Many happy returns for Belle Vernon, Jeannette, Penn-Trafford

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Saturday, October 31, 2020 | 7:05 PM


One thing the three remaining high school football teams from Westmoreland County have in common is their abilities to score points in a variety of ways.

Belle Vernon, Jeannette and Penn-Trafford do not just rely on high-powered offenses. Each has scored touchdowns on defense and special teams.

Those are the plays that can change the momentum and help a deep playoff run.

Jeannette coach Roy Hall said he still remembers a 2012 game at Washington when the Prexies blocked a punt with 30.6 seconds left and star running back Shai McKenzie returned it 47 yards for a touchdown in an 18-15 loss for the Jayhawks.

Penn-Trafford fans probably would like to forget about a 1992 game against Connellsville when the Warriors, leading 14-0, turned the ball over on three-consecutive possessions. Connellsville won the game, 28-21, despite scoring one offensive touchdown.

“Special teams are a third of the game,” Hall said. “I learned that a long time ago. Those plays are game-changers. They win and lose games.”

In Jeannette’s 62-14 WPIAL Class A playoff win Friday against Avella, the Jayhawks scored nine touchdowns. James Sanders returned a kickoff 61 yards for a score, and Ryan Kimmel scooped up a fumble and raced 15 yards for a score.

Brett Birch and Noah Sanders each had long interception returns that setup scores inside the Avella 5.

Jeannette has nine returns for touchdowns this season. Kimmel’s return was the third score by a lineman. Emilio Huerta has the other two.

They’ve returned four interceptions for scores, two fumbles and two blocked punts. Kaelan Piscar (fumble and blocked punt) made a couple of big plays, and Roberto Smith Jr., Jaydin Canady and Sanders have interception returns.

“I can’t remember so many linemen scoring in one season,” Hall said. “The way Ryan ran, now he wants to be a running back.”

When Penn-Trafford defeated Franklin Regional in Week 7, the Warriors had four returns for scores: two interceptions, a fumble and a fake punt.

Penn-Trafford has nine returns for scores, including six interceptions.

“We practice returns,” Penn-Trafford coach John Ruane said. “They’re part of the game, and we have playmakers that can make them. They sure can turn the momentum of a game.”

Cole Darragh has two returns, and Ethan Carr has one. Others with returns are Cade Yacamelli (kickoff), Josh Huffman (interception), Jack Jollie (fumble), Chase Vecchio (interception), Nate Frye (fake punt) and Liam Hileman (interception).

“We put our athletes in position to make those plays,” Ruane said.

Penn-Trafford has in the past have been successful converting onside kicks.

“Every time I watch Penn-Trafford on film, they’re either intercepting a pass or picking up a fumble,” Upper St. Clair coach Mike Junko said. “They force you to prepare for a lot of things.”

Belle Vernon junior Devin Whitlock is a threat any time he touches the ball. He’s returned interceptions for touchdowns in three consecutive games, including one for a school-record 105 yards.

He broke the record held 103 yards by Dave Bashada in the 1978 WPIAL Class AAA playoffs against Jeannette. The Leopards won the game, 15-14.

Whitlock also had a punt return for a score and has had two kickoff returns called back because of penalties.

“We try to get Devin involved has much as we can,” Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said. “Our turnover rate at the end of the season has always been pretty good. I think we had 30 interceptions last season.”

Humbert said a portion of Thursday’s practice is devoted to special teams and defensive returns.

The Leopards didn’t score defensively against Chartiers Valley, but John Haney had two interceptions.

Ryan Hamer and Logan Cunningham have the other returns for scores for the Leopards.

It won’t be surprising if the defense and special teams play a key role for the three teams Friday: Penn-Trafford at Pine-Richland, Belle Vernon at Aliquippa or Jeannette at Rochester.

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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