Belle Vernon stood on the field as state champions for the first time Saturday afternoon.
A stand that will be talked about for a long time was a large reason why.
In a defensive slugfest, Belle Vernon scored the go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter before using a goal-line stand in the final minute to slip past Neumann-Goretti, 9-8, in the PIAA Class 3A championship at Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg.
It is the first PIAA championship for Belle Vernon (12-2), which two weeks earlier won its first WPIAL title since 1995. Following a 1-2 start, the Leopards closed the season with 11 consecutive wins.
“It’s cookie cutter to what we saw over the last 14 weeks,” Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said. “It’s a collective of kids that allow themselves to be coached. They believe in the process, they’re not selfish, and they put their nose to the grind. They’re the poster child for just working hard and doing things the right way.”
Points, and yards, were hard to come by Saturday. The teams combined for 338 yards and there were only three plays of 20 or more yards. The game ultimately came down to a Neumann-Goretti drive in the closing minutes. The Saints (10-4), who like Belle Vernon were playing in their first PIAA final, trailed, 9-8, when they took possession at the Belle Vernon 48 after intercepting Belle Vernon’s Braden Laux. The Saints don’t kick field goals or extra points, so it was touchdown or bust.
“There was just a weird calmness on the sideline. I don’t think anyone panicked,” Humbert recalled. “I’m not a big person to talk about teams of destiny and all that jazz, but I felt like our defense would not let us down. I truly believed that. For once in my life I was right.”
After converting a fourth-and-8 and fourth-and-5 on the drive, the Saints had first-and-goal at the 2 with less than two minutes left. But Belle Vernon stood tall. Laux was in on tackles on first and second down as the Saints gained just one yard. The Saints fumbled on second down, but the runner was ruled down. Quarterback Mekhi Wharton carried the ball on third-and-1, but the ball was punched loose and Belle Vernon’s Aiden Johnson recovered it with 37 seconds left. Humbert said afterward that he believed Adam LaCarte jarred the ball free.
“It’s storybook,” Humbert said of the defensive stand. “We had a couple of opportunities on offense where we could have snuck in another score. To be honest, we were very fortunate for it to end the way it ended because it allowed the defense to get the recognition they should have been getting all season.”
Belle Vernon had little room to operate as it took possession at its own 1, but Neumann-Goretti helped the Leopards’ cause by jumping offside on second down, enabling Laux to take a knee and end the game.
Earlier, Laux helped Belle Vernon take the lead. The Leopards, who came in averaging 36.5 points a game, scored their only touchdown when Laux found Quinton Martin running free in the flat for a 16-yard touchdown with 28 seconds left in the third quarter. The 10-play, 61-yard drive saw Laux make some big plays with his legs, using his athleticism to convert a fourth-and-1 before running 23 yards on third-and-10. Laux tried to run in a 2-point conversion, but was stopped short.
“We repped that play all week,” Humbert said of the touchdown. “We knew if could flood that side with a two-man surface, we’d be able to sneak [Martin] out. We just wanted to get down close enough to where if we put it in his hands, he might be able to score.”
Martin, considered one of the top junior prospects in the country, finished with 66 yards on 20 carries and two receptions for 18 yards. He also made an outstanding interception. All of that came with Penn State coach James Franklin watching from the sideline. Laux was 7 of 15 passing for 70 yards and added 55 yards rushing on 14 carries.
As those numbers indicate, the theme of this game was defense. And, just like it did on the scoreboard, Belle Vernon held the edge. Belle Vernon limited Neumann-Goretti to 133 total yards on 49 plays, including 65 rushing yards on 35 attempts. Martin, Laux and LaCarte all intercepted Wharton, and defensive lineman Steve Macheska gave Neumann-Goretti fits throughout while collecting two sacks. The Saints played without running back Shawn Battle, a Boston College cornerback recruit who was suspended for the game after being ejected in the team’s semifinal win.
“The defense is the backbone of this team,” Humbert said of a unit that gave up only 39 points in five postseason games.
Miscues on special teams, the punting game in particular, led to both scores in the opening half. Belle Vernon was first to benefit, after Neumann-Goretti’s punt on its opening drive went just 12 yards, giving the Leopards the ball at the Saints’ 28. Despite a 22-yard run by Martin, the Belle Vernon drive stalled at the 8, but Willie Schwera kicked a 24-yard field goal to give the Leopards a 3-0 lead.
Schwera played a part in the next scoring play, as well. Punting from its own 26, Belle Vernon saw the snap go over Schwera’s head and into the end zone. In what was a bizarre play, Schwera appeared to injure his leg just before he was about to corral the ball. Schwera fell to the ground writhing in pain with the ball sitting right next to him. It was a gift for Neumann-Goretti, as Samuel Hobbs picked up the ball for a touchdown. Following a 2-point run by Hobbs, the Saints suddenly held an 8-3 lead with 5:50 left in the first quarter.
That play was the final one for Schwera, who watched the remainder of the game from the sideline. Tanner Steeber took over punting duties and freshman Deaubre Lightfoot handled kickoffs.
Belle Vernon intercepted three passes in the opening half, held Neumann-Goretti to 68 yards, had possession for nearly twice as long as the Saints and still trailed at the break. Belle Vernon had just 100 yards itself in the first half and finished the game with 205.
This championship game won’t be remembered for flashy offensive plays, but rather an amazing defensive stand that allowed Belle Vernon to stand as a PIAA champ for the first time.
“It’s extremely special for the community,” Humbert said, “but it’s even more important for the kids, coaches and parents. We live and breathe ‘Lep pride,’ and everyone that’s put skin into this deal has played a part in it. Even the kids that came before played a part in it. I think of the parents running those kids around from a young age. This one is for everybody.”