Fast start leads Belle Vernon to 2nd straight state championship

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Saturday, December 9, 2023 | 3:57 PM


MECHANISBURG — There was no suspense in this year’s PIAA Class 3A championship.

Belle Vernon made sure of that with another dominating performance starting with the opening kickoff.

Anthony Crews scored two touchdowns in the first quarter, and the Leopards (13-1) won their second consecutive state title with a convincing 38-7 victory against District 11 champion Northwestern Lehigh on Saturday at Cumberland Valley’s Chapman Field.

From the opening kickoff when Crews raced 77 yards for a touchdown to the final seconds when the defense stopped Northwestern Lehigh from scoring, the Leopards finished what they started a year ago when they won their first title.

The Leopards did it with a solid ground attack and stingy defense that forced two second-half turnovers and had a goal-line stand. Belle Vernon needed a goal-line stop to defeat Neumann-Goretti, 9-8, in last year’s championship game.

“You can’t script it better than we started,” Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said. “People try to kick away from our deep guys, and we have other guys that can break it.”

Things started quickly for the Leopards as Crews snagged the opening kickoff, hit a hole and went untouched for the score.

Moments later Crews scored again, but this time he had to improvise. After bobbling the handoff from quarterback Braden Laux on a reverse right, Crews stopped and found a lane, thanks to a block from Laux, down the left sideline for a 62-yard score.

The touchdown put the Leopards up 14-0.

“I knew they were going to kick the ball to me when Quinton (Martin) and Kole (Doppelheuer) switched sides,” Crews said. “I was prepared to catch and go. The hole opened up right away. Everyone blocked well.”

On the reverse, Crews kept his composure.

“Braden and I had a little miscommunication,” Crews said. “Once I got ahold of the ball, I knew I was gone. Braden made a huge block. Once I didn’t get hit, the cutback was there, and I was gone.”

Late in the second quarter, after a fumble by Leopards punt returner Adam LaCarte, the Leopards’ defense, led by Jake Gedekoh, stopped Northwestern Lehigh running back Dalton Clymer at the Belle Vernon 2.

“It wasn’t the same call we had last year,” Gedekoh said. “Last year it was a 5-2 box. This year was a 4-3 box, which put me on the outside and allowed me to take on the fullback.”

Northwestern Lehigh coach Josh Snyder said it was the first time all season someone stopped them at the goal line.

“We had some self-inflicted wounds,” Snyder said. “The opening kickoff was deflating, and then the bad handoff and for that kid to reverse the field and score. That would break a lot of teams but not us. They were very physical. Their safety was a dude.”

Belle Vernon proceeded to drive 98 yards on nine running plays and take a 21-0 lead. Gedekoh’s 49-yard run set up a 2-yard score by Laux.

“It was a stressful week,” Humbert said. “It came to how our speed would combat their size, and you saw our kids were hitting windows and were flying around. Any nerves on how good their line was were put away in the second half.”

Northwestern Lehigh (15-1) then put together its only scoring drive of the game as sophomore quarterback Shane Leh tossed a 17-yard touchdown to Landen Matson.

The Tigers tried to build off the late first-half score on their first possession of the third quarter. But linebacker Colton Lee sniffed out a screen pass and tackled Clymer for a 5-yard loss. On third down, defensive end Aiden Johnson sacked Leh for a 9-yard loss.

Martin provided the dagger when he went 92 yards on a first-down sweep left to make it 28-7.

“I felt we did a good job holding Martin in check,” Snyder said. “He was able to get off on that one, and he took our last hope away from us.”

LaCarte made up for fumbling by intercepting a pass and later causing a fumble.

“I didn’t even know the quarterback had fumbled until later,” LaCarte said. “Tanner Moody came up and said it’s our ball. At that point I knew that was it. We beat a good football team, and we knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”

Preston Rathway added a 44-yard field goal, and Gedekoh finished scoring with a 1-yard plunge after racing 14 yards.

Martin ran for 138 yards on 10 carries and caught four passes for 25 yards. Gedekoh ran for 79 yards, and Crews added 65.

The Leopards rushed for 333 yards.

“Our offensive line was amazing,” Humbert said. “The thing that sticks out the most is the happiness for everyone associated with our program. It’s extreme joy for me. But to think of everyone that sacrificed from coaches, to the players and support staff. All their effort paid off. It was the most gratifying thing to me.”

Clymer rushed for 102 yards on 23 attempts, and Leh completed 14 of 21 passes for 119 yards.

Paul Schofield is a TribLive reporter covering high school and college sports and local golf. He joined the Trib in 1995 after spending 15 years at the Daily Courier in Connellsville, where he served as sports editor for 14 years. He can be reached at pschofield@triblive.com.

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