If you’re looking for the most overwhelming favorite to win a WPIAL title going into 2023, Belle Vernon seems like an obvious choice.

Want proof? Just ask Avonworth coach Duke Johncour, coach of the team the Leopards dismantled in last year’s WPIAL Class 3A championship game at Heinz Field.

“We’ve got a long way to go to get [back] there, but I think they’re going to be there, for sure,” Johncour said. “They didn’t graduate too many players. They graduated a few good ones, but they’re pretty talented up front and in the backfield. They got a lot of guys back. I expect them to be there.”

Look up and down Belle Vernon‘s roster, and it’s easy to see why they’re such a popular pick to go back-to-back as Interstate Conference and WPIAL champs — and potentially make another run at a state title. It all starts with senior Quinton Martin, the superhuman playmaker and Penn State recruit who is aiming to cap off his spectacular career with a season for the ages in 2023. Martin (6-3, 205) is equally dangerous whether taking handoffs, catching passes, returning kicks or lurking in the secondary — evidenced by his unforgettable performance in the WPIAL final when he scored on a 32-yard reception, 45-yard run and dazzling 51-yard punt return to help end the Leopards’ 27-year title drought.

The 2022 PUP high school football co-Player of the Year, Martin enters his senior season with 275 carries for 2,601 yards for his career, along with 45 receptions for 698 yards and 54 total touchdowns. Last year was his most prolific yet, as he led the team in both rushing (149 carries for 1,274 yards) and receiving (29 catches for 415 yards) while scoring 30 TDs. You can bet Martin will be looking to surpass those totals in his final season as he attempts to join the 4,000-yard rushing club before moving on to Happy Valley.

“When the chips are down, there’s no secret to it — we did everything we could to get him the ball in the WPIAL and state championship,” Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said. “He’s an unselfish kid. Any time someone enters the end zone, he’s the first one coming over to congratulate them.”

Martin alone is enough to make the Leopards a threat to win it all, but the Leopards are much more than a one-man show. Senior quarterback Braden Laux (6-5, 215) returns after showing constant progression throughout his first year as a starter, finishing with 1,019 yards passing and 501 yards rushing to go with 20 total TDs. Oh, and the future Eastern Michigan tight end also earned all-conference honors at defensive end while helping Belle Vernon raise its first state championship banner.

“He did a great job last year, but he didn’t throw the ball a ton,” Humbert said. “What I think a lot of college scouts relied on more was his play defensively. I think Braden is a good example of how other doors can open for you if you’re willing to do something else.”

Elsewhere in the backfield, senior Jake Gedekoh (6-0, 205) is another all-conference running back who once ran for 235 yards in a game while filling in for an injured Martin as a sophomore. He earned a larger share of the carries last year, rushing 94 times for 768 yards with 16 TDs, and Humbert said he and Martin will continue to share the workload in 2023. Simply put, you won’t find a better rushing tandem in the WPIAL than the Leopards’ deadly one-two punch.

“If you would have said to me, ‘Create a poster of a Belle Vernon football player’ — it would be this kid,” Humbert said about Gedekoh. “He’s a kid I can see running the ball through the A-gap in 1950. He’s one of those old-school throwback kids who doesn’t say anything. He just does it. He’s a verb kid. He just does.”

Of course, Belle Vernon’s high-powered rushing attack would be nonexistent without the big boys up front paving the way, and the Leopards bring back two all-conference talents on the line in seniors Dane Levi (6-3, 280) and Luke Bryer (5-10, 220). Out wide, senior wide receiver Colton Lee and juniors Alonzo Wade and Anthony Crews will likely account for most of the targets after Chase Ruokonen’s graduation.

Class previews

Most of Belle Vernon’s top offensive stars also excel defensively, and this is a team that surely knows how to win ugly if it has to — just check out last year’s PIAA Class 3A final, which the Leopards won on a dramatic goal-line stand to beat Neumann-Goretti, 9-8. That miraculous triumph capped off a landmark season for the program after falling short in its previous two WPIAL championship appearances in 2019 and 2021 — and many are expecting Belle Vernon to go back-to-back as both WPIAL and state champions this fall.

