MT. LEBANON, Pa. — Bob Palko and his Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils keep writing history. Early in the season, it was a win over North Allegheny that took 16 years to accomplish. Then, the team went on to win their first WPIAL championship since 2000, by dominating the class of the 6A in Pittsburgh Central Catholic. Now, they have won their first PIAA playoff game in school history, and they did it how they have done it all season, in blowout fashion with a 47-14 win over Erie-McDowell.
“Making history is our M.O. this year,” stated star running back Alex Tecza. “Our class wants to leave our legacy. It is important for the program, the coaches, and us.”
Not only were they able to get a historic win for the school, community, and program, they somehow were able to do it in their home stadium, making the win that much sweeter.
“That’s not something you prepare for,” laughed head coach Bob Palko, who has made the PIAA bracket nine times in his coaching career, but never got to host a playoff game. “We said, where is the game? They said it’s at your place, so okay what are you going to do?”
It surprised Palko and his team but definitely inspired them to hold strong and win in a convincing fashion. However, it was not as dominant as the score shows early in the game. In fact, McDowell took a lead into the second quarter.
On the first drive of the game, McDowell punched in a 28-yard run and led 7-0 late into the first quarter. Mt. Lebanon struggled to move the ball on their first two offensive drives, then had a kick blocked on their third possession.
“I have to be honest, we did not have the best week of practice this past week,” admitted wide receiver Eli Heidenreich. “We have to have a better week of practice, and start the game off better.”
Palko admitted his team took a punch to the mouth early in the game but was proud of how his team responded. After trailing 7-0 to close the first quarter, Heidenreich took a wild cat snap and shifted left, right, and down the sideline to even the score up at seven.
“Everyone was flowing hard to the left and I saw a little lane,” Heidenreich described the play. “I made a few moves, then right down the sideline to score.”
After a slow start, the big run started to get Mt. Lebanon the confidence they needed to make history. Heidenreich scored on the next possession to make the game the 14-7 before the half, which is when the turning point of the game occurred.
With just 1:24 left in the first half, McDowell tried to tie the game up, but the first pass of the drive was picked off by Matt Wertz on the sideline. Wertz’s pick gave Mt. Lebo just enough time to throw a pass to Heidenreich, and call a run to Tecza who scored from nine yards out. With two minutes to go until half time, it was 7-7, but at the half, it was 21-7 Mt. Lebanon.
“With them getting the ball in the second half that was a huge, huge, huge ordeal,” Palko admitted of the quick swing in score.
McDowell did get the ball and drove right down the field, but Charlie Pelligrino stripped the ball, and Mt. Lebo recovered to put a dent into any chance of a comeback.
“They got the ball and started to march right down the field, that could have been 21-14, they’re right back in the game,” Palko said. “But that’s what happens with turnovers and why you have to capitalize on them.”
On the very next play, Heidenreich took a wild cat snap and scored his hat trick of rushing touchdowns from direct snaps. This time he went an astounding 80-yards all the way to the house.
“I have to give credit to my line,” said Heidenreich. “They opened a huge hole, I just had to make one guy miss and I was gone down the sideline.”
Heidenreich finished with 165 rushing yards on top of 110 receiving. His performance turned a game that was once 7-7 nearing halftime into a third-quarter blowout.
Up 28-7 and with three turnovers already in the bank, the Mt. Lebo defense started to fly after the quarterback. They turned McDowell over two more times and scored off of both turnovers to effectively put the game away.
While everyone sees the big runs from Tecza, and Heidenreich, the Blue Devils defense has been turning the ball over at a high rate all season. Beyond that, this is a group that is allowing less than 10 points per game on the season. This defense has championship-level talent.
“The past couple of games our defense has really won us games,” said Tecza, who added an interception to his two-touchdown rushes. “Coach Kim (Niedbala) and the defensive coaches put a lot of hours and heart into it. For us to get all these turnovers, it is a heart breaker for teams, it’s a momentum changer.”
“That’s been our MO all year, to come out and find that strength within each other,” said Palko. “Once we did we started to do things that we are capable of doing.”
Mt. Lebanon appears to have everything in place to keep this historic ride going all the way to Hershey. They already are the most decorated group in school history, but they do not think that they are done yet.
“We are not finished that’s for sure,” said Tecza.
They are not finished, as they take on the winner of State College and Harrisburg next week. The date, time, and location is not determined, but the winner of that game is expected to host.
“Were just fortunate to get another week to play,” said Palko. “If you can’t get excited for right now, maybe its time to move on to winter sports.”