PIAA football Class 3A championship preview: Belle Vernon vs. Northwestern Lehigh

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Thursday, December 7, 2023 | 6:31 PM


The fifth of six PIAA championship games features a defending champion from the west against a first-time finalist from the east as WPIAL champion Belle Vernon tries to repeat when it battles District 11 winner Northwestern Lehigh.

This is the 35th year of the PIAA football playoffs, which began in 1988.

Since then, the state championship games have been played at one site the last 31 years, first at Mansion Park in Altoona, then at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, and this is the second year the games take place at Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg.

Here are some Class 3A anniversaries:

• 35 years ago in 1988: Berwick blanked Aliquippa, 13-0

• 30 years ago in 1993: Allentown Central Catholic crushed Blackhawk, 40-0

• 25 years ago in 1998: Allentown Central Catholic shut out Moon, 10-0

• 20 years ago in 2003: Manheim Central edged Pine-Richland in a classic, 39-38 in overtime

• 10 years ago in 2013: Archbishop Wood defeated Bishop McDevitt, 22-10

• Five years ago in 2018: Aliquippa whitewashed Middletown, 35-0

• Last year: Belle Vernon 9, Neumann-Goretti 8

Belle Vernon (12-1) vs. Northwestern Lehigh (15-0)

1 p.m. Saturday, Chapman Field at Cumberland Valley

Coaches: Matt Humbert, Belle Vernon; Josh Snyder, Northwestern Lehigh

2023 March to Mechanicsburg: Belle Vernon defeated East Allegheny in the quarterfinals, Freeport in the semifinals and Avonworth in the WPIAL championship game, then beat Hickory in the PIAA semifinals; Northwestern Lehigh defeated Palmerton in the first round (District 11 finals), Scranton Prep in the quarterfinals and Wyomissing in the semifinals

Last week: Belle Vernon 42, Hickory 16; Northwestern Lehigh 33, Wyomissing 24

Players to watch: Braden Laux, Belle Vernon (Sr., 6-4, 215, QB/DE); Dalton Clymer, Northwestern Lehigh (Sr., 6-0, 190, RB/LB)

Team notes

Belle Vernon: The Leopards are one win away from repeating as PIAA Class 3A champions after eliminating District 10 champion Hickory last week. After a Hornets field goal early in the second quarter, BVA scored 21 unanswered points to take a halftime lead of 28-3. Laux was 8 of 11 passing for 108 yards and a 39-yard touchdown pass to Penn State commit Quinton Martin. Laux also rushed for 76 yards and two touchdowns on runs of 3 and 1 yard. For the season, Laux has thrown for 1,585 yards and 18 touchdowns and rushed for 246 yards and seven scores. Martin leads the team with 1,027 yards rushing and 27 touchdowns. Senior Jake Gedekoh rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown last week.

• Northwestern Lehigh: The Tigers remained undefeated with a comeback victory over Wyomissing in the state semifinals last week. Senior running back Dalton Clymer rushed for 99 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns for the District 11 champs. For the season, Clymer has 1,801 yards on the ground with 31 touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Shane Leh threw for 112 yards and a touchdown last week. For the season, he has 1,697 yards passing with 23 touchdown tosses. His top target is senior Devon Hildebrand, who has 47 receptions for 630 yards. Junior Eli Zimmerman is the team’s second-leading rusher with 494 yards, and on defense, he has seven interceptions, including a key pick last week.

Historic factoids

• This is the first meeting between Belle Vernon and Northwestern Lehigh.

• The Leopards are 3-1 in the PIAA playoffs, with two wins coming last year and one last week. Belle Vernon defeated Martinsburg Central in the 2022 semifinals 21-17 and then captured its first state championship with a victory over Neumann-Goretti, 9-8. Last week, the Leopards rolled past Hickory. The lone loss was in the 1995 semifinals to Sharon, 22-16 in overtime.

• The Tigers are 4-5 all-time in the state football postseason. This is their first PIAA title game appearance. NLHS picked up state playoff wins in 1997 and 2002 before the two victories this postseason. The Tigers’ PIAA losses were in 1996, 1997, 2002, 2014 and 2022.

• This is Belle Vernon’s first postseason game against a District 11 team and Northwestern Lehigh’s first contest against a WPIAL team.

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