Every time Avonworth lined up to punt in Friday’s WPIAL Class 3A championship clash vs. Belle Vernon, the Antelopes made sure to kick the ball away from Leopards star Quinton Martin — except once.

Turns out, one chance was all Martin needed to cement his legacy forever.

With temperatures dropping rapidly and his team clinging to a 10-7 lead midway through the third quarter at Acrisure Stadium, Martin fielded a punt near midfield and cut to his left, making several would-be tacklers miss on his way to the sideline. He somehow managed to stay in bounds before weaving back across the middle of the field, turning on the jets and outrunning the final Avonworth defender in his path for a remarkable 51-yard punt return touchdown in Belle Vernon’s 24-7 win.

It was a play that will go down in history as one of the greatest individual efforts in a WPIAL championship game, right up there with Jordan Whitehead’s punt return touchdown against West Allegheny in 2014. Rated as a five-star recruit by some scouting services, Martin is one of the most coveted prospects to come out of the WPIAL in recent memory — and he showed everybody in attendance what all the hype is about with one brilliant game-changing return.

“I saw that the left sideline was clear. I got as close as I could and I kept my feet in bounds, and I knew they thought I was going out of bounds, but I did everything I could to stay in,” Martin said. “Then I cut back, because I saw the momentum coming toward me, and then I saw nothing but green.”

Belle Vernon’s prized junior already had a 32-yard touchdown reception, and he later tacked on a 45-yard TD run early in the fourth quarter, giving them more than enough cushion on their way to victory. The win brought Belle Vernon only the second WPIAL title in program history and the first since 1995 — and it also helped erase painful memories of losses in the 2019 and 2021 WPIAL finals.

“There were so many special things last year that transpired, and it just mucked it all up, that [WPIAL championship loss],” said Leopards coach Matt Humbert. “[This win] helps get that taste out of your mouth, for sure.”

Martin finished with eight carries for 60 yards and a touchdown, two catches for 41 yards and a touchdown and the 51-yard punt return score. He said it was his first time scoring three touchdowns in three different ways in the same game.

The Lopes (11-2) actually outgained Belle Vernon, 261-170, while running 22 more plays and winning the time of possession battle. They kept things close until the fourth quarter, but the difference was the player wearing No. 25 in green and gold.

“We came up short of our goals, but these kids battled and they fought, and I’m so proud of them for their efforts,” said Avonworth coach Duke Johncour. “It was an unbelievable season.”

Many viewed Belle Vernon (10-2) as one of the most prohibitive favorites to win a WPIAL title at the start of the postseason, but the Lopes proved to be no pushover early. After a scoreless first quarter, Avonworth took a 7-0 lead moments into the second quarter on a 1-yard run by Brandon Biagiarelli.

The Leopards answered with a field goal to cut the lead to 7-3, but their high-powered offense struggled to get any momentum going in the first half — at least until late. Facing a fourth-and-5 with less than two minutes to go in the second quarter, Martin hauled in a perfectly thrown deep ball from Braden Laux for a 32-yard touchdown to give Belle Vernon a 10-7 lead at the break.

“Every week, it’s trying to figure out how to put [Martin] in an advantageous position,” Humbert said. “That was our main 7-on-7 play [during the summer], and we kind of hid it in our pocket the whole year.”

Belle Vernon’s Quinton Martin scores a touchdown against Avonworth in the first half of the WPIAL Class 3A championship game Friday, Nov. 25, at Acrisure Stadium. Belle Vernon won 24-7. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

The first half was a tale of two defenses, as the Lopes racked up 73 total yards of offense on 24 plays compared to 70 total yards on 22 plays for Belle Vernon. The third quarter was more of the same, so the Leopards called on their special teams to make a game-changing play — and to no one’s surprise, Martin answered the call.

“That was pretty phenomenal out there. Not to inflate his head too much,” Humbert said, laughing. “After we watched [the return] on the iPad, it was phenomenal blocking. That was a team punt return.”

Martin’s mind-boggling 51-yard TD gave Belle Vernon a 17-7 lead midway through the third quarter, and the Leopards kept pounding the ball on offense while playing shutdown defense. Martin’s 45-yard scoring run early in the fourth quarter put the finishing touches on a fantastic all-around performance by Belle Vernon, which moves on to face the winner of the Grove City-Central matchup in next week’s PIAA Class 3A semifinals.

“The real reward is getting rewarded with another Sunday film breakdown, another Monday practice,” Humbert said. “The real reward is being able to play more and being able to compete for a state championship.”

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.