By Matt Popchock
Toughness was a trademark of the 2010 Blue Devils. They had two Division I recruits along their line, and the focal point of their offense was star tailback/defensive back Luke Hagy, a complete player who has never been loathe to pay a price for success.
This year the mental toughness of Mount Lebanon may be tested just as much as their physical prowess. With the competition in the Great Southern Conference stiffening, can Lebo grow from a painful ending to the previous campaign?
Last year, behind veteran head coach Chris Haering, the Blue Devils edged a growing Upper St. Clair squad for the conference title, and had the look of a team that could give the school its first WPIAL Class AAAA Final berth in football since 2000. But seventh-seeded Woodland Hills out-toughed second-seeded Lebo, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in the first overtime of a heart-breaking 29-22 Quarterfinal game at Baldwin High School.
Football, at any level, is a team game. Woodland Hills won as a team that night, and Mount Lebanon lost as a team. In scholastic football, though, it’s a lot easier for one player to carry a team, and Hagy, who was named the 2010-11 Post-Gazette Male Athlete of the Year for his contributions to three of Mount Lebanon’s teams, needs to have an equally excellent senior season for the Blue Devils to remain a viable part of the championship chase in Quad-A.
A first-team All-Great Southern Conference honoree as a junior, Hagy finished fourth in the WPIAL in rushing yards and sixth in total scoring during the regular season, ranking second in his classification in both categories entering the playoffs. He finished the year with 1,981 yards and 28 touchdowns on the ground, averaging seven yards a carry, and also caught 13 passes out of the backfield for 117 yards and another score.
In all, Hagy accounted for 176 points. Lebo scored 318 as a team last season, good for a 28.9 per-game average that ended up fourth in Class AAAA.
In order to rival those numbers, Hagy needs to be well-protected, which will be a taller order this year with offensive lineman Tim Cwalina having moved on to the University of Virginia, and tight end Paul Lang getting ready to play on Saturdays at Michigan State. He’ll have to rely on senior lineman and Wisconsin recruit Arthur Goldberg to swallow up a few extra would-be tacklers.
Goldberg didn’t seem to have any problems anchoring the defense as a junior; he too made first team all-conference, and the Blue Devils ultimately allowed 15.8 points per game, ranking second in the conference behind Upper St. Clair and seventh in Class AAAA. He’ll need some help back there, because losing running back/defensive back Jake Alberts to graduation, a player who led the team with four interceptions, including a pick-six, and ran for five TD’s as Hagy’s backup, is a blow.
Perhaps the bigger concern for Mount Lebanon, however, is re-organizing its aerial attack…though the two issues are somewhat related.
Ideally, the Blue Devils would probably want their offense to be as balanced as possible to take pressure off Hagy, and it helps that senior quarterback Pat Goff is coming off a decent year in which he threw nine TD passes against just three INT’s, completing 61.5% of his passes for 811 yards.
What doesn’t help is the fact that, in essence, Mount Lebanon loses its entire receiving corps from 2010, which puts more pressure on senior Dan Graziano and junior brothers Tim and Mike Briercheck. The trio combined for eight catches, 89 yards, and one touchdown in limited action. Besides, for much of Haering’s 17 years at the helm of this program, the Blue Devils have been a meat-and-potatoes football team, which, once again, means Hagy’s success will likely be directly proportional to the team’s success.
Fortunately those three receivers can also plug in some of those aforementioned holes on the defensive side of the ball. Graziano is a competent DB, and the Brierchecks may have a much greater say this season in how effective that unit is.
Having said that, Lebo might actually have some catching up to do to USC this time around. When you look at their two arch-rivals, and you consider that Bethel Park graduated top tailback Bre’ Ford, the Panthers look much more prepared for a run at the conference crown. Defensively they were as efficient as the Blue Devils, despite not beating them in 2010, they have Dakota Conwell, one of the most versatile athletes in the entire district, and they have toughness in the trenches that mirrors what Mount Lebanon boasted last year.
Be surprised if the championship of the Great Southern Conference doesn’t come down to those two again. If Hagy stays healthy, and if the blue-collar Blue Devils get some big efforts from the big men on both sides of the line, be even less surprised if they push past their disappointing finish last fall.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)