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Leaving a Legacy: 2021 Mt. Lebanon Football Season Preview

Mt. Lebanon, which has the most returning starters of any team in their classification and the coaching pedigree of Bob Palko, looks primed to make a run for the WPIAL title in 2021. After the COVID-19 pandemic truncated the 2020 high school football season, the Blue Devils are back for a full campaign. Mt. Lebanon reached the Class 6A semifinals each of the last three seasons and will look to take the next step this year to contend for a WPIAL championship. Head coach Bob Palko knows what it takes to win a WPIAL title. He owns a record eight WPIAL championship rings, a mark Thomas Jefferson’s Bill Cherpak tied last season.

Coach Bob Palko at practic with the team
Coach Palko is ready to take this year’s Blue Devils to the top of the conference.

The WPIAL planned a number of changes for 2020, including tweaks to schedules and playoff format, but those were on hold until this season. In prior cycles, conference games were spread throughout the season and the WPIAL selected non-conference opponents based on which teams had open dates. Now, the WPIAL has gone back to a format from the 1990s and 2000s where all of the schedules are backloaded with conference games and the non-conference games are all in the first few weeks of the season.

With most teams having non-conference availability at the same time in the schedule, the WPIAL attempted to generate intriguing matchups and historical rivalries in the first few weeks before conference play begins. For Mt. Lebanon, that means opening the season with three games to decide South Hills supremacy. In Week 0 the Blue Devils will take on Bethel Park, followed by a Week 1 showdown with traditional rivals Upper St. Clair and a Week 2 meeting with Peters Township. All three of those schools play in the Class 5A Allegheny Six Conference. Peters made it to the last two 5A championship games, falling to Gateway by one point in 2019 and to eventual state champions Pine-Richland last season. Prior to 2019, Peters Township had never reached a WPIAL final. Upper St. Clair’s program has bridged the gap between legendary coach Jim Render and his successor Mike Junko. The Panthers have reached the playoffs in 21 straight seasons, the fourth-longest active streak in the WPIAL.

Once again, the 6A Classification in the WPIAL will have just one conference featuring eight teams. The Blue Devils will kick off conference play at home against Canon McMillan, looking to avenge a 24-17 loss to the Big Macs last season. Mt. Lebanon then travels to Hempfield to take on the Spartans who had the worst defense in the conference last year, allowing 37 points per game. October begins with clashes against last year’s WPIAL finalists as both North Allegheny and Central Catholic will visit Mt. Lebanon. These games will be the measuring stick for this Mt. Lebanon program to gauge if they are championship contenders.  Central Catholic is the two-time defending WPIAL champion and has reached the title game in seven of the last eight seasons. Mt. Lebanon narrowly lost to North Allegheny 14-11 last year and staged a thrilling second-half comeback to beat Central Catholic 37-30. The regular season concludes with trips to Norwin and Baldwin (both of whom won just one conference game last season) and a home date with Seneca Valley. Last year, with their playoff hopes hanging in the balance, Mt. Lebanon blocked an extra point in overtime to beat Seneca Valley and secure their postseason position. That victory was the 600th in school history, making Mt. Lebanon just the 12th WPIAL program to reach that threshold.

High school football players practice their skills
With many returning seniors and a seasoned coach, the Mt. Lebanon High School football team is well-poised for a playoff run.

The Blue Devils’ last WPIAL championship game, in 2000, was a  14-13 win over Woodland Hills to claim the seventh WPIAL title in school history.

“It’s been 21 years since Mt. Lebanon’s last championship, and we are trying to establish the characteristics of a championship program,” Palko said.

“The past has been a good learning experience, and it’s time for this group to leave their legacy,” he added. “We have an extremely talented group of seniors who have put in the time and done good work. Now it comes down to execution and our ability to play together and play to not let each other down.”

Three-year starter Joey Daniels returns for his senior year after leading the 6A classification in passing with 1,012 yards and 14 touchdowns. Daniels was named to the TribLiveHSSN Preseason All-Star team and was first-team all-conference last season. Bob Palko has coached his share of  talented passers. His son Tyler led West Allegheny to three WPIAL titles from 1999-2001 and the 2001 state championship, then went on to play at Pitt and in the NFL. A decade later, Andrew Koester led Palko’s West Allegheny team to three straight WPIAL championship games from 2012-2014, of which they won two. When asked how Joey Daniels compares with others he has coached, Palko said, “Joey’s right up there with the others. He’s accurate, spins the ball well, and is everything you want in a quarterback.”

The quarterback considers his options
Quarterback Joey Daniels has emerged as a team leader.

Leading rusher Alex Tecza ran for 465 yards and six touchdowns and showed off his versatility with 166 receiving yards and three more touchdowns. Tecza enters the season with a number of scholarship offers from FCS schools and military academies. Offensive talisman Eli Heidenreich (341 receiving yards, 117 rushing yards, seven total TDs) has committed to Navy and returns for his senior season along with WR Mike Beiersdorf (137 yards, one TD) to give Daniels a quality duo of targets on the outside. The Blue Devils will be strong in the trenches and could get a boost late in the season as Cooper Austin works his way back from a knee injury. Austin has scholarship offers from a handful of Ivy League schools. On special teams, punter Noah Bhuta was named to the MaxPreps preseason All-State team.

Footbally player Alex Tezca smiles in practice
Senior running back Alex Tecza returns this year in top form.

With only eight WPIAL teams competing in 6A this season, playoff time won’t bring any surprises. Mt. Lebanon will have faced all seven teams in the regular season, and with the top five qualifying for the playoffs, finishing in the top three comes with the benefit of a bye to the semifinals.

“We are cautiously optimistic, but we still have a lot to prove. We haven’t won anything yet,”  said Palko, who focuses on strength through unity. “Expectations are high in this community and we want to have a program that the community can be proud of. Once a team starts playing together and playing for each other, it’s magical. Football is the ultimate team game. It’s not won by one guy but by 11 out there working together.”

When asked for his final thoughts, Coach Palko said “We are honored to represent this community and are trying to make Friday nights in Mt. Lebanon something special once again.”

(Statistics via the TribLive High School Sports Network)

For more information on the upcoming WPIAL football season, look for the WPIAL Blitz Show on YouTube.

Blue Devils 2021 Schedule

Fri, 9/3 — 7 p.m. — Upper St. Clair

Home • Non-Conference

Fri, 9/10 — 7:30 p.m. – Peters Township

Away • Non-Conference

Fri, 9/17 — 7 p.m. – Canon-McMillan

Home  • Conference

Fri, 9/24 — 7 p.m. — Hempfield Area

Away • Conference

Fri, 10/1 — 7 p.m. — North Allegheny

Home • Conference

Fri, 10/8 — 7 p.m. – Central Catholic

Home • Conference

Fri, 10/15 — 7 p.m. – Norwin

Away • Conference

Fri, 10/22 — 7 p.m. – Seneca Valley

Home • Conference

Fri, 10/29 — 7 p.m. — Baldwin

Away • Conference

Photos: Harrison Lilley