Last Updated: Sat Dec 03, 2022 - 11:49PM
Keyed by a strong rushing performance by quarterback Braden Laux and a stifling defensive performance in the second half, Belle Vernon Area notched a 21-17 victory against Central (Martinsburg) in the PIAA Class 3A semifinals at Central Cambria High School on Friday.
With the win, the first state postseason victory in program history, the Leopards (11-2) punched their ticket to the state championship game on Saturday, Dec. 10 at Cumberland Valley High School. The District 6 champion Dragons, meanwhile, finish the season with a mark of 12-3, the second consecutive year they have lost in the state semifinals against the WPIAL representative.
Although the Leopards later needed to overcome a halftime deficit, BVA wasted no time in taking the lead on Friday. Central’s opening kickoff was a short kick that Anthony Crews took 68 yards for a score. Belle Vernon Area tacked on another touchdown on its first offensive possession, as Laux ripped off a 42-yard run to paydirt, staking the Leopards to a 14-0 edge less than five minutes into the contest.
The rest of the first half belonged to the Dragons, though, as they produced three consecutive scoring drives. Central got on the board courtesy of a fourth-down pass from Jeff Hoenstine to Shalen Yingling for a 21-yard score.
While the Leopards’ offense sputtered, punting on consecutive possessions, the Central offense found its groove. Hoenstine, a record-setting passer, used his legs to pull the Dragons even, as his 30-yard scamper early in the second period deadlocked the score at 14-14. Central took the lead on the final play of the half, as Hunter Smith connected on a 28-yard field goal as time expired.
That was the last score of the night for Central, though, as the Leopards’ defense notched two turnovers and forced a pair of turnovers on downs in the second half.
While the defense stiffened, the BVA offense came through late in the third, as Laux provided a long run that put the Leopards in the red zone, and he capped the drive two plays later on a 3-yard run.
Central appeared poised to regain the lead, as the Dragons engineered a drive into BVA territory. However, Chase Ruokoken intercepted a Hoenstine pass as he ripped the ball away from the receiver.
After a BVA punt, Hoenstine was denied on a fourth-and-short run, giving the ball to the Leopards in Central territory. Belle Vernon Area superstar Quinton Martin fumbled, though, giving new life to the Dragons.
Once again, though, Belle Vernon’s defense came through, as Hoenstine’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete in the end zone nearing the final minute.
Laux rushed 12 times for 136 yards to pace BVA, while Hoenstine amassed 216 passing yards, surpassing 10,000 for his career, while adding 67 yards on the ground.
With PIAA gold on the line next Saturday at 1 p.m., the Leopards will face either District 3 Wyomissing or Neumann Goretti from District 12.