It wasn’t the most action-packed game by any means, but there likely weren’t many complaints from the Belle Vernon faithful on the ride back home.
Fueled by a suffocating defense and a dominant offensive line, the Leopards (11-1) controlled the WPIAL Class 3A title game against Avonworth (12-1) from start to finish en route to a 26-0 victory. The win gives Belle Vernon consecutive WPIAL championships and its third overall in school history.
“It was a very long week. A lot of grueling hours. A lot of stress,” Leopards coach Matt Humbert said. “This was an ‘us’ victory tonight. Winning that trophy last year was so special, and it was for all the kids that came before it. It was for the community, for everyone who really helped lay the foundation for our success.
“But I think this year, this is for these guys.”
Belle Vernon senior Quinton Martin is a five-star Penn State recruit considered by many to be the most talented player in the state, but Martin had one of the quietest games of his varsity career Friday. Instead, senior quarterback Braden Laux did much of the heavy lifting for the Leopards, completing 12-of-21 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown to go with a team-leading 53 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 14 carries.
“[Laux] played a really good game. He scrambled around, he made some throws down the field, scrambled the ball down the field,” said Antelopes coach Duke Johncour. “We played great defense for most of the game. … They were calling out a lot.”
Laux, who will play tight end next fall at Eastern Michigan, is known just as much for the impact he makes on defense as he does on offense. A 6-foot-5, 215-pound defensive end, Laux registered 3 tackles, 1½ tackles for a loss and 1 sack — including a huge fourth-down stop in the fourth quarter near the goal line to preserve the shutout for Belle Vernon.
After the game, Laux took it upon himself to credit his blockers for his big performance.
“Our senior season — this was our year. We’ve talked about it since we were younger,” he said. “Without the offensive line, we definitely wouldn’t be sitting here at this table with this trophy. Everybody talks about our skill players, but I think they should definitely get the recognition right now.
“Without them, we wouldn’t be going anywhere.”
As for Martin, the 2022 PUP co-Player of the Year did not receive a carry until midway through the third quarter, finishing the game with 9 carries for 46 yards and 5 receptions for 25 yards while garnering plenty of extra attention from the Antelopes defense. His presence alone made things easier on the rest of the Leopards’ offensive weapons, allowing players such as Jake Gedekoh to get wide open in the end zone on a 25-yard touchdown pass from Laux to make it a 26-point lead for Belle Vernon late in the third quarter.
“I’ve been here three times now. It’s always been a dream to score at Acrisure Stadium,” Gedekoh said. “I’m a big [Steelers] fan. It’s awesome to score here.”
Avonworth senior Andrew Kuban put together a stellar all-around season while being used in a variety of ways on offense, and he spent much of the game Friday as a wildcat quarterback along with his typical duties as the Antelopes’ No. 1 wideout. Kuban rushed for 75 yards on 15 carries and caught 4 passes for 28 yards in the defeat, finishing the season with 58 receptions for 890 yards and 663 yards rushing on 76 carries while scoring 18 touchdowns.
“I’m just proud of how we fought and how we came together,” Kuban said. “It was a great year. Unfortunately, we came up short, but there’s nobody else I’d rather go to war with.”
Johncour and Humbert heaped praise on Leopards safety Adam LaCarte for his reliable coverage and sure tackling on the back end, which directly contributed to an ultra-rare championship shutout. LaCarte racked up eight tackles and also caught a crucial 15-yard pass on one of Belle Vernon’s scoring drives.
“To hear that [praise] coming from another coach, that’s big,” LaCarte said. “I might not get all the statistics in the world, but it’s good to feel like somebody has noticed. As long as I can just do my part and do what I need to do to get that trophy, that’s all that matters to me.”
Momentum immediately shifted into the Leopards’ favor after Deaubre Lightfoot returned the opening kickoff to the Avonworth 22. Two plays later, Martin caught a swing pass and took it 18 yards down to the 2, and Laux punched in a 2-yard score on the next play to give Belle Vernon an early 7-0 lead.
An impressive 23-yard run by Laux on third-and-22 kept the Leopards’ next drive alive, and Preston Rathway followed with a 26-yard field goal to make it a 10-0 lead after one quarter. After taking the 10-0 lead into the half, Laux added another 1-yard touchdown run on a quarterback sneak midway through the third to stretch Belle Vernon’s lead to 17-0.
Following an excellent punt by Willie Schwerha that pinned the Antelopes deep in their territory, Dom Ghilani sacked Avonworth quarterback Carson Bellinger in the end zone for a safety to make it 19-0. Laux’s 25-yard touchdown toss to Gedekoh came less than a minute later, and all of a sudden, the Leopards had an insurmountable 26-point lead.
“They were calling out a lot of our plays,” Johncour said. “Their kids inside were good. Their linebackers are fast. … [LaCarte] is a heck of a safety. He runs downhill and gets you to the ground. That’s why he’s back there.
“They had a great game plan. Kudos to them.”
The Antelopes threatened to score by driving inside the 5 in the final quarter, but a goal-line stand by Belle Vernon put the finishing touches on a remarkable defensive performance. Avonworth failed to convert a third- or fourth-down attempt in the entire game, finishing 0-10 on third down and 0-4 on fourth.
The Leopards now advance to face District 10 champion Hickory next week in the PIAA Class 3A Western regional final.
“You take what they give you,” Humbert said. “I’ve said it all week and I’ve said it all year — we have the guys who I think we can go to if they’re keying on one guy, and that showed tonight.”