Lebo hosts USC in backyard brawl
Many of the Mt. Lebanon High School football players have never heard of John Cooper. Until this week, that is.
As the Blue Devils prepare to play their staunchest adversary, Upper St. Clair, at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25, their head coach Mike Melnyk is giving them a history lesson about another fierce rivalry. It involved Cooper. He coached at Ohio State University and he had difficulty defeating Michigan. In fact, Cooper was 2-10-1 against the Wolverines. Plus, with undefeated and highly ranked clubs in 1993, 1995 and 1996, the Cooper-coached Buckeyes suffered ‘gut-wrenching’ defeats to Michigan.
“I liken the USC-Lebo game to the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry,” said Melnyk, who kicked for the Wolverines in the 1980s. “We will use the analogy with the kids in the locker room.”
As a coach, Melnyk added, “If you want to stay around here and preserve your job, then you have to beat St. Clair. At the end of the season, no matter what your record was, it’s always ‘did you beat St. Clair.’ If you want to be the best, then you have to beat the best. And, Jim Render is the best around.”
Born in Ohio and bred a Buckeye fan, Render, however, is no John Cooper. He relates more to Woody Hayes.
“Woody beat Bo, more than Bo beat Woody,” said Render of Hayes when he coached against Schembechler’s Wolverines. Schembechler held a 5-4-1 edge over Hayes during the famed “Ten Year War” that elevated the rivalry into one of college’s greatest grudge matches. Plus, Schembechler upset Hayes in his debut at Michigan and ruined the Buckeyes’ national title defense in 1969.
Meanwhile, Render has, in fact, won more games, conference titles and championships than Hayes. In WPIAL history, nobody has won more games than Render. He is 372-118-6 with five WPIAL championships and two state titles. Plus, he is 8-1 against Lebo since the two teams resumed their rivalry in 2003. The last loss, 14-10, came three years ago.
In his 35th season at the helm, Render has his Panthers positioned No. 1 in the district. They are ranked No. 2 in the state behind Coatesville. USC enters the fray with Lebo undefeated.
“It’s a good rivalry,” Render said. “It always has been and it always will be in my lifetime.”
During his coaching tenure, Render has had special teams, including the 1989 and 2006 state championship squads, but this year’s club is one to be cherished, too. The Panthers are 8-0 and last week, they recorded their sixth shutout of the season, 54-0, against Plum.
In the win, Joe Repischak completed 6 of 9 passes for 108 yards. He tossed touchdown aerials of 17 and 31 yards to Mac Pope and Ben Southorn. Repischak had a 29-yard TD run as well. On the year, Repischak has completed 52 of 85 passes for 833 yards. He has thrown four TDs and rushed for five more.
Pope, Trevor Morrow and Connan Rooney all rushed for scores of 2, 5 and 2 yards. Morrow leads the ground game with 694 yards and nine scores. Pope follows with 306 yards and 12 TDs. Stephen Mackowick is the team’s No. 3 rusher with 269 yards and four scores.
Against Plum, J.J. Conn completed a 46-yard TD pass to Guiseppe Orsini in the fourth quarter. Max Herold had a 37-yard field goal in the second stanza. Plus, he kicked six extra points, yielding to Connor Brennan on the final PAT.
USC also managed a safety with a sack in the end zone. Plus, the Panther defense held the Mustangs to 49 total yards of offense. For the year, USC has surrendered just 23 points while racking up 302. Among the team’s leading tacklers are Kyle Page, Jesse Slinger, Ben Huss and Morgan Lee. Hus, Rori Blair and Pope lead the team in sacks.
“We are going up against the best defense in the state of Pennsylvania,” said Melynk of the tall task Lebo faces. “They are big and strong up front. They wear you down and they don’t make many mistakes.
“No question,” he continued. “We have to play our best football to beat them. We need some breaks because they don’t beat themselves. We need them to help us.
“Obviously we need to score points. We need to find a way to put points on the board.”
With Eddie Jenkins calling the signals, the Blue Devils have been putting points on the board. The sophomore started his third game of the season last week and engineered Lebo’s come-from-behind victory, 24-21, against Penn Hills.
Jenkins completed 15 of 21 passes for 233 yards. It was his second straight 200-yard plus passing game.
“Since he has become our starter, Eddie has done a terrific job,” said Melnyk. “He’s making great decisions. When there isn’t a play, he either makes it with his legs or turns around a bad play.”
Despite throwing an interception that resulted in a 14-0 deficit for the Blue Devils, Jenkins demonstrated poise. He rushed for a 9-yard touchdown and then tossed scoring strikes of 5 and 3 yards to Shane Lefever and Troy Apke, forging a 21-14 Lebo lead. Apke caught eight passes for 148 yards.
“His personality and leadership abilities,” Melnyk said are two of Jenkins’s strengths. “He’s cool under pressure. He has a short memory. Throwing an interception does not phase him,” Melnyk continued. “That’s a great characteristic to have. He’s level headed. He doesn’t get too up or too down. He keeps playing the game.”
Even though Penn Hills tied the game on a 25-yard TD run by Isaiah Jones, Lebo kept playing. The Blue Devils registered the win when Rob Costantino connected on a 24-yard field goal.
“I’m proud of our kids,” Melnyk said. “They have continued to work.
“The (Penn Hills) game was a microcosm of our season. We started slowly, fell behind and got down. A team with lesser character would have given up and said we’re not going anywhere. But this team showed character and came back.”
Because Peters Township (4-4, 3-4) and Baldwin (4-4, 3-4) hold the edge over Lebo (3-5, 3-4) regarding any tiebreakers, the Blue Devils have not discussed playoff possibilities. They are only focused on USC.
“All we are concerned about is winning the football game,” Melnyk said. “We are only talking about this game. It’s a one-game season.
“And,” Melnyk continued, “the old cliché about a rivalry applies. You can throw the records out when it comes to this game.”
A perfect record was ruined last year when Upper St. Clair came from behind and defeated Lebo, 21-19, in the Southeastern Conference finale.
“Last year’s game was as exciting as a game could be,” said Render. “Of course we won and therefore we have all the adjectives.”
Meanwhile, Lebo was left with all the agitation.
“Obviously last year, we would have liked to win the conference championship outright,” said Melnyk. “It was a stinging loss. Particularly the way we lost to them. Having the big lead and losing in the end.
In the end, this year’s game and outcome could come down to readiness.
“I’m a big believe in preparation,” said Render. “Preparation is huge. When the game starts, there will be a lot of emotion but by the second quarter, hopefully, when everything has calmed down, preparation will take over.”
“It’s going to be another great game this year. A barn-burner,” Melnyk agreed. “We’re excited. We’ll be prepared and motivated. That’s all you can ask of your kids.”