With an undefeated regular season, a conference title and several signature wins, the 2021 season was one to remember for Belle Vernon — or at least it should have been.

From Devin Whitlock’s legendary walk-off touchdown run to beat Thomas Jefferson, to blowing out McKeesport to clinch the conference title in the regular-season finale, the Leopards had more big plays and thrilling finishes than most teams could ever dream of in one season. But the way coach Matt Humbert sees it, all those great memories were washed away by the shocking nature of the team’s season-ending 28-13 loss vs. Aliquippa in the WPIAL Class 4A championship game.

“The loss last year stung,” Humbert said. “It’s really hard to reflect on last year. When you look back at the hype films and the pictures, there were so many incredible moments, and none of that is really in your memory, because it’s all been overshadowed by that loss.”

Things are a lot different this time around, as Belle Vernon now finds itself in Class 3A and already has two losses on its record as opposed to going into the title game undefeated. Heck, the name of the stadium has even changed, but the setting and the prize remains the same — a chance to capture the second WPIAL championship in program history while playing on the Steelers’ home field at Acrisure Stadium. The top-seeded Leopards (9-2) will attempt to win their first WPIAL title since 1995 when they clash with No. 2 seed Avonworth (11-1) at 5 p.m. Friday in the Class 3A championship game.

“The No. 1 thing we’ve been preaching is finishing. We have to finish,” Humbert said. “You don’t want the good things this year to be for nothing because of not being able to achieve that objective. … The psychology was always, ‘We want to make it to Heinz, we’ve got to get back to Heinz.’ And I think the focus is now, ‘We’ve got to win it.’ “

Led by coach Duke Johncour, the Antelopes are in the title game for the third time in the past decade, albeit in their third different classification. Avonworth lost to Clairton in the 2014 Class 1A final back in the days of four classifications, then the Antelopes hoisted their first WPIAL championship in 60 years with a win vs. Washington in the 2019 Class 2A title game.

Now, Avonworth finds itself matched up with a Belle Vernon team that almost everybody anointed as the uncrowned Class 3A champ the moment it dropped down from Class 4A.

“That’s what everybody says, right?” Johncour said. “They’ve been ranked No. 1 all year, and they’re a good team. We’ll take the underdog role.”

The Leopards started the season off slow while facing a grueling gauntlet of a non-conference schedule. After a 1-2 start with back-to-back losses to McKeesport and Penn-Trafford by a combined nine points, they haven’t lost since, racking up eight consecutive wins by a combined score of 411-62. Their vaunted defense has given up seven points or fewer in seven of those eight games.

As great as Belle Vernon is playing, though, the Antelopes are equally scorching while riding a 10-game win streak of their own. They have given up eight points or fewer in eight of those 10 games, outscoring their foes by a combined score of 360-68 since a 37-22 loss at Central Valley on Sept. 2.

“Central Valley is a great team, a great program, and that was a really good test for us early,” Johncour said. “This will definitely be the best team we’ve seen in a long time.”

Avonworth’s offense runs through senior quarterback Nate Harper, a three-year starter with 1,403 yards and 18 touchdown passes on the year. His favorite targets include 6-4 tight end Peyton Faulkner, a Kent State recruit, and 5-11 junior receiver Andrew Kuban. Faulkner leads the team with 26 catches for 401 yards, while Kuban has 21 grabs for 338 yards.

But while the Antelopes are perfectly capable of moving the ball through the air, they have been at their best when riding the two-headed rushing attack of Luke Hilyard and Brandon Biagiarelli. Hilyard has 193 carries for 1,294 yards and 18 touchdowns, and Biagiarelli has 77 carries for 490 yards with 11 scores.

“They’ve grown up together. They’ve worked hard together,” said Johncour, whose son, Austin, is the team’s third-leading receiver with 19 catches for 267 yards. “They’re a special bunch. They’re a lot of fun to coach.”

For the Leopards, there’s little question who the focal point is on offense. Junior running back Quinton Martin is a five-star recruit with offers from the likes of Florida State, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Pitt, Penn State, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Wisconsin. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound dynamo is Belle Vernon’s leading rusher and leading receiver with 111 carries for 1,099 yards to go with 24 catches for 362 yards and 26 total touchdowns.

“He gets all over the field,” Johncour said. “They put him everywhere, and they get him the ball, and that’s a compliment to their coaching staff.”

The Leopards are much, much more than just a one-man show, though. Junior quarterback Braden Laux has started to hit his stride in his first year as a starter, and the 6-5, 220-pound gunslinger is proving capable of beating teams with his arm and his legs. Laux has now thrown for 901 yards and nine touchdowns while rushing for 246 yards and six TDs on the ground. Senior receiver Hunter Ruokonen and junior running back Jake Gedekoh are two of the other big names to watch for on Belle Vernon, which hopes to finally erase the sour taste of last year’s WPIAL championship defeat on Friday night.

“The goal is to distribute the ball as even as possible,” Humbert said. “We try to be as balanced as possible to alleviate that pressure of all eyes going to Quinton.”

Avonworth, on the other hand, is looking to play the spoiler and prove all the pundits wrong by pulling off a stunning upset — although maybe it shouldn’t be all that stunning if it happens. The Antelopes, after all, are a top-notch program with a deep senior class and a ton of experience. The key to the game could come down to Avonworth’s ability to slow down Martin and make the Leopards’ other weapons beat them. If the Antelopes’ defense can keep Martin in check, they will surely have a shot to win their second WPIAL title in four years — and their first in Class 3A.

“You relish every moment,” Johncour said. “You’re thankful for every opportunity that’s provided. That’s our word for the week. Obviously, it’s Thanksgiving [week]. I’m thankful to be here with my dad and my sons, and enjoying the moment.”

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.

Steve Rotstein

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.