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PETERS TWP., Pa. — Belle Vernon defeated South Fayette 41-30 to advance to the Leopards’ first WPIAL championship game since 1999.
Belle Vernon won a WPIAL Championship in 1995, returned in 1999 and have not been to the finals. That is until Friday’s somewhat of an upset of the defending Class 4A champions.
South Fayette scored on their first possession of the game and led 14-0 early in the second when Naman Alemada connected with Charley Rossi for a 61-yard touchdown pass.
Belle Vernon scored on their next possession when senior quarterback Jared Hartman found Nolan Labuda over the middle for a 69-yard score.
South Fayette tacked on a field goal on their next possession and the lead was again double digits. With less than two minutes remaining in the half, the normally methodical Leopards needed a chunk play, and they got it.
Hartman took the snap and handed the ball off to Andrew Pacak on the jet sweep. Pacak pulled up at the end of the line and heaved a pass down the sideline in the direction of Hunter Ruokonen, who fought his way through a defender to make the 41-yard touchdown catch.
The Leopards went into the half trailing 17-14.
Then the scoring started.
South Fayette and Belle Vernon both scored on their two possessions to open the second half – Alemada ran for a six-yard score and Andrew Franklin scored on a 22-yard dash for the Lions while Hartman found Labuda again, this time for 19 yards and Devin Whitlock scored from 10-yards out early in the fourth quarter.
The stands were growing restless, waiting for a team to blink, and, finally, it was South Fayette.
In their own territory, Alemada brought a receiver in motion, and when his eyes were on his running back, the center snapped the ball, sailing right by him.
The play lost 18 yards, and the Lions were eventually forced to punt from their 18. The ensuing punt was shanked and traveled only to the 37, and Belle Vernon was in business, trailing 30-28.
The Leopards went three-and-out and lined up for a 54-yard field goal from Caermon Guess, who is one of the top kicking prospects in the country.
The kick attempt was well short, but a penalty on the try turned a fourth-and-10 to a fourth-and-five and the Leopards went for it.
A broken play forced Hartman to throw a deep pass to Pacak who was in one-on-one coverage inside the 10-yard line. The senior came down with the catch a-la David Tyree against the Patriots and all of the momentum belonged to Belle Vernon.
The Leopards scored a few plays later and Belle Vernon had its first lead 34-30.
JaVaughn Goodnight fielded the ensuing kickoff for South Fayette and returned it to a large scrum around the 25-yard line. A large crowd gathered and suddenly Ruokonen emerged from the pack with the ball and scored 24-yards later.
The Leopards scored two touchdowns in 14 seconds and with just over six minutes remaining, the outcome started to fell inevitable.
The Lions put a drive together but a fourth-and-ten pass from the 35 was overthrown and the Leopards took over with 4:18 remaining. Three first downs later and the Leopards have a week to prepare for a rematch with perennial powerhouse Thomas Jefferson at Heinz Field.