With TJ out of picture, Belle Vernon, McKeesport battle for conference crown

Wednesday, October 27, 2021 | 5:02 PM

When people talk about which team will win the Big Eight Conference, the conversation usually is centered on Thomas Jefferson, which has won the past two WPIAL and PIAA Class 4A titles.

But that’s not the case this year. The conference title will be decided by the winner of Friday’s first-place showdown between No. 3 McKeesport and No. 1 Belle Vernon.

Thomas Jefferson has qualified for the playoffs and will be able to defend its titles, but it lost to Belle Vernon and McKeesport.

Two high-powered offenses will square off at James Weir Stadium in Rostraver with not only the conference title on the line but top seeding in the WPIAL Class 4A playoffs, as well. Both teams average 43 points per game within the conference and allow about 10.

So will fans be treated to a wild, high-scoring contest?

“You can never predict what kind of game will be played,” Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said. “You can’t overthink it. You have to be ready for anything. Last year, we shut them out and many expected a shootout.”

Belle Vernon (7-0, 5-0) registered a 20-0 win over McKeesport (8-1, 5-0) in last year’s season opener.

But the quality of athletes on the field Friday means a shootout is possible.

“We historically improve as the season goes on,” McKeesport coach Matt Miller said. “You want to play us early in the season and not late.”

McKeesport used big plays last week to defeat Thomas Jefferson, 42-28, knocking off the Jaguars for the second consecutive season.

Running back Bobbie Boyd rushed for 227 yards on 17 carries and scored three touchdowns. Kenneth Thompson touched the ball four times and scored three touchdowns, including an 82-yard kickoff return.

Other players Belle Vernon’s defense must contain include quarterback Caleb Reist and halfback Jahmill Perryman.

“When you prepare for them, you must maintain gap control and be disciplined,” Humbert said. “They’re capable of grinding out long drives or busting a big one like they did against TJ. This will be a big challenge.”

Belle Vernon was off last week, which allowed the Leopards to get healthy and have two weeks to prep for the McKeesport offense. Humbert said the defense is getting back senior middle linebacker Jack Bryer, who missed the past three games.

“Hopefully the week off will be beneficial in this game and in the playoffs,” Humbert said.

Belle Vernon has done well in big games this season. It defeated Chartiers Valley, Penn-Trafford, Thomas Jefferson and Laurel Highlands at home. McKeesport’s lone loss came against Canisius High School from Buffalo, N.Y., 35-14, at Edinboro University.

While Belle Vernon must deal with the Tigers’ flex-bone triple option offense, McKeesport has to deal with Belle Vernon quarterback Devin Whitlock and running back Quinton Martin.

Martin scored four touchdowns against Trinity in his return from a leg injury. Whitlock threw three touchdown passes and returned a punt 76 yards for a score.

Whitlock has rushed for 864 yards and has completed 51 of 74 passes for 732 yards and four scores. Whitlock has scored 17 total touchdowns. Martin has rushed for 531 yards and scored 11 touchdowns.

Evan Pohlot (14 catches for 246 yards) and Hunter Ruokonen (13 for 172) are Whitlock’s top receivers.

“We have to try to corral Devin,” Miller said. “He can beat you with his feet, and he can throw over you. They have several guys who can make plays.”

Miller is counting on Perryman at free safety, Dajour Chaffin at outside linebacker and inside linebackers Shane McGraw and Devin Long to play key roles in slowing down the Leopards’ offense.

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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