Seton LaSalle looks to keep building in Zmijanac’s 2nd season

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Tuesday, September 1, 2020 | 10:39 PM


It wouldn’t have been surprising if coach Mike Zmijanac said he made changes to his coaching style when he arrived at Seton LaSalle.

After all, Seton LaSalle is a Catholic school with a small roster. Aliquippa is a big-roster public school in a football-mad town where he won six WPIAL titles and a state championship in a 21-year tenure that ended in February 2018.

Zmijanac said he’s still the same old coach, however, but that’s not because he doesn’t realize the circumstances around him are different.

It’s because his coaching style was never as extreme as his reputation might have suggested.

“I don’t know what the image was, but I was never a hollerer or screamer or carrying-on kind of coach,” Zmijanac said. “When the game started, I was insane like all of us are. But as far as practice, I was a creative writing teacher for 39 years. I always viewed myself as a teacher, not a coach. Coaching was just something I did on the side. So change my style? Not really.”

Hired in December 2018 after a winless season at Ringgold, Zmijanac considered his first season with the Rebels a success despite the team’s 2-7 record for a couple of reasons.

First, he felt he was welcomed with open arms.

“The administration, the teachers, the coaches from other sports, the principal, the parents, they’ve treated us wonderfully,” he said. “I have absolutely no complaints.”

Second, he felt he started to lay the foundation for a successful future.

“Your first goal when you come into a program, wherever it is, should be to build the program. And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to build the program,” Zmijanac said. “We made some progress. We only won two games, but we were making progress.”

Seton LaSalle lost a handful of key contributors, especially in the passing game, to graduation after last season. Wide receiver Max Schipani committed to the University of Albany. Tight end Alex Shaughnessy accepted a preferred walk-on offer at Saint Francis. Quarterback Joey Ranft headed to Westminster, and key offensive lineman Michael Orsi picked Washington & Jefferson.

Zmijanac likes the team he has coming back, however.

The Rebels have a deep group of juniors and seniors at the skill positions. Junior running back Gabe Finale, a three-year starter, leads the way.

The offensive line returns four starters, including Liam Halligan, a 6-foot-5, 275-pound junior.

“I have some young players, some underclassmen who can play,” Zmijanac said. “My first 14, 15 kids are pretty darn good.”

Playing with a smaller roster has been an adjustment for Zmijanac, but bigger isn’t always better, he’s learned. He recalled looking at his 1999 Aliquippa roster in the preseason and seeing only 29 names, including freshmen.

“I have 29 players. That’s the bad news,” he remembered. “The good news is I have 29 players. Sometimes numbers aren’t everything. The next two years, we went 26-2.”

As the season nears, Zmijanac is reminded of one other lesson he learned on the Aliquippa sideline that applies to today. Sometimes, it takes a little while to get a program firing on all cylinders.

“When I first started with Don Yanessa, Aliquippa had won 12 games in nine years when Don took that program over,” Zmijanac said. “People don’t remember that. It was the dregs of high school football. Nobody wanted that job except for Don, and I was already teaching there, so I came along for the ride.

“When people go, ‘Oh my God, I would love to coach there.’ Believe me, you wouldn’t have loved to coach there 40 years ago, I can promise you that. It was a nightmare. He along with the help of the other guys that coached with him made it into a hell of a program.”

Schedule

Coach: Mike Zmijanac

2019 record: 2-7, 2-5 in Class 2A Three Rivers Conference

All-time record: 364-257-13

Date, Opponent, Time

9.11, at Brentwood*, 7

9.18, Serra Catholic, 7

9.25, Beaver, 7

10.3, at Western Beaver*, 12:30

10.9, Sto-Rox*, 7

10.16, at Carlynton*, 7

10.24, South Side*, 7

*Class 2A Three Rivers Conference game

Fast facts

• Seton LaSalle is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the school’s first WPIAL championship. The Rebels beat Hopewell, 30-23, in the Class 3A title game in 1990.

• Seton LaSalle also won a pair of Class 2A WPIAL championships, topping Mars, 20-6, in 2002 and Aliquippa, 42-35, in 2004.

• Seton LaSalle only had two wins last season, but one was over a playoff team. The Rebels defeated South Side, 35-21, in Week 7.

• Last year was Seton LaSalle’s first losing season since 2009.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review Assistant Sports Editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at jbombulie@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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