Last Updated: Fri Nov 25, 2022 - 2:45AM
WPIAL Class 3A Championship: #2 Avonworth (11-1, 6-0) vs #1 Belle Vernon (9-2, 5-0)
Friday 5 p.m. at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh
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For an entire year, the Belle Vernon Area football team sought to get back to the WPIAL championship game.
Last season, the Leopards went undefeated in the regular season, and appeared to be heavy favorites in the WPIAL Class 4A Championship game. Belle Vernon Area was unable to win its biggest game, though, as the Leopards fell to Aliquippa 28-13 at Heinz Field, ending their season with heartbreak.
While the name of the venue has changed to Acrisure Stadium, the stage is familiar to BVA, as the Leopards are back in a WPIAL title clash, this time competing in Class 3A against second-seeded Avonworth on Friday at 5 p.m.
Unlike 2021, the Leopards did not go unblemished during the regular season. BVA had a losing record after consecutive setbacks to McKeesport Area and Penn-Trafford during the nonconference portion of the schedule. Since that one-point setback to the Warriors, though, the Leopards have won eight games in a row, including a pair of dominant victories in the postseason.
After smashing No. 9 East Allegheny 55-7 in the quarterfinals, the top-seeded Leopards whitewashed Freeport Area 42-0 last week in the semis at Gateway High School.
Belle Vernon Area quarterback Braden Laux factored into three touchdowns, while Quinton Martin and Jake Gedekoh each found the endzone twice.
Laux opened the scoring in the first quarter, courtesy of a 14-yard run. Later in the period, he connected with Martin on a 45-yard touchdown pass.
The junior signalcaller has steadily improved throughout the season, as he’s become another weapon on a team loaded with talented playmakers.
“He plays with such a slow heartbeat, and his personality and his disposition are just fantastic,” Belle Vernon Area head coach Matt Humbert said of Laux.
Martin, a five-star prospect in the Class of 2024, extended the BVA advantage to 21-0 in the second quarter, as he posted a 27-yard touchdown run.
That score held up until the fourth quarter, when the Leopards sealed the outcome with three more rushing touchdowns. Gedekoh compiled 10 and 20-yard scores, while Laux added a 1-yard TD sandwiched in between.
In addition to his success on the ground, Laux hit 10-of-16 passes for 139 yards. Gedekoh amassed 13 carries for 123 yards, while Martin rushed 16 times for 78 yards and added six receptions for 89 yards.
In recording their third shutout of the campaign, the Leopards were led by Parker Jewell, who posted a team-high eight tackles, while Alonzo Wade snagged a pair of interceptions. Luke Bryer, Steve Macheska, and Dom Sasko each notched six tackles, while Martin and Adam LaCarte posted interceptions.
While the lopsided win punched the Leopards’ tickets to the title game, they know that the next game will be the one that defines their season.
“My kids are different. They’re very business oriented,” Humbert said regarding his team’s mundane reaction after the semifinals win. “They don’t get real high. They don’t get real low. They really just kind of operate with that steadiness.
“It’s more of an objective that’s achieved,” Humbert said of returning to the North Shore. “We’re hoping that the next objective is the goal.”
Standing in the way of that goal are the Antelopes, who have been nearly perfect all season. The lone Avonworth loss came in Week One, a 37-22 setback against Central Valley, which will play for the 4A title on Friday night. Since then, the Antelopes have won 10 in a row, including a 28-7 win against Beaver Area in the quarterfinals, and a 35-0 shutout victory against Shady Side Academy last Friday in the semifinals at Fox Chapel Area High School.
In that triumph, Luke Hilyard rushed 13 times for 109 yards and three scores, while Peyton Faulkner compiled 11 carries for 96 yards and a TD.
Faulkner, a Kent State commit who typically plays tight end, took several snaps in the Wildcat formation, as Lopes quarterback Nate Harper struggled, throwing three interceptions.
For the season, however, Harper has been prolific, hitting 106-of-184 passes for 1,403 yards, 18 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. Faulkner has been his top target, with 26 catches for 401 yards, while Andrew Kuban has added 21 receptions for 338 yards. Hilyard, meanwhile, has amassed 1,294 yards rushing on 193 carries, posting a team-high 18 scores. Brandon Biagiarelli, who also scored in the semifinals win against the Bulldogs, has rushed for 490 yards and has totaled 11 touchdowns.
“They can sting you in the passing game with the height advantage they have over most teams. But they’re going to line up and try to run the ball, too,” Humbert said of the Antelopes, who average 34.1 points per game.
“You’re going to get size, you’re going to get speed, and you’re going to get physicality,” continued Humbert in describing Avonworth. “They don’t really have any deficiencies.”
On the season for Belle Vernon Area, Martin has compiled 111 carries for 1,099 yards, caught 24 passes for 362 yards, and scored 26 total touchdowns. Additionally, Gedekoh has registered 70 attempts for 618 yards rushing, scoring 16 times, while Laux has hit on 60-of-107 passing attempts for 901 yards, nine TDs and four interceptions.
While both teams feature an array of playmakers who garner headlines for their efforts on offense, the Leopards and Antelopes boast the two best scoring defenses in all of Class 3A. BVA has permitted just 8.2 points per game, while Avonworth has yielded only 9.3 points, on average.
While execution will likely serve as the biggest factor in deciding the outcome, Humbert has also stressed that his squad find the right mindset when they take the field at Acrisure Stadium, as the atmosphere and circumstances surrounding the game can often prove overwhelming.
“I think we’ve tried to really do a decent job of limiting the distractions, limiting the pomp and circumstances of being there,” he said. “If the kids want some big celebration, they’re going to have to earn it.”
The lone WPIAL championship celebration for the Leopards came in 1995, while Avonworth has captured two district crowns, most recently in 2019.