Mt. Lebanon now has one state championship to its football program’s credit.
The current crop of Blue Devils expect more to come.
“This is the new normal,” said Alex Tecza after helping Lebo capture the PIAA Class 6A title with a 35-17 win over St. Joseph’s Prep Dec. 12 in Hershey. “This should be the new norm for Mt. Lebanon football.”
Lebo’s two-year starting center James Kline agreed.
Kline said the 2021 campaign, which saw the Blue Devils compile a 15-0 record complete with a conference championship and WPIAL title, was not typical.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” he said. “To finish your last high school football game with a win in the state finals and win every game your senior year is something everyone wants but it’s hard to do.”
The accomplishment also didn’t occur overnight.
Tecza said it started in grade school when the 22 core seniors were playing youth football for Chip Dalesandro. A 1976 Lebo grad, Dalesandro has been involved in coaching football at the high school level as well as in the Mt. Lebanon Youth Football Association since the early 1980s.
“Obviously everything depends on the players,” Tecza said regarding creating championship caliber clubs.
Tecza said St. Joe’s had more “skilled players” and a handful of star players that eventually will play at the Division I collegiate level and higher.
“What is so special about us, though, is we are homegrown,” he said. “I have grown up playing with these guys since first grade. That’s how we won. The teamwork, the culture, the brotherhood. That’s what ended up winning the championship for us.”
After compiling an 8-1 record as freshmen, the 2021 group of Blue Devils seniors underwent a huge change in February 2019. Mt. Lebanon hired Bob Palko as head varsity football coach. A proven winner with eight district and one state title pocketed during his tenure at West Allegheny, Palko changed the culture and demanded excellence and dedication from all involved in the program, including the community.
“When coach Palko came you could tell immediately things were different,” Tecza said. “Before he came, football was just a hobby, an activity, something to do. Something to stay in shape with.”
Like many of his teammates, Tecza is a two-sport athlete at Lebo. He also competes in lacrosse.
Tecza said Palko turned the team into a family.
“These are my brothers,” Jack Smith said. “My best friends for life. I have gotten so close with these guys, especially in the last games, that it’s getting emotional knowing the season is over. We have been through so much. It’s been crazy and amazing.”
“I have never felt anything like this,” he said. “It’s a real brotherhood. There is nothing like it. When someone does something amazing we all jump around like crazy. We are a team. We all love each other and the community. When we rally together, we are able to do anything.”
Beginning in late August, Lebo did most anything it wanted. The Blue Devils started the season rolling over neighborhood rivals Bethel Park, Upper St. Clair, Peters Township and Canon-McMillan before dominating the Quad County Conference.
After beating North Allegheny, 28-17, in the WPIAL semifinals, Lebo blasted Central Catholic, 47-14, to grab its first WPIAL title in 21 years.
A 47-14 victory over McDowell, followed by a 49-28 win over State College, put the Blue Devils in position to win their first-ever state title.
The Blue Devils used a 203-yard passing performance by Joey Daniels and an 89-yard rushing effort by Tecza to propel them to victory against St. Joseph’s Prep.
Daniels tossed scoring strikes of 86 yards to Mike Beiersdorf and 6 yards to Tecza, who also added rushing touchdowns of 2 and 4 yards. Eli Heidenreich also had a 13-yard touchdown run and Noah Bhuta provided the extra points.
Daniels, Tecza and Heidenreich fueled the Blue Devils all season.
All three are four-year starters with Tecza and Heidenreich also anchoring a defense that surrendered only 11.5 points per game.
Daniels completed 112 of 189 passes for 2,111 yards and 31 scores this fall.
Tecza rushed for 2,070 yards on 258 carries. He tallied 29 touchdowns.
Heidenreich, who led the team in tackles, finished with 54 receptions for 1,330 yards. He racked up 29 scores.
Tecza insisted the trio wasn’t what made the Blue Devils run.
“It’s not just us three. We have Sam (Ward), Charlie (Pellegrino), Dan (King). The best front in all of football and nobody talks about those guys. It’s special what we have on this team. It’s a culture, a brotherhood,” he said.
Tecza said the PIAA championship is meaningful for everybody associated with the football program.
“This is for the community and everyone who has come before us,” he said. “People have won WPIAL championships. We knew that but we wanted to do what no one else had. We wanted to leave a lasting legacy.”
And the 2021 Blue Devils may have done just that.
James Harvey played on Lebo’s 2000 WPIAL championship team, and his youngest brother, William, was a two-way lineman on this year’s team. Harvey’s own son and nephew are already playing in the youth program that developed the 2021 team.
Harvey said there are as many as 250 kids “going to the rock pile” to play. They are attending mini-combines as well as camps instructed by the varsity coaches and players. They also go to the games and envision themselves as Daniels finding Heidenreich for a touchdown pass or Tecza rushing into the end zone.
“The kids are pumped up for football. It’s a grassroots thing and there’s a direct influence on their psyche when they watched the team play,” Harvey said.
“There is a shear amount of interest in playing football now. It’s because of the players, the coaches and the support team that enabled this culture change. I really do see it echoing down. For the next 10, 20 years Lebo’s going to have some big teams.”