Belle Vernon secondary prepares to deal with tall Avonworth receivers in WPIAL title game

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Thursday, November 24, 2022 | 7:54 PM


WPIAL Class 3A football championship

Avonworth (11-1) vs. Belle Vernon (9-2)

5 p.m. Friday, Acrisure Stadium, Pittsburgh

Watching film on Avonworth this week, Belle Vernon football players could see the size advantage the Antelopes possess in the slot and on the perimeter.

The Antelopes go long: long legs, long arms, but not long odds.

“They have some big guys, so we have to be ready to make plays on the outside,” Leopards junior safety Adam LaCarte said. “We need to limit what they do there and not give up big plays. We can’t give up that big post downfield, the artery-blowers, as we like to say.”

But with top-seeded Belle Vernon (9-2), there is not a sense fear with the opposing receiving corps. It’s more of a fresh challenge for the Leopards, who pride themselves on having an athletic, playmaking secondary.

“We are pretty good back there,” Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said. “But we have to come ready to play. This team is really good.”

No. 2 Avonworth (11-1) and quarterback Nate Harper feature a talented group of pass-catching threats that includes 6-foot-4 Peyton Faulkner and Austin Johncour, who is listed at 6-8. A basketball roster has him at 6-6.

He is the son of coach Duke Johncour.

Faulkner leads the team with 26 receptions for 401 yards and seven touchdowns, and Andrew Kuban has 22 catches for 331 yards and five scores, Johncour 19 grabs for 267 yards and three TDs and Colin Crawford 13 for 184.

Harper has passed for 1,403 yards and 18 TDs.

But as impressive as the stats and roster specs are for Avonworth, Belle Vernon’s pass defense is just as stately.

Consider: The Leopards have 17 interceptions, four by sophomore Alonzo Wade and three apiece by junior Quinton Martin, senior Chase Ruokonen and LaCarte.

In last week’s 42-0 win over Freeport in the semifinals, Wade had two picks, and Martin and LaCarte had one each.

Martin is 6-3 and can outjump many challengers. The five-star prospect has more than 20 Power 5 scholarship offers.

“We have to be prepared for it,” LaCarte said of the Antelopes’ size. “We need to watch extra film and buy into it. If we don’t, we’ll lose.”

Senior cornerback Evan Pohlot (6-3, 205) injured his leg in Week 7 at Mt. Pleasant, but Humbert said he might play Friday.

“He wants to try to go,” Humbert said.

Junior Tanner Moody, Humbert said, had a similar injury in Week 4 at Thomas Jefferson and came back to play last week in the semifinal.

Humbert called Pohlot, Martin and LaCarte the “shell” of the secondary.

With Pohlot out, Ruokonen and sophomore Anthony Crews have filled in admirably opposite Martin in the Leopards’ 4-4 scheme.

“And don’t forget, our outside backers cover slot receivers,” Humbert said. “Chase and (Jake) Gedekoh are as good a pair there as I’ve had. Wade also plays outside backer for us.”

Avonworth also has a 1,000-yard rusher in Luke Hilyard (1,374 yards, 18 TDs), so the offense can be balanced. Brandon Biagiarelli has 400 yards and 11 TDs on the ground.

“They’re really good on the ball with how they line up,” Belle Vernon senior lineman Steve Macheska said. “They remind me of Mt. Pleasant’s linemen.”

Avonworth presents a multi-faceted offensive attack.

“It’s more like, what don’t they run?” Humbert said of the Antelopes. “They use a lot of two-back (sets) with a tight end. They are very diversified. A big percentage of what they do comes on jump balls. They have guys who can go up and get it.”

Belle Vernon will be seeking its first WPIAL football title since 1995, the program’s only championship. the Leopards were runners-up to Aliquippa in last year’s 4A final.

Avonworth won the 2A title in 2019.

Belle Vernon averages 39.1 points. It has scored at least 42 points in seven straight games, topping 50 three times.

Avonworth is scoring 34.1 a game.

Maybe Friday’s final will be a defensive struggle. Neither team gives up more than 10 points a game: Belle Vernon 8.2, Avonworth 9.3.

“They don’t miss tackles,” Humbert said. “They’re good at reading the inside backers and blocks. They remind me of Thomas Jefferson in some ways.”

If nothing else, the Leopards had hoped to “out-film” Avonworth.

After a family day last Saturday, Humbert was in his office at 4:45 a.m. Sunday preparing for the Antelopes. He estimated the Leopards’ staff had already put in 17 hours of film study by Monday evening and was probably going to log a 30-hour week in the build-up to Friday’s kickoff.

“No stone unturned,” Humbert said. “I want these guys to immerse themselves in what we want to do. That is what it is going to take.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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