Discipline key for top-seeded Belle Vernon when New Castle comes to town

Wednesday, November 10, 2021 | 8:57 PM

Defensive discipline played a big role in Belle Vernon’s 46-14 win over McKeesport to win the Big 8 Conference title two weeks ago.

As the Leopards prepare to open the playoffs with a WPIAL quarterfinal Friday, discipline still will be key. Only this time, it’s going to be the Leopards’ defensive backfield maintaining its focus.

The New Castle Red Hurricanes (7-4) blow into “The Beach” at James Weir Stadium for a 7 p.m. kickoff, fresh off a 31-19 win at No. 8 Highlands in the first round.

“They do some interesting things. It all starts with (Chris Hood) at quarterback. He’s a big boy that can gain some ground when he gets going downhill,” Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said. “They throw a lot of screens, and they’re pretty multiple on offense. They’re good for about three trick plays or gadgets, and you can argue they got 12 points against Highlands on two of those kinds of plays.

“Against McKeesport, it was our front seven that needed to maintain their discipline. Now against these guys, it’s the defensive secondary and second level that need to make sure they’re not biting on anything and staying on their play.”

Hood is the engine that makes the Hurricanes go, passing for 1,133 yards and running for 992 this season.

“He’s a big kid. The kind of kid that once he gets going, he’s going to use his momentum and gain some yards,” Humbert said. “We have to limit splash plays and what they’re going to try to set up with him.”

Michael Wells is Hood’s big target on the outside. A standout basketball player, Wells’ 6-foot-4, 218-pound frame makes him easy to find.

“They get the ball to him a lot,” Humbert said. “They’ll run you with the quarterback then try to get you to bite on a big play.”

Wells has 353 yards receiving on 19 catches, good for just under 19 yards per catch. Tyler Leekins (16-204) and Owen Ciavarino (15-241) both average more than 12 yards per catch.

In the running game, the Leopards will focus on Hood but also must worry about Braylen Sibley, who averages more than 10 yards per carry.

“We’ve had two really good weeks of practice leading into this one,” Humbert said. “It’s a little different because we got to prepare for two weeks for McKeesport. Now, we didn’t know who our opponent was going to be until they won. But the bye week was beneficial because we got to spend it on self-scouting and working on some fundamental and basic things that might get lost in the usual shuffle.

“We’ve had a good two weeks.”

The Leopards are led by the dynamic duo of quarterback Devin Whitlock and running back Quinton Martin.

Whitlock is just 40 yards shy of 1,000 yards rushing and is averaging exactly 12 yards per carry. He’s thrown for 828 yards and has completed nearly 75% of his pass attempts.

Martin (58-737) and sophomore Jake Gedekoh (52-482) have combined for over 1,200 yards in the Leopards rushing attack.

When he does throw, Whitlock has been finding juniors Evan Pohlot (15 catches, 262 yards) and Chase Ruokonen (14-188). Martin has added 100 receiving yards as well. Tight end Cole Weightman is averaging just under 25 yards per catch.

“There’s no denying that everyone we have is complementary to Devin and Q, but we have some weapons out there with them,” Humbert said. “I don’t think people from outside this area realize some of the things our other kids are doing and how important they are to our overall success.”

One way the Leopards have morphed this season is on the defensive line. Because of season-ending injuries to Ryan Hamer and Ryan McGrew, players such as Parker Jewell and Craig Dongilli have turned the unit speedier.

“That’s going to be a big test for them this week,” Humbert said of the group. “New Castle has some very big offensive linemen. Can those speed guys, the quick and shifty, use it to their advantage? That’s kind of the game inside the game for us.”

Humbert mentioned junior lineman Steve Macheska and sophomores Dylan DeWitt and Luke Bryer as players who have been invaluable to the team’s success.

“Macheska tore his ACL last year and never played football before that,” Humbert said. “He’s definitely been underrated. The thing is, when the kid makes a mistake, he owns it and moves forward. We love his size and what we saw in camp. But he was cast in there to fulfill his role when guys went down. Now, he’s become a dude in there.

“And I think the biggest thing I don’t think people realize offensively is how good our guys on the outside are. Every time Chase, Evan and even Gedekoh are called upon, they make a play. They don’t get enough credit for doing their job and providing lanes for Devin and Q to do the things they do. This is the best blocking group of receivers I’ve ever had here. I just think it flies under the radar.

“We just have to worry about playing our game, staying disciplined. If we do that, we should see a positive result.”

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