“I think over the past four seasons, being as close as we were, I never really doubted that we would be able to achieve it,” Humbert said. “I just think there are so many things that have to go in the right direction and align for that to happen. We had a talented group of football players, I have a really good staff, and we have a great booster organization that backs us and a community that supports us. Those are four key cornerstones that you need.”

Belle Vernon’s Braden Laux, left, and Quinton Martin celebrate after Martin scores a touchdown against Avonworth to take the lead in the WPIAL Class 3A championship game Nov. 25 at Acrisure Stadium. Both will return to the Leopards’ backfield for their senior seasons this fall. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

After a promising regular season came to a screeching halt with a 31-17 upset loss to Shady Side Academy in the WPIAL quarterfinals, Elizabeth Forward will need to rebuild and reload after a mass exodus of seniors along with the old coaching staff. John DeMarco takes over for former head coach Mike Collodi, now at Mt. Lebanon. Quarterback Zion White, running back Johnny DiNapoli and wide receiver Zach Boyd all graduated after playing key roles for the Warriors, meaning small-but-shifty junior Charlie Nigut will likely see an increased role on offense while senior defensive end and Bucknell recruit Charlie Meehleib (6-4, 228) anchors the defense.

Multi-sport standout Robbie Labuda is gone after rushing for 1,497 yards and 21 touchdowns a year ago at Mount Pleasant, but Jackson Hutter is back after earning all-conference accolades on both sides of the ball along with all-conference lineman Micha Roadman. Hutter ran for 476 yards on only 50 carries and scored six touchdowns last year, and junior quarterback Cole Chatfield also returns after passing for 1,212 yards and 11 TDs as a sophomore.

Aside from Quinton Martin, Southmoreland might have the most talented player in all of Class 3A in wide receiver Ty Keffer. The 6-4, 212-pound senior is a walking mismatch who led the WPIAL with 73 receptions to go with 1,009 yards and 18 touchdowns last year, and senior quarterback Kadin Keefer is also back after passing for 1,586 yards and 18 scores.

New coach Ty George will look to bring a youth movement to Greensburg Salem, where the 2014 Hempfield graduate will begin his tenure as one of the youngest coaches in the WPIAL. All-conference quarterback Cody Rubrecht is gone after tallying more than 1,000 yards passing and rushing last season, but junior Kai Brunot is back after rushing for 534 yards and eight touchdowns.

After a last-place finish and 1-9 overall record in 2022, South Allegheny will look to turn things around under new coach Brian Hanson, who left West Greene to take the vacant head coaching position with the Gladiators.

Western Hills Conference

Avonworth has been the cream of the crop in the Western Hills Conference in recent years, and the Antelopes once again appear to be a top title contender in Class 3A despite losing several key pieces from last year’s team. Leading the way will be senior running back-linebacker Brandon Biagiarelli (6-1, 215), who tallied 490 yards rushing with 12 touchdowns as a junior while earning all-conference honors on both offense and defense. Andrew Kuban also returns after catching 21 passes for 338 yards and five TDs, while juniors Mason Metz and Zach Dimtroff will anchor the lines up front.

Beaver reached the WPIAL quarterfinals before falling to Avonworth and finished 8-4 overall last season, and the Bobcats will look to build off that momentum despite graduating all six all-conference performers from last year’s team. Quarterback Isaac Pupi is also gone after passing for 1,040 yards and 16 TDs, meaning Beaver will need to overhaul its entire offense going into 2023.

South Park lost all-conference lineman Sean Morrison and quarterback-defensive back Harper Conroy to graduation, meaning the Eagles will have their work cut out for them going into 2023. Luckily, junior tailback Eric Doerue returns after leading the team in both rushing and receiving with 1,168 yards on the ground and 194 through the air, along with 20 total touchdowns.

Senior running back Delron White is back after rushing for 400 yards and 11 touchdowns while earning all-conference recognition on both sides of the ball last year for West Mifflin. The Titans must replace talented quarterback Shai Newby and electric receiver Ty’Jeir Williams, who caught 27 passes for 727 yards a year ago. All-conference defensive lineman Braeden Walker (6-2, 260) will team up with White to help lead the defense.

