Belle Vernon gains confidence with rivalry victory over Thomas Jefferson

Friday, September 23, 2022 | 11:25 PM

Belle Vernon was opportunistic in a 21-7 victory over rival Thomas Jefferson on Friday night.

Despite the two squads no longer being in the same conference, the hatred between the two was evident, and the Leopards (2-2, 0-0) came out on top.

“It’s big because it’s TJ, but we needed this win,” Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said. “These haven’t been two good weeks, and even the Laurel Highlands game, we weren’t really that content with, so we needed that for our confidence. That was an internal win, we needed that for ourselves.”

Despite the victory, Belle Vernon did not necessarily excel offensively. In fact, it came down to a few plays that made the difference as they posted 125 offensive yards.

“I think we controlled the game, but you just can’t give up big plays against teams like that, and that’s what we’ve been doing,” Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak said. “We can’t keep doing that moving forward.”

The Leopards struck on three key plays: a 95-yard punt return touchdown from Quinton Martin, a 14-yard rushing touchdown from Jake Gedekoh after a TJ (3-1, 1-0) turnover and a Gedekoh 50-yard touchdown reception.

Martin played extremely well despite posting just 19 yards on the ground. Along with his touchdown, the five-star recruit held the Jaguars’ Sean Sullivan to two grabs for 2 yards while he was covering him. Gedekoh was also a force on both sides of the ball, posting 93 yards of total offense with two touchdowns and performing well defensively.

“It’s the little things that you might not notice, like (Quinton) had that big 10-yard first down run which put us at midfield, exactly where we wanted to take a shot,” Humbert said, explaining the play that preceded Gedekoh’s 50-yard receiving touchdown.

“Teams key in on (Quinton), which allows Gedekoh to eat even more.”

Belle Vernon held Thomas Jefferson scoreless through the first three quarters and put up 14 points in 13 seconds in the first quarter, but that could have been different.

The Jaguars had a solid drive early in the game, and they knocked a kick through the uprights with 5:57 remaining in the first quarter that was negated by a delay-of-game call. They were unable to make the next kick, which left Belle Vernon with the ball and no points on the board for TJ.

The Leopards struck first with 1:30 remaining in the opening quarter as Martin backpedaled and fielded a punt on his own 5 before reversing fields and using a few blocks to fly up the right side to the end zone, making the score 7-0.

“We were supposed to punt it out of bounds,” Cherpak said. “You can’t give (Martin) a ball to return.”

On the first offensive play of the next TJ drive just five seconds later, a mixup on the handoff between quarterback Brody Evans and running back Aidan Whalen left the ball on the ground, and it was Belle Vernon’s Braden Laux who recovered. Then the next play, Gedekoh took a sweep 14 yards to score and double his team’s lead.

“We did enough, but we’ve just got to eliminate our own mental errors,” Cherpak said. “We did the things we needed to win, but with all the mistakes, we just kept shooting ourselves in the foot. They didn’t move the ball, but it was just one mistake after the other.”

The second quarter saw no scoring from both sides as Elias Lippincott was thrown into the game more. After a heavy dose of Whalen early on, who put up 39 yards on 10 carries, Lippincott took over as the bellcow and put up 92 yards on 18 carries.

The Jaguars had some encouraging drives, but they could not seem to put the finishing touches on a lot of them. Evans finished 17 of 31 for 130 yards, one touchdown, and one interception as he had plenty of success early on with shorter passes before struggling to take deep shots down the field. Jordan Mayer led the way for the Jaguars when it came to receiving as he had five grabs for 45 yards.

Belle Vernon was the only team to score in the third quarter after the Jaguars came out of halftime and went three-and-out. The Leopards put their best drive of the game together, starting with a heavy dose of Martin and Laux on the ground before Laux threw his only completion, his 50-yard touchdown pass to Gedekoh, with 6:24 remaining in the third. This made the score 21-0 and officially put the Jaguars in trouble if they weren’t already.

TJ simply could not respond until the fourth quarter, but an early score gave them a glimmer of hope. Evans threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Lawry with 11:13 remaining in the game to make the score 21-7, but they could not muster any more points.

The Jaguars had two chances to score down the stretch, but they were thwarted by the Leopards. First, with 4 minutes left, Evans took a shot to the end zone looking for Sullivan, who finished with four grabs for 45 yards after two long receptions late in the game, which was picked by Belle Vernon’s Alonzo Wade. Then, with about a minute remaining, Evans threw a fade towards Sullivan, but Martin locked it up and ended the game.

Cherpak never went to a no-huddle offense as he was confident in his squad, but his team’s drive took too long down the stretch.

“We thought we had enough time if we could score and get the ball back, but it didn’t work out,” Cherpak said.

The Leopards were able to take a knee and put an end to an emphatic win in a rivalry game.

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