East/South Xtra: Playing for keeps from the get-go
Woodland Hills' Harry Randall returns as a starting defensive back and kick/punt return man for the Wolverines.
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A conference showdown.
The third-ranked team in WPIAL Class AAAA vs. the fifth-ranked team.
Unfortunately it's not Oct. 26, the last Friday night of the regular season, and there are no playoff implications on the line.
It's only Week 1.
Welcome to the newly formed Southeastern Conference.
When the WPIAL molded Class AAAA into three conferences of nine teams each, Woodland Hills, Upper St. Clair, Mt. Lebanon and Penn Hills were among those schools placed into what arguably could be the strongest conference in the league's largest classification.
And to make matters worse, the usual non-conference openers, the games coaches use to prepare their teams for the rigors of conference play, were eliminated and teams were forced to open the season jumping right into the fire of all-games-count competition.
Perhaps no two schools open the season with more difficult tests Friday night than Upper St. Clair and Woodland Hills. Upper St. Clair, ranked No. 3 in Class AAAA by the Post-Gazette, and Woodland Hills, ranked No. 5, open Southeastern Conference play at 7:30 p.m. at Upper St. Clair.
"It's not an ideal situation," said Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render, entering his 44th year on the sidelines. "I can't imagine anybody wanting to open with a conference game. You'd like to have a good opening test before you open conference play.
"The last few years we had four non-conference games in our particular conference before we got into conference play. That's a drastic change to go from four to none."
Woodland Hills coach George Novak isn't all that thrilled to be opening with a difficult conference opponent either.
"It's always big to win the opener," he said. "Over the years we've played some pretty tough openers. This could be one of the toughest we've ever played."
Woodland Hills has gone far and wide searching for tough opening opponents, playing teams from Florida, Ohio and Texas three of the past four years to kick off its season. The Wolverines have dropped five of their past six season-openers, beating Thomas Jefferson, 31-7, in the first game last year to end a five-game losing streak in openers.
"I don't think any coach thinks his team is ready for the first game," said Novak, starting his 35th season as coach. "We're as ready as we're going to be."
The Wolverines are coming off a 6-4 season, losing to Mt. Lebanon in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs, 28-21. Returning to anchor the team are all-conference defensive lineman Jawan Turner (6-0, 240) and all-conference linebacker Alex Beasley (6-0, 230). The senior pair also play on offense, with Turner on the line and Beasley in the backfield.
"We've approached camp differently for several reasons," Novak said. "We lost some pretty good kids in a number of positions, especially along the offensive and defensive lines.
"Beasley and Turner, they are the two leaders on the team."
Upper St. Clair has been strong in recent years right out of the starting blocks. The Panthers, who finished 11-2 last season including a 28-21 overtime loss to North Allegheny in the WPIAL final, have not lost a season-opener since 1998, a streak of 13 consecutive first-game victories.
"Everybody wants to get off on the right foot," Render said. "This year it's a little added dimension in that it's a conference game. I don't know if we've ever played a conference game in the opener. And to play someone of Woodland Hills' caliber, that's huge."
Leading the way for Upper St. Clair will be quarterback Pete Coughlin, a 5-9, 155-pound senior who was a starting cornerback last season until quarterback Dakota Conwell was injured in the WPIAL quarterfinals. Coughlin stepped in and led the Panthers to a 28-14 upset victory against top-ranked Central Catholic in the semifinals.
"He's definitely a big threat," Novak said. "He's one of the biggest offensive weapons they have coming back. We have to contain him."
Friday's matchup will mark just the fourth time the two teams have played since 1992, all previous games in the postseason. The most recent time Upper St. Clair played Woodland Hills, in 2005, the Wolverines won, 28-15, in a Class AAAA quarterfinal at North Allegheny.
"It's a monumental task opening against Woodland Hills," Render said. "They do a great job and they always have great athletes. I don't know if you can get a tougher opener."
• Game: Upper St. Clair vs. Woodland Hills.
• When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.
• Where: Upper St. Clair.
• Skinny: Conference opener for two highly ranked WPIAL Class AAAA teams.