Sophomore Kingston Krotec is back to build off a solid season as a freshman quarterback at Hopewell, but he’ll need to find a new top receiver after Cameron Fedorka’s graduation. All-conference lineman Greg Barlion is also gone, as is leading rusher Dayveon Jackson.

Starting quarterback Troy Kozar, leading rusher Gavin Eshenbaugh and leading receiver Jakub Pickett all graduated, leaving some key positions to fill for Quaker Valley going into the season.

Seton LaSalle struggled through an uncharacteristic winless season in 2022, but junior running back O’Malley Daly is one bright spot for the Rebels heading into the new campaign.

Class Focus

Allegheny Six Conference

Freeport enjoyed a memorable season a year ago, finishing unbeaten in conference play and reaching the WPIAL semifinals before bowing out against eventual WPIAL and state champion Belle Vernon. The Yellowjackets lost a ton of talent from last year’s team, though, and they must find a way to replace 1,000-yard rusher Ben Lane’s multi-faceted skill set on offense. Quarterback Gavin Croney and leading receiver Brady Stivenson also graduated, leaving some gaping holes to fill this fall.

Although Shady Side Academy only finished 5-4 in the regular season, the Bulldogs made their presence felt come playoff time with a 31-17 upset victory against No. 2 seed Elizabeth Forward to reach the WPIAL semifinals. All five of their all-conference selections graduated, though, creating plenty of question marks going into the 2023 season for Chuck DiNardo’s group.

All-conference quarterback Michael Cahill and all-conference receiver Brennan Rutledge both return to lead East Allegheny into what could be a promising season under coach Dom Pecora. The Wildcats finished 8-4 overall last season and reached the WPIAL quarterfinals before falling to top-seeded Belle Vernon.

Senior quarterback Derek Burk is back for Deer Lakes after leading the team in both passing and rushing with 1,426 yards through the air and 504 on the ground along with 15 total touchdowns in 2022. Burk’s top target, senior receiver Ryan Cochran, will look to build on a solid junior season that saw him catch 31 passes for 414 yards. All-conference defensive end Nick Rossi also returns to lead the defensive unit for the Lancers.

Standout tight end Jake Murphy graduated after catching 42 passes for 840 yards while earning all-conference honors on both sides of the ball last year for Knoch, which is looking to engineer a turnaround after a disappointing 1-9 finish. Junior quarterback Codi Mullen will be the centerpiece of the Knights’ offense after passing for 1,660 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago while also leading the team with 428 yards rushing.

Senior Tristin Goodwin is moving from quarterback to running back for Valley, which will turn to junior Mason Simmons under center while hoping to improve on last year’s last-place finish in the conference.

Belle Vernon’s Quinton Martin gets away from Avonworth’s Gabriel Bonnet during the WPIAL Class 3A championship game Nov. 25 at Acrisure Stadium. Belle Vernon won, 24-7, to capture its first WPIAL title since 1995. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Players to watch

Brandon Biagiarelli, Avonworth, 6-1, 215, RB-LB, Sr. — A bruising runner who hits like a mack truck, this Bucknell recruit should see a larger share of carries after rushing for 490 yards with 12 touchdowns in 2022.

Ty Keffer, Southmoreland, 6-4, 212, WR-DB, Sr. — The WPIAL’s leading receiver a year ago, Keffer caught 77 passes for 1,009 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior.

Dane Levi, Belle Vernon, 6-3, 280, OL-DL, Sr. — All-conference guard paved the way for the Leopards’ potent rushing attack, which saw three players rush for more than 500 yards en route to capturing WPIAL and PIAA titles.

Quinton Martin, Belle Vernon, 6-3, 205, RB-DB, Sr. — A blue-chip talent with a flair for the dramatic, the Penn State recruit totaled 1,689 yards from scrimmage and 30 touchdowns last year.

Charlie Meehleib, Elizabeth Forward, 6-4, 228, TE-DE, Sr. — All-conference defensive end will team up with Biagiarelli at Bucknell next fall, but not before anchoring the Warriors’ defensive line for one more season.

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.