Rising to the Challenge
The Mt. Lebanon High School football program will be rising to a level it has never experienced. That challenge involves ascending to the newly formed 6A classification in the WPIAL and PIAA. It includes only the school districts with the largest enrollments in the state. The Blue Devils Class 6A Southeastern Conference includes such familiar foes as Bethel Park, Canon-McMillan and Peters. It also features schools new to Lebo fans, including Altoona, Hempfield and Norwin. With all of that said, there is a glaring difference in Mt. Lebanon’s schedule: No Upper St. Clair. The Panthers are in Class 5A and will not play the Blue Devils this season. To many in these parts, that’s going to be very different.
“I think everyone was disappointed to see the rivalry go, but we still have some great rivals like Bethel Park,” says senior linebacker/running back Eric Kraus. “I think it is going to be a challenge, we have a big change in our schedule.”
“There definitely will be some change to it,” says senior linebacker/running back David Harvey. “We’ll be playing some strong teams and we look forward to our schedule. But we don’t have that rivalry game with USC.”
One thing that will stay similar to last season is experience. There might not be another team in the WPIAL like Mt. Lebanon, with two dozen seniors on the roster who have the type of playing time under their belts.
“The nice thing is I’ve been here for four years and these kids don’t know any different,” says head coach Mike Melnyk.“They have bought into our work ethic. We have a large senior class, about 24 or 25 kids. This is the fun part, we get to see them work hard every day and get better.”
And getting better each day is the mantra. As Melnyk and his Blue Devils prepare to open the season Friday at Fox Chapel. He expects to see his team more prepared for a first game than maybe some other teams in the area. “If fans follow us offensively and defensively, we’ll look a lot like we have in the past few years,” says Melnyk. “I would like to think because we have so many seniors that we would look more polished than most early season teams.”
Harvey is one of the young men on this team who Melnyk hopes will set the tone for the rest of the players around him. Harvey is a three-sport star at Lebo and that’s rare in the WPIAL’s largest classification. Not only is he going to be a four-year starter for football, but he also makes significant contributions for the basketball and lacrosse programs.
“I hope that I can be a role model to the younger guys,” says Harvey. “They can see my work ethic. They see that someone can play three sports. I try to challenge myself with schoolwork as well. It helps keep me focused and I want to be athletic. It’s tough.”
Kraus is another senior who makes an impact. On paper, his 5-8 frame may look undersized for the positions he plays, but his coach loves his intangibles. “Eric was a first team, first league player at linebacker a year ago,” says Melnyk. “He was one of the best linebackers in the Southeastern Conference last season. He’s not the biggest kid, but he’s the son that everyone dreams about. He exemplifies the type of player that we look for in this program.”
Kraus feels just as much admiration for his coach, who now enters his fifth season at the helm of the Blue Devils.“I think he has pushed us hard,” says Kraus. “He’s great at having us do what you need to do. He’s real good about the philosophy of the game. He has helped me to have more of incentive to be a role model.”
Last year’s Blue Devils only lost one regular season game en-route to the playoffs. The postseason ended with a defeat in the quarterfinals from Pine Richland. A team that they will get another crack at on September 2. Getting back to the playoffs is one of many goals this team has its eyes on.
“I think the kids understand what it takes to get to that level (the playoffs),” says Melnyk. “I tell the kids that they have to listen to us coaches as we continue to prepare and work hard. They have learned that and even preach that message.
We feel the same way this season. We are ready tackle any team this year.”
The players echo that message.
“We have a lot of experience on both sides of the ball,” says Harvey. “We want to make a run at the playoffs. We want to win the WPIAL championship and make it to states.”
“We really want a conference championship,” says Kraus. “It’s realistic to get the championship. We want to end up under the lights at Heinz Field for the WPIAL title.”
2016 Mt. Lebanon High School Varsity Football Schedule
08/26: 7:00PM @ Fox Chapel
09/02: 7:30PM PINE RICHLAND
09/09: 7:00PM @ Hempfield*
09/16: 7:30PM CANON-MCMILLAN*
09/23: 7:30PM ALTOONA*
09/29: 7:30PM @ North Allegheny
10/07: 7:00PM @ Norwin*
10/14: 7:30PM PETERS TOWNSHIP*
10/21: 7:30PM PENN HILLS
10/28: 7:30PM @ Bethel Park*
*Denotes WPIAL Class 6A Southeastern Conference Game