Belle Vernon, Freeport ground games thrive in old-school football weather

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Wednesday, November 16, 2022 | 11:01 AM


It didn’t take Belle Vernon or Freeport long to shake off the rust after receiving a first-round bye in the WPIAL Class 3A football playoffs last Friday.

Even though the remnants of Hurricane Nicole made things difficult to throw the ball, dominant running games were featured, and both teams easily ran to victory in quarterfinal matchups. No. 1 Belle Vernon routed No. 9 East Allegheny, 55-7, and No. 4 Freeport blasted No. 5 West Mifflin, 40-6.

And while Friday’s forecast isn’t calling for wet weather, frigid temperatures will greet the teams as they collide in the semifinals at Gateway.

The teams will be vying for a trip to Acrisure Stadium to play for a WPIAL championship. Belle Vernon is attempting to make its sixth trip to the finals and Freeport its eighth.

The Leopards (8-2) won in 1995 and have been runners-up in 1996, ’99, 2019 and ’21. The last time Freeport (10-1) made it to a title game was in 1989, losing to Valley, 20-14. The Yellowjackets also lost in 1963, ’67, ’68, ’72, ’74 and ’81.

The last time Freeport made it to the WPIAL semifinals was in 2015, losing to Aliquippa, 36-14.

“Our players are excited about the challenge of playing a great football team,” Freeport coach John Gaillot said. “All they want to do is win a football game, and they’ve done that this season.”

The Yellowjackets have done that despite numerous injuries.

“When we began the season, we returned three linebackers that were the key to our defense,” Gaillot said. “And early on, one by one, we lost them to injury. It started with Jacksen Reiser to an ACL tear. Then Parker Lucas went down a few weeks later, and that was followed by Colton Otterman. We were scrambling and had other players step up.”

The trio was part of 47 sacks in 2021. All three linebackers are back, including Reiser, who elected to wear a knee brace and finish his senior season.

Tailback Ben Lane has rushed for 1,075 yards and scored 23 touchdowns. He also has caught 21 passes for 168 yards. Zach Clark is another weapon in the backfield, rushing for 489 yards.

Quarterback Gavin Croney has completed 73 of 140 passes for 1,001 yards. His main target is Brady Stivenson, who has 21 catches for 422 yards.

Both teams scrapped their regular offenses last week because of the weather and played old-school football. Belle Vernon used two tight ends and ran right at East Allegheny. Freeport went to the Wing-T.

“We knew what the weather was calling for, so we put in aspects of the Wing-T and the players picked it up quickly,” Gaillot said. “It helped us control the clock.”

So what’s up Gaillot’s sleeve this week?

“I’m not giving away my secrets,” Gaillot chuckled. “We’ll see.”

Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said he noticed what Freeport did.

“They’re a good football team,” Humbert said. “They are physical, aggressive and quick to the ball. They show you a lot of looks defensively.”

Belle Vernon is led by five-star junior recruit Quinton Martin, who has rushed for 994 yards, caught 18 passes for 273 yards and scored 24 touchdowns. Jake Gedekoh has rushed for 495 yards, and Chase Ruokonen has 16 catches for 295 yards.

Quarterback Braden Laux has completed 50 of 89 passes for 762 yards.

Belle Vernon is expected to get two players — defensive end Aiden Johnson and linebacker Tanner Moody — back on the field. Johnson missed last week’s game, and Moody hasn’t played since Sept. 23.

“We have to be prepared for anything,” Humbert said. “They are a hungry team, and they finish plays.”

Gaillot said he trusts his players will give him a great effort, something he said they’ve done all year.

“I’d love to have them back for another season,” Gaillot said. “They are a special group.”

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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