Mt. Lebanon makes WPIAL take notice with win over Gateway

Friday, August 25, 2023 | 11:45 PM

After a two-touchdown game, Mt. Lebanon sophomore Patrick Smith declared his team is ready to shock the state.

While those lofty expectations are for later in the season, the Blue Devils did stun the district on opening night.

Mt. Lebanon dominated the line of scrimmage and kept the high-powered Gateway offense off the scoreboard until midway through the fourth quarter as the Class 6A Blue Devils upset the Class 5A top-ranked Gators, 28-7.

The victory came in the debut for Mike Collodi as head coach at Mt. Lebanon. The former Elizabeth Forward coach took over this offseason after Bob Palko resigned at the end of the 2022 season.

“Coach Collodi says he wants all of the teams that play us to say, ‘That is the most physical team we’ve ever played,’ ” Smith said. “That’s what we want to hear, that we’re the most physical team out there.”

Gateway came out and looked like the team to beat in 5A on the first drive, moving the ball from its own 33-yard line to the Mt. Lebanon 11.

On fourth-and-1, Gators quarterback Brad Birch ran an option right, but his pitch to running back Jaquon Reynolds was knocked down and picked up by Smith, who broke a tackle on his way to an 89-yard fumble return touchdown.

“That was huge,” Collodi said. “For him to make that play and get us rolling out of a bad situation with momentum was huge.”

Smith suspected that play might be coming on fourth-and-short.

“We scouted them from last year doing the option so many times, and my responsibility was the running back,” Smith said. “I see Birch trying to pitch it, and I was just trying to get some deflection or hit somebody and it hit me, dropped on the floor and I picked it up and ran. I was just going to dive on it, but when I picked it up, I just kept running.”

The Gators’ miscue turned Blue Devils touchdown seemed to be a punch from which Gateway could not recover.

“We had a great opening drive, then a really sloppy play and we couldn’t get momentum back,” Gateway coach Don Holl said. “We didn’t pass protect well and didn’t play defense the way we usually play defense. I think we got a little tired.”

The Gators would run only 11 more plays the rest of the half: three straight three-and-outs and two short pass completions in the final 9 seconds of the second quarter.

In between, Mt. Lebanon started to possess the ball and eat away at the clock.

After a drive led to a missed field goal, the Blue Devils added to their lead in the second quarter when senior Beckham Dee scored on a 1-yard run that was set up by a Michael Malone-to-Noah Schaerli 34-yard pitch and catch.

After both teams punted to start the second half, Mt. Lebanon scored again. Smith came in at quarterback for the series and kept the ball three times for 58 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown run.

“We have our first quarterback, Michael Malone, who is amazing,” Smith said. “Then I come in as more of a running type. I faked the hand-off, and things opened up. Our great line and our H-back were able to block, and it was perfect.”

Both teams scored touchdowns in the final quarter, Mt. Lebanon on a 9-yard scoring pass from Malone to Ezra Heidenreich and Gateway on a Birch 9-yard run.

Birch had hardly any time to throw the ball and was sacked six times. He ended up completing 14 of 19 passes for 103 yards as the Gators were limited to 141 yards of total offense.

“You don’t always know what you’re going to get in Week Zero, and we sure didn’t have it (Friday),” Holl said. “Credit to them. They did a great job, and we didn’t do anything we wanted to do. We’ll get back to work.”

Mt. Lebanon (1-0) rushed for 207 yards with Smith leading the way with 68 yards on only six carries. Senior Fred LaSota was the workhouse for the Blue Devils with 60 yards on 15 carries.

Malone was 4 of 8 for 60 yards and a touchdown.

“Game planning was a little difficult because I’m not familiar with our opponent at all,” Collodi said. “I give all the credit to the kids. They played a heckuva game. My staff did a great job, too, with limited resources. We worked them pretty hard during the summer, but I told them it would pay off and luckily it paid off in Week Zero.”

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