‘Team’ is the word for WPIAL champion Belle Vernon

Saturday, November 25, 2023 | 4:37 PM

As a postgame press conference wound into its final question and answer Friday night at Acrisure Stadium, Braden Laux grabbed the microphone.

“I’d like to say one more thing,” the senior quarterback from Belle Vernon said. “Our line … Without them, we wouldn’t be at this table with this trophy. They should get more recognition.

“If they don’t play well, we don’t accomplish our goals.”

Belle Vernon players and coaches took turns trumpeting the praises of various team members after the Leopards completed a WPIAL championship repeat with a 26-0 victory over Avonworth in the 3A title game.

For Laux, the glory went to his front five: Dane Levi, Dylan DeWitt, Luke Bryer, Perry Riggle, and Jake Heckel — and don’t forget tight end Aidan Johnson.

Laux injured his pinky finger earlier in the season. He must have known to keep his ring finger intact.

A number of players had a fingerprint on the victory and the trophy as the Leopards (11-1) pushed into the PIAA semifinals for the second year in a row, turning one eye toward a state repeat as they celebrated another district triumph.

But first, Friday’s team-first approach, which revealed itself as Avonworth did its best to limit star running back Quinton Martin, who did not score a touchdown but drew the defense away enough to allow others to help accentuate the victory and the Leopards’ third WPIAL title.

The sheer notion of Martin not having a major impact on another championship seemed nonsensical, but it stood to show the talent Belle Vernon has around the Penn State commit.

Laux had two short touchdown runs and also threw a scoring pass in the win. He ran for 53 yards on 14 carries and added 1 1/2 tackles for loss from his defensive end spot.

Laux is headed to Eastern Michigan to play tight end.

“Braden does not get the recognition he should as our quarterback,” Leopards coach Matt Humbert said. “He scrambles and gets tough yards for us. He scrambles left or right and makes drive-sustaining plays.”

Others who chimed in when their number was called included:

• Jake Gedekoh, who delivered a bone-jarring hit on wildcat quarterback Andrew Kuban early, then caught a 25-yard touchdown pass late.

• Deaubre Lightfoot, who returned the opening kickoff deep into Avonworth territory to set up the Leopards’ first score.

• Preston Rathway kicked a 26-yard field goal after Laux ran for a first down on a third-and-22.

• Tanner Moody and Adam LaCarte combined for 17 tackles.

• Anthony Crews had a 40-yard reception to set up a Laux TD run.

• Dom Ghillani recorded a safety after Willie Schwerha pinned the Antelopes inside the 2 with a 62-yard punt.

• Alonzo Wade had an interception.

• The defense did not let Avonworth convert a third down (0 for 10) or fourth down (0 for 4). The final fourth-down stop was a goal-line stand.

The Leopards overcame 10 penalties for 96 yards, most of them of the pre-snap variety.

“Coach Humbert challenged every kid and coach on this team,” Laux said. “We accepted that challenge.”

Another a long week of practice — the coaches spent six long days preparing for Avonworth’s multiple offensive looks, and players felt like they were back in two-a-days, with added film sessions — preparation paid off.

The defense had one of its best games, posting the team’s third shutout of the season on a big stage.

“Playing East Allegheny (in the semifinals) helped us with (Avonworth quarterback Carson) Bellinger,” Belle Vernon linebackers coach Jeff Ogrodowski said. “We kept him in the pocket.”

Bellinger had nowhere to run and nobody to throw to downfield. Kuban was limited in the wildcat, so the Antelopes were in third-and-long situations frequently.

“This was a Belle Vernon kind of performance,” said defensive coordinator Brett Berish, a member of the BVA Hall of Fame. “It was gritty and hard-working, from a blue-collar team.”

Said Humbert: “These kids have bought into our motto: reject comfort.”

The Leopards will take on District 10 champion Hickory (10-2) in the PIAA semifinals Friday or Saturday at a time and site to be announced.

That means a slight pause, then back to work for potentially two more games.

“We get more football,” Humbert said. “It’s like a nasty habit preparing for these games. You crave it. Maybe that sounds a little messed up, but we love to put in the time to get ready for another game, another challenge.

“I think these kids would put in 10-hour days if they had to.”

Remember, Belle Vernon is slated to move up to Class 4A next year.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.


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