Once a week, the junior class on the Belle Vernon football team gets together at Foster House in Belle Vernon to eat wings. 

That group forms the core of the Leopards’ team. 

Those Leopards are a big part of the reason Belle Vernon (11-2) will face Neumann-Goretti (11-3) in the PIAA title game at 1 p.m Saturday at Chapman Field at Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg.

“It is a talented junior class,” Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said. “We have 90% of the team returning next season. Whenever you have a pocket of kids like that, that have been successful from the youth level all the way up, you do expect them to be a tight-knit unit. There is a lot of talent in that class and a lot of that is showcasing this year.”

At Foster House, there’s a group of kids having a blast with each other. These players have played together since they were 7 or 8. You will see center Luke Bryer eating more wings than any would-be challenger. And those wings are clean, too … no meat left on those bones.

Also, there is Quinton Martin, a humble kid who you would never guess has offers from every school from which a kid could dream. This running back has 126 carries for 1,208 yards and 26 catches for 403 yards with 29 total touchdowns. He has been offered scholarships from 20 schools including Michigan, Ohio State, Texas, Pitt, Penn State, West Virginia, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Notre Dame, Florida State, Cincinnati and Louisville. 

“The thing that makes him special is his versatility,” Humbert said. “He can play a little bit of everything. He’s above average in six or seven different areas.”

Also chomping on wings is Braden Laux, who is the rare combination of quarterback and defensive end at 6 feet 5 and 215 pounds. 

“He’s just a tough kid, man,” Humbert said. “To be able to do what we expect out of him on both sides of the ball, he’s smart and he’s a tough kid. The way that he operates is so methodical.”

Belle Vernon’s Quinton Martin (25) and the Leopards face Neumann-Goretti in the PIAA Class 3A football championship Saturday at Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Laux has played quarterback his whole life, but this was his first year starting at the varsity level.

“Early on, there were a few plays, a few games that he just needed a little more experience and needed to settle in, and he has done that,” Humbert said. “He has pretty much grown and progressed every week. We kind of knew that we had something special in him. It was something in the realm of he had to actually go out and prove that. He has been proving it lately.”

Last week against Martinsburg Central, Laux rushed for 136 yards and two touchdowns. That was after Central came in with a clear plan to shut down Martin.

“I have a great group of offensive coaches that are very well in sync together in what we are trying to accomplish,” Humbert said. “I’d like to think that we have multiple facets to our offense. If teams are going to dedicate a lot of bodies to Quinton like they did last week, we have other options. We have Braden, Jake Gedekoh. Sometimes it’s kind of just a feel in terms of what they are doing and reacting to that. But we are going to do what we can to put the ball in 25’s hands against Neumann-Goretti.”

On the year, Laux is 64 of 123 for 947 yards with 10 touchdowns and five interceptions. He has added 83 carries for 418 yards with eight touchdowns on the ground. 

By the way, Gedekoh is also a junior. On the year, he has 85 rushes for 711 yards and 16 scores.

Laux pointed to that Central game as an example of what makes Martin unique. 

“He’s great as a teammate,” Laux said. “He’s never really him first. He does what is best for the team. As you can see, last week, he didn’t get too many touches, and we still won the game. He never said a word about it.”

Laux also is incredibly humble. As the quarterback of a state finalist, it would be easy to have an earned arrogance, but Laux’s feet are firmly planted on the ground. Laux has been through some uncomfortable moments this year, which have helped him stay grounded. 

Humbert and his staff have tried to keep their team uncomfortable all year. There is no relent to their practice regimen. It starts with building their schedule. Their first four games were against Laurel Highlands, McKeesport, Penn-Trafford and Thomas Jefferson. Three Class 4A teams and a Class 5A team. The Leopards went 2-2 in that span, but it set the tone for a championship season. 

The Penn-Trafford game came down to the final moments. Belle Vernon led, 13-7, with less than two minutes on the clock, but Laux missed on a throw and the Warriors got the interception, setting up the winning score. 

“That Penn-Trafford loss, I still say that is on me,” Laux said. “I should’ve made a different decision than what I did, and we would’ve won that game. I just try to not repeat the same mistake.”

With a plate of classic buffalo wings in front of him is free safety Adam LaCrate. 

“He’s just done a stellar job for us,” Humbert said. “Especially in the run game. We feature a one-high safety 90% of the time and that kid has to be able to come down and be an extra hat in the box in run fits. Plus, he has great coverage skills. He’s a good, well put-together kid. He’s extremely smart and cerebral. He’s just a phenomenal kid, who might not get the accolades for it.”

LaCarte grew up in a football family. His uncle, Dan, was a guard for Pitt from 1998-2003. His dad, David, was also a safety and is in the Allegheny College Hall of Fame after helping lead the Gators to the 1990 NCAA Division III national championship. He still ranks second all time in interceptions with 14.

LaCrate leads the team in tackles by 11 with 68.

“Everybody always tells me it is not a good sign when a safety leads the team in tackles,” LaCarte said. “But I always think of myself as the safety valve. So as soon as I get that run read, all I am thinking about is doing what I can to become a linebacker and get that ball carrier on the ground.”

The junior class is ready to make history. Belle Vernon and Neumann-Goretti have reached the title game for the first time in school history.

“It’s been a program goal from the jump,” Humbert said. “To be able to play for a state championship, you are in company with a small group of teams. It is an exciting moment. And a moment to try to enjoy and take in.”

Added LaCarte: “It is the biggest game of our lives.”

The task at hand is not easy. The Saints are coming off a shocking upset of perennial power Wyomissing. They have the depth to have starters at each position on each side of the ball. For context, about 75% of Belle Vernon players play on both sides of the ball. 

Senior cornerback Shawn Battle is a Boston College recruit, and junior cornerback Khari Reid has offers from Pitt, Penn State, Mississippi and others. 

“They have size, they have physicality about their play,” Humbert said. “They have a secondary that is just as good as any secondary we have seen. … They are solid in all aspects of their defensive game.”

They also are talented on offense with explosive speed and a quarterback talented enough to utilize that speed.

The Belle Vernon junior class is ready to do something special. 

“I think this week is all about the seniors,” LaCarte said. “We have to end their careers on a win. That is my mindset. …

“I think we have to almost act like we’ve been there. I know we haven’t, but we can’t let the moment get too big for us. I think we need to remember we know this team inside and out, and we need to have that confidence.”

Saul works in sports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Reach him at saulbt2009@gmail.com.

Saul Berrios-Thomas

Saul works in sports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Reach him at saulbt2009@gmail.com.