Belle Vernon has pedigree to contend

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Sunday, August 23, 2020 | 6:01 AM


Since Matt Humbert was hired as the football coach at Belle Vernon in 2014, the program has seen steady improvement.

The Leopards have defeated perennial power Thomas Jefferson, won the conference title twice, reached the WPIAL semifinals and, finally, in 2019, reached the WPIAL finals for the first time since Gary Dongilli was coach in 1999.

Now, Humbert would like to see his team take the next step: win a WPIAL title and qualify for the PIAA tournament.

And while Belle Vernon graduated some outstanding players, Humbert likes his returning cast.

He is confident the Leopards are primed for another run.

It won’t be easy. Thomas Jefferson, which handed Belle Vernon its only two losses in 2019, including in the championship game at Heinz Field, is strong again.

Another power, McKeesport, dropped from Class 5A to 4A and is part of the Big Eight Conference.

Class 4A also added Aliquippa from 3A and Plum from 5A.

“The teams that played prior showed our young group about doing things the right way,” Humbert said. “Getting over the semifinal hump was huge for the program.

“The key part of coaching is getting the team to realize the moment, not that you need any extra motivation.”

Graduation took away a lot of talented skill players, notably quarterback Jared Hartman, a four-year starter, running back Larry Callaway, wide receivers Hunter Ruokonen and Nolan Labuda, kicker Cameron Guess, linebacker Andy Pacak and tight end Mitch Pohlot.

“We have a solid group of returners that will need to lean on their experience and dedication over the past three years to have a successful season this year,” Humbert said. “Many role players have graduated, but a large foundation returns with many capable players competing for starting jobs.”

The biggest hole is at quarterback, where senior Jackson Jewell and junior Devin Whitlock look to fill Hartman’s shoes. Whitlock played quarterback at Monessen as a freshman and was used in the wildcat last year for the Leopards.

Humbert said he expects both players to compete for the job.

Replacing Callaway at running back is another concern. Senior Dane Anden is the leading candidate after he rushed for 288 yards and scored two touchdowns. Junior Ryan Hamer is the other contender for the spot. He rushed for 188 yards.

With Whitlock possibly moving to quarterback, there is little experience at wide receiver.

Seniors Ian Maloney, Jake Haney and junior Joe Klanchar are expected to start, but freshman Quinton Martin could challenge for playing time.

“We used Devin a lot of different ways last season,” Humbert said. “And we plan on using Devin multiple ways this season.

“We have to stay healthy and protect the ball. We must take advantage of opportunities presented to us, and we must be multiple and balanced with our run and pass game.”

Whitlock caught 22 passes for 292 yards and two touchdowns, rushed for 511 yards and six touchdowns and completed 2 of 3 passes for 6 yards and a score.

A big reason Humbert is excited about the offense is because of the line, headed by four-year starter Tom Kovatch. The linemen average 250 pounds.

And while the defense returns only five starters, led by junior linebacker Cole Weightman and Maloney, Humbert is comfortable with the group.

Senior Dakota Marion returns at end, and senior Anthony Evans is back at tackle.

“We have to take advantage of our returning starters that have a year of playing experience under their belt,” Humbert said.

“We have to be better tacklers and create turnovers, and we must get off the field on third down. Winning the red zone and short yardage situations is a must.”

Schedule

Coach: Matt Humbert

2019 record: 10-2, 6-1 in Class 4A Big Eight

All-time record: 325-235-7

Date, Opponent, Time

9.11, at McKeesport*, 7

9.18, West Mifflin*, 7

9.25, at Thomas Jefferson*, 7:30

10.2, at Laurel Highlands*, 7

10.9, Ringgold*, 7

10.16, at Trinity*, 7

10.23, Uniontown, 7

*Class 4A Big Eight Conference game

Statistical leaders

Passing: Jared Hartman*

127-175, 1,766 yards, 30 TDs

Rushing: Larry Callaway*

144-1,046 yards, 16 TDs

Receiving: Nolan Labuda*

48-586 yards, 12 TDs

*Graduated

Fast facts

• Rostraver Township and Bellmar high schools merged to become Belle Vernon Area in 1965. The district is located in Fayette and Westmoreland counties.

• Belle Vernon has played in four WPIAL Championship games, winning in 1995. The Leopards defeated Franklin Regional, 22-6. They lost to Blackhawk, 24-6, in 1996; West Allegheny, 37-12, in 1999; and Thomas Jefferson, 41-7, in 2019.

• Former Belle Vernon running back Gary Dongilli was the head coach for the first three finalist teams. The first coach was supposed to be Bap Manzini, but a contract dispute saw Manzini leave and accept a position at Thomas Jefferson. Belle Vernon eventually hired James Russell, who coached at Donora.

• Belle Vernon’s first playoff appearance was in 1978 when the Leopards defeated Jeannette, 15-14. Dave Bashada returned an interception 102 yards for a touchdown and also ran for a two-point conversion after he bobbled the snap on the extra point. The Leopards lost to Blackhawk, 13-7, in the semifinals.

