By Joseph Santoliquito
Back in January, when Mark Pyles was honored at the annual Maxwell Club Pennsylvania High School Awards dinner, which was no surprise, considering the season the Lebanon High School star had, he did something rather instinctive.
Pyles carried a selfless attitude. So without any hint of coaxing, as he climbed the steps to the stage, Pyles embraced the moment. He knew already what he was going to say. As he grabbed the mic, the first thing out of his mouth after receiving the award was to congratulate the other 54 winners the Maxwell Club was honoring that night before saying anything about himself.
To everyone who knows Pyles, headed to Bucknell where he’s projected to play linebacker, that was typical.
“That doesn’t surprise me, Mark has always been that way,” said Gerry Yonchiuk, Pyles’ coach at Lebanon. “I mean Mark put up all of these unbelievable numbers, but it wouldn’t matter. If Mark didn’t throw a touchdown, and Mark just rushed for five yards and we won, he would be the happiest kid on our football team. I can say that sincerely, because he is the ultimate team guy. He is a tremendous character kid. All that Mark has earned doesn’t surprise me.”
Now Pyles can add another accolade to what was an incredible year by receiving the Maxwell Club’s 2013 prestigious Jim Henry Award, based on a student’s academics as well as contributions to school and the community.
As a quarterback, Pyles concluded an amazing season by throwing for 32 touchdowns and rushing for 16 more. He was the hub of Lebanon’s team. He helped the Cedars average 391 yards and 30 points a game. Defensively, he racked up more than 100 tackles at linebacker.
Perhaps no player in Pennsylvania had more impact on their team than Pyles. To top that off, he juggled all of that while maintaining a No. 1 ranking in his class and a 4.60 GPA.
It makes Pyles the complete package.
“I had no idea I would be honored like this, this is unbelievable,” Pyles said the night he received the Pennsylvania Player of the Year honors. “The history behind this is outstanding. Sitting here with these 54 other high school players and hearing most of their names, I know they’re all amazing players. They’re all deserving of this award. I want to thank the Maxwell Club for this.”
It was, however, a bit of an arduous road to get here. As a junior, Pyles was on a 0-11 Cedars team that couldn’t seem to do anything right. It was an experience he keeps, simply because he never wants to go through anything like that again.
“In my junior year; it wasn’t any more dismal than that,” Pyles said. “It wasn’t a good year but I think that you can learn from losing. And there were times when we had some really bad losses. What I liked is no one gave up. We just kept grinding it out. At no point did anyone ever consider quitting.
“You get hungry for that first win and that served as motivation for us last year—just to win that one game. It taught me a few things. I found out what I had to do to become a leader. Coming back from that bad year, I had to get everyone to buy into what we were doing. I had to be more vocal, because I used to be a lead-by-example kind of a player. This year, I had to speak up a little more. I used to be a little reluctance to do that in the past. I built self-confidence. I believe whatever happened in the past, happened in the past. You can always learn from it.”
Pyles guided the Cedars to their first winning season in years. He snapped their 11-game losing streak with a victory over Northern Lebanon, which ignited a 7-4 finish. Part of that ride includes a dramatic comeback victory over Lampeter-Strasburg High School, a huge favorite over the Cedars.
Pyles capped it with a TD throw in the final 10 seconds to win the game. The winning play came on a check down, with Pyles going to his fifth progression.
His high school career does conclude a bittersweet journey for Pyles. Going to Bucknell to play linebacker, he may have thrown his last pass.
“That won’t be easy,” Pyles said. “I loved playing quarterback and I loved running the ball. It will be a lot different not playing on the offensive side of the ball. But I can’t complain playing defense, because that was always my first love. I look back on everything and I will never forget my high school years on the football field—never. I think I’ll miss the relationships I made with my teammates and my coaches, especially my coaches. They were there with me through a lot. It was a great time.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a Pennsylvania high school committee member of the Maxwell Club and a feature writer for CBS MaxPreps and CBS Philly.