For the past two seasons, the Upper St. Clair Panthers have enjoyed the services of Dakota Conwell from his position at linebacker. Last year, #23's role expanded, and he also assumed the position at the helm of USC's offense, split mostly between the I- and single-wing formations.
Conwell posted 2,001 yards of offense (1,085 rushing, 916 passing) and accounted for 23 total touchdowns (16 rushing, seven passing) as a junior, directing a USC offense which averaged 299.8 yards (216.5 rush, 83.3 pass) and 24.4 points per game. He posted three 100+-yard passing performances and four 100+-yard rushing performances last year. Defensively, Conwell added 64 tackles, 3.5 sacks, an interception, two deflected passes and a fumble recovery, averaging 5.8 tackles per game.
"Dakota's a good leader by example, his actions (on and off the field) and also vocally," Render said. "I think the kids respect him for those things as well as the fact that he's been a starter for us since he came up to the varsity level.
"He's our quarterback on offense and a primetime linebacker on defense," Render continued. "He's a dominating athlete under the lights on Friday nights - I know that." While Upper St. Clair is a AAAA program, it is on the smaller end of the AAAA schools in the WPIAL. Thus, the Panthers have to use some players both on offense and defense - and Conwell is one of them.
"He's one of the best two-way athletes I've had in the last decade," Render said. "We had several two-way athletes on our last state championship team (in 2006), including his brother, Dane."
Render noted Dakota is always working hard and trying to make himself better, and his work ethic is one which could best be described as second-to-none.
"He's always been a very hard worker - he has a private trainer who he was introduced to through Sean Lee (a former USC & Penn State linebacker now with the Dallas Cowboys) who works with him on his strength, core and speed three times per week," Render said. "Then, he's working with me on being a better quarterback - a lot. Dakota does something in preparation seven days a week.
"I hope he continues to rise," Render continued. "Dakota was a dominating athlete for us last season, and if he continues working hard, he's going to be a great player and very dominant for us."
Render said it is a very accurate statement that Conwell excels no matter which stage he is front and center on, including the basketball court.
"Our basketball team beat eventual AAAA state runner-up Mt. Lebanon at their place and Dakota drained five three-point field goals in that game," Render said. "He's a great all-around athlete."
Upper St. Clair went 8-3 last season, achieving a second-place finish in the Great Southern Conference and reached the WPIAL AAAA quarterfinals opposite North Hills. In fact, the Panthers haven't won a conference title in football since 2006, and Mt. Lebanon stole away the conference crown last season with a late touchdown in a narrow 14-10 victory over USC. "It is time (to win a conference crown)," Render said.
And with a core of athletes including Conwell and Northwestern-bound TE Jack Schwaba and OL Ian Park, among others returning to the Panthers for the 2011 season, Render said it is not out of the question to consider talking about a possible trip to Heinz Field for the WPIAL championship game.
"A trip to Heinz Field is always one of our goals at USC," Render said. "We have enough athletes coming back that we could be in a position to have a run like that. It takes a lot of talent and a little luck to be playing in that 13th game of the season."
When PantherDigest.com first reported Conwell had committed to Pitt, some Panther fans may have been incensed by Render's comment that he could have made a case for his athlete to wait until after his senior season to make a college choice.
"I'm not anti-Pitt," Render said. "Dave Wannstedt was a good friend of mine, and there was a lot of fall-out from his firing which disappointed me, because like I said, Dave is a good friend, but I'm not anti-Pitt. The biggest thing is this: If Dakota's happy, then I'm happy. I said the same thing with Jack (Schwaba) and Ian (Park). If they're happy, then, as their coach, I'm happy, too."