Belle Vernon High School football started off the 2022 season with a great 41-20 victory over Laurel Highlands at home.
The win for the Leopards is the first of what should be many to come this season, as they look to be one of the favorites in WPIAL Class AAA.
For Belle Vernon head coach Matt Humbert, he saw some good things from his team against Laurel Highlands, such as their ability to move the ball offensively and also how a lot of his players stepped up when needed and earned meaningful reps. He also harped on how frustrated he was with his team’s penchant for committing penalties, as the refs flagged them 15 times for 132 penalty yards.
“We were able to move the ball really well and anytime there was something impeding our progress offensively, it was most likely due to us kind of booby-trapping and sabotaging ourselves with penalties,” Humbert said. “So, a lot of drive killers…A lot of holding calls, a few false starts and a few personal fouls that obviously needed addressing and cleaning up. Just take the good with the bad.”
Humbert highlighted the play of some players who played well last game, with one of those players being junior Quinton Martin.
Martin is the highest ranked player in the WPIAL in the 2024 class and 247Sports rates him as a five-star athlete. He currently ranks as the No. 1 player in Pennsylvania, No. 3 at the ATH position in the U.S. and No. 15 overall in the 2024 class. He is also just the ninth player from the WPIAL in the past 16 years to earn five-star status