BY JEFF FALK
Want to know a secret about Mark Pyles? He’s as competitive in the class room as he is on the football field.
You may or may not know that about Pyles, but if you didn’t and have seen him play football you can understand.
That competitive nature is what makes Bucknell such a perfect fit for Pyles. The Lewisburg university will allow him to pursue both his academic and athletic goals.
Pyles, who is ranked number-one academically in Lebanon High School’s Class of 2014, recently committed to attend Bucknell. This fall, Pyles was number one for the Cedars on the gridiron, in a much different way.
“There’s no doubt,” said Pyles, who is considering a major in the business field. “I’m definitely competitive in the class room. There are three other seniors on the basketball team (Jeremy De La Cruz, Jorian Ginnetto and Blayde Reich), we all have straight A’s and we’re all competitive with each other.
“Initially I had interest in other schools, but Bucknell was the only one which offered me,” continued Pyles. “I sat down with my parents and sort of decided Bucknell was the place for me. William and Mary and a couple of other schools offered me a preferred walk-on spot, but Bucknell just felt right.”
“He wants to be number one in his class,” said Lebanon head coach Gerry Yonchiuk of Pyles. “That was the goal in his academic career. That shows the level of his character. It’s a neat thing.
“I think as the season went on there were some programs that thought, ‘yeah, he’s a pretty good quarterback’,” continued Yonchiuk. “Mark was able to do some great things this year. The recruiting process with Mark was very similar to (former Cedar quarterback) James Capello’s. But Bucknell had shown the most interest in Mark. There were three days over the summer when he got ten hand-written notes from coaches. Mark’s a very loyal person. When they truly had an interest in him, it really got Mark’s attention. It was a no-brainer for him.”
Ironically, Pyles has committed to play linebacker for the Patriot League Bison, after producing one of the greatest individual offensive seasons in Lebanon County football history. Pyles had a hand in – either running or passing – every one of the 48 offensive touchdowns Lebanon High scored this season.
For his efforts, Pyles was named Lebanon Sports Buzz’s ‘Player of the Year’ in Lebanon County. And he was almost as dominant on the defensive side of the ball.
“My move is going to be tough because I’m a quarterback at heart,” said Pyles. “But what you never hear about is the offensive line. Without them I wouldn’t have had the stats anywhere near what I had. And my receivers caught the ball. It feels good to be recognized individually, but when it comes down to it, it’s the team.
“It has been determined that I’m going to play linebacker at Bucknell,” continued Pyles. “I’ve always loved running the ball. It’s going to be hard on me not playing offense. But I’ve come to love to play defense too.”
“He’s very, very happy with his decision,” said Yonchiuk of Pyles. “Some people asked him, ‘Why didn’t you wait?’ He was ready. I think he’s relieved and relaxed and can concentrate on basketball.
“He’ll just do whatever they ask him to do,” Yonchiuk added. “I told him, ‘Go into it with your eyes wide open.’ ”
In addition to William and Mary, schools like Dartmouth, Colgate, Penn, Princeton, Yale and Syracuse all showed interest in Pyles. But none of those institutions committed to Pyles the way Bucknell did.
“I’ve been up to Bucknell five or six times,” said Pyles. “I loved their coaching staff. They were the first school that offered me and they were very loyal to me. It’s a great situation up there.
“The whole process was a little difficult,” Pyles added. “You have to find who is interested in you and who you are interested in. But I don’t think it was that difficult of a decision.”
“I think it was enjoyable process for Mark,” said Yonchiuk. “But it gets to a point where there is some frustration. Mark is 5-11. If he’s 6-2, the One-A schools come knocking. He got to defensive camps early, and maybe it can hurt you.
“This summer, Mark worked with a personal trainer in Harrisburg,” added Yonchiuk. “And he took it to another level with his feet and his lateral ability. It’s the right fit for Mark.”
Pyles was the leader of an extraordinary turnaround season for the Cedars. After going winless in 2012, the Cedars went 7-4 overall and qualified for the District Three Class AAAA playoffs.
“I definitely enjoyed the season at a lot, and I’ll remember it always,” said Pyles. “It went beyond expectations. After you go 0-10, you’re not expecting one of the greatest turnarounds. You’re hoping to win four games or go .500. We were happy the way the season ended up.
“I definitely enjoyed the whole (recruiting) process, but it does tend to be a little exhausting,” Pyles continued. “But it’s something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life. It was a fun experience.”
“It’s been a pleasure for me to coach two guys of the caliber of Mark and James (Capello),” Yonchiuk said. “James set the bar high and Mark was right up there with him.”
Given his work ethic and intelligence, there’s no reason to think that Pyles won’t enjoy the same sort of success at Bucknell. The only question is how long it will take him.
“Ever since I was young I’ve played linebacker,” said Pyles. “That was always my favorite position to play. I love hitting people. As long as you know your assignments, you can flow to the ball. It’s a position where you can be very aggressive.
“Football-wise, we’re talking about the Patriot League championship,” Pyles continued. “That’s our first goal, and go from there.”
“They have told him, ‘You will play special teams this fall. Be ready,'” said Yonchiuk of the Bucknell coaches. “He really felt the whole time he was a defensive player.”