Mike Collodi had applied for the Mt. Lebanon head coaching job once before. And while he didn’t get hired back in 2019, there was no shame in it, especially considering who ultimately got the job. It went to Bob Palko, who is only one of the most successful coaches in WPIAL history.
But when Palko stepped down in the offseason after four seasons, which included winning WPIAL and PIAA Class 6A titles in 2021, Collodi decided to throw his name in the hat once again, only this time the outcome was different.
“We circled back around, and now I’m here,” said Collodi, who compiled a 56-24 record in eight seasons at Elizabeth Forward. “That’s sort of what made it attractive. When you look around, the stadium, the practice fields, the weight room, and everyone here in the community have been nothing but great, to be honest. A really attractive part is how everyone is so helpful here.”
Collodi will now try to help Mt. Lebanon once again ascend to the top of the classification. It won’t be easy, especially this season. North Allegheny and Central Catholic, last year’s WPIAL champion and runner-up, are clearly the teams to beat. In addition, Mt. Lebanon returns only a few starters on both sides of the ball and features a small senior class consisting of 13 players.
Mt. Lebanon isn’t a championship favorite, but that’s not to say the Blue Devils won’t be a contender. Some of the optimism is due to the return of seniors Connor Young and Beckham Dee, good friends and future college rivals who will both attend academies — Young will play at the Naval Academy and Dee at Air Force.
Young is a 6-foot-2, 250-pound two-way tackle who was an all-conference choice on defense last season. Collodi said Young will play all over the defensive line this season.
“I think he’s physically dominant on every play on offense and defense, so his aggressiveness, his strength, his size, and also his athleticism at that size,” Dee said when asked what sticks out about Young.
Young also had heaped some lofty praises onto Dee, a 6-foot-1, 220-pound middle linebacker who offensively will play H-back and see some time at running back.
“I would say his intelligence is huge,” Young said. “He’s able to recognize plays and formations before they even happen, and then he’s able to blow them up.”
Senior Michael Malone and sophomore Patrick Smith have been battling for the starting quarterback spot. Last season’s starter, David Shields, decided not to play football this season in order to focus on his promising baseball career.
Also returning are senior running back-safety Fred Lasota and senior two-way lineman Maddox Metzger, who recently committed to Bowdoin College.
Like Mt. Lebanon, Central Catholic has a new man in charge. Ryan Lehmeier, who spent the past few seasons as offensive coordinator at Seneca Valley, takes over for Terry Totten, who won six WPIAL titles and two PIAA titles in 18 seasons. Central Catholic has a chance to make a splash in Lehmeier’s rookie season, as the Vikings are talented and experienced. They feature four seniors who have verbally committed to Power Five programs. Linebacker Cole Sullivan is a Michigan recruit, linebacker Anthony Speca and wide receiver Pete Gonzalez (42 catches, 735 yards) are headed to Penn State, and defensive lineman Ty Yuhas is a Pitt recruit. Also back are senior quarterback Payton Wehner (2,504 yards, 17 touchdowns), senior wide receiver Vernon Settles (54 catches, 660 yards) and junior defensive back Xxavier Thomas.
A repeat title could be in the cards for North Allegheny, which last season ended a decade-long championship drought when it defeated Central Catholic, 35-21, in the final. Khiryn Boyd and Logan Kushner were two of the stars in the win, and both are back this season. Boyd is a senior wide receiver-defensive back who was named all-conference after leading the Tigers with 40 catches for 700 yards and 12 touchdowns. Kushner, a senior quarterback, passed for 1,393 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also rushed for 184 yards and a touchdown in the WPIAL final. Three other all-conference choices return in senior linebacker-running back Tyree Alualu, senior lineman Cameron Chmura and junior lineman Jack Yatchenko. Chumura is a Marshall recruit, while Alualu’s list of offers include Oregon, San Diego State and Cincinnati.
Canon-McMillan nearly reached the WPIAL final last season but fell just short after Kushner’s fourth-quarter touchdown run allowed North Allegheny to top the Big Macs, 7-0, in the semifinals. Quarterback Mike Evans, son of the coach with the same name, is back for his senior season. A three-year starter, Evans passed for 1,448 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2022. Leading wide receiver Austyn Winkleblech and top rusher Jake Kasper will need to be replaced. The defense will be led by senior linebacker Geno Calgaro, and senior defensive end Kaeden Singleton. Calgaro led the team in tackles last season and Singleton is a Delaware recruit.
Seneca Valley was the odd team out when it came to qualifying for last season’s playoffs. And while brighter days are ahead, becoming one of the four qualifiers this season will be a tall task. The Raiders will try to reload quickly after losing the majority of their starters to graduation. That included four all-conference players, along with their top passer, rusher and receiver. Senior running back Kai West is the top returning rusher and senior Amari Henson the top returning pass catcher. Senior Sean O’Shea will take over at quarterback. He started a handful of games his sophomore season. Junior cornerback Jayden Price is the top returning tackler.
Players to watch
Tyree Alualu, North Allegheny, 6-0, 215, RB-LB, Sr. — Son of former Steelers player Tyson Alualu, Tyree was named all-conference last season when he was one of the team’s top tacklers.
Khiryn Boyd, North Allegheny, 5-11, 170, WR-DB, Sr. — One of the top playmakers in the WPIAL, Boyd had 40 receptions, scored 12 touchdowns and led the Tigers in interceptions.
Cole Sullivan, Central Catholic, 6-3, 205, TE-LB, Sr. — Michigan recruit looks to be even better after blossoming into one of the top defensive players in the WPIAL last season.
Payton Wehner, Central Catholic, 6-0, 175, QB, Sr. — Three-year starter threw for 2,504 yards and 17 touchdowns and has two talented receivers in Pete Gonzalez and Vernon Settles.
Connor Young, Mt. Lebanon, 6-2, 250, OL-DL, Sr. — Mt. Lebanon coach Mike Collodi called the Navy recruit one of the best players in the state. Was named all-conference on defense.