Getting with the program — Blue Devils ready for battle

Coach Bob Palko and the Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils are ready for the 2022 season.
Coach Bob Palko and the Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils are ready for the 2022 season.

Mt. Lebanon’s athletic programs are coming off a season of historic success. On the football field, the Blue Devils lived up to their “Leave Our Legacy” motto and captured their first WPIAL football title since 2000. They went on to win their fifth state championship in school history, and the first in the era of statewide playoffs. Additionally, Mt. Lebanon captured WPIAL Championships in baseball and girls’ basketball. The girls’ basketball team would go on to reach the state finals. The boys and girls’ lacrosse teams both reached the WPIAL finals and the softball team won a section title. Overall, the 2021-2022 school year was a resounding success for Blue Devil athletics.

On the football field, Mt. Lebanon breezed through the regular season, winning every game by at least 21 points. They survived a challenge from North Allegheny in the semifinals then went on to nearly mercy rule the two-time defending WPIAL Champions Central Catholic by a 47-7 margin in the WPIAL title game. The victory over Central Catholic gave Mt. Lebanon their eighth WPIAL Championship in school history. In the State playoffs, the Blue Devils topped Erie McDowell and State College before decisively beating three-time defending State Champions St. Joseph’s Prep out of Philadelphia by a 35-17 score to capture the state crown. Mt. Lebanon had previously won state championships in 1958, 1970 and 1981 prior to the PIAA playoff system. Coach Bob Palko turned around the Blue Devils program in just three seasons at the helm and claimed his ninth WPIAL title as head coach and was named both the Steelers High School Coach of the Year and National Coach of the Year.

“It was a magical season,” Palko said. “I was proud to be a part of it. The parade after we won the state championship was like a scene from Hoosiers. That was awesome. The whole community came out to show their support.”

The Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils are getting ready for the season.
The Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils kick off their schedule August 26 against Gateway.

This season will present a new challenge after 27 seniors graduated from their title-winning team. Coach Palko has focused on a culture of continuous improvement where his team can improve by “getting a little better each day and mastering the details.” Mt. Lebanon will be strong in the trenches again, led by Richmond-commit Kade Capristo and Ryan Long. Senior Alex Gevaudan will take the helm at quarterback with his twin brother, Michael, playing receiver. Senior WR Mike Beiersdorf was the second-leading receiver (260 yards, 4 TDs) last season and TE Grayson Dee (110 yards, 1 TD), who has an offer from St. Francis, also return as key weapons in the passing game for Gevaudan. The Blue Devils lost their top four rushers to graduation so the load will likely fall to junior Beckham Dee along with seniors Aidan Dawson and Idris Wilson. On defense, William Hartung was the team’s leading tackler last season before an injury cut the year short, but he is back to lead the unit.

In order to repeat as WPIAL Champs, Mt. Lebanon will need young players who don’t have much experience to step up in a big way. Coach Palko calls this “Program Mode” where a team goes from one breakthrough season to a state of continued success. Developing the Blue Devils into a “program” relies on the consistent coaching philosophy and cultivating the culture of continuous improvement, which Coach Palko cites as a key in their state championship run.

The 2022 season is a realignment year in Pennsylvania. New classification and conference alignments were announced back in the spring. Once again this cycle, the 6A classification in the WPIAL will have just one conference. The biggest change is that the WPIAL lost three 6A members – Baldwin, Hempfield, and Norwin – and now has just 5 teams. Joining Mt. Lebanon in the “Tri-County Five” are Central Catholic, North Allegheny, Seneca Valley and Canon-McMillan. All five of those teams qualified for the playoffs last season, but with just five teams in 6A for this cycle, only the top four will qualify for the playoffs this year.

This year’s Blue Devils football team is focusing on working for the whole team, rather than being motivated just as individuals.

Mt. Lebanon’s 2022 season kicks off with a non-conference game on August 26 against 5A powerhouse Gateway who returns with WPIAL’s leading passer Brad Birch. The home opener will be September 2 against Bethel Park, who returned to the 5A playoffs last year after a winless 2020. A trip to Moon is next on the docket against a Tigers team that was the WPIAL 5A runner-up last season. The first conference game will be a rematch of the WPIAL final against Central Catholic on September 16. The following week, Seneca Valley will visit Mt. Lebanon in a game with heavy playoff implications. Mark your calendars for September 30 as the Blue Devils take on archrival Upper St Clair in the South Hills Showdown.

October starts with a conference road game at North Allegheny, followed by a trip to Peters Township. The Blue Devils finish off the season at home against Baldwin (who dropped down to 5A this season) and Canon-McMillan. The Week 9 game against the Big Macs could also factor significantly into the playoff race. With only five teams in Class 6A, only four of Mt. Lebanon’s ten games are against conference opponents. To their credit, the WPIAL did a good job of loading the rest of the Blue Devils schedule with games against neighboring South Hills rivals who play in lower classifications.

Players huddle together on the field.
Players listen to the coaches.

Last year’s team motto focused on the core group of seniors leaving their legacy in both the school and the community. This year, Palko asked his team “What’s your why? Why do you show up and work hard every day?”  The resounding response was a team-focused approach that “We are our why.” Elaborating, Palko said “They are doing it for each other. For the team. Not as individuals. If we are going to have success this year, it will be because of our culture and the kids sacrificing for each other. We can’t control what happens outside of our team, but our why is us, what we can do.”

For an in-depth look at the upcoming WPIAL football season, check out the WPIAL Blitz Show on YouTube.

Photos by Harrison Lilley