There are lots of questions surrounding the West Allegheny football program heading into the 2019 season.
Not only will Bob Palko not be leading the Indians for the first time since 1995, but his replacement in waiting, Kim Niedbala, who worked closely with Palko during the 2018 campaign, also is gone.
The man West Allegheny fans hope has the answers to those questions is new head football coach Chris Lucas.
Lucas was an assistant coach under Palko at West Allegheny 10 years ago and was an assistant at Avonworth, Northgate and North Catholic. He spent last season as the head coach at Bishop Canevin.
So does Lucas feel the pressure for taking over for a coach won eight district championships, the most in WPIAL history?
“That seems to be the question I get most often,” he said. “It does help a lot to have taught here for the last nine years, and to have been able to coach on the staff for a year. I learned so much from Coach Palko and the rest of his staff in just that one year.
“To be honest, I really hadn’t thought about applying for the job until late in the process. And before that it definitely ran through my mind that it would be tough for anyone to follow Coach Palko after all he has done and accomplished. But at this point I really don’t feel pressure in the sense of taking over from Coach Palko.”
The players seem to be all in on the new coach.
“Coach Lucas is awesome,” senior quarterback and linebacker Kam Kruze said. “We couldn’t have asked for anyone better to step in. Hopefully, we could start his first season off right.”
A first-year coach at any school who was not associated with the team the previous season always has a little more work to do just familiarizing himself with the program. Communication and homework are the keys, said Lucas.
“Most of what I have learned about the 2018 season came from watching the film from last year and talking with the coaches that stayed on staff,” he said. “The conference is extremely competitive. There were a lot of close games that West A was able to pull out on their way to the WPIAL championship.
“There were quite a few younger players who were able to gain experience along the way, and those players are the ones that we will need to step up this fall to take on a larger role.”
The Indians return only two starters on offense and four on defense from a team that finished 10-3 and lost to Penn Hills, 28-18, in the WPIAL Class 5A title game.
Kruze leads the way on offense. He is a dual threat at quarterback with 1,386 yards passing and 16 touchdowns to go along with 352 yards on the ground with seven scoring runs.
Senior Michael Baker leads the way up front on both the offensive and defensive lines.
“He is a strong kid with great technique,” Lucas said. “He is very smart too, which allows him to know all of his assignments and those around him.”
Junior running back/linebacker Nico Flati was second on the team in rushing last year with 509 yards.
“Nico has really increased his strength this off season,” Lucas said. “He is very explosive, fast and tough as nails. We are excited to see what he does in the backfield for us this year.”
Junior running back and cornerback Paul Newton started in the secondary last year and has great speed to excel on both sides of the ball.
Senior running back and linebacker Kyle Marett was a starter at OLB last year and is another player with very good speed.
While the head coach and some players are new at West A, the blue collar attitude of working hard and being driven to be the best is not.
“I’m very happy with the progress we have made this summer and how we adapted to the coaching change,” Kruze said. “Everyone has bought in, and I can’t wait to see what the season brings us.”
While time is limited before West Allegheny begins the post-Palko era, Lucas said the players make it easy to put in all the time needed before the season begins.
“We have such a great group of kids here at West Allegheny. They amaze me every day with their commitment and work ethic,” Lucas said. “It is truly enjoyable to come to practice every day to work with them because their attitudes are infectious. I am excited to see how what we have done over the summer translates once we put the pads on and start competing.”
Coach: Chris Lucas
2018 record: 10-3, 6-1
All-time record: 368-347-14
Date, Opponent, Time
8.30, Chartiers Valley*, 7
9.6, at Bethel Park*, 7
9.13, at Peters Township*, 7
9.20, Upper St. Clair*, 7
9.27, at Woodland Hills*, 7
10.4, Baldwin*, 7
10.11, Hampton, 7
10.18, at North Allegheny, 7
10.25, Moon*, 7
*Class 5A Allegheny 8 Conference game
Passing: Kam Kruze
107-176, 1,386 yards, 16 TDs
Rushing: Dante Flati*
184-925 yards, 10 TDs
Receiving: Mateo Vandamia*
28-355 yards, 6 TDs