Belle Vernon’s long-awaited WPIAL football title was product of tireless work

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Saturday, November 26, 2022 | 3:45 PM


A 30-plus-hour work week was worth it for a WPIAL championship.

Belle Vernon coaches and players spent extra time preparing to play Avonworth in Friday’s Class 3A title game, and the long days produced quite a result: the Leopards’ first football championship in 27 years.

They celebrated loudly and proudly — Hail Mighty Leopards, as they say — on a cold night at Acrisure Stadium.

The score was 24-7. Appropriate, considering how much preparation went into the victory.

“The kids endured incredibly long days, and so did the coaches,” said coach Matt Humbert, who was doused with lemon-lime Gatorade, befitting his team’s colors. “We spent more time with each other than we did our families. They were probably tired of me harping on the same things and yelling at them. But they listened and didn’t bat an eyelash. They understood the process.”

Standout junior Quinton Martin scored three touchdowns three ways, with a 31-yard reception, 45-yard rush and a rousing 51-yard punt return that saw him cut across the field and draw oohs and aahs from the crowd.

Belle Vernon lost Class 4A championship games to Thomas Jefferson in 2019 and Aliquippa last year.

Martin said preparation played a key role in the over-the-hump win.

Avonworth, which came in averaging 34.1 points, took a 7-0 lead before the Leopards scored 24 straight.

“A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this,” Martin said. “We put the time in every day. We didn’t complain. We knew that’s what we needed to do to win.”

Martin said players made sacrifices for the team, staying long hours after school all week and practicing Thanksgiving morning and even having a walkthrough Friday morning. They ran and repeated plays, listened to pep talks and rubbed their eyes in the film room until they felt ready.

The itinerary Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday: lift weights, practice for three hours, eat dinner together, then watch film.

“Hours and hours and hours,” Martin said. “We probably didn’t get home until 7:30, 8 o’clock each night.”

Said senior lineman Steve Macheska: “We probably watched 20 hours of film. We put the time in, and it worked out.”

Humbert acknowledged talk of the team drawing hometown criticism for dropping to Class 3A, a move purely a result of enrollment numbers. Players and coaches said fans wanted them to play up in 4A.

“We played where we should be playing,” Humbert said. “These kids are champions. They have handled it like champions. Think about the pressure they have been under since (realignment) came out. They were anointed way back and had to live up to (expectations).

“If there was a book on how to do it (the right way), they’re the poster kids for it.”

Humbert said the turning point for this season, the event that gave the Leopards true-blue championship aspirations, came when they defeated rival Thomas Jefferson, 21-7, in Week 4.

“We were able to get 21 up,” Humbert said. “I saw the spark there. That started the momentum.”

The Leopards were 1-2 going into that game after losses to McKeesport and Penn-Trafford.

But they ran the table from there, averaging 46.3 points during an eight-game winning streak that led them into the final.

The victory gave a Westmoreland County team a WPIAL football title for the third consecutive year, following Jeannette (2020) and Penn-Trafford (’21).

Belle Vernon has given up just 8.1 points per game this season and has three shutouts. The Leopards wanted a fourth.

“We would have liked to get the shutout,” longtime Belle Vernon assistant and defensive coordinator Brett Barish said. “But we’ll take a championship any way we can get it.”

The Leopards will enjoy the win this weekend before returning to work Monday. Coaches normally gather early Sunday mornings to begin preparation for the next opponent, and they have one. They will face District 6 champion Central Martinsburg (12-2) next Friday in the PIAA semifinals at a time and site to be announced.

It will be their first state playoff appearance since 1995.

“We tried to make this year as uncomfortable as possible for these kids,” Humbert said. “They showed up and worked, then came back for more. That trophy is an extension of the time they’ve put in.

“The championship is the cherry on top, but the real reward is that we get to play more football.”

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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