South Xtra: Upper St. Clair finishes at destination -- state champions

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True to its reputation, the Upper St. Clair boys soccer team reached the Class AAA PIAA finals Saturday at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey.

And true to form, the Panthers demolished District 3 champion Conestoga Valley, 4-0, earning the distinction of being the champion of the largest classification in Pennsylvania scholastic boys soccer for the second year in a row, capping a 23-1-1 season.

For the victorious players -- in particular the 11 graduating seniors -- the championship provided a glamorous and well-earned bookend to a wildly successful season. A four-hour drive back home from Hershey doesn't seem quite so long with a title in tow.

While they celebrated, coach Uwe Schneider, having just captured the fourth PIAA title in his 13-year tenure, found his focus already fixated upon capturing a fifth.

"I have to be honest, you get on the bus and I, personally, start thinking about, 'Who do we have coming back? Who do we have on JVs who might be able to make a contribution?'" he said. "I'm already thinking about next year."

That's not to say an established tradition of winning and a constant focus on what lies ahead diminished Schneider's appreciation of what his team accomplished.

Opening the season with a win against West Lawn Wilson, the team the Panthers defeated in the 2012 PIAA final, Upper St. Clair proceeded to run roughshod over WPIAL opposition, scoring on average about five goals-per-game, holding most opponents scoreless, and running up an undefeated mark heading into the WPIAL finals.

The Panthers sat in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America's national high school rankings, generally finding themselves in the top 10 most of the season before falling out of the rankings briefly after their WPIAL championship loss to Peters Township. They were ranked No. 20 at the end of last week.

Schneider puts an emphasis on keeping his team's mind collectively focused on the task at hand as a way to avoid getting too caught up in its own hype.

The rankings are there and, while he knows his players are aware of who they are and how they're perceived by opponents, he said the coaching staff doesn't give anyone the opportunity to be satisfied with in-season accolades.

"I'm sure it was in the back of the mind of some of the players. It's only natural nowadays that you know some of this, you look up the ranking," he said. "If you play into this as a coach, it could become a problem."

The loss to Peters Township in the WPIAL championship match ultimately served as a stern reminder that the Panthers hadn't won a thing yet, Schneider said. He said all season the focus remained fixated on "one day, one practice, one game at a time." The PIAA finals weren't discussed until the Panthers booked their trip to Hersheypark.

And when they did earn their spot in the finals, they took care of business in what Schneider called "a perfect match."

So while he keeps an eye trained on what lies ahead, it's because, as every high school coach knows, turnover is inevitable. There's always next year and the show must go on -- for those who will be around next year and those who won't.

The efforts of every outgoing class -- especially this year's -- has provided value that will be remembered well into the future.

A number of seniors have already made college commitments. Forward Joel Hart committed to American University earlier this year. More recently, midfielder Troye Kiernan committed to Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pa. Defenseman Pat Miller also has a college commitment lined up while fellow back line player Sam Russel is likely to do the same shortly.

Anthony Pezzone will also be playing a sport in college, but he plans to opt for baseball instead of soccer.

Six members of the senior class were regular starters, but all 11 saw playing time.

Each of 11 seniors played the final eight minutes of the PIAA final, which Schneider said was about as good of a send-off as he could imagine.

"The 11 seniors who are graduating ... will definitely be missed," he said. "All of them."

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