Belle Vernon golden at home, beats New Castle in Class 4A quarters

Friday, November 1, 2019 | 11:27 PM

Belle Vernon prides itself on defending the beach and ringing the bell, and there was no way the seniors were going to be upset on their gold turf.

The Leopards (9-1) fell behind early after a turnover, then scored 49 unanswered points behind physical football and big plays by their seniors to knock off No. 6 seed New Castle, 49-6, in a WPIAL Class 4A quarterfinal.

“The whole message the past two weeks has been ‘defend the beach,’ ” BVA coach Matt Humbert said. “We pride ourselves in our culture, and the last thing these seniors wanted to do was get upset in their final game on this turf.”

Jared Hartman completed 5 of 6 passes for 119 yards and three touchdowns to break Josh Cramer’s program record for touchdown passes in a season in the win. Hartman has 27 touchdown passes this season.

“It really means a lot to break the records,” Hartman said surrounded by his entire offensive line. “I’m just out there playing football.

“It means everything to do it with this group and go over and ring that bell after a win.”

Hartman’s record-breaking performance wasn’t the only big contribution for Belle Vernon.

Hunter Ruokonen scored three touchdowns, two on receptions of 39 and 32 yards and another on a 93-yard interception return in the third quarter.

“Since he returned from his injury, he’s been like Hunter 2.0,” Humbert said. “He’s been really aggressive, especially on defense. We’ve really been preaching to him about it. He’s really come into his own.”

The Leopards’ Larry Callaway and Dane Anden each finished with more than 100 yards rushing and a touchdown. Callaway carried 20 times for 149 yards, and Anden had eight carries for 110 yards.

“They were blitzing their corners and outside backers the entire game. We saw it on film,” Humbert said. “We knew if we could stay vertical with the run, we could hit some big ones.”

The Red Hurricane (6-5) took advantage of a Callaway fumble and scored the first touchdown of the game on a Demetris McKnight 9-yard run.

“We know we needed to do what we do better than them doing what they do,” New Castle coach Joe Cowart said. “The biggest thing, we knew we had to keep the ball away from them.”

McKnight carried the offensive load for New Castle, carrying 32 times for 164 yards.

The Leopards trailed 6-0 heading into the second quarter, then they started imposing their will on the New Castle defense.

“Our plan to neutralize McKnight, we wanted to go right at him. Especially on offense. We wanted to run it right at him,” Humbert said.

Hartman and Ruokonen got the Leopards on the board, connecting on their 39-yard scoring strike at the beginning of the second quarter. Cam Guess’ extra point gave BVA the lead for good.

The Leopards stuffed the next New Castle drive at the BVA 29, getting a turnover on downs after a Michael Wells incompletion.

BVA went on a 11-play, 71-yard drive over the next 3 minutes, 31 seconds capped by an Anden 15-yard run with 2:41 to go in the first half.

“Dane is the Larry Callaway of this season. Last year, Larry was behind Mason Pascoe. This year, Dane is behind Larry. It’s a comforting feeling to know he can be the guy to step into that tailback role next season,” Humbert said.

Instead of running out the clock, New Castle tried three straight passes and punted and the Leopards took advantage.

Hartman hit Nolan Labuda, who bobbled the ball and tipped it to himself and raced 45 yards for another touchdown to give BVA a 21-6 lead at the half.

The Leopards came out and delivered the knockout blow on the opening drive of the second half, four plays and 61 yards later, Callaway scored on a 1-yard run to make it 28-6.

Ruokonen scored the next two BVA touchdowns in the quarter on his 32-yard reception, breaking six tackles along the way and his interception return.

Devin Whitlock capped the scoring with a 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

“The goal was to wear them down, and we did that,” Humbert said. “I can kind of exhale now, knowing we’ve worked so hard to get right back to this point from a year ago. But they can’t enjoy it. Their mission isn’t complete yet. We want more.”

The Leopards will get a semifinal rematch with defending 4A champion South Fayette, who beat them 28-10 in last year’s semifinal.

“We can’t be complacent. We don’t want to enjoy nine or 10 wins every year. This group wants to take the next step. Now we have that chance,” Humbert said.

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