MT. LEBANON – Whether as the successful coach at West Allegheny or as the new guy at Mt. Lebanon High School, Bob Palko mandates only one thing from his football players.
“Trust the process,” he emphasized. “Trust the process. Then refer to 1 and 2.”
By putting its faith in Palko and his approach, West Allegheny enjoyed 24 successful seasons. He compiled a 217-73 record that featured a WPIAL-record eight championships.
At Lebo, he plans to do the same for a program that has produced six district titles but only one since 2000.
Since arriving at Mt. Lebanon in February and watching the basketball and lacrosse teams win WPIAL championships, Palko said he has learned that people in the district place a “high priority on excellence” and he and his staff are going to do everything they can to “restore” respectability to the football program.
“We want to try to make Mt. Lebanon proud of the way in which we go about our business on and off the field,” he said.
Palko added he is thrilled to be back in the coaching business after a brief hiatus, amounting to approximately three months after his retirement at West Allegheny following the 2018 campaign. He said the word “excited” does not do justice to the emotions running through his veins.
“Just to see the gleam in the kids’ eyes. That’s special. It doesn’t go away no matter where you are or at what level you coach, midgets, high school, college, the pros,” he said. “It is passion and it’s something we don’t have to worry about here.”
Long before the Blue Devils donned the pads or participated in the heat acclimatization exercises, Palko sold them on his philosophy. He explained that the process is more important than the system. Palko’s system adapts to his talent and the process is ongoing.
“If you tell the truth, you really don’t have anything to worry about,” Palko explained. “You can run any system you want but you need to get the kids to buy in. We want to find the right system to fit the talent we have. We are trying to figure out how to put the right pegs in the right holes. … The most exciting thing about our process is that we have a great bunch of kids who trust the system.
“You may be infatuated with being a starter but that really doesn’t matter to me because I am looking to put the best 11 players in the program on defense, the next 11 on special teams and the next 11 where they don’t turn the ball over on offense.
“You win championships playing defense,” he continued. “That doesn’t mean offense isn’t important. Of course, when we asked people what position they were, they all wanted to play offense but anybody who plays defense will play here.”
As the coaches figure out and decipher the process and positions, the Blue Devils will depend upon their seniors. Eighteen of them return from last year’s 6-6 club that advanced to the semifinals in the WPIAL 6A playoffs.
Palko says that he has “empowered” the seniors to be better leaders. “From a leadership standpoint, they have been very good,” he said. “We are excited about the seniors because they are a great group of kids and talented on both sides of the all. The seniors are a class that we will hang our hat on.”
An all-conference performer since his sophomore season, Mason Ventrone, along with Everett Lefever, should anchor the defensive secondary and contribute on offense. Evan Jones is in the mix to be on the field a lot, particularly at quarterback. Sam Rolfsen promises to power the backfield along with the experienced Drew Vaughn.
A Division I prospect, J.B. Nelson anchors a line that is packed with power and experience and includes Max Baker, Tom Peters, Sam Sloan and Ethan Taback.
Jack Sullivan, Eddit Kubit, Joey King, Jack Casturo, Malik Snyder-McGee and Andrew Lutes look to be in the mix to make huge contributions for the Blue Devils.
Palko is thrilled with his 23 juniors. He said there are good athletes in the group and they are willing to work to earn their spots in the lineup.
Casey Sorsdal is one of those pivotal players. The juniors leads Lebo’s special teams. Last season, he led the team in scoring with 32 extra points and 10 field goals.
“We are excited about our specialists because we love special teams. That’s a huge part of the game. For me, it’s not an afterthought,” Palko said.
While he didn’t promise who would be starters, Palko assured many juniors will be on the field. Some are skill guys like Maurice Plummer, others are combo guys, like Ryan Martin, Andre DeCaro and Brodie Campbell, who can play multiple positions.
Among the other juniors in the mix for playing time are Ronan Donnelly, Patrick Dunn, Furio Fedel, Nick Gevaudan, Billy Green, Jake Hornicak, Sean King, A.J. Lombardo, Tyler Long, Owen McGeary, Cortland Peer, Visawn Pennix, Andy Pinkovsky, Colin Plesco, Ben Streiff, Alex Tambouratzis and Graham Thoresen.
“Our juniors are solid. The class is full of characters. They do things right,” Palko said.
The sophomores have done things right since their debut in the freshmen leagues. According to Palko, they lost only one game. The 10th graders are expected to make key contributions. For example, Jack Smith and Joey Daniels are talented quarterbacks who can also play on defense. Palko said Cooper Austin and William Harvey “can step in and help” the Blue Devils. Lebo is also thrilled about Brendan Anderson, Alex Tecza, Eli Heidenrich, Tommy Boehner, Sam Ward and Jake Munoz.
“Obviously, we like to set high goals here,” Palko said. “I don’t know anybody that sets a goal to be OK. Not everybody can win a championship but we sure can work and train towards that goal. Our goal is to be the best that we can be and the best means winning championships. We are working toward that. It’s a process.”