Mix-and-match approach carries Belle Vernon to brink of WPIAL championship

Wednesday, November 24, 2021 | 2:07 PM

Championship teams usually have it all sorted out by now.

They know who is starting on both sides of the ball, where they’ll play and who will be their backups.

But Belle Vernon, set to play for a WPIAL football title Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field, still has moving pieces.

Injuries early in the year created a ripple effect in the lineup that has lasted all season — like the tide repeatedly rolling up on “The Beach.”

“It’s been a hodge podge,” Leopards coach Matt Humbert said. “We’ve stuck our hands in clay for eight, nine weeks trying figure out what it was. Even in the New Castle game, we were still shifting and bending and molding.”

Sure, Humbert will have a lineup ready for kickoff when the top-seeded Leopards (10-0) take on No. 2 Aliquippa (10-1) for the Class 4A title, but his depth chart might be in pencil.

“It’s schemes sometimes, but it’s more personnel,” Humbert said. “How do you put your best kids on their best kids? How do you minimize risk? You never want to have a weakness out there and have them expose it.”

Last week in a 21-7 win over rival Thomas Jefferson in the semifinals, Humbert moved star sophomore Quinton Martin from safety to cornerback.

The rangy Martin played some corner initially the previous week in the second half of a 45-20 win over New Castle in the quarterfinals.

“We tweaked the recipe a little bit against New Castle and TJ,” Humbert said. “Moving Q to corner, that (TJ) game is different if he doesn’t have five pass breakups. It’s TJ, man. If (running) isn’t working, it’s bombs over Baghdad. Nine out of 10 times, they catch that ball and finish a drive for six. It was great to see the secondary play that well.”

The Leopards have had to replace seniors Ryan Hamer (RB/DL) and Ryan McGrew (OL/DL), who suffered season-ending injuries. That has presented opportunities for a myriad of plug-ins, from junior Parker Jewell and senior Craig Dongilli playing defensive end, to junior Steve Macheska playing tackle.

Seniors Reilly Wiant and Jack Bryer and junior Chase Ruokonen also have filled in at key spots.

With guys out of position, some of them undersized, Belle Vernon has made it work.

The concept is simple, Humbert said: Don’t overthink it.

Senior Logan Cunningham and Ruokonen saw time at safety last week when Martin moved to corner.

“Reilly Wiant had a great game Friday,” Humbert said. “There were some times where he didn’t play much this year because that wasn’t the game for him. We have been able to be a lot more rotational with our guys. We’re more multiple like that. Third downs, it’s two guys go off, two guys go on. We haven’t done that in the past.”

Bryer said the Leopards have embraced the next-man-up mentality.

“We have had a couple of guys go down to injuries and still have a couple guys banged up,” he said. “Our coaches are doing a great job of putting the right guys in during certain situations. I also think it’s a big credit to our underclassmen. We have a really talented group of underclassmen who have done a great job of doing what they need to do.”

And don’t forget about sophomore Tanner Moody, who also has gone through the revolving door.

“He’s what, 145 pounds?” Humbert said. “And he’s playing inside backer. When Jack gets knocked down, he comes in.”

Standout senior tight end/defensive end Cole Weightman has been dealing with a knee injury, but it didn’t keep him from making 11 tackles against Thomas Jefferson.

Still, Dongilli saw time at fullback and senior Logan Hoffman shuffled to tight end with Weightman not at 100%.

“He wasn’t even a backup tight end,” Humbert said.

Sophomore Jake Gedekoh also has been playing fullback and could see an increased offensive role Saturday after helping to pick up the slack on defense.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Humbert said. “It causes you to think about a lot of things. You’re trying to get the best guys in the best situations.”

“Sometimes we don’t have the size advantage that we’d like at certain positions. We have a lot of hybrid outside backers that are kind of like safeties.”

While there is plenty of talent and playmaking ability in the lineup with Martin and standout quarterback/defensive back Devin Whitlock leading short but animated drives, one quality the Leopards do not seem to possess is panic.

“The neat thing is there are lot of guys who have been stepping in and it’s never like, ‘Oh no,’” Humbert said. “They just go in and do the job. The kids have embraced that and our coaches have done a good job with it.

“In the past you’re nervous, like, ‘What if he goes down or he goes down?’”

Humbert has had good teams before. After all, he’s never missed the playoffs and led the Leopards to five straight semifinals and two WPIAL finals in three years.

But is this team, albeit mismatched like two different colored socks at times, the one that brings home the school’s first WPIAL football title since 1995?

“This is the team that has cohesively coagulated into (a strong contender),” Humbert said. “In 2015, we had a good squad, but coaches and kids we weren’t at that level to take that next step. We won 10 games. That was such a big thing. It took a year or two to get our feet under us.

“In ‘19, I don’t care who (Thomas Jefferson) played, they would have won at any classification. We thought last year might have been the year. We had some deficiencies here and there. This year, we have overachieved in terms of our kids giving their output to the maximum degree. There is just so much sacrifice personally on this team with injuries and allowing us to coach them hard.”

Coach them hard?

“That’s one thing we’re losing as a society,” Humbert said. “There is definitely a borderline between being miserable on a kid and coaching them hard and expecting the most out of them. I am fortunate that our parents allow us to coach them hard. You can’t win big games and put yourself in positions to contend for championships if you’re not making things uncomfortable for kids.”

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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