Mike Melnyk knows what it takes to build a winning football program. He was a part of winning teams at the University of Michigan from 1980-84, which included four bowl game appearances. As a placekicker, Melnyk was a teammate of new Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, who previously coached at Stanford University and most recently, had success with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.
“I’m excited to know he’s back at Michigan,” said Melnyk. “He’s a hard worker and has proven that he can win wherever he goes. You know, people said that Rich Rodriguez [former WVU and Michigan coach, now at Arizona] was not a Michigan man, but Jim truly is.”
Now entering his fourth season at Mt. Lebanon High School, Melnyk is hoping his players and folks in the stands can now call him a true Mt. Lebanon guy. He’s even surrounding himself with true Blue Devil tradition. This season he’s digging into the alumni archives and bringing back former player Mike Cramer as linebackers coach. Cramer was a star for Mt. Lebanon as a linebacker and tight end in the early ‘90s. He was also previously on former Lebo head coach Chris Haering’s staff from 2006-10.
It’s easy to see that Melnyk doesn’t mind dipping into the past to gain an edge on what it means to be a Blue Devil with his current players.
“I think we will continue to tap into the tradition,” said Melnyk. “That’s something that is new for me at the high school level. Manheim Township [Melnyk’s previous school] didn’t have that.” His players agree.
“Growing up, I was always going to the games,” said senior quarterback Eddie Jenkins. “I saw the players who came before us, we want to expand that past and win some titles and championship for the future.”
Melnyk helped lead the Blue Devils back to the playoffs last season after missing the postseason in 2013. But last season did not play out the way he would have liked. Lebo started the year bursting out of the gate at 5-1, but dropped its last three decisions to North Hills, Woodland Hills, and Upper St. Clair to end the regular season. They essentially backed into the playoffs and had a difficult first round matchup on the road at McKeesport, falling 35-10 in a game that left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.
“We want to have some redemption from last year,” said senior lineman Hunter Cazin. Making the playoffs is a goal that we like to reach. We always talk about wanting to get to Heinz Field [where the WPIAL AAAA Championship is played].”
Getting back to the playoffs will once again see the Blue Devils take a challenging road in 2015. The WPIAL AAAA Southeastern Conference is one of the more difficult divisions in the area. Such teams as Woodland Hills, Penn Hills, Bethel Park and rival Upper St. Clair stand in their way every year.
“It’s going to be a great challenge, to play the games we have on the road,” said Melnyk. “We as a staff have to make sure that our kids are well prepared week in and week out. With the type of athletes that we have and the type that we are playing against, we just have to work extremely hard.”
Melnyk knows the community of Mt. Lebanon is expecting another winning team this season. That’s par for the course in these parts. And fans also want to see an extended playoff run. Melnyk has led the Blue Devils to the postseason in two of his first three seasons. 2015 will prove to be a pivotal year to determine if Melnyk is moving the program in the right direction.
“I think he’s a great coach,” said Cazin. “He does a great job to keep us close and focused. He’s done pretty well. I think he’s one of the better coaches around.”
His quarterback agrees. “It’s been great having Coach Melnyk around,” said Jenkins. “He’s been great and always willing to help. He’s great off the field, too. He offers rides to players and is always giving good advice.”
This season Mike Melnyk will likely be seeing lot of maize and blue at Mt. Lebanon Stadium and on his television, as friend Jim Harbaugh takes the reign at his alma mater. If he has it his way, Hail to the Victors will be playing for the Wolverines in Ann Arbor and here in town with the Blue Devils as well.
2015 Mt. Lebanon High School Varsity Football Schedule
09/04 *@Canon-McMillan, 7:30 PM, Canon-McMillan High School
09/11 @Moon, 7 PM, Moon High School
09/18 *Baldwin, 7:30 PM, Mt. Lebanon High School
09/25 *Penn Hills, 7:30 PM, Mt. Lebanon High School
10/02 *@Peters Township, 7 PM, Peters Township High School
10/09 *Bethel Park, 7:30 PM, Mt. Lebanon High School
10/16 North Hills, 7:30 PM, Mt. Lebanon High School
10/23 *@Woodland Hills, 7:30 PM, Woodland Hills High School
10/30 *@Upper St. Clair, 7:30 PM, Upper St. Clair High School
* indicates WPIAL AAAA Southeastern Conference Game
Blue Devils photos by Julie O’Hara