• The 1979 team featured two NFL players: running back Marlon McIntyre and tackle Bill Contz. McIntyre played at Pitt and Contz at Penn State. That team lost to Gateway, 30-7, in the first round of the playoffs.

Belle Vernon roster

No., Name, Pos., Ht./Wt., Cl.

1, Devin Whitlock, QB/DB, 5-8/165, Jr.

2, Braden Laux, QB/LB, 6-4/180, Fr.

3, Quinton Martin, RB/DB, 6-3/190, Fr.

4, Jackson Jewell, QB/DB, 5-11/185, Sr.

5, Giovanni Weightman, WR/DB, 5-9/140, Fr.

6, Adam LaCarte, WR/DB, 5-9/140, Fr.

7, Dane Anden, RB/DB, 6-0/180, Sr.

8, Tanner Steeber, QB/LB, 6-0/170, So.

9, Jacob Hrach, WR/DB, 5-9/140, So.

10, Jake Gedekoh, RB/DB, 5-10/160, Fr.

11, Colton Lee, WR/LB, 5-8/135, Fr.

12, Landen Baron, TE/LB, 5-8/135, Fr.

13, Ian Maloney, WR/LB, 6-1/195, Sr.

14, Reiley Wiant, QB/LB, 6-1/185, Jr.

15, Cole Weightman, TE/LB, 6-2/210, Jr.

16, Jake Haney, WR/DB, 5-11/160, Sr.

17, Aiden Johnson, TE/DB, 6-0/185, Fr.

18, Logan Cunningham, WR/DB, 5-9/175, Jr.

19, Zaria Taylor, WR/DB, 4-11/116, Fr.

20, Tyler Kovatch, K, 6-0/175, Jr.

21, Jake Wessel, WR/DB, 5-9/140, So.

22, Evan Pohlot, WR/DB, 5-11/145, So.

23, Joe Klanchar, WR/LB, 6-1/200, Jr.

27, Anthony Miklos, WR/DB, 6-1/150, Jr.

28, Chase Ruokonen, WR/DB, 6-0/150, So.

30, Ryan Hamer, RB/LB, 5-9/205, Jr.

32, Tanner Moody, RB/LB, 5-6/130, Fr.

33, Colt Manown, RB/LB, 5-8/165, So.

34, Zach Spano, RB/LB, 5-11/80, Sr.

35, Xander Zilka, TE/LB, 6-1/195, Sr.

36, Austin Hoffman, RB/LB, 5-8/135, Fr.

39, Connor Glaspey, WR/DB, 6-0/145, Jr.

43, Logan Hoffman, RB/LB, 5-11/180, Jr.

44, Jack Bryer, RB/LB, 6-0/210, Jr.

50, Dylan DeWitt, OL/DL, 5-10/210, Fr.

51, Zach May, OL/DL, 5-11/250, So.

52, Dakota Marion, OL/DL, 6-2/245, Sr.

53, Zach Zelenski, OL/DL, 5-7/155, Fr.

54, Luke Bryer, OL/DL, 5-9/170, Fr.

55, Izak Sobczak, OL/DL, 5-9/190, Fr.

56, Ryan McGrew, OL/DL, 6-2/260, Jr.

57, Tristan Kmetz, OL/DL, 5-11/240, Fr.

58, Anthony Evans, OL/DL, 6-3/260, Sr.

59, Josh Playchak, OL/DL, 5-9/208, Fr.

60, Jake Heckel, OL/DL, 5-8/200, Fr.

61, Nate Farley, OL/DL, 6-3/250, Sr.

62, Dylan Larson, OL/DL, 5-8/215, Jr.

63, Tanner Hackenson, OL/DL, 5-9/181, Fr.

64, Noah Clegg, OL/DL, 6-0/190, Jr.

65, Connor Youngblood, OL/DL, 5-5/330, Jr.

66, Carson Matusik, OL/DL, 5-9/260, Fr.

67, Dalton Vitez, OL/DL, 5-9/320, Fr.

68, Tommy Kovatch, OL/DL, 6-0/240, Jr.

69, Perry Riggle, OL/DL, 5-8/251, Fr.

70, Jacob Pfarr, OL/DL, 5-7/190, Fr.

70, Dane Levi, OL/DL, 6-2/230, Fr.

71, Steve Macheska, OL/DL, 6-4/220, So.

72, Craig Dongilli, OL/DL, 5-9/172, Jr.

73, Nate Gongaware, OL/DL, 6-2/260, Fr.

74, Eden Shemesh, OL/DL, 6-3/250, Sr.

75, Cole Youngblood, OL/DL, 5-8/330, Sr.

76, Scott Mastin, OL/DL, 6-2/245, So.

77, Blake Jensen, OL/DL, 5-11/250, Fr.

78, Domenic Sasko, OL/DL, 5-9/220, Fr.

79, Chad Metikosh, OL/DL, 5-8/240, Sr.

80, Willie Schwerha, K, 5-10/165, Fr.

81, Dylan Seliga, WR/DB, 5-11/150, So.

82, Brandon Barber, TE/LB, 6-0/175, Sr.

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Paul by email at pschofield@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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