Jim Render, USCHS Football Coach -
The 1988 football season was my tenth year at Upper St. Clair. It was a year that would be life changing for me as a coach and for the football program at USC. We had some pretty good success in previous years, but we fell short of getting to the championship game at Three Rivers Stadium. I have lots of stories about playing in ankle deep mud and playing on frozen mud. Some good, some bad. We also had the misfortune of some strange calls by the WPIAL officials at the wrong time. On the other hand, we played some excellent opponents, including North Hills who won the mythical National Championship in 1987 as voted by USA Today. Comparatively, we’d won a lot of games, 52 in fact, between 1982 and 1987, but something would always happen before we got to the big dance.
In 1988, several changes were made before the season began. First, we were moved into the western division of AAAA football. That meant we would play (teams listed north to south) Butler, North Allegheny, North Hills, Mt. Lebanon, Bethel Park, and Ringgold. We would not see the likes of Gateway and Central Catholic until the playoffs. The second change would be that for the first time in Pennsylvania history, we would have state playoffs to crown a PIAA state champion. Our western conference league was very competitive, with many great teams and players. We had a good, tough team, but lost to Mt. Lebanon in the third game, got shut out by North Hills in the fifth, and had four turnovers in a Saturday afternoon game at North Allegheny, losing 26–15. We were tied with our tenth opponent, Butler, for fourth place in the conference and needed to beat them to earn the final spot in the WPIAL playoffs. So, in essence, we traveled to Butler knowing that we would either win or the season would be over. We won that game 14–0, qualifying for the tournament of champions.
I assumed my usual front seat onthe right side of the bus for the late night ride home from Butler. Many thoughts and emotions run through my mind and body on those bus rides home. First, there was the thrill of victory and then I started thinking about what lay ahead. Not very far into the ride home, our always optimistic and feisty quarterback Jerry Berteotti leaned over my seat and said, “Coach, this is going to be great! We got ’em just where we want ’em.”
Fortunately, the bus was dark and he could not see my expressions. I thought he was a little crazy. North Hills was still the defending champion, Mt. Lebanon had beaten us at home, Gateway was undefeated, and North Allegheny and Central Catholic were always looming in the playoff mix. I faked a “You’re right, Jerry,” response, since, as any successful coach knows, it’s always best to have a great quarterback on your side.
In week one of the playoffs, we played at Gateway and came away with a 21–0 victory. Jerry’s marvelous touchdown pass in the third quarter got us going. On that same night, Central Catholic upset North Hills and Mt. Lebanon pummeled Woodland Hills 41–0. That set up a rematch with Lebo in a semi-final game played at Baldwin. Mt. Lebanon was ranked sixth in the state with a 9–1–1 record. Jerry decided to do his talking on a bigger stage and was quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Everything is just flowing for us. I think that with the confidence we have right now there isn’t anyone that can beat us.” Joe Namath wasn’t the only western Pennsylvania quarterback that could make bold predictions.
Going into the game against Mt. Lebanon, Jerry had completed 49 of 98 pass attempts for 703 yards in 11 games; the Lebo quarterback, Matt Smith, the Almanac player of the year, completed 49 of 99 passes for 731 yards. Statistics don’t get much closer than that and a lot of interest was generated for the game between two neighboring towns playing each other for the second time and for the opportunity to play for a WPIAL championship. Current radio sports talk show host Mark Madden wrote an article in the Post-Gazette about the upcoming game, and he featured USC’s outstanding defensive lineman Jim Mansfield, the son of retired Steeler center, the great Ray Mansfield.
Quarterback Berteotti scored on an option play in the second quarter to give USC a 7–0 halftime lead. Leading 14–0 with 2:42 left in the third quarter, we got the ball back and maintained it for 21 straight snaps under Jerry’s management, the clock winding down to 1:50 remained in the game. Running backs Pete Habib and Mike Thelk pounded Mt. Lebanon’sdefense until we stalled at the two-yard line. We won the rushing battle 258 to 53 and our defense had its third straight shutout. I must admit, that game is firmly embedded in my memory bank of thrills. We were now going to Three Rivers Stadium to play for the WPIAL championship.
