Mike Melnyk didn’t have to read the book, “Every Week A Season: A Journey Inside Big-Time College Football,” by Brian Curtis. After last year’s 7-4 campaign that included a conference championship and playoff appearance, he could have written a similar novel about Mt. Lebanon High School football in Class 6A.
“In this league, it really is,” he said. “Every week is the season you need to prepare. Each week can derail you. Look at us last year. We were 1-2 after three games. You really do have to focus on the here and now.”
This fall, the Blue Devils will remind themselves of the past, lest they be doomed to repeat it. After beating rival Bethel Park to clinch the Southeastern Conference, they lost to Seneca Valley in a first-round playoff shootout, 49-43.
“It’s a mystery still how we gave up that many points,” Melnyk said of a defense that allowed 24.5 points per game last fall. “Even though we were out of it in the first round, we were so close. No question the past is the past, but it makes us hungry. Obviously, our goals are, No. 1, to win the conference championship and make the playoffs and go to Heinz Field. It’s a new year and we have a new chance.”
The Blue Devils have a shot because they return a deep and experienced line as well as a talented and tested quarterback. While they are lean on playing time, they boast a host of skill players.
Up front, Colby Sorsdal commands the offensive line and Coleman Coco dominates the defensive line. Both are returning starters on the two sides of the line. At 6-5, 290, Sorsdal is a tackle who has 14 offers from Division I colleges. At 6-3, 240, Coco recently committed to Colgate. He starts at guard on offense and was moved from linebacker to defensive end late last season to take advantage of his speed.
“Both are extremely hard workers and exceptionally strong leaders. You expect that from your best players,” Melnyk said. “They set great examples. They turned themselves into Division I prospects. They controlled what they could and are comfortable on both sides of the line.”
The Blue Devils are also thrilled to have Jack Stoddard back. He started last year on defense and was a backup on offense. He will be a guard. Nate Hoaglund, a junior with experience, is a tackle. Center is unsettled. Michael Freilino and Ryan Gaughan battle for the spot as well as the other guard slot alongside Stoddard. Sophomores Sam Sloan (6-1, 275) and J.B. Nelson (6-5, 220) have shown a lot of potential.
“We have a great group of guys,” said Melnyk. “Some have more experience on defense than offense but we have six or seven that we can rotate in there. We can roll people in. They are ready to play, mentally and physically.”
After losing his spring and baseball season because of a knee injury, James Stocker is ready to again run the offense. Though he has shown some rust, Stocker is expected to be ready when the Blue Devils host Fox Chapel Aug. 25.
“James is a veteran and he’s endured,” Melnyk said. “He’s very comfortable with the offense. He makes good decisions and good plays. We also expect him to pass for more yardage, cut down on interceptions and throw more TD passes.”
Look for Stocker to run more, too. Last year, the Blue Devils were hesitant to utilize that asset but Stocker came on strong at the end of the season. Hence, Melnyk said Mt. Lebanon is incorporating the run for its quarterback.
“James runs more like a fullback than a tailback,” Melnyk said. “He’s a strong kid. Having a running quarterback adds another dimension.”
Mt. Lebanon’s skill players have capabilities. They just don’t have experience.
In the backfield, Mt. Lebanon looks to fill the void caused by David Harvey’s departure to Princeton with Tony LaSota, who gained 329 yards last season, and John Naylor. Mike Palmer can be used in the backfield to offset the loss of Harvey’s 1,408 yards and 18 touchdowns.
The Blue Devils have depth at wide out with Aidan Cain, James Colacito and Mason Ventrone. They can go two-deep in the slots with Austin Graybill, Lucas DeCaro and Noah Stephens not to mention Holden Keane and Cam Kennedy.
“Our skill guys got a lot of experience in the summer,” Melnyk said. “When you lack experience, it’s not as bad as lacking it on the line because it is so much easier for those guys to get it with the 7-on-7s. We feel confident.”
In the defensive secondary, Mt. Lebanon has a wealth of talent with Ventrone and Stephens on the corners and Palmer at free safety. Charlie Gordon and Evan Jones along with La Sota and Cain should share in the duties.
In a 4-2-5 defensive scheme, the Blue Devils are solid up front with Coco, Stoddard, Gaughan and Hoaglund. Sorsdal, Sloan and Nelson could play. At linebacker, Donald DeCaro returns on the inside with Kyle Doody. Tim Walters anchors the outside corps, which also includes Graybill, Palmer and Colacito.
“On the line, we can rotate and keep people fresh and all those guys are experienced starters. (DeCaro) should be the leader of the (linebacker) corps and (Walters) runs well and has a good frame. In the secondary, we expect a lot of competition, with the younger players pushing the upper classmen. Our defense mirrors out offense. D-line and up the middle, we are solid,” Melnyk said. “We have talented kids. We’re just not experienced on the outside. ”
Play is what the Blue Devils are anxious to do. But, it will be a challenge in a competitive conference that features Bethel Park, Peters Township, Canon-McMillan, Hempfield and Norwin.
“Really, there are no easy games,” Melnyk said. “You can’t afford to play bad.”