, Kiernan led the team with four goals, two coming in a win at Brashear.
"It's always been that way," Schneider said. "We don't often have [a big scorer]."
The Panthers had a pair of tough tests last week with games against Canon-McMillan and Bethel Park, teams that entered those contests undefeated. After the win against the Big Macs in which Gurtanca and sophomore Robbie Mertz scored for the Panthers, Kiernan and junior Joel Hart netted goals to lead their team to a 2-0 victory Saturday against the Black Hawks.
Schneider said the Panthers were fortunate to come away with the victory against Canon-McMillan, but added that they played much better against Bethel Park.
"Overall, I'm happy with the wins, but some of them have been pretty close," Schneider said. "There are some things we have to iron out. It's very early and we still have a lot of work to do."
They Panthers will face a huge challenge Saturday when they hit the road to take on Peters Township. The Panthers beat the Indians, 2-1, in the WPIAL championship match last November.
It will be another test for an Upper St. Clair squad used to being a "hunted" team.