2023 WPIAL Class 3A football breakdown: Belle Vernon heavily favored to repeat

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Sunday, August 20, 2023 | 8:01 AM


If you ask any coach which team is considered the best in WPIAL Class 3A, the unanimous choice is returning WPIAL and PIAA champion Belle Vernon.

The Leopards (12-2) return a roster full of starters from a squad that defeated Avonworth, 24-7, in the WPIAL finals and Philadelphia’s Neumann-Goretti, 9-8, in the PIAA finals.

Heading the list is five-star running back and Penn State commit Quinton Martin. Also back are quarterback Braden Laux and running back Jake Gedekoh.

Martin rushed for 1,279 yards and 22 touchdowns, Gedekoh rushed for 773 yards and 12 touchdowns, and Laux rushed for 482 yards and eight touchdowns.

Laux completed 71 of 136 passes for 1,025 yards and 11 touchdowns. Martin had 28 catches for 411 yards and six scores.

“They are certainly the team everyone is gunning for,” South Park coach Brian Abbey said.

And while the Leopards are the overwhelming favorite, Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said he knows his team has a target on its back.

“The whole bull’s-eye on the back, it was there last year,” Humbert said. “They anointed us before we even played a game. So I think it’s similar in that regard. … With all the expectations last year, preseason wise, I don’t think it’s really that much different.”

Humbert said he’s working the underclassmen this preseason, trying to make them “uncomfortable.”

Heading into the season, not counting Belle Vernon, Class 3A seems to have a lot of parity in the three conferences.

Elizabeth Forward, Mt. Pleasant and Southmoreland qualified for the playoffs from the Interstate Conference, and the trio should battle for playoff position.

Mt. Pleasant returns junior quarterback Cole Chatfield, a three-year starter, and Southmoreland brings back the top receiver in the WPIAL, Ty Keffer, who had 73 catches for 1,009 yards. Greensburg Salem and South Allegheny hope to improve under new coaches.

Avonworth was hit hard by graduation, but coach Duke Johncour is confident his team will contend for the Western Hills title.

West Mifflin returns a strong offensive line and twin running backs Delron and Delricco White.

“I’m excited about the season,” West Mifflin coach Rod Steele said. “I like our group.”

South Park returns Michigan commit Zach Ludwig at middle linebacker and junior running back Eric Doerue.

Abbey said the conference is tough from top to bottom.

“We have a tough conference,” Abbey said. “I expect Seton LaSalle, Quaker Valley, Hopewell and Beaver to be better. Avonworth is still probably the team to beat.”

Freeport will be hard pressed to repeat as Allegheny Six champions after graduating a huge senior class.

That leaves the door is open for East Allegheny, Shady Side Academy and Deer Lakes.

East Allegheny returns multiple skill players, led by quarterback Mike Cahill, Shady Side Academy returns numerous starters from a team that reached WPIAL semifinals, and Deer Lakes is counting on quarterback Derek Burk to lead the way.

Knoch and Valley look to start a winning tradition again.

THE FAVORITE

1. Belle Vernon (12-2)

The Leopards claimed the hat trick in 2022. They were WPIAL Class 3A Interstate Conference, WPIAL and PIAA champions. The Leopards return numerous starters, including some of the top players in the state: running back Quinton Martin, quarterback Braden Laux, running back Jake Gedekoh and linebacker Adam LaCarte.

Preseason rankings

2. West Mifflin (6-6)

3. East Allegheny (8-4)

4. Elizabeth Forward (9-2)

5. Avonworth (11-2)

*2022 records

THE STARS

Quinton Martin

Belle Vernon, Sr., RB/DB

Martin will be counted on to lead the offense. The 6-foot-3 athlete is a Penn State commit. He rushed for 1,279 yards and 22 touchdowns and had 28 catches for 424 yards and six scores as a junior.

Ty Keffer

Southmoreland, Sr., WR/DB

Keffer is the top returning wide receiver in the WPIAL after catching 73 passes for 1,009 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior. He impressed Penn-Trafford coach John Ruane at the Westmoreland County 7-on-7 tournament.

Zach Ludwig

South Park, Sr., QB/LB

Ludwig is a Michigan commit. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior led the team in tackles with 65. He will take over the quarterback spot this season and look to lead his team back to the WPIAL playoffs.

Mike Cahill

East Allegheny, Sr., QB/SS

The 6-foot-1, 165-pound Cahill is one of the top dual threat quarterbacks in Class 3A. He completed 120 of 247 passes for 1,874 yards and 16 touchdowns. He rushed for 917 yards and scored nine touchdowns. He also caught a 20-yard touchdown pass. He plays strong safety on defense.

Andrew Kuban

Avonworth, Sr., WR/FS

Kuban was a first team all-state defensive athlete and first team all-conference as a wide receiver. He caught 28 passes for 431 yards and four touchdowns. He made 70 tackles from his safety spot.

DON’T MISS

8.25: East Allegheny at South Park

This is a great nonconference lid-lifter for two teams that should be in WPIAL playoff mix. Both teams return numerous starters. The key matchup will be between East Allegheny quarterback Mike Cahill and South Park linebacker Zach Ludwig.

9.22: Thomas Jefferson at Belle Vernon

This may be a nonconference game, but the rivalry continues for these teams as they prepare for conference play the following week. Belle Vernon defeated Thomas Jefferson, 21-7, in last year’s matchup.

9.29: West Mifflin at Avonworth

The Western Hills Conference title could be on the line when these two teams collide in early October. Both teams are coming off good seasons. West Mifflin returns a strong offensive line and three running backs. The Antelopes will count on their defense, which returns safety Andrew Kuban and linebacker Braden Biagiarelli.

10.29: Elizabeth Forward at Belle Vernon

The Interstate Conference title could be up for grabs when these former Big 10 rivals meet in the final regular season game. Both teams have numerous starters returning. They have scrimmaged against each other in the preseason the past few seasons, so there is familiarity.

10.29: Shady Side Academy at East Allegheny

The Allegheny Six Conference title could be decided on this night. Both teams return numerous starters and the winner will be looking for good playoff position, opposite of Belle Vernon in the brackets.

Paul Schofield is a TribLive reporter covering high school and college sports and local golf. He joined the Trib in 1995 after spending 15 years at the Daily Courier in Connellsville, where he served as sports editor for 14 years. He can be reached at pschofield@triblive.com.

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