PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — Mike Melnyk could probably empathize with someone like Paul Chryst. They’re both in the second year of their present jobs, and they’re both beginning their seasons by leading the team they are against the sort of team they aspire to be.
On Friday Melnyk will take Mount Lebanon (7-1, 8-3 in 2012) back to Newman Stadium, where their previous campaign ended, for a 7:30 non-conference kickoff against defending PIAA Class AAAA champion North Allegheny (7-0, 16-0 in 2012).
Chryst, in fact, sent his linebackers coach and Melnyk’s predecessor, Chris Haering, to recruit top wide receiver and eventual Penn State commit Troy Apke. Apke ranked fifth in the district with 1,048 receiving yards last year, scoring a team-best 14 TD’s.
Now he has his sights on another of the Blue Devils, iron man Alex Bookser (6’6″, 295 lbs.), a 247Sports national top-30 prospect who made all-conference as a defensive tackle.
“Alex is going to be the tip of our spear, so to speak, offensively, and, defensively, he’ll have to be our leader,” Melnyk said of Bookser, who has at least a dozen Division I offers including Pitt’s.
The Tigers have not lost to a district opponent since a regular-season-ending loss to arch-rival North Hills in 2010. They have a No. 3 statewide ranking from MaxPreps entering 2013. But they also have to move on from one of the greatest senior classes in WPIAL history, a voluminous group that won an unprecedented three straight WPIAL Class AAAA titles.
“North Allegheny has been the flagship of WPIAL football for the past several years, and for probably a lot longer than that. It’s a chance to measure where we are against the best. I think you definitely gain more from a game like this,” Melnyk said. “We know we’re going to be prepared.”
These Blue Devils, who carry a No. 15 statewide ranking from MaxPreps, might be able to match up with a perennial position of strength for NA. Mount Lebanon, including Bookser, returns three of its four defensive linemen, and Melnyk expects junior Matt Hoffman to be effective as well.
They’ll try to wear down what should be a steady ground attack by North Allegheny, at least until it’s comfortable with its retooled passing game, that will feature the trio of Sean Idowu, Isaac Weaver, and Josh Bergman. Last year Lebo fielded a bend-but-don’t-break defense that ranked toward the bottom of the WPIAL in yardage allowed, but within the top ten in Quad-A in points allowed (19.1 per game).
“We’ve got to play hard, get off the ball, and stop the run,” said Apke, a 247Sports top-ten Pennsylvania prospect who also starts at free safety. “We’ve been conditioning all week, because last year, we ran out of gas in the second half. We were rolling so many players in and out. This time, we’ve got to make them tired.”
Mount Lebanon, meanwhile, must also groom a new quarterback in lieu of graduated all-conference starter Tyler Roth. Enter junior Kellan Stout (6’2″, 155 lbs.), who has come to believe in himself as this coaching staff has come to believe in him.
“He’s worked real hard since January at working on his footwork, and skills, and management of the game. He just needs repetition and competition,” Melnyk said. “We’re going to spoon-feed him a little bit, and he may make mistakes early on, but as he sees more competition, he’s going to pick up on things.”
“Last year…I learned about decision-making. You do make mistakes, it’s a heat-of-the-moment thing, but you see things, and you think about what you would have done,” Stout said. “[Tyler] was a very efficient passer. I think I can do just as well, and better than that.”
Look for the Blue Devils to possibly return to their roots, at least early in the season, with all that power up front. Senior tailback Jake Rolfsen will lead the running game after posting a team-high 86 carries in 2012, finishing with 348 yards and four touchdowns, and junior Joe Stabile will likely spell him.
Still, Mount Lebanon has become a much more balanced offense under Melnyk, and the team doesn’t doubt it can achieve that balance in spite of losing some skill.
“I know I have to make more plays. Last year, we spent a lot of time just getting the formations down, but now we can run more plays,” Apke said. “He seems to be buying into our offense well, so I think we’ll be okay.”
“To a certain extent, they didn’t quite know what a forward pass was,” Melnyk joked, recalling that first training camp after relieving Haering. “Last year we threw the ball only four more times than we ran the ball. We really do strive for balance. We make them try to defend the run and the pass, and we think it helps both sides.”
Defensively, their counterparts look strong once again, led by all-conference defensive back Elijah Zeise, and blossoming junior linebacker Layne Skundrich, the Tigers’ leading tackler a year ago. Finishing first in the classification in scoring defense again won’t be easy, but the sky over Wexford is never devoid of future stars.
“We have to spread them out,” Stout said. “There’s no algorithm for beating them. It’s about executing. We just have to go out and do our thing.”
“Usually, early in the season, it comes down to turnovers, and penalties, and things like that,” Melnyk said. “The kicking game is always huge early in the season, so we’re just trying to make sure we’re solid in all those areas.”
If they are, then the Blue Devils can do some early message-sending, not just to the rest of the Southeastern Conference, but to the defending champs, and to the rest of Quad-A. A little bit of swagger wouldn’t hurt Lebo in a year when any of the top four teams in their section could contend for WPIAL gold.
Whether Mount Lebanon wins or loses, it will try not to lose the lesson.
“They’ve had our attention for the last 12 months, but we’ve also got Bethel Park to start the conference next week. So we know, when this one is over, we’ve got to put this one behind us and move on to the next one,” Melnyk said.
“We have our guns, and I’d like to stick to them,” Stout said. “I think, if we just stay healthy, we can hang with teams like Woody High, and the rest.”
(Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)