WTAE Channel 4 broadcast the game live Saturday night after Thanksgiving. Stan Savran and Jack Ham were the broadcast partners, along with Ann Devlin in the stands and Alby Oxenreiter on the sidelines. It was a big night for the Panthers as we secured another shutout, beating Pittsburgh Central Catholic 7–0 to claim our first outright WPIAL championship. Jerry was proven correct, we indeed “had ’em just where we wanted ’em.” As a side note, Central Catholic went on to win the first Pennsylvania state championship that year as our school district, along with a few others in the greater Pittsburgh area, had voted that September to not participate in the first state tournament. Also noteworthy was the fact that we began the 1989 season with four straight shutout victories, making it a total of eight in a row where our opponents were scoreless. Great memories!
Jerry was a three-year letter winner who combined for more than a thousand yards passing and rushing his senior year. He was voted an Almanac All-Star quarterback for the South Hills of Pittsburgh and was also honored as a scholar-athlete at the 15 th annual Al Abrams YMCA All Sports Banquet for both football and baseball. (To be selected and honored for this award, you must carry a grade point average of at least a 3.5.)
As is the case with many great high school athletes, Jerry excelled in more than one sport and had success in baseball as a batter and a catcher. He was relentless in his pursuit of honing his skills as a batter. His idea of free time was going to the batting cages for hourson end. Mark Madden covered a story in the Post-Gazette about Jerry’s intensity, when he wrote of the similarities between being a quarterback and catching on the baseball field. “Leadership has a lot to do with it, and you’re involved in every play at both positions.”
At the conclusion of Jerry’s senior season (1989), USC baseball coach Jerry Malarkey awarded his all-star catcher and leading slugger with a host of awards and honors: the team’s most valuable player, most RBIs in a season (31), most career RBIs (56), and highest career batting average (545) 1987 to 1989. The USC athletic department and its coaches voted Jerry as the outstanding senior athlete of the school year. His records remain intact as we approach the 30-year mark!
The University of Pittsburgh’s baseball coach, Bobby Lewis, was an Upper St. Clair resident who’d followed Jerry’s high school baseball career. Coach Lewis offered Jerry a scholarship to continue his education and play baseball at Pitt. After giving some thought to playing football and baseball at Cleveland’s John Carroll University, young Jerry opted to stay in Pittsburgh and go to Pitt. He became a three-year starter as a catcher and on some days as a designated hitter. He graduated as a top ten career leader in RBIs and doubles. He graduated in 1993 with a dual major in business and communications. I knew of Jerry’s communications skills long before Pitt awarded him a degree.
For the next year, Jerry worked with a personal friend and professional scout, Mike Berger. He coached Jerry on refining his skills so he could compete on a professional level. After a year of hard work, Jerry was signed as a free agent in 1994 by the Los Angeles Dodgers and was invited to spring training. He promptly adopted the philosophy to be the first to arrive and the last to leave. He was voted the “hardest working and most improved” catching prospect by his peers. He was then assigned to the Yakima Bears (single A) in the state of Washington. After that season, one of his coaches arranged for him to go to Adelaid, Australia, for winter ball. Arriving back in Los Angeles, the Dodgers cut him from their professional roster.
Still wanting to play, the highly competitive Jerry was not happy. Legendary Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda admired this quality and offered Jerry a job as the bullpen catcher for the Dodgers. Jerry worked three seasons, 1995–1997, helping the team to two playoff berths.
The hard-working young coach was voted a full share of playoff money among the players and upper management.Rubbing elbows on a daily basis with a number of Dodger legends, including Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza and decades-long voice of the Dodgers (67 years) Vin Scully, it was a unique experience to work in one of the most storied franchises in major league history.
When Tommy Lasorda retired in 1996, Jerry began to think about coming home to work with his dad, Jerry Sr., in the restaurant business. He partnered with his dad in two restaurants: one in Johnstown and the one on the border of USC and Peters Township, Pizzaz Italian Restaurant. Upon his father’s death, Jerry returned to operate Pizzaz, where he continues to make it a great South Hills spot for food and fun.
Jerry is supported and surrounded by family: his mother, Dorene, and sisters, Kendra and Missie (a former professional athlete and LPGA championship level golfer). Jerry and his wife, Rochelle, live in Peters Township with their two sons, Lino and Angelo.
Always quote ready, Jerry summed up his playing days and his life in Pittsburgh, Johnstown, and Los Angeles. “The best times I’ve spent over the years have been reminiscing with friends, former teammates, and coaches—sometimes with laughter and sometimes with tears—about those long-ago days at Upper St. Clair High School. I will always treasure those experiences.”