Thank you to Dunkin’ Pittsburgh, the official sponsor of WPIAL high school football coverage on Pittsburgh Sports Now.
PETERS TWP., Pa. — The press box at Peters Township Stadium is on the visitor’s side, and the media spent Friday night’s game listening to the Belle Vernon faithful endure the cold and witness a 41-30 victory.
Some questioned the play calling, others remarked at how good South Fayette quarterback Naman Alemada was in person, but the entire crowd waited, and waited, and waited for the Belle Vernon defense to make its mark on the game.
South Fayette led 17-14 at the half, and the teams came out of the gate firing in the third quarter.
Both the Lions and Leopards scored on their first two possessions of the half, and the score ballooned to 30-28.
But the crowd still wanted that turnover.
And with a two-point lead, four plays effectively ended South Fayette’s season.
In their own territory, Alemada called a receiver in motion, and with his eyes on the receiver, the center snapped the ball, right through everyone and the Lions lost 18 yards on the play.
The drive ended in a punt, which travelled only 19 yards, giving the Leopards great field position.
A three-and-out forced a long field goal attempt that fell short, but was ultimately called back due to a penalty on South Fayette.
The drive continued, ending with a go-ahead touchdown for Belle Vernon, which now led, 34-30.
On the ensuing kickoff, Javaughn Goodnight fumbled, and the ball was returned 24 yards by Hunter Ruokonen, and suddenly the Leopards led 41-30, scoring 14 points in 14 seconds.
“(The confidence) was crazy, one that momentum started, it keeps going with our squad,” said running back Larry Callaway, who finished with 140 yards on 23 carries.
“Once our offense started clicking, and we were scoring, we needed one stop from them, and we got that big defensive play that really catapulted us,” said coach Matt Humbert.
South Fayette averages 40 points per game, and Humbert said most of those points would come in the first half, and wanted to keep the game close at halftime.
“We’re a second-half team,” said Humbert. “We felt very strongly we would prevail and we would put up some points.
“Our biggest fear was we couldn’t sputter offensively and be down 21-0 going into halftime. We didn’t want that to be a demoralizing thing. The score was tight going into the second half, that was a big boost for us. We kind of used that as our rally cry, and that worked.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Friday’s win is Belle Vernon’s ability to deliver the knockout punch.
South Fayette was favored, they’ve played close games this season and knows what it takes to get to and win WPIAL Championships.
But when Belle Vernon smelled blood in the water, their defense and special teams came through with the 14 points in 14 seconds.
“Our defense has been opportunistic all year. But this is a hard team to be opportunistic with,” said Humbert. “So we kept saying we needed one big defensive play. An interception, a fumble recovery, something like that, and it came at the perfect time.”
LESSER OF TWO EVILS
Every team with South Fayette on its schedule had one plan defensively: slow down their passing attack.
Junior Naman Alemada entered the game as the WPIAL’s leading passer, so teams were left with more questions than answers.
Belle Vernon’s plan was to try and take away the Lions’ quick passing game from their trips formation and force them to run the ball.
So much so, the running game was effective, to the point where South Fayette felt better running than passing.
Senior Andrew Franklin finished with 156 yards on 12 carries and two touchdowns for South Fayette, and coach Matt Humbert could live with that.
“I was trying to get my defensive coaches to understand, they’re going to be able to gain some yardage,” said Humbert.
“At times it was like, maybe a little too much, but we just had to ride it, we just didn’t want to give up any of the big pass plays.”
Alemada finished the night 9-19 for 241 yards and a touchdown.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
Jared Hartman’s white Nike’s are almost completely covered with Sharpie.
Black paragraphs encompass every square inch of available space … it’s enough to make Roger Goodell scream.
But the messages run deeper than an advertisement or some kind of social commentary.
“My grandma died in August, and my Pap died last August, so I had my whole family write something about them,” said Hartman.
After Friday’s win, Hartman spent extra time against the fence talking to friends and family about the win and the journey he has been on.
In the Greek myth, Sisyphus never got the boulder to the top of the mountain, and at times in the past year it had to feel the same way for Hartman.
The senior blew out his ACL and MCL in his right knee last season against West Mifflin and watched from the sideline as South Fayette defeated Belle Vernon in the playoffs.
But given a second chance, Hartman completed 14-17 passes for 164 yards and threw two touchdowns and was a true leader for the Leopards on their way to Heinz Field.
“It does mean a lot,” said Hartman. “Not playing last year really killed me.”
“I hate to romanticize things, but this is a romantic story,” said coach Matt Humbert. “He’s a kid that does all the right things, he’s a kid that’s a competitor, he’s a kid that’s a grinder, and for it to come full circle, and be able to get this team to the WPIAL Championship, what a great story.”
HEADED TO HEINZ
Friday’s win marks the first time Belle Vernon has advanced to the WPIAL finals since 1999.
The Leopards lone WPIAL Championship came in 1995, but haven’t been to a final this millennium.
Belle Vernon has lost in the WPIAL semifinals the past three seasons, including a 28-10 loss last year to South Fayette.
“From the coaches to the guys that have been with Coach Humbert these past five seasons, for everyone because they laid the brick (which is the team’s motto), our group of seniors, we trained extra, we went to the gym more, we tried to get everyone together and be a true team,” said senior Hunter Ruokonen.
Standing in their way of a WPIAL Championship will be conference foe Thomas Jefferson, who defeated Blackhawk 49-0 Friday night.
The Jaguars have won eight WPIAL Championships including three in the past four seasons.
Thomas Jefferson defeated Belle Vernon 34-7 in week two.