Bethel Park, Mt. Lebanon fighting for playoff lives
In the quandary that has become the Quad North playoff race, there is one certainty.
The winner of Friday’s Bethel Park-Mt. Lebanon game will make the Class AAAA playoffs.
And it’s fitting that these two long-time rivals meet in the final game of the regular season at 7:30 p.m. at Mt. Lebanon Stadium with their playoff fates in limbo.
“It’s like this every year,” Mt. Lebanon coach Chris Haering said. “It seems like in the last week, there are always a bunch of games that are determining playoff spots.”
But this scenario is more intriguing than most seasons, as four teams enter the final week of the regular season tied and vying for three playoff spots. Seneca Valley (6-2 overall, 3-2 Quad North), North Allegheny (4-4, 3-2), Mt. Lebanon (5-3, 3-2) and Bethel Park (6-2, 3-2) are still alive for a spot. Only North Hills (6-2, 5-0) has clinched a berth.
“I think at the beginning of the year, people didn’t think the teams (in the Quad North) were that good, but we’ve proven we are,” Bethel Park coach Jeff Metheny said. “North Allegheny is better. North Hills is good and showed they could play with the big boys (after a 7-0 loss to Woodland Hills last week). We beat Central (13-5 in Week 6). I think this is a really good league.”
When Bethel Park takes the short ride to Lebo on Friday, each teams’ playoff hopes will be on the line. But even with a loss, they both teams can still make the playoffs: Bethel will clinch with a Seneca Valley loss to Butler and a North Allegheny win over North Hills. Mt. Lebanon can lose and still clinch if North Allegheny loses and Seneca Valley wins.
Just to be in the playoff hunt is quite an accomplishment for Mt. Lebanon after the way it started the season. A 31-0 loss to Central Catholic in the opener was followed by a 1-2 start in the conference.
Since then, the Blue Devils have won consecutive games over conference bottom feeders Shaler and Butler to get back in the playoff race.
“We had a slow start, but we are playing better and continue to work hard,” Haering said. “Our defense has been keeping us in it and our offense is finding a way to score enough points to win.”
The Blue Devils have scored more than 20 points once this season. The loss of running back Adam Giran three weeks ago to a thumb injury that will keep him out the rest of the year hasn’t helped matters, either.
“We’d like to have that breakout game,” Haering said. “The execution needs to improve, and turnovers haven’t helped us, either.”
Giran was part of a running-back-by-committee situation and his carries have been taken over by senior John Bonenberger and sophomore Jim Mullen. Senior fullback Dan Breiding also will get carries.
“This is what works for us this year with the players we have,” Haering said.
With Mt. Lebanon scoring less than 10 points per game in conference contests, the defense been strong in giving up 12 points per game in conference play.
Senior defensive tackle Dave Gabig and senior linebacker Adam Schnirel have been at the forefront of this stingy unit.
“(Gabig) is making a lot of plays,” Haering said. “From a coaching standpoint, he’s doing his job well.”
The defense will have to play well against one of the better ground games in the WPIAL. Behind a solid offensive line and running back Jeff Koller, the Black Hawks have averaged 23 points per game. But the ground game has struggled the past two weeks, gaining just 91 combined yards in Bethel’s first losses of the season to North Hills and North Allegheny.
“The motivation is there,” Metheny said. “We played hard, we just didn’t get it done. I think we’ll be fine. It’s not a total collapse. The kids have confidence.”
Last week’s 7-6 loss to North Allegheny was especially agonizing, as Bethel Park scored a touchdown with eight minutes to play before missing the tying extra point.
“We got some adversity, and now, we have to see how we respond,” Metheny said. “We played some difficult opponents. We’re just trying to work hard and improve.”
The Bethel offense has stalled the past two weeks in large part because it hasn’t been converting third downs through the passing game, which is led by junior quarterback Erik Yonish.
“The passing game hasn’t been as effective as we would like,” Metheny said. “We have to improve. The quarterback needs to make plays. We need to catch the ball well and throw the ball well on third down. Our ability not to convert third-and-long has really hurt us.”
But Metheny is hoping the offense won’t have to pass the ball that much.
“If we run the ball well, execute and avoid turnovers, I think we’ll be in good shape,” Metheny said.