NORTH HUNTINGDON, PA — Despite being one of the biggest schools in all of Western Pennsylvania, the Mt. Lebanon football program had not won a WPIAL championship since 2000.
Through some mixed levels of success in the latter part of the last decade, the community felt as though the school was underachieving, and after going 12-11 with early playoff exits in 2017 and 2018, they hired Bob Palko, who briefly stepped away from coaching West Allegheny before signing on to take over the Mt. Lebanon head coach job in 2019.
Anyone familiar with WPIAL football knows Bob Palko, as he is the winningest coach in the league’s history. After eight WPIAL championships for West Allegheny since 1995, Mt. Lebanon was hoping that he would restore their program as a perennial competitor.
Palko started his foundation in 2019 and built from it in 2020 despite unusual circumstances in a pandemic-impacted season. Then, in 2021, it all came together, and a program that was an afterthought in the highest WPIAL classification became the team that dominated Class-6A football, capping off an undefeated season with a 47-7 blowout over Central Catholic in the WPIAL title game on Friday.
Central Catholic was the two-time champions, and owns this classification, but with Palko at the helm of the Mt. Lebanon program, there is a new sheriff in town.
“The moment he walked in the door, it flipped the culture around,” said senior Eli Heidenreich, who was a part of building this new program. “He gave us this winning attitude, the biggest thing that he does is he taught us how to practice like champions. He coaches us hard in practice and you see the results.”
The results are the biggest blowout in Class-6A championship history, against a two-time defending champion and the most storied program in the WPIAL. Heidenreich said that Palko pushes them in practice, and Palko admitted that on Monday, he threw the entire team out of practice.
“Because it needed to be done,” Palko said adamantly of his decision. “And they came back and responded and we dialed in the rest of the week. It was a great week of practice.”
Palko always knows when to push the right buttons. He knows how to do it on the field as a play-caller, but more importantly has done it off the field, by investing his time in building a football program that goes beyond the players on the team.
“There are a lot of things that go into it, a lot of things that people don’t see,” said Palko on his magical ways of culture building. “The time and the effort that it takes to put a program together, and not from me, I’m not talking about me. I’m talking about all of the parents and the boosters, and the assistant coaches, and then the student trainers, and student managers, and all of these things have to come together, and fit, and when it does, it’s pretty cool to see the results.”
The reality is that while we praise Palko for the trophies, the records, and the wins, his biggest wins are all of the people that he has given belief to.
“The kids are learning you can accomplish something when you have a strong conviction,” Palko stated as the key takeaway from this game. “That’s life lessons, that’s not the game, that’s a life lesson, and lessons that I keep trying to drive into these guys, that’s what is gratifying.”
The belief has infected the entire area. Palko treats each and every individual as a key piece to success and shows that if everyone buys into one common goal that it will only take a matter of time until that goal is reached. When you see Palko with his players and see the players after games you can tell that his charm goes far beyond Xs and Os.
“It is how we treat the game, how we treat each other,” senior running back Alex Tecza raved about the differences from his sophomore year when Palko first was hired to his senior year, that ended with him accumulating over 200 all-purpose yards and four scores in a championship game. “It is how we act around school and out of school, he truly changed the culture at Mt. Lebo.”
Dynamic Duo Strikes again
On the field, Palko relied heavily on his two-headed monster of Heidenreich and Tecza. Heidenreich dazzled on special teams and was a threat as a receiver, runner, and even as a passer with a 1-1 night through the air. Tecza dominated on the ground, through the air, and both took multiple direct snaps throughout the night.
Tecza finished with 192 rushing yards, and 42 receiving while Heidenreich had 92 rushing and 69 through the air on top of a few big returns. They accounted for six of the seven touchdowns that Mt. Lebanon scored tonight.
“Brilliant, huh,” joked Palko of his game plan to skip the middle man and just snap the ball right to his two stars. “They’re tremendous football players, but they’re better kids and better teammates. You can see how everyone is happy for them, it’s pretty cool.”
Despite joking that the game plan was as simple as snap it to the best players, Palko and the offensive coaches were very creative to find ways to make sure that while they rode those two, it was not stagnant. The wide receiver Heidenreich took a wild cat snap to the house from 67-yard, and the running back Tecza slipped away on a wheel route when the play rolled away from him. He caught the pass for a 24-yard touchdown.
Heidenreich caught screens, Tecza ran inside, outside, and around PCC, and the duo showed that they have a lot of versatility.
“We knew (Central Catholic is) well-coached, but it’s hard to gameplan against so many versatile guys, and I think that really is what won us this game,” said Tecza.
Both Tecza and Heidenreich credited the game plan, but both were also quick to admit that the offensive line did a stellar job to help this win.
“We have the best line in the WPIAL,” blurted Heidenreich unprovked. “Running behind those dudes is just fun, they’re tough gritty dudes.”
The line had an intense matchup against PCC, a defense that can rotate eight defensive lineman, and has Division I talent such as Donovan Hinish, and Matt Auliciano. That star duo was as quiet as they had ever been as they dove at the feet of Tecza on multiple runs. Tecza finished with runs of 59, 22, and 25.
“We knew it was going to be a war, we knew they have great players. Our offensive line, our outside receivers they’ve been doing such a great job this year, I can tell they stepped it up,” said Tecza “I give all the credit for every yard to them.”
This team has everything you look for from championship quality play. The coach has the entire program bought in from the stars to the fans attending the games. The star players are bought into the idea that they can only go as far as their teammates take them, but when they get going, the Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils have legitimate star potential.
The season goes on as Mt. Lebanon moves from the WPIAL bracket to the PIAA bracket, and the Blue Devils will look to continue to write their own history with a state championship on top of their new WPIAL honor. With all of the ingredients for a winning program, this team will enter the game with a strong belief that they will be playing football deeper into December.
“Were gonna try to take this all the way to Hershey, this is great but we can go even farther,” admitted Tecza.