Last Updated: Sat Nov 25, 2023 - 2:16AM
Last year when Belle Vernon Area won its first WPIAL football championship since 1995, the title was dedicated to all of the teams and players who had preceded that win by laying the foundation for the program. When the Leopards defeated Avonworth 26-0 to repeat as the WPIAL Class 3A champions on Friday, however, the victory was for the current group of players, especially the senior class that has been at the forefront the past two campaigns.
“This year, this is for these guys,” said Belle Vernon Area head coach Matt Humbert.
The top-seeded Leopards bested the No. 2 Antelopes for the second year in a row at Acrisure Stadium, using a similar script to last year. In 2022, BVA prevailed 24-7, boosted by three touchdowns by Quinton Martin and a strong defensive effort. In the rematch, Belle Vernon Area QB Braden Laux factored into all three TDs, while the Belle Vernon defense was stifling. To that point, the Leopards allowed just 193 yards of offense, forced a turnover, and recorded a safety. Furthermore, Avonworth, which had averaged more than 37 points per game entering play, went 0-for-10 on third downs, and 0-for-4 on fourth downs in the contest.
“Those third-down, fourth-down stops were instrumental,” said Humbert. “The defense played really well.”
Offensively, the Leopards (11-1) didn’t need to rely heavily on Martin. While the Penn State commit rushed for 46 yards and posted a team-high five receptions, Laux was the catalyst, both with his arm and his legs. The senior signalcaller hit on 12-of-21 passes for 155 yards and a TD, while he rushed 14 times for 53 yards, scoring a pair of short touchdowns.
Laux opened the scoring on the first drive of the game, but a big play on special teams keyed the possession. With Martin among the deep returners for the opening kickoff, the Antelopes opted for a shorter kick. However, Deaubre Lightfoot took the return to the Avonworth 22-yard line. Staked with a short field, the Leps needed three plays to find the end zone, as Laux scored on a 2-yard run just 1:01 into the game.
That score stood until the final minute of the first quarter, when Preston Rathway kicked a 26-yard field goal to push the advantage to 10-0.
While the Antelopes (12-1) held the Leopards off the board in the second quarter, Avonworth had very little success offensively. In the first half, the Lopes had two possessions end with a turnover on downs, while they also had a punt, a missed field goal, and an interception on a spectacular play by Zo Wade on the final drive of the half.
After carrying a 10-point lead into the locker room, the Leopards gained complete command of the contest in the third quarter. The Leps’ second drive of the stanza spanned 50 yards, capped by a 1-yard run by Laux.
“We knew we wanted to get an extra blocker at the point of attack, and that’s when you run the quarterback,” Humbert explained of utilizing Laux as a rusher. “We knew we were going to have to rely on him, not for those big splash plays in the run game, but for those third-down, stick-moving scenarios, and obviously he did his job on that.”
Less than two minutes later, the BVA defense made another key play, as Dominic Ghilani sacked Avonworth QB Carson Bellinger in the end zone for a safety.
The Leopards started the subsequent drive at the Lopes 30-yard line, and needed just two plays to add to their advantage, courtesy of a 25-yard pass from Laux to Jake Gedekoh.
“We have the guys I think we can go to if they’re keying on one guy, and that showed tonight,” Humbert noted.
Belle Vernon Area put an exclamation point on its stifling defensive effort by forcing a pair of turnovers on downs in the fourth quarter to preserve the shutout.
“It was a very long week. A lot of grueling hours. By far, the most stressful week we’ve had all season,” Humbert said of the preparation for the Antelopes, who were also in pursuit of their third WPIAL title.
In addition to the contributions of Laux and Martin, Anthony Crews caught two passes for 44 yards for Belle Vernon Area, while Kole Doppelheuer had 20 yards rushing. Tanner Moody compiled a team-best nine tackles, while Adam LaCarte added eight stops.
In the setback, the Antelopes were paced by Andrew Kuban, who had 75 yards rushing and caught four passes for 28 yards. Additionally, Brandon Biagiarelli posted 36 yards rushing and led the defense with 16 tackles.
With the WPIAL repeat completed, the Leopards will now turn their focus to defending their PIAA Class 3A title. The Leopards will play District 10 champion Hickory next week in the state semifinals.
“We got another week extended to that, and that’s another opportunity to be with these guys, and to me, that’s pretty special,” Humbert said.