Mt. Lebanon seeks 1st WPIAL title in decades vs. Central Catholic team familiar with finals

Saturday, November 20, 2021 | 3:09 AM

On one sideline will be Mt. Lebanon, the undefeated No. 1 seed in the WPIAL playoffs that is making its first championship appearance since 2000.

On the other side is Central Catholic, a two-time defending WPIAL champion that reached the finals more often than not in the past decade.

Which team is the favorite and which the underdog?

“It’s real, real simple: Central Catholic is the defending champion,” Mt. Lebanon coach Bob Palko said. “What is it, eight of the last nine years they’ve been in the finals? This is real common for them. It’s uncommon for us. They have something that we would like to share. With that being said, until that happens, Central Catholic is the champ.”

That dynamic could change at 7 p.m. Saturday when No. 1 Mt. Lebanon (11-0) and No. 2 Central Catholic (9-2) meet in the WPIAL Class 6A final at Norwin. Mt. Lebanon won 35-14 over Central Catholic in Week 6, an indication that the Blue Devils’ 21-year wait for another WPIAL title could end soon.

“We’ll find out Saturday at 10 o’clock or whenever,” Palko said.

Central Catholic has reached the finals three years in a row and for the eighth time in nine seasons. The Vikings are trying to win their sixth title since 2013, so calling them underdogs is maybe a stretch.

“We understand and respect how good they are,” Central Catholic coach Terry Totten said. “It’s a challenge, but I don’t want to say ‘underdog.’”

When the teams played in Week 6, their game was interrupted by lightning with Mt. Lebanon leading 21-7 in the third quarter. The game resumed the next morning and Mt. Lebanon extended its lead to 21 points.

Central Catholic struggled to stop Mt. Lebanon’s rushing attack that week. Blue Devils running back Alex Tecza rushed for 256 yards on 29 carries and scored twice. For the season, the senior has 1,552 yards and 18 touchdowns.

Against Central Catholic, Tecza scored on runs of 3 and 43 yards.

“Certainly, we have to limit their running game,” Totten said. “That’s always a goal, and we certainly didn’t live up to that part of the game plan. They ran the ball all over us. If that happens, you’re not going to win a football game.”

Totten said sophomore middle linebacker Anthony Speca is questionable for Saturday’s game. Speca is already a major college recruit. His absence would be a blow to the Vikings defense.

Also dealing with an injury is Mt. Lebanon quarterback Joey Daniels, a 1,300-yard passer. Daniels sat out the second half of last week’s game. Palko referred to Daniels’ ailment only as an “upper-body injury,” but said the quarterback is expected to play Saturday.

Central Catholic’s best offensive weapon has been running back Gannon Carothers. The senior has rushed for 975 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. Carothers returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown against Mt. Lebanon in Week 6.

“Whoever is able to run the football better will probably prevail,” Palko said. “It’s November.”

Yet, both teams can throw the football, too. Mt. Lebanon receiver Eli Heidenreich has 35 catches and 18 touchdowns. Central Catholic quarterback Payton Wehner is a 1,300-yard passer with 17 touchdowns. This sophomore’s top target is wideout Brandon Jackson, who has 42 receptions.

Much of Central Catholic’s lineup already has championship experience, including seniors Carothers, Jackson and lineman Donovan Hinish, a Notre Dame recruit.

If Central Catholic has a clear edge anywhere, it’s that experience.

“I think having been there helps,” Totten said.

This will a new experience for everyone on Mt. Lebanon’s roster since none were alive 21 years ago, the last time the Blue Devils even reached the WPIAL finals. But this isn’t new for Palko, who won eight WPIAL titles in his 24 years at West Allegheny. This is his third season at Mt. Lebanon.

“It’s familiar territory for me, but it doesn’t matter,” Palko said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the kids. … It’s kind of neat to see how excited they are. But all that stuff will come crumbling down real quickly if we don’t lock in and play how we need to play in the championship game.”

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

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