Mt. Lebanon dethrones St. Joseph’s Prep to win 1st state championship

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Saturday, December 11, 2021 | 8:46 PM


HERSHEY – There’s a new champion in PIAA Class 6A football, which surely surprises much of the state.

“It’s a surprise to everybody but us,” said Mt. Lebanon senior Alex Tecza, who scored three times Saturday night, including two touchdowns in a 90-second fourth-quarter span as the Blue Devils celebrated a blustery 35-17 victory in the finals over St. Joseph’s Prep, a three-time defending state champion.

The PIAA title was the first for Mt. Lebanon (15-0), which had never reached Hersheypark Stadium until now.

“We knew from January that we were going to win this thing,” Tecza said. “We knew how good we were. We didn’t care what everybody else thought. We knew we were special.”

St. Joseph’s Prep (11-3) had largely owned the state’s largest classification, winning six PIAA titles in the past eight years. But Mt. Lebanon scored touchdowns on three of its first four possessions to take a 21-7 lead it never lost.

“Not a lot of people other than the people on that sideline thought we were going to win this game today,” quarterback Joey Daniels said. “St. Joe’s Prep is one great team. They gave us probably our best test this year. This very well could have been their win, but we pulled through and fought together as a team.”

The state title was the second for coach Bob Palko, who won a Class 3A title in 2001 with West Allegheny. In his 24 years there, his teams earned a reputation for finding ways to overcome opponents with more Division I recruits.

One of his longtime West A assistants and close friends Mark Davis recently died unexpectedly, making Saturday’s win more emotional.

“It’s kind of surreal,” Palko said. “I did it without my buddy. But, hey, he’s looking down. He’s up with Coach (Guy Rippole, another West A assistant), and hopefully they’re drinking a beer and enjoying it.”

Mt. Lebanon made this a record-setting weekend for the WPIAL.

Never before had the WPIAL won four state titles in one season. Penn-Trafford (5A), Aliquippa (4A) and Central Valley (3A) also won state titles. Mt. Lebanon became only the second WPIAL team to win the 6A after Pine-Richland in 2017.

Daniels passed for 203 yards and two touchdowns, despite strong winds that made throwing difficult.

Tecza had 134 yards from scrimmage and scored touchdowns on a 6-yard catch in the second quarter and runs of 2 and 4 yards in the fourth. Eli Heidenreich, the third member of Lebo’s high-scoring trio, had a 12-yard touchdown run.

But this win needed more than just those three.

Junior receiver Mike Beiersdorf entered Saturday with only 15 catches yet scored Mt. Lebanon’s first touchdown on an 86-yard reception that saw him fight off a tackler. The first-quarter touchdown came 18 seconds after St. Joseph’s Prep had taken a 7-0 lead, stealing momentum from the defending champs.

“We knew we needed to start fast,” Palko said. “The other thing we needed was turnovers.”

Matt Wertz provided two of those. The Blue Devils senior intercepted passes on consecutive third-quarter possessions, part of a defensive effort that held St. Joseph’s Prep to 66 yards from scrimmage after halftime. Prep quarterback Samaj Jones didn’t complete a pass in the second half and took four of his five sacks after halftime. Jack Smith sacked him twice.

Jones, a sophomore with a Temple offer, went 9 for 19 passing for 152 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He rushed for 76 yards but lost 38 on sacks and fumbled once.

“They have some great players, and obviously they have a great staff that prepares those young men,” Prep coach Tim Roken said. “We fell short tonight. I take that one on my shoulders as head coach. … Somebody has got to go home a loser tonight. Unfortunately, we wound up on that end.”

St. Joseph’s Prep took a 7-0 lead with a touchdown on its opening possession. The Hawks moved 74 yards in 10 plays, ending with a 4-yard pass from Jones to junior Josiah Trotter on fourth-and-goal. Trotter, another of the team’s many Division I recruits, is the son of former NFL linebacker Jeremiah Trotter.

“They really fueled the fire,” Daniels said. “They let me know from their first drive that this is going to be a game.”

Mt. Lebanon responded with three quick touchdown drives to lead 21-7. The drives lasted one, two and six plays.

The Blue Devils’ first drive lasted one play. Daniels threw downfield to Beiersdorf, who shed a tackle and out-ran the defense for an 86-yard game-tying touchdown.

Less than a minute later, Mt. Lebanon found the end zone again.

The Blue Devils recovered a fumble deep in Prep territory and needed only two plays to score. A 12-yard touchdown run by Heidenreich gave Lebo a 14-7 lead.

Mt. Lebanon extended its lead to 21-7 early in the second quarter on a 5-yard run by Tecza. The touchdown run capped a six-play, 61-yard drive.

St. Joseph’s Prep responded with two red zone drives before half, but only one reached the end zone. Jones scored on a 2-yard touchdown run with about six minutes left, cutting Mt. Lebanon’s lead to seven.

With 9 seconds left in the first half, Prep had another scoring chance. The Hawks had first-and-goal at the 2 but settled for a 20-yard field goal try that missed.

Mt. Lebanon led 21-14 at half.

The only third-quarter points were a 26-yard field goal by Prep kicker Antonio Chadha, so Mt. Lebanon entered the fourth with a 21-17 lead. Wertz’s interceptions negated two scoring chances.

“To people that don’t know what goes on in our program and at our school, they’ll be surprised,” Wertz said. “That’s St. Joe’s Prep. They’re known as a powerhouse. We proved that they can be beaten today. It’s truly something special for the community.”

With the strong winds and rain limiting both offenses, a special teams play gave Mt. Lebanon a fourth-quarter spark. With about eight minutes left, Heidenreich returned a punt 27 yards to Prep’s 25.

From there, Tecza carried the ball six times in a row, ending with a 2-yard touchdown to lead 28-17. About 90 seconds later, Tecza found the end zone again on a 4-yard run.

In between, Prep lost 18 yards in four plays. Desperate, the Hawks tried to convert a fourth-and-26, but Jones was sacked my Smith.

“If people are surprised, they’re allowed to be,” Palko said. “But it doesn’t matter, because we did it today when we needed to.”

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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