Leopards “finish the job”, repeat as state champs

Anthony Crews returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and finished with two scores for Belle Vernon

Sat Dec 09, 2023 - 8:21PM

Sean Meyers Sean Meyers
Belle Vernon captured its second straight PIAA Class 3A Championship Saturday at Cumberland Valley High School.Belle Vernon captured its second straight PIAA Class 3A Championship Saturday at Cumberland Valley High School.

Last Updated: Wed Dec 13, 2023 - 1:26PM

Even after winning the first state title in team history in 2022, the Belle Vernon Area football team wasn’t satisfied. The vast majority of contributors returned this season, and the expectations were to successfully defend their PIAA crown.

On Saturday at Chapman Field at Cumberland Valley High School, the Leopards achieved their final goal, rolling to a 38-7 victory against Northwestern Lehigh in the PIAA Class 3A Championship.

“The job was never finished, even last year. But I’ll tell them now the job is finished,” said Leopards senior Jake Gedekoh, who made one of the biggest plays in the triumph.

Gedekoh’s play came in the second quarter, when he recorded a tackle for loss on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line for the Tigers. In doing so, he helped Belle Vernon (13-1) maintain its 14-0 lead, and the subsequent drive spanned 98 yards, putting the Leps ahead by three scores.

The play, and entire sequence, drew flashbacks to last year’s state title win, when the BVA defense turned away Neumann-Goretti at the goal line to preserve a 9-8 win.

While the scenario was much different this time, it was another example of the Leopards’ defense making game-altering plays.

“The best thing about our defense and what we do – we don’t have the biggest dudes, we don’t have the fastest dudes around – but we just have mentally tough kids who just make the plays,” Gedekoh detailed.

“We had a lot of goal line stands in big games this year. We knew what we had to do – we got it done,” added junior Anthony Crews.

Crews served as one of the heroes in the win for the Leopards, as he scored the first two touchdowns of the contest, beginning with a 77-yard kickoff return to open the game. With dangerous returners Quinton Martin and Kole Doppelheuer deep, the Tigers kicked short, and Crews capitalized on his opportunity.

“Kicker looked right at me. I knew he was kicking me the ball,” he explained. “The blocking was amazing. I seen the lane and I just went.”

After the Leopards defense forced a fumble, Crews found paydirt once again, as he bobbled the handoff on a jet sweep, but maintained possession and reversed his path, ultimately producing a 62-yard score.

That 14-0 advantage stood until Leopards QB Braden Laux capped the 98-yard drive with a touchdown run with less than two minutes left in the first half.


Northwestern Lehigh (15-1) showed its offensive capabilities on the ensuing drive, though, as the Tigers marched 68 yards in just more than a minute, getting on the scoreboard with a 17-yard connection from quarterback Shane Leh to Landen Matson.

Although the Tigers opened the third quarter with possession, the BVA defense eventually forced a punt that was downed at the 8-yard line. On the first play of the Leps’ drive, Penn State commit Quintin Martin dashed down the left sideline for a 92-yard score.

The Leopards put the finishing touches on their stellar performance in the fourth quarter, as Preston Rathway booted a 44-yard field goal and Gedekoh scored on a 1-yard run to account for the final margin.

“I’ll remember this for the rest of my life,” said Gedekoh, who returned to the lineup after missing the second half of the victory against Hickory last week in the semifinals.

While Martin paced the BVA rushing attack with 10 carries for 138 yards, Gedekoh added 79 yards and Crews amassed 65 yards on the ground. Laux was efficient through the air, hitting 5-of-7 passes for 34 yards, with Martin snagging four of the receptions.

Adam LaCarte paced the BVA defense with 13 tackles and an interception, while Colton Lee posted 10 tackles and Aiden Johnson amassed two sacks.

In defeat in their first PIAA title appearance in program history, the Tigers were led by senior running back Dalton Clymer, who rushed 23 times for 102 yards. Leh completed 14-of-21 passes for 119 yards and a score, while Devon Hildebrand snagged seven catches for 67 yards.