Paul Lang’s 17-yard catch in the final drive of last month’s Big Ten championship game helped Michigan State pull out a last-minute victory over Iowa.
It might be in a hotel room where their team is staying the night before their college game, thanks to social media or a streaming service. Occasionally, if they are lucky, it might be in person. One way or another, some of Mt. Lebanon High School’s better football players from the past handful of years keep up with the Blue Devils.
“I went to the Penn Hills game,” Pitt offensive lineman Alex Bookser says of a 15-7 win September 25. “Whenever they have them on the live stream, I try to watch them at the hotel. I’m pretty close with a lot of the seniors.”
Mt. Lebanon regularly produces scholars and athletes who become productive college students and players. For the 2015 football season, Bookser is one of 10 former Blue Devils on Division I teams. Several others play for smaller schools.
• Bookser is a 6-foot-6, 310-pound versatile redshirt freshman who serves as a backup at right guard and right tackle for the Panthers, who lost 44-28 to Navy in the Military Bowl. He was all-state for Mt. Lebanon. While he stayed close to home, the other seven are scattered:
• Luke Hagy is a 6-4, 204-pound senior at Cornell and the team’s No. 1 running back.
• Arthur Goldberg is a 6-3, 296-pound redshirt junior at Wisconsin who is a defensive end. Although he missed some time because of a knee injury, he had 15 tackles in 10 games for the Badgers, who are theaded for the Holiday Bowl against USC. He was all-state for the Blue Devils. Also at Wisconsin is special teams coach Chris Haering, the former Mt. Lebanon head coach.
• Troy Apke is a 6-1, 198-pound sophomore at Penn State who is the backup free safety and had 25 tackles, including 14 solo.
• Paul Lang is a 6-5, 260-pound fifth-year senior at Michigan State who is a part-time starter at tight end after being an all-state player at Mt. Lebanon. He was primarily used for blocking by the Spartans before this season but had 10 catches for 112 yards this year. He caught one pass for 17 yards in a 38-0 loss to Alabama in a the College Football Playoff semifinal game.
• There are two at Princeton, which finished 5-5. Tyler Roth, a 6-1, 190-pound junior, is the Tigers’ punter and was averaging 39.7 yards a punt, with 10 of his 45 punts landing inside the opponent’s 20 and 10 going for more than 50 yards. A three-sport athlete in high school, he was an all-state punter and all-section quarterback. Dylan White, a 6-6, 230-pound senior, is a reserve tight end who was a two-way all-conference player for Lebo.
• Matt Hoffman is a 6-3, 260-pound freshman defensive lineman at the University of Pennsylvania.
• Shane Lefever is a 6-3, 195-pound freshman redshirt wide receiver at the University of Dayton.
• Ben Bruni is a 6-0, 210-pound freshman linebacker at St. Francis University in Loretto.
Hagy, a two-time first-team all-state selection while becoming Mt. Lebanon’s all-time leading rusher, might be the most prolific of the college athletes. He carried the ball 149 times for 713 yards and five touchdowns in 2015 to lead Cornell in rushing in all four of his seasons. His final play in a college game was a 7-yard touchdown reception. He is the first player in the program’s 129-year history-—in fact, the first in Ivy League history–—to top 2,000 career yards in rushing and 1,500 in receiving.
“I would say that my running style, I’m an elusive runner,” says Hagy, who grew up on Fieldbrook Drive but whose family has since moved to Kingsbury Circle. “I think I have good vision. I’m not going to go and run people over. Well, once in a while. We always say ‘flip the script,’ when you do something you don’t normally do. I know the offense really well, know where the blocks are coming, and I can hit the holes.
“My freshman and sophomore years, we ran a spread offense. So I was big in the receiving game, too. Now we run the ball first.”
Although Hagy has prospered, overall Cornell has struggled, going 1-9 in 2015. In fact, Hagy has been one of the steadiest components of the program.
Hagy is another who follows the Blue Devils from afar. He also keeps in touch with several of the others now playing in college.
So does Lang.
“I’m always looking them up on Google if I don’t talk to them in person,” he says.
Lang never played with any of the 2015 Blue Devils, but that doesn’t mean he’s unfamiliar with them. Helping out at sports camps while he was at Mt. Lebanon, he coached some of the current team members when they were youth players.
Some of the Division I Lebo grads played for Haering, some for fourth-year Mt. Lebanon coach Mike Melnyk and some were in high school during the coaching transition.
Bookser and Apke played for Melnyk and remained in-state for college. They will be on opposite sides next season when Pitt and Penn State resume what used to be a huge, heated rivalry.
“We’ll probably talk even more leading up to that week, just talking game on each other,” says Bookser, of Birch Avenue. “I’ve been wanting to get back at Troy since little league. He always had my number. I punted to him one time and he returned it. That was, like, sixth grade.”
Apke, of Kenmont Avenue and another all-state player at Mt. Lebanon, refuses to look ahead. “I can’t talk about that,” he says of the big 2016 matchup.
Although Roth and White ended up at Princeton, it’s not surprising most of the Division I players scattered when making their college choice.
Mt. Lebanon players are encouraged to be individuals while also being part of a team. Apke chose Penn State in spite of the fact that his father, Steve (football), and his mother, Susan (track and field), went to Pitt.
“We’ll tell you, it’s where you are most comfortable,” Bookser says. “We’re very similar in that we didn’t get taken in by flashy recruiting. We visited these places, and we went where we were comfortable.”
Melnyk helps facilitate that.
“As for the recruiting process, I try to take care of all the nuts and bolts,” he says, meaning when college coaches visit he provides them with players’ academic transcripts, highlight videos, contact info for their parents, etc.
“Then it is up to them and their family, and I try to stay out of it. I tell parents it’s kind of like trying to find the right girlfriend or boyfriend. You date a lot. Some of them are nice. Eventually, you find the right one.”
Coming from a strong program such as Mt. Lebanon helps make the football players attractive to colleges.
Melnyk has the players involved in off-season workout programs fairly quickly after the season, which means the players returning for 2016 are back at it after going 9-2 and advancing to the WPIAL Class AAAA quarterfinals.
“We try to run a program that is going to prepare kids for life and also for football if that’s what they want to do,” Melnyk says.
“We do run a pretty sophisticated offense and defense, so when they get to college the schemes might not be so foreign to them. We try to stay on the cutting edge.”
“It’s just a great program,” Hagy says. “They’re getting the right coaches, and we just had some really great athletes. It’s been an awesome experience. I love coming from Mt. Lebanon. Lebo pride!”