Sometimes, teams can catch fire late in the season and put together a surprise run to the championship game, capturing the imagination of fans while spoiling the hopes of heavily favored title contenders along the way.
Everybody loves an underdog, but there are no Cinderella stories in Class 3A this season.
In this case, the cream of the crop was evident from the very beginning, and defending champion Belle Vernon and returning runner-up Avonworth have looked the part of two locomotives on a collision course all season long. The top-seeded Leopards (10-1) have yet to lose to a Class 3A foe, maintaining their No. 1 ranking from wire-to-wire with their only defeat coming against archrival Thomas Jefferson on Sept. 22, 24-19. As for No. 2 Avonworth (12-0), all it has done is run through a gauntlet of challengers while emerging unscathed with victories against Central Valley, Elizabeth Forward, North Catholic, West Mifflin and Beaver (twice).
Both teams have been ranked No. 1 and No. 2 since the start of the season, and now it’s time to settle the score almost one year to the date of Belle Vernon’s 24-7 win in last year’s WPIAL Class 3A final.
“It feels really good,” said Avonworth coach Duke Johncour. “We looked at what we didn’t do well last year. We gave up some big plays. I thought we had a really good game plan last year. But with each year, it’s a new team. It’s new personnel. You change formations, you change defenses to fit your personnel. It’s not the same team, so we’ll see what this year holds for us.
“We’re excited to be back where we are again. We’re looking forward to a great Friday night.”
For the Leopards, Friday’s Class 3A championship clash at 5 p.m. will mark their third consecutive trip to Acrisure Stadium for the WPIAL championships, with a loss to Aliquippa in the 2021 Class 4A title game preceding last year’s Class 3A title. That win against Avonworth last year snapped a 27-year championship drought and marked only the second WPIAL title in program history for Belle Vernon, and the Leopards would go on to capture their first state title in dramatic fashion with a 9-8 win over Philly powerhouse Neumann-Goretti.
With five-star Penn State recruit and 2022 PUP co-Player of the Year Quinton Martin returning to lead the charge for his senior season, many have pegged Belle Vernon as the front-runner to repeat as WPIAL and PIAA champion since preseason — and other than the narrow loss to Thomas Jefferson back in Week 5, the Leopards have done nothing to sway those opinions. Ever since that defeat, Belle Vernon has scored 49 points or more in every game during its seven-game win streak, with six of those victories coming by 40 points or more.
“When you looked at it in preseason, we knew that we would be pretty good and we knew they would be good,” said Leopards coach Matt Humbert. “I don’t think there’s any shock that we’re both playing there. Over the course of a season you have enough to worry about week-to-week, so you try not to look ahead. But we knew if both teams stayed healthy and did what they needed to do, the rematch was inevitable.”
Despite averaging less than 12 touches per game on offense, Martin is putting together another stellar season worthy of Player of the Year consideration. He leads the team with a career-best 39 receptions for 620 yards, and he’s approaching a second consecutive 1,000-yard season on the ground with 89 carries for 913 yards while scoring 25 total touchdowns. For his career, Martin has 3,514 yards rushing on 364 carries — averaging nearly 10 yards per rush — along with 84 receptions for 1,318 yards and 79 total TDs.
And while Humbert prefers to keep him fresh and spread the ball around for most of the season, you can bet he’s ready to feed Martin a full workload on Friday night with a second consecutive WPIAL title at stake.
“Last week, we gave him the ball early and often, and he really thrived with running the ball hard,” Humbert said. “The concept is the same. We’re going to do our best to try to get him the ball 50 different ways, and we’re also going to see how teams are playing him and see if they’re overcompensating toward him.
“Teams who have keyed on him in the past have allowed other people to be successful. It goes back to the whole concept of being balanced.”
