McCANDLESS TWP. - As Upper St. Clair quarterback Alex Park headed down the tunnel to the locker room after pre-game warm-ups on Friday night, he had to walk directly past a rather loud and rowdy North Allegheny student section.
He looked up, smiled, and nodded with composure.
After leading his Panthers to a 23-14 win in a hostile environment, Park walked off the field, still with a smile, but a little bit winded.
"Oh yeah, I'm tired," Park said with a laugh. "It was a great win."
Park's composure Friday night was undaunted. Known primarily for his arm, it was his legs that helped lead Upper St. Clair (3-0) to the victory. Park finished the game as the team's second leading rusher with 61 yards on 13 carries, scrambling in the pocket and converting six drive-saving first downs in the process.
"They were covering our receivers really well," Park said of his efforts. "I just saw it as an opportunity to get some yards."
"I think (Park) proved he can do a lot of things tonight," Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render said. "He's not just a passer. Of course, I knew he was capable of those things."
And while Upper St. Clair was running, North Allegheny (2-1) was fumbling.
The game got off to an auspicious start for the Tigers, as running back Alex Papson muffed the opening kickoff, setting Upper St. Clair up on the North Allegheny 18 yard line. Three plays later, and just 1:22 into the game, Upper St. Clair running back Jacob Siwicki plowed through on a 1-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead.
"What you want to do (at the start of the game) is establish some things and go down and score," North Allegheny coach Art Walker said afterward. "To give them the ball in our territory that quickly is not the kind of momentum that we wanted to start with."
It was the first of a total of six turnovers in the game for North Allegheny.
"It doesn't matter who you play. If you turn the ball over six times, you're not going to have a good opportunity to win the football game," Walker said. "And with a quality football team like (Upper St. Clair), there's almost not a shot. And yet, we did at times."
After the miserable start, however, North Allegheny bounced back, taking the next possession and marching 76-yards on 13 plays as quarterback Justin Brozick connected with Grant Huckestein on a 10-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 7-7.
Huckestein finished the game as the Tigers' leading rusher, with 85 yards on 11 carries and the one touchdown on the ground, despite suffering a knee injury which delayed his return to the field in the second half.
From there, Upper St. Clair kicker David Court completed the rest of the first half scoring, knocking two field goals of 32 and 25-yards respectively to give the Panthers a 13-7 lead at the break.
In the second half, the Panthers decided to pound the ball down the field, relying on backs Siwicki and Connor Scott, running on every single play of an 8-play, 53-yard drive, capped by an 8-yard touchdown run by Siwicki, giving Upper St. Clair a 20-7 lead midway through the third quarter.
"We felt that if we put hats on hats, as coaches say, that we'd be OK," Render said of the concerted running attack. "We were letting linebackers free (in the first half), but when we put hats on hats, we did pretty well."
Seemingly, all the momentum had swung to the visitor's sideline.
But North Allegheny wasn't done yet.
After being forced to punt on their next possession, Upper St. Clair's Montgomery Scott fumbled on the return. The loose ball was recovered by North Allegheny's Matt Zabierek, setting the Tigers up in prime field position. Three plays later, Huckestein ran around a wide-open left side on a quick handoff from Brozick and scampered 34-yards into the end zone.
It was 20-14, and the Tigers had life.
"We had some enthusiasm at that point," Walker said. "After it's all said and done, we made a ton of mistakes, but I can honestly say we showed character tonight. I'm proud of my kids."
That life, however, was only temporary.
Driving down the field late in the third quarter, it looked like North Allegheny was poised to retake control of the game. With a first down on the Panthers' 16 yard line, however, a bad snap exchange was recovered by Upper St. Clair, and the momentum was lost.
Similarly another promising drive by the Tigers in the fourth quarter was fumbled away by David Humphrey, as North Allegheny had just crossed midfield.
Upper St. Clair capitalized on the mistake as Court tacked on his third field goal of the night, a 22-yarder to round out the game's scoring.
"Court was on the money tonight," Render said of his kicker's efforts. "It's kind of funny because I got on him a little bit at practice this week about changing his steps and he proved me wrong. I'm happy for him."
North Allegheny had one final chance to make things interesting late in the game, only to turn the ball over for the sixth time, as Brozick had the ball knocked out of his hand deep in Panther territory. The fumble was recovered by Matt Doman, sealing the win.
The loss was a painful one for North Allegheny, which also lost its star back Papson in the game with a hip injury. While the severity of the injury isn't known yet, Walker said he's likely doubtful for next week's game.
Brozick, was 9-of-17 for 133 yards and a touchdown, but was sacked four times in the loss, twice by Doman.
Siwicki rushed 19 times for 79 yards and two touchdowns, while Scott had 57 yards on 10 carries, both in the win.
In addition to his running ability, Park finished 8-of-17 for 77 yards and walked off the field with that same smile plastered on his face as when he entered.
"Oh yeah, it definitely makes it sweeter to do it on their field," he said as he headed back down the tunnel.
PaPreps.com Producer Carla Swank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.