Central Catholic stands in way of Mt. Lebanon’s 1st WPIAL final since 2000

Friday, October 30, 2020 | 1:39 AM

Mt. Lebanon’s motto this season is simply: Why not us?

When Bob Palko was West Allegheny’s coach, he instilled in his Indians a gritty confidence that they were contenders every season, regardless of whether their opponents had more talent.

Together, they won eight WPIAL titles.

Now in Year 2 at Mt. Lebanon, Palko is trying to instill a similar confidence in a program that hasn’t reached the WPIAL finals in two decades.

“I don’t think it’s a mindset. It’s a lifestyle,” Palko said. “That became a lifestyle (at West A). You can’t control the talent level, but you can sure control effort level. And if we can control effort level, now we’re talking.”

Mt. Lebanon last reached the WPIAL championship game in 2000.

To get there this year, the Blue Devils must go through defending champion Central Catholic, a program that’s reached the WPIAL finals six of the last seven years. No 2 seed Mt. Lebanon (4-2) hosts No. 3 Central Catholic (4-2) at 7 p.m. Friday in a Class 6A semifinal.

The Vikings won the WPIAL’s largest classification four times since 2013 and own seven WPIAL titles since 2000.

“We’re trying to be where they’re at,” Palko said. “When you have a program like Central with the tradition and lineage they have, that’s what we’re trying to be.”

The two teams met three weeks ago at Graham Field in Wilkinsburg and Mt. Lebanon won 37-30 with two fourth-quarter touchdown passes from quarterback Joey Daniels. Central Catholic had led 27-10 in the first half before Mt. Lebanon rallied back.

Daniels finished with 341 passing yards and four touchdowns. His longest was a 78-yarder to receiver Eli Heidenreich.

“They played inspired football and we were very poor tacklers in that game,” Central Catholic coach Terry Totten said. “Hopefully, we’ve worked on a lot of that.”

Central Catholic showed its big-play ability by scoring five different ways in Week 5.

The Vikings scored touchdowns on a 90-yard kickoff return by Brandon Jackson, a 13-yard run by Eddy Tillman, an 18-yard blocked punt return by Devin Barren and a 90-yard catch by Matt Schmitt.

Matthew Schearer added a 37-yard field goal in the third quarter, but Central Catholic was outscored 20-3 in the second half and 14-0 in the fourth quarter.

The come-from-behind win ultimately let Mt. Lebanon earn this playoff home game.

“We’re not naïve enough to think Central isn’t coming back,” Palko said. “I think we got their attention. We’re going to get their best.”

Statistically, the two teams are very similar.

Central Catholic’s offense averages 36 points per game and Mt. Lebanon’s averages 32.2. Defensively, Mt. Lebanon allows 22.5 points per week, which is only slightly more than Central Catholic (21.7).

The fact that the teams played recently — Oct. 9 — may influence game plans, but both coaches said they don’t intend to change too much.

“We’re going to do what we do and they’re going to do what they do,” Palko said.

“You’ve got to prepare and be ready,” Totten said. “The winner moves on and the loser goes home.”

In recent playoff matchups, Central Catholic moved on and Mt. Lebanon went home. The Vikings won 31-14 in the 2019 semifinals. The teams also met in the 2011 quarterfinals, another 31-14 win for Central Catholic.

When Palko was hired at Mt. Lebanon, he said his mission was to instill a winning culture that puts team first. He brought with him ex-West A assistants Andy Barry, Kim Niedbala and Steve Smiley, along with former players Will Weber and Kam Kruze.

“We’re trying to learn to play with grit,” Palko said, “and learn to be what North Allegheny and Central are.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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