The reason Humbert can afford to limit Martin’s touches during the regular season is the presence of senior Jake Gedekoh and junior Kole Doppelheuer alongside him in the Leopards’ loaded backfield. Gedekoh has battled through injuries to put up another productive season with 51 carries for 432 yards and seven touchdowns after rushing for 768 yards with 16 total TDs as a junior. Meanwhile, Doppelheuer has stepped into a bigger role this season and made the most of it, rushing for 693 yards on only 44 carries — good for a whopping 15.8 yards per rush — to go with nine catches for 171 yards and 13 total TDs.
Senior linemen Luke Bryer, Jake Heckel and Dane Levi deserve much of the credit for paving the way for Belle Vernon’s powerful rushing attack, and for providing plenty of protection for senior quarterback Braden Laux — not that Laux needs much protection at 6 feet 5, 215 pounds. The future Eastern Michigan tight end has completed 87-of-135 attempts for 1,335 yards and 16 touchdowns with 10 interceptions on the year, and he’s not afraid to tuck it and run, adding 120 yards rushing and three TDs on the ground.
For Avonworth, seniors Brandon Biagiarelli and Andrew Kuban are the centerpieces of the Antelopes’ offensive attack, with Biagiarelli recently returning to form after missing much of the season with an injury and Kuban steadily emerging as one of the WPIAL’s most dynamic all-around weapons.
Biagiarelli (6-1, 215) is a Bucknell recruit with a physical play style and a penchant for punishing would-be tacklers and ball carriers alike on both offense and defense. He rushed for 201 yards in Avonworth’s season-opening 35-14 victory against Grove City, and Johncour said he is now back up to full speed after working his way back from an injury suffered in Week 2.
“He’s been back for two weeks, and it’s really nice to have him,” Johncour said. “He’s missed the better part of five or six games, so having him back is a big difference. … He’s a leader inside and out, and he’s just a great kid.”
In Biagiarelli’s absence, Kuban took on an expanded role as a part-time running back and wildcat quarterback to go along with his regular duties as the team’s go-to receiving threat. Despite managing multiple responsibilities on offense and defense, Kuban ranks No. 2 in the WPIAL with 54 receptions for 862 yards to go with 61 carries for 588 yards and 18 total TDs. He has also passed for a pair of touchdowns, none bigger than his game-sealing 8-yard TD to tight end Ben Barnes in the fourth quarter of the Antelopes’ 21-10 WPIAL semifinal win against No. 3 Elizabeth Forward last Friday.
“Andrew is a talented athlete,” Johncour said. “It just gives another thing for them to have to defend. Andrew can run the ball, catch the ball, and he can throw the ball. It makes them have to prepare for a multidimensional athlete.
“I don’t think it’s a one-person thing. Andrew is going to have to play very well for us, but it’s going to have to be a team effort.”
Of course, none of Kuban’s success would be possible without the standout play of sophomore quarterback Carson Bellinger, who has completed 98-of-161 passes for 1,487 yards with 21 touchdowns and only five interceptions in his first season as the starter. Johncour also pointed to junior lineman Mason Metz as a player making a big impact in the trenches on both sides of the ball, evidenced by his seven tackles for loss in the win against Elizabeth Forward.
Both coaches believe the game will be decided at the line of scrimmage, where the Leopards have typically dominated most of their foes — even during their time in Class 4A. But if anyone in Class 3A can match up with Belle Vernon up front, it’s Avonworth.
So while a Cinderella story is always entertaining, there’s nothing better than a star-studded championship rematch with everything at stake — and this matchup certainly fits the bill.
“It feels like Christmas morning,” Humbert said. “It surely never gets old. Once you get a taste of that, it’s tough not to crave it and want it. When you walk out of those tunnels, it’s a different feeling. It’s a different experience. It puts perspective into everything you do. I think every kid when they step on that field, they realize the commitment and investment they put into that program — that’s why you do it.
“But you can’t over-romanticize it, you can’t get caught up in it, because you have a very big task at hand. I think it’s one of those things where you need to be laser-focused on the objective, and I think the kids are.”