Belle Vernon gets revenge, stuns South Fayette

Friday, November 8, 2019 | 11:47 PM

For 364 days, Belle Vernon Area worked long and hard to get to where they were Friday night. That’s the WPIAL Class 4A semifinal.

All the blood, sweat, tears and hard work paid off.

The Leopards scored 20 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to rally past South Fayette, 41-30, to avenge last season’s loss to the Lions.

“It’s been a mission for 365 days,” BVA coach Matt Humbert said. “And for No. 12, this is retribution. After getting hurt and not being able to play in this game, he got his shot and he was fantastic tonight.”

No. 12 is quarterback Jared Hartman, who missed last year’s matchup after a season-ending knee injury. He orchestrated the BVA offense masterfully and with pinpoint precision all night Friday. He finished 16 of 19 for 188 yards and two touchdown passes.

Most importantly, the Leopards’ offense was able to take every punch the Lions offense threw and deliver back two-fold.

South Fayette took a 30-21 lead with just over two minutes left in the third quarter, but the Leopards responded with a nine-play, 75-yard drive. Devin Whitlock capped it off with a 10-yard touchdown run to make it 30-28.

After that counter by the Leopards (10-1), the wheels came off for the Lions (10-2).

On a second-down play from their own 26, SF quarterback Naman Alemada signaled for a receiver to go in motion. Instead, the snap from center went whizzing past him. The Lions recovered for an 18-yard loss. After getting 11 back on third down, Ryan McGuire shanked a punt to give BVA the ball at the Lions’ 37.

“We knew they’d push back and we just made too many mistakes,” South Fayette coach Joe Rossi said. “There were a lot of opportunities we missed out there, and they capitalized.”

The Lions’ defense forced the Leopards to try a 54-yard FG, which was no good. But the officials ruled a South Fayette defender hit the snapper for a 5-yard penalty.

On fourth-and-5, Hartman scrambled, stepped up in the pocket and tossed one in the direction of Andrew Pacak, who made an incredible leaping catch at the 8-yard line.

“It was supposed to be a five-yard out to Nolan, but I saw the corner jumped it,” Hartman said. “So I threw it up there. I had full confidence in him that he’d bring it down.”

“Jared probably should have taken the other read there,” Humbert said. “But (Pacak) is really an underrated receiver. He has really good hands and made a great play.”

Two plays after the great snag, Larry Callaway scored from 4 yards out to send the BVA faithful into a frenzy and give the Leopards their first lead. A 2-point conversion try failed, and the score was 34-30.

Callaway ran hard all night, finishing with 138 yards on 20 carries.

On the ensuing kickoff, South Fayette’s Javaughn Goodnight crossed back to his left and was met by a BVA tackler. The ball trickled out and the Leopards’ Hunter Ruokonen scooped it up and returned it 24 yards for the second BVA score in 14 seconds to make it 41-30.

“I kind of just saw it there and scooped it up. I started to stumble and Larry (Callaway) kind of pulled me out of it and stood me up,” Ruokonen said. “I was kind of surprised none of their guys were around. I just took off after that.”

The Lions, who have a prolific passing offense, got on the board first on Franklin’s 1-yard touchdown run and carried a 7-0 lead into the second quarter.

South Fayette made it 14-0 on a 61-yard pass from Alemada to Charley Rossi on the opening play of the second quarter. Alemada was 9 of 18 for 241 yards and a pair of touchdown passes, while Rossi caught three balls for 100 yards.

“They’re such a storied program. We knew if we showed one look, Coach Rossi would have an immediate adjustment,” Humbert said. “We preached all week that we were going to have to be resilient all night. We knew we’d have to come out swinging.”

The Leopards answered the Charley Rossi touchdown just over a minute later. Hartman stepped up in the pocket and delivered a strike to Nolan Labuda, who turned it into a 69-yard touchdown.

After a Justin Caputo 21-yard field goal made it 17-7, the Leopards dug into their bag of tricks at the end of the half.

Pacak took a handoff from Hartman and threw a fade in the direction of Ruokonen. The wideout made a heads-up move coming back to the ball, letting his defender run by him and made the catch at the goal line.

“I don’t think we’ve run any trick plays all season,” Ruokonen said. “Andy is good at those fade balls, though. We knew we could catch them on it and I don’t think they expected it.”

Facing a 17-14 deficit, the Leopards knew they snatched momentum.

“We know we’re a second-half team,” Hartman said. “We were confident in the locker room and knew we’d keep scoring.”

Alemada opened the third-quarter scoring with a 5-yard run with 7 minutes, 58 seconds to go. The Leopards blocked the point after.

Hartman and Callaway marched BVA 67 yards in only seven plays, the drive ending when Hartman threw a strike to a falling Labuda in the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown to make it 23-21.

Hartman finished 16 of 19 for 188 yards in the game. Labuda caught nine of those passes for 115 yards.

Franklin tacked on an 18-yard touchdown on the Lions’ next drive to make it 30-21, but that would be the final tally for the Lions. Franklin closed his career with 164 yards and two scores on 14 carries.

“We’re all about the revenge factor,” Hartman said. “This one was big. It means so much to me because not playing last year killed me.”

Now, another revenge game is on tap for the Leopards — a rematch with arch-rival Thomas Jefferson, which handed BVA a 34-7 setback Sept. 6.

“This feels so good. And I know how much these guys wanted another shot at them,” Humbert said. “It’s a credit for these seniors and all those guys that have laid their bricks to get the program back to this point.”

In his postgame huddle, Humbert implored his team to get back to Belle Vernon and ring the victory bell at James Weir Stadium.

“They need to enjoy this one,” he said. “With South Fayette, we knew it’d be a chess match. They have great players and great coaches. But so do we. It’s not just one guy for us. We regrouped and we delivered. I’m so proud of them.”

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