Last Updated: Sat Nov 26, 2022 - 4:34AM
After being so close to winning a football title in previous years, Belle Vernon Area was determined to write a different ending to its story this campaign. The top-seeded Leopards accomplished that goal on Friday at Acrisure Stadium, as they defeated Avonworth 24-7 to capture the WPIAL Class 3A Championship.
Junior star Quinton Martin led the way for Belle Vernon Area (10-2), scoring three touchdowns three different ways, including a spectacular punt return score that will rank among the top plays in recent WPIAL championship history.
The title victory marks the second WPIAL crown in program history, with the previous championship coming in 1995. The Leopards finished as runners up twice in the previous three years, including a heartbreaking loss to Aliquippa in the 4A title game last year.
“There wasn’t any selfish attitude or demeanor at all when it came to trying to get that trophy,” Belle Vernon Area head coach Matt Humbert said of his team’s mentality this season. “I’m extremely proud of them, but I’m proud of the way that they did it more than anything.”
While individual stats and accolades were secondary behind team success all season for the Leopards, there’s no doubt that Martin lived up to his five-star status on Friday. His 32-yard touchdown reception from Braden Laux late in the second quarter staked BVA to a 10-7 advantage heading into the locker room. While BVA’s defense continued to stifle the No. 2 Antelopes (11-2) in the second half, Martin delivered the game-changing 51-yard punt return near the halfway mark of the third quarter. He capped his golden night with a 45-yard TD run in the fourth quarter, accounting for the final margin.
Although he had just eight rushing attempts, Martin compiled 60 yards on the ground, while adding two catches for 41 yards.
“Every week, it’s trying to figure out how to put No. 25 in an advantageous position,” Humbert said of scheming to get Martin touches in a variety of ways.
While Martin provided the majority of the offense for BVA, the Leopards’ defense continued its dominant run. Including the championship win, the Leopards have permitted just 49 total points during their nine-game winning streak.
Additionally, the Leopards posted a shutout in the second half, and forced turnovers on downs in each of the final three drives for the Lopes. Adam LaCarte and Parker Jewell each tallied nine tackles for BVA, while Colton Lee and Tanner Moody compiled eight tackles apiece.
“Just a complete effort by everybody defensively,” Humbert stated.
It was Avonworth that scored first on Friday, however, as the Antelopes took advantage of a BVA turnover. Elvin Le intercepted Laux, and his return set up Avonworth at the Belle Vernon 45-yard line. A 12-play drive was capped by a 1-yard run by Brandon Biagiarelli just seconds into the second quarter.
The Leopards responded on the ensuing possession, producing their own 12-play drive that yielded a 31-yard field goal by Willie Schwerha to make it 7-3.
On the next drive, Avonworth went three-and-out, and a short punt gave BVA the ball at the Antelopes’ 36-yard line. That set the stage for Martin’s TD reception, which came on fourth down, to give BVA a lead it never relinquished.
In addition to Martin’s efforts, Jake Gedekoh rushed six times for 43 yards, while Laux passed for 41 yards and rushed for 33 yards.
Biagiarelli paced Avonworth with 47 yards on the ground, while QB Nape Harper was 12-of-25 passing for 127 yards.
Despite consecutive losses in nonconference play earlier in the season, the Leopards have seemingly gotten stronger as the season progressed. A victory on the road against rival Thomas Jefferson proved a turning point for BVA, which subsequently won by at least 34 points in every game up until Friday’s triumph.
“Those four games truly just made us better,” Humbert said of the nonconference ledger, which also included matchups against Laurel Highlands, McKeesport Area, and Penn-Trafford. “I’ll gladly lose one or two at the beginning if that means we get to hoist that trophy at the end.”
While the Leopards have demonstrated a business-like approach throughout the entire season, this week, in particular, required a laser focus. Humbert estimated that his squad dedicated 35 hours of preparation heading into the showdown against the Antelopes.
“Years of sacrifice and dedicating practically my life and career to it, and to see my family and all the sacrificing that they do to let me do this, it makes it all worthwhile,” Humbert added.
“This means a lot to me because we put blood, sweat, tears into this every day for three, four hours straight,” Martin stated.
With the win, the Leopards move on to the PIAA Class 3A semifinals, with a matchup against District 6 champion Martinsburg Central on the horizon next week.