It is a season of change in the Mt. Lebanon School District. This summer, Melissa Friez assumed the role of superintendent, following the retirement of Tim Steinhauer, who held the position for 14 years.
On the football field, the Blue Devils also have a new leader. In March, Mt. Lebanon hired former Elizabeth Forward coach Mike Collodi, after the departure of head football coach Bob Palko, who led the team to a WPIAL and state championship win during his tenure. Palko now serves as the director of high school football relations for Penn State.
Collodi has a track record of success, taking Elizabeth Forward to its first ever WPIAL championship game, in 2020. Prior to his tenure, Elizabeth Forward had never won a home playoff game and had won just two conference titles in 50 years. During Collodi’s eight years there, the Warriors won multiple home playoff games and claimed four conference titles.
He has big goals for Mt. Lebanon.
“My goals are always to win the conference, win the WPIAL title and win a state championship,” Collodi said. This three-tiered goal echoes the sentiments of former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher who once said his goals were always winning the division, the conference and the Super Bowl.
Collodi abides by the philosophy of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who advised, “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.” At Mt. Lebanon, his coaching staff includes three former head coaches: Jeff Matheny, who won more than 200 games at Bethel Park; Tim Sweeney, who led Derry’s program to historic success and also coached at Baldwin; and Mark Gambino, who was recently the head coach at Charleroi.
In addition, Collodi added several young men who had success both in high school and college. Former Pitt players Tre Tipton and Chase Pine have joined the staff along with Marcus Ademilola, who played at Bucknell and Robert Morris.
Collodi sees the growth and maturity of his players as the most important aspect of coaching. He instituted a Character Day, where outside speakers come in to talk with the team about aspects of leadership, life and how to overcome adversity. Additionally, the coaching staff has taken on a program of Coaching Boys Into Men that includes weekly lessons from assistant coaches on values such as respect, consent, addiction and appropriate use of technology.
While he has taken the step up from a 3A Elizabeth Forward program to lead 6A Mt. Lebanon, Collodi is not overwhelmed by the task at hand where he has twice as many players and coaches available in the larger classification. He is thankful to the administration, boosters and entire support structure around the football program and looks forward to the team competing and representing the community on Friday nights this fall.
After graduating 35 players over the last two years since winning the state title, the Blue Devils will have a young team with a number of underclassmen seeing significant time this season. Collodi sees this as a group with a bright future and the opportunity to grow into a championship squad.
He has seen the trickle-down effect of the culture Palko instilled on the PIAA championship team. With a young team competing in a tight 6A classification, Collodi is using the predictions from the local media to motivate his squad. He sees the team as capable of flying under the radar and being the surprise of the WPIAL.
The inexperienced roster hasn’t changed his expectations for the team.
This year’s schedule gives the Blue Devils plenty of challenges and opportunities. With only five teams competing in the WPIAL’s 6A classification, just four of Mt. Lebanon’s 10 games will be against conference opponents. Those are the only games that count towards playoff qualification; the top four teams in the conference make the postseason.
The Blue Devils will have two conference games in mid-September, hosting Central Catholic on September 15 and traveling to Seneca Valley on September 22. Central is once again one of the favorites in the classification, having reached the WPIAL finals in nine of the last 10 years. Seneca Valley was the only 6A team to miss the playoffs last year after losing out on a tiebreaker to Canon-McMillan.
Defending WPIAL champions North Allegheny will visit Lebo on October 6 and the season ends with a showdown against Canon-McMillan on October 27 in a game with significant postseason implications.
In non-conference play, Mt. Lebanon will face a slate of tough opponents from the 5A classification, many of them neighboring South Hills rivals. The headliner is the September 29 game at Upper St. Clair against a Panthers team that lost in the WPIAL 5A championship last season. Mt. Lebanon will start the season with a scrimmage against defending 5A state champions Pine-Richland and use that outing to determine position battles in the starting lineup, including at quarterback.
In Week 0 the Blue Devils will take on a Gateway team which features D1 recruits at quarterback and receiver. Mt. Lebanon will travel to Bethel Park in Week 1 and take on a Blackhawks team that was the top seed in last year’s 5A playoffs. A home date with Moon on September 8 will be the final tune-up before their first two conference games. After the run of facing Central Catholic, Seneca Valley, Upper St Clair and North Allegheny in a four-week span, Mt. Lebanon will get two more non-conference games. Peters Township will visit on October 13 before the Blue Devils travel to Baldwin on October 20. The season concludes against a Canon Mac team that returns one of the top quarterbacks in the WPIAL.
Mt. Lebanon’s team also has star talent. Navy commit Connor Young will anchor the offensive and defensive lines while Air Force commit Beckham Dee is a standout middle linebacker. Senior kicker Ben McAuley is also one of the top kickers in the WPIAL, converting seven field goals last season including one to defeat Central Catholic and cap a comeback from 16 points down. Coach Collodi plans to have many players see time this season as the team gains experience and builds momentum throughout the year.
For an in-depth look at the upcoming WPIAL football season, check out the WPIAL Blitz Show on YouTube, hosted by Ian McMeans.