Back to back for Belle Vernon: Leopards shut out Avonworth in Class 3A title game

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Friday, November 24, 2023 | 7:52 PM


It wasn’t dazzling plays or finesse that propelled Belle Vernon to a championship this time.

No, the Leopards got some dirt under their fingernails on the cold sod Friday at Acrisure Stadium, using a firm-handed defense to limit Avonworth in a 26-0 victory that produced a title repeat.

This win was different, but it was a win nonetheless.

Quarterback Braden Laux ran for two touchdowns and threw for another for the top-seeded Leopards (11-1), who posted their third shutout of the season in the WPIAL Class 3A championship game, bottling Avonworth’s big plays and doing enough offensively to hand the Antelopes (12-1) their first loss.

The Leopards held Avonworth to an 0-for-10 effort on third down, and the Antelopes were 0 for 4 on fourth down.

“We weren’t sexy or sophisticated on the offensive side of the ball,” Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said. “But our defense held a really good team scoreless.”

The Leopards struggled with penalties but did not let the negative yardage hinder their lead. They were flagged 10 times for 96 yards.

Still, they held Avonworth to 66 yards passing as Tanner Moody had nine tackles, Adam LaCarte added eight — and an interception — and Laux added a sack.

“This was one of our most gritty performances from a defensive standpoint,” Humbert said. “I challenged our kids and our coaches, and they accepted the challenge.

“Last year’s championship was for the community and all the people who laid the bricks, the foundation, of our program. This one is for (the players).”

Belle Vernon is the first Westmoreland County team since Jeannette in 2006 and ‘07 to win back-to-back titles.

“This was all about out preparation and the time we put in this week,” Humbert said. “The team that won was going to be the overprepared team.”

The Leopards won without five-star Penn State commit Quinton Martin having a big game.

Martin, who had three thrilling touchdowns three ways in last year’s final, was limited by the Antelopes, and the Leopards lined him up at receiver, which allowed Laux to run the ball effectively. Martin had 47 yards on nine carries and five catches for 25 yards.

“Our guys aren’t worried about stats and accolades,” Humbert said. “It’s about that trophy.”

Said Avonworth coach Duke Johncour: “I thought (LaCarte) had a great game. He gets you to the ground. Q didn’t hurt us at all. We were solid on one-on-one coverage. Our defense played well. To get shut out … that hurts.”

Belle Vernon, playing in the championship game for the third straight year, also won a title in 1995.

“We’re all held to high expectations and high standard,” said Laux, who rushed for 61 yards and finished 12 of 21 for 155 yards.

Avonworth was seeking its third WPIAL title and first since 2019.

Belle Vernon defeated the Antelopes in last year’s final, 24-7.

In last year’s championship, Avonworth ran 61 plays to 39 for Belle Vernon.

It was more even this time, but Belle Vernon finished drives and the Antelopes did not.

“It felt like we won 10-0. It was a grind,” Humbert said.

Brandon Biagiarelli, a Bucknell commit, had a game-high 16 tackles and an interception for Avonworth.

“We had ambitions to come in here and win a championship,” Biagiarelli said. “We battled.”

After a long return on the opening kickoff by Deaubre Lightfoot, Belle Vernon was into the end zone quickly.

Laux threw an 18-yard pass to Martin then ran in from 2 yards out to make it 7-0.

Parker Rathway kicked a 26-yard field goal late in the first quarter to give the Leopards a 10-0 advantage.

Willie Schwerha, who handled kickoffs, made a 31-yard attempt in last year’s final for the Leopards.

One of Avonworth’s best chances at points came early in the second quarter. After a 53-yard burst by Andrew Kuban, Aidan Osekowski missed a 32-yard field goal.

Kuban had 103 all-purpose yards.

Quarterback Carson Bellinger spent much of the game scrambling and, while he had plenty of time to throw, could not deliver the ball to open receivers.

Alonzo Wade had a second-quarter interception for Belle Vernon.

Laux capped another ball-control drive late in the second half with a 1-yard run, extending the lead to 17-0.

Schwerha pinned the Antelopes at their 1 late in the third, and the Leopards pounced on the opportunity.

“Q didn’t get his carries and Jake (Gedekoh) didn’t have big runs, but we played differently,” LaCarte said. “There is unselfishness on this team. There is a lot more to it than a five-star athlete.”

Dominic Ghilani recorded a safety to increase the advantage to 19-0.

“We put ‘Gubes’ in for that play and he came up huge for us,” Belle Vernon defensive coordinator Brett Berish said. “We said, we need dogs. Our kids were lights out.”

The Leopards went ahead 26-0 when Laux threw a 25-yard scoring pass to a wide-open Jake Gedekoh with 2:16 to play in the third.

Avonworth was stopped on downs at the 2-yard line early in the fourth.

Belle Vernon advances to play Hickory (10-2) in next week’s PIAA semifinals.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.

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