Aaron Panczyk may be back at Mt. Lebanon. The truth, however, is he never left.
“Coach bleeds blue and gold,” said athletic director John Grogan after Panczyk’s promotion from assistant to varsity boys soccer head coach.
Panczyk grew up in Mt. Lebanon.
The 1995 graduate helped the Blue Devils reach the WPIAL finals twice in his scholastic career. Lebo captured a championship during his junior year.
After a track career at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Panczyk took over ownership of Sunburst Sportswear, located on Castle Shannon Boulevard. He also married his high-school sweetheart, Kate, and they settled down in their hometown, where they are raising their 5-year-old daughter, Isla.
Panczyk, 43, also embarked on his coaching career. His first gig was as the Lebo boys freshman coach in 1999.
He then took a stint at Seton LaSalle. There he guided the Rebels to two state championships. In 2006, the Rebels finished 24-1. In 2008, they posted a 25-0 record.
In 2009, he joined Ron Wilcher and helped Lebo win a WPIAL title. The following year, Panczyk moved to the girls team. It was a gut-wrenching season as the top-ranked Blue Devils fell to Hampton in a shootout during the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.
“Most devastating loss as a coach,” Panczyk said. “We hit the post. We hit the cross bars. Everything but put the ball in the net.”
Panczyk coached the girls team for four more season. He resigned in 2015, but assumed duties as an assistant track coach. He also volunteered to help Bill Perz with the boys’soccer team.
Last fall, the Blue Devils finished 16-6-1 and won a section title. Lebo dropped a 3-2 overtime decision to section rival Canon-McMillan in the WPIAL title game.
The Blue Devils’ 2019 campaign ended with a 1-0 loss to Central Bucks West in the PIAA quarterfinals.
“In an ideal world, I would have continued as an assistant,” Panczyk said. “Billy certainly advocated for me (as his replacement). So I was thrilled.”
Grogan is equally excited.
“He brings a wealth of experience,” he said. “He is very familiar with where our program stands.
Grogan said Panczyk “knows and understands” Lebo’s student athletes, school and culture.
“We’re very excited to have him aboard and looking forward to him building a competitive team on a yearly basis and creating a positive experience for our team,” Grogan said.
Although the Blue Devils graduate six senior starters from last year’s roster, Panczyk intends to meet those expectations laid out for him. He said he is not a believer in rebuilding years because Lebo soccer has been on the map for a long time.
Mt. Lebanon owns 10 WPIAL titles and one PIAA championship, which the Blue Devils won in 1981.
“The ultimate goal. The ultimate prize,” Panczyk said of winning a PIAA title. “It takes a lot of hard work from a lot of people to get there.”
Panczyk said, however, his main objectives are player-based.
“We want to provide a positive atmosphere for kids to grow as soccer players and human beings.”
Panczyk said the Blue Devils are already competing at the highest level.
“It’s a grind to play in this section, but we are certainly preparing them for a playoff run,” he said of his team. “The goal is to be at the top of the section and to make the playoffs every year.”
Preparing for championships is a challenge during the coronavirus pandemic, as the PIAA has banned team activities and organized practices until at least July 1.
“I’m hoping kids are staying as engaged with the game as they can be. You can always do juggling and footwork drills,” Panczyk said. “Some kids are motivated all the time. Some need the motivation of their peers. That often comes from captain’s practices and semi-organized practices and battles. But we don’t have that. We’ve lost that.
“We are trying to provide applications and technical skills drills through utilization of the internet and other social media, but it’s really up to the individual,” he added. “We need to get every individual working on their own for the good of the team.”
Whether there are scholastic sports teams in the fall remains a mystery. Panczyk is hoping for the best although he said it’s hard to imagine what the season will look like.
“This whole pandemic has been an eye opener in how unprepared we were, but there will be change,” he said. “There will be limitations. Until there’s a vaccine, it’s tough to see filled sports venues.”
Panczyk said it would also be tough to imagine athletes playing their games wearing masks.
“If that’s what it took,” he said, “then we’d certainly do it. I’d rather they suggest doing that before they think about canceling the season again.”
What the future holds may be uncertain. For Panczyk, though, his position assures familiarity.
“The great thing about owning a business and coaching in the community is that I get to see the kids and their family members all the time. I see them in the grocery store, at the car wash or in a restaurant. I even see guys who used to play for me. I’ve always wanted that, to be engaged in a community and what it’s youth are doing. Mt. Lebanon does a great job with that. It’s the aspect that makes being part of this community so special.”