Mt. Lebanon routs Norwin, looks forward to season finale

Friday, October 18, 2019 | 11:17 PM

Mt. Lebanon will finish among the top four in WPIAL Class 6A, but Blue Devils coach Bob Palko thinks his team can produce more.

The Blue Devils leaned on their rushing attack and got out to a big early lead despite three first-half turnovers, and Mt. Lebanon clinched a first-round home playoff game with a 45-16 win Friday at Norwin.

Mason Ventrone ran for 167 yards and a touchdown to lead No. 4 Mt. Lebanon (6-3, 5-2), which finished with 458 yards, including 342 rushing. But Palko was more concerned about his team’s turnovers and penalties with No. 2 Central Catholic looming in next week’s regular-season finale.

“Lots of sloppy moments. I think the thing for us is, we’ve got to learn to put whole games together,” Palko said. “I thought the officials called a good game. The holds, I’d have called all that stuff against us. We have to see what the issue is, and we have to do something about it. And that stuff happens Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. It doesn’t just show up. So that’s what we have to do.”

The Blue Devils could have pulled away early, especially after Sam LaSota scored the game’s first touchdown on a 53-yard catch from Joey Daniels and then picked off Norwin quarterback Jack Salopek three plays later.

But Mt. Lebanon’s next four chances with the ball ended with a turnover on downs, a touchdown, an interception and a fumble. Even the touchdown in that sequence wasn’t a clean play, as running back Drew Vaughn fumbled into the end zone, only to have teammate Evan Jones fall on the ball for a 14-3 lead.

Norwin (2-7, 1-6), which was eliminated from playoff contention with the loss, only got a 32-yard Joey Castle field goal off the Mt. Lebanon miscues and struggled to sustain drives against the Blue Devils’ swarming defense.

“It’s been like that all year, where we have one side of the ball doing a good thing, and the other side not being able to put everything together,” Knights coach Dave Brozeski said. “We just couldn’t get in a rhythm. The kids battled, which is why I feel bad I wasn’t able to get them a win on their senior night.”

Mt. Lebanon padded its lead to 28-3 at halftime with a 9-yard run by Vaughn and a 30-yard reception by Jones. The Blue Devils ran on all nine plays of the third quarter’s opening drive, which ended with a 1-yard plunge by Ventrone for a 35-3 lead.

Daniels finished with 116 yards on 7-for-13 passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions, and running back Visawn Pennix entered in the second half to finish with 100 yards and a score on 16 rushes for the Blue Devils.

Salopek had 255 yards on 19-for-33 passing for Norwin, but the star quarterback was picked off twice and stripped of the ball twice. For Palko, the defensive big plays were the highlights of the night for his team, in large part because they slowed the Knights’ main weapon.

“I don’t know how many people in the stands realize how good that No. 6 (Salopek) is,” Palko said of the Western Michigan recruit. “I don’t know if you’ll see another young man that talented playing here for a while. That kid can spin the ball, and he’s smart, and he understands the game and the pre-snap reads. I’m serious, he’s really good.”

Running back Hayden O’Bryon had a 1-yard touchdown run and a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Bazala on a direct-snap play for Norwin, which closes its season at playoff-bound Seneca Valley.

“These guys have played together since youth ball, and we’re going to give them the opportunity to finish. Our record this year hasn’t been very good, but I’d go to battle with these guys every single day of the week,” Brozeski said.

As for Palko, who has been through his share of battles as an eight-time WPIAL champion at West Allegheny, he wants to end his first season with the Blue Devils by finding out how high of a level they can reach with Central Catholic and the postseason remaining.

“I hope our guys get up for it. I’m just coming in, getting a feel for these kids, but absolutely, I think we will (be up for the game). But we can’t just talk about it,” Palko said. Central’s maybe the most talented team in the conference, but I don’t worry about that. We need to go prepare and have a great week of practice.”

Matt Grubba is a contributing writer.

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