Home field in playoffs likely at stake as Mt. Lebanon visits Seneca Valley

Friday, October 23, 2020 | 4:30 AM

If Mt. Lebanon wins Friday’s regular-season finale at Seneca Valley, the Blue Devils will likely receive one of the top two seeds in the WPIAL Class 6A playoffs.

With it comes a first-round home game.

But if Seneca Valley wins, the one-loss Raiders can make an equally strong argument to host next week instead.

“We know it’s a big game. Everybody knows it’s a big game,” Seneca Valley coach Ron Butschle said. “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know when the last time we had a home playoff game at Seneca. It’s been a long, long time.

“But that’s all stuff that happens as a result of focusing on this week.”

In other words, don’t get caught looking ahead when Mt. Lebanon (3-2, 3-2) visits Seneca Valley (4-1, 4-1) at 7:30 p.m. Friday. In fact, there’s a chance a Mt. Lebanon loss could jeopardize the Blue Devils’ playoff position entirely. But in WPIAL season interrupted by frequent covid-19 shutdowns, nothing ever seems truly guaranteed.

“At some point you have to be grateful for what you have,” Mt. Lebanon coach Bob Palko said. “If it works out, it works out. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

Only four teams will qualify for the WPIAL playoffs in Class 6A, but the classification’s standings were left unbalanced by coronavirus cancellations. Seven of the eight teams have missed at least one game, meaning the WPIAL football committee on Saturday will choose the four playoff teams.

North Allegheny (5-0, 4-0) leads Class 6A, followed by Seneca Valley, Mt. Lebanon, Central Catholic (3-2, 3-2) and Canon-McMillan (2-3, 2-3).

“We’re not talking about the playoffs as a team,” Butschle said. “We spent a lot of time and put a lot of effort into preparing for Mt. Lebo. We have a big task ahead of us. They’re on a roll. They’re very good and they have a lot to play for. Our mindset is we want to be 5-1.”

Each team has won its past two games. Mt. Lebanon is coming off a 48-14 win over Norwin. Seneca Valley defeated Baldwin, 19-16, in overtime. But they won in different ways.

Mt. Lebanon quarterback Joey Daniels threw for four touchdowns last week, raising his season total to 13. He’s passed for 853 yards as the Blue Devils opened up their offense.

“I think they throw better than anyone we’ve seen this year,” Butschle said. “A lot of that has to do with the guy who’s throwing the ball and the guys who are catching the ball. They’re good at what they do.”

Mt. Lebanon reached the playoffs last season with 14 sophomores earning a varsity letter. Those players, now juniors, make up a large portion of the lineup. Daniels is a junior, and so is running back Alex Tecza, who has a team-high eight touchdowns.

“We’re learning how to become a team,” said Palko, who’s in his second season as Mt. Lebanon’s coach. “You’ve got to learn to play together and learn that it’s about the guy next to you.”

Mt. Lebanon’s offense shows many different looks. Left tackle Kade Capristo scored a rushing touchdown last week on a lateral from Daniels, highlighting Palko’s aggressive approach.

“They do a lot of things on offense in terms of formations and window dressing,” Butschle said. “There are a lot of ‘trick’ things that will throw you off your game.”

Seneca Valley has leaned heavily on its defense, a winning strategy for the Raiders since losing starting quarterback Dustin Horn and their best offensive weapon, Ethan West, to injuries. Neither senior has played since Week 4.

Backup quarterback Brian Olan replaced Horn behind center. The junior passed for 267 yards and two touchdowns in Week 5, but was intercepted three times last week. Running back Nolan Dworek has six touchdowns and 339 rushing yards in place of West.

“We’re doing all we can with what we’ve got,” Butschle said. “I still think what we’ve got is pretty good.”

Said Palko: “They’re finding out their personality and finding their ways.”

Mt. Lebanon is trying to reach the postseason for the seventh year in a row. Seneca Valley reached four of the past five, but the Raiders haven’t hosted a postseason game since 2013.

“We’re just looking to win a game Friday night,” Butschle said. “But knowing what’s at stake, it’s hard not to think about that.”

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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