The Mt. Lebanon High School football program has been solid and consistent for many years. Head Coach Mike Melnyk is heating up the pitchfork for his seventh season at the helm of the Blue Devils.
Once again their schedule will look a little different. WPIAL 6A realignment now features just one conference instead of two, like years past. Gone are rivals such as Bethel Park and Peters Township. Both have moved down to 5A. The new power conference in 6A is called the Quad County Conference and along with Mt. Lebanon features powerhouse programs like Central Catholic, North Allegheny, and defending state champion Pine Richland. Butler, Hempfield, Norwin, Seneca Valley, and Canon-McMillan round out the group.
In addition, two of Lebo’s non-conference games include difficult contests against 5A competition. The season opener is against Gateway who finished as runner-up in the state title game a year ago in 5A and that old, familiar rival, Upper St. Clair. They will travel here for a game on October 5. The Blue Devils and Panthers met every season for years, with the exception of 2016 and 2017 when USC dropped to 5A. So with all of that said, it is easy to see that this could be the most difficult schedule in program history.
“No question,” said Melnyk. “What I consider to be the best teams in the northern area are Pine Richland, North Allegheny, and Central Catholic. All three have won state championships in the time that I’ve been here.”
“We know there’s a lot of good teams in our conference,” said Cam Powers, senior fullback/defensive end. “There are high expectations because we have to beat them to get to the playoffs. There’s a lot of excitement, because I think this year, of all years, we can beat these teams and get over the hump.”
Despite losing all three offensive statistical leaders to graduation (James Stocker, passing; Antonio LaSota, rushing; and Aidan Cain, receiving), the Blue Devils have impressive talent returning. Quarterback Seth Morgan split time behind center for part of the season and passed for more than 1,200 yards. Morgan will be aided by Lucas DeCaro, who hauled in 43 receptions a season ago.
The linemen have size and strength on both sides of the ball and every coach adores that. Seniors Nathan Hughes and Michael Freilino return with a lot of experience. And junior Mason Ventrone is one of the best in 6A at defensive back. Last season saw an early departure from the playoffs with a difficult loss at home against North Allegheny. It’s a tide that the players hope to turn this season.
“I think a couple of the returning players look at that last game against NA,” said Freilino, senior offensive guard/defensive tackle. “It was in the playoffs and we want to get that bad taste our of our mouth.”
Defense is a side of the ball that Melnyk wants to improve on. He’s made an interesting change at defensive coordinator. The person making the calls now will be Melnyk himself, juggling both defensive coordinator and head coaching duties.
“We were at a stage where I wanted to see some variations of defense,” said Melnyk. “I always pride myself in being on the latest trend of offense and defense, so I just took it (defense) over myself. I took some trips to visit the University of Michigan and Wisconsin (to observe). They were both in the top 10 in defense a year ago in college. Those were good places to start.”
Melnyk has connections to both universities. Michigan is his alma mater where he was a kicker collegiately. Wisconsin has Melnyk’s predecessor, Chris Haering as the special teams coach. Haering spent 17 seasons as Mt. Lebanon’s head football coach before leaving to work under Paul Chryst at Pitt, and continues to coach under him at Wisconsin.
“It’s new and he knows what he’s doing,” says Powers. “It will be different and I’m excited to see how it works to beat some of these teams.”
As mentioned, Upper St. Clair returns the schedule. It’s a rivalry that spans generations and bragging rights will be up for grabs again this season. Mt. Lebanon Stadium will be likely be filled to capacity for that one.
“We love it,” said Frelino. “There’s a couple rivalries between a few of the kids. We’re excited to have USC come in here and get after it, should be a good game.”
Another trip to the playoffs could be on the horizon for these Blue Devils, but in order to do so, they will need to get some key conference victories at critical points of the season.
“There’s a little more sense of urgency,” said Melnyk. “Not only do we have to beat the better teams in our conference play, but we’ll have to do so in the playoffs as well. The teams that have recently won state championships in our conference have taken their programs to the next level and we’re going to need to do the same thing. Our kids will rise to that.”
The challenge begins this Friday night at home at Mt. Lebanon Stadium against Gateway. Kickoff is set for 7:30.
2018 Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils Schedule
08/24: 7:30PM – Gateway
08/31: 7:30PM – Canon-McMillan*
09/07: 7:30PM – @Butler*
09/14: 7:30PM – @Seneca Valley*
09/21: 7:30PM – North Allegheny*
09/28: 7:00PM – @Hempfield*
10/05: 7:30PM – Upper St. Clair
10/12: 7:30PM – @Pine Richland*
10/19: 7:30PM – Norwin*
10/26: 7:30PM – @Central Catholic*
* Conference game