Brian Newberry has tried to maintain a certain identity for his program during his first season as head coach of the U.S. Naval Academy’s football team.
As it turned out, Newbery and his coaching staff have quite the captive audience.
“Kind of what our football team is built on is kids that are tougher and willing to give more than other players at other schools,” said Eli Heidenreich, a 2021 Mt. Lebanon graduate, who is a sophomore slot back for the Midshipmen. “I think that a big thing is just our toughness here. We talk about it all the time. It’s a big thing that all of our coaches talk about here.”
For the six former WPIAL players on Navy’s roster, the attitude fostered on the Annapolis, Maryland, service academy’s campus has provided a natural fit.
In addition to Heidenreich, the Midshipmen roster includes WPIAL products in sophomore fullback Alex Tecza, Mt. Lebanon; junior tackle Connor McMahon, Canon-McMillan; senior center Mike Petrof, Ligonier Valley; senior center Lirion Murtezi, North Hills; and freshman linebacker/defensive back Luke Lawson, Seneca Valley.
“Lirion Murtezi, he’s a captain this year, we like to call us ‘The Yinzers,’ all of us Pittsburgh guys,” McMahon said. “We like to think we’re the tougher guys. We play blue-collar football in the WPIAL.
“I feel like a lot of the teams in the WPIAL, they’ve got a bunch of tough kids,” he added. “I think we play tougher than a lot of areas.”
McMahon, now in his second season as Navy’s starting left tackle, was one of two former WPIAL products starting on the Midshipmen offensive line. Murtezi announced in a Sept. 18 social media post that a lingering back injury forced him to end his playing career at Navy. The former starting center will serve the remainder of the 2023 season as a student coach.
The pair, along with Tecza and Heidenreich, play prominent roles in Navy’s signature Wing-T, triple-option offense.
“There would’ve been four WPIAL kids starting on the offensive side of the ball against Memphis if Lirion was healthy,” said Tecza, of Navy’s Sept. 23 Week 3 game against the Tigers. “That’s huge for WPIAL football, I think. It doesn’t get enough credit.”
Tecza and Heidenreich are doing all they can to change that perception.
The classmates, who led Mt. Lebanon to its first PIAA championship in 2021, have taken on prominent roles in the Navy offense.
A 6-foot, 195-pound fullback — which is akin to a running back in the Midshipmen offense — Tecza opened his season by rushing for 38 yards on eight carries against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland. He followed that performance by rushing for 8 yards on three carries against Wagner before his breakout 26-carry, 163-yard performance last Saturday at Memphis.
Tecza also scored his first career touchdown against Memphis on a 75-yard run to the end zone.
“From high school, obviously, it’s a lot different for me playing the fullback position, especially in the Navy offense, triple-option world,” Tecza said. “Obviously, in high school, I was super used to a traditional college spread. We were in a lot of empty [sets], I was in slot, motioning, wildcat. I was never comfortable being in a three-point position.”
While there were some growing pains as a freshman last fall, Tecza said he is getting more comfortable with the speed of the NCAA game each and every week. He added that some of the new wrinkles Navy offensive coordinator Grant Chestnut has added to the traditional Midshipmen offense have also been helpful.
“This year, we definitely spread it out a lot,” he said. “We’re in gun. We are motioning the D-back out, which I don’t think Navy football has ever done. I think that’s a whole world of football that I’m much more comfortable — that’s what I’ve been used to, that’s what I’ve played my whole life.
“It’s definitely allowed me to play more confidently, play more fast, and it’s been a huge help for sure.”
And scoring that first touchdown was also quite a thrill, Tecza said.
“It was awesome,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t really remember it much. I was kind of in awe, coming to the sideline, the whole team patting me on the back, patting me on the helmet. It was a cool feeling.”
For Heidenreich, that moment came a week earlier.
The 6-foot, 195-pound slot back rushed for 66 yards, which included a 46-yard touchdown run, in Navy’s first win of the season in Week 2 against Wagner. He also rushed for 12 yards against Notre Dame and had no carries but caught two passes for 19 yards against Memphis.
“There are four or five of us that rotate through the two slot positions,” Heidenreich said. “The kid that was in kind of messed up his shoulder the previous play, so I kind of just went in. The quarterback gave me the play, and I got the handoff, and the blocks just all set up. I could kind of see it just forming in front of me.
“I made one dude miss, and then I was like, ‘Oh my god, I just scored my first touchdown,’” he added. “It was kind of surreal in the moment. It was kind of a blur now.”
Much like his former Mt. Lebanon classmate having difficulty adjusting to playing out of a three-point stance, Heidenreich has taken time to adjust to the rigors of his new position at Navy.
Slot backs in the Midshipmen offense run the football, catch passes and block interior defenders, Heidenreich said.
“At Lebo, I was a little bit more of a traditional wide receiver, out more, split out more, kind of catching more passes and bubbles,” he said. “I feel like I’m more closer to a running back here at Navy.”
Regardless of where they came from, Newberry said he is impressed with the ability of Tecza and Heidenreich to quickly adjust to the rigors of being students and athletes at Navy.
“You don’t usually get two guys like that from the same place, but we’re glad we got them for sure,” Newberry said. “Both are really good football players, a lot of good years ahead for both of them.”
Now in his second year as starter, McMahon, too, is adjusting to the changes in the Navy offense.
While he was used to the specific style of run blocking the Midshipmen employ, he said he has enjoyed getting to add additional pass blocking to his resume.
“I specialize in the run-blocking aspects,” the 6-foot-4, 279-pound tackle said. “I still enjoy the passing game, because it does help being as tall and lanky as I am.”
McMahon said he is looking forward to continuing his development and helping the Navy offense become more multidimensional.
“Obviously, we don’t want to start the season 1-2,” he said. “How I look at it is, we are getting better each week. Memphis was a great opponent. I think we played probably the best we’ve played so far this season. We’ve been getting better and better each practice so hopefully we carry that momentum forward.”