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IMPERIAL, Pa. — West Allegheny’s newest football coach seemed to be hiding in plain sight.
With legendary coach Bob Palko moving on to Mt. Lebanon and coach-in-waiting Kim Niedbala following him, the Indians’ line of succession seemed to run dry.
But Chris Lucas proved to be an surprising answer.
Lucas, a computer science teacher in the district, just spent a year as head coach at Bishop Canevin and has spent time as an assistant at Avonworth, Northgate and North Catholic in addition to one year at West Allegheny.
The hiring came as somewhat of a surprise to some of his players and current students, because many didn’t even know he coached.
“It’s not too different, I know a few of us have had him as a teacher over the past year, so we’ve gotten pretty comfortable with him,” said Michael Baker. “But we didn’t (think he was a football guy). Kam (Kruze) and I had him for class, it was weird at first.”
“Before my name even came up in the discussion, a lot of kids didn’t even know I coached,” said Lucas. “But I coached here for one year, I think it was my first or second year teaching here, and I’ve never coached and taught in the same building, and that’s cool. You’re able to build better relationships with the kids because you see them all the time. It’s been good.”
So it’s Lucas that has set out to replace the legendary Palko this fall at West Allegheny. Just don’t use the word “replace” around him.
“You’re not going to replace Coach Palko,” Lucas said. “It’s a ridiculous notion to even think about. It’s very arrogant of anyone to even think about that. The one year I spent coaching as an assistant, I learned more than I ever have. I took a lot of things from here to North Catholic, and that was a major factor in our success up there.”
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be high expectations. A few days into practice and it is business as usual for a team that has played in five of the last seven WPIAL Championship games.
“It was a little different at first, I’m not going to lie,” said junior running back Paul Newton. “But once we started to click, it was the same coaching staff, we did the same things, the same tradition, it was nice and comfortable to get into.”
Lucas said 11 of last year’s assistant coaches have returned and he is leaning a lot on their experience. Bryan Cornell, who is entering his 22nd season with the program, will again lead a defense that has given up an average of 15 points per game over the past five seasons.
Jamie Schumacher has been an assistant with the team and has been given the keys to the offense, as the Indians will look to be cerebral throughout the season.
“There are some tweaks to the playbook offensively, but a lot of the thought processes for the offense are still in place,” said Lucas. “It’s all based on the arsenal and what we think will be successful week to week. But all of those things are available to us based on the talent we have at quarterback and running back.”
“Everything is the same, we just need to play our hearts out and play for one another,” said Newton.
“Family is the number-one, most important thing. The trust, the bond we need to have to play (together). We kept the same tradition, we just need to play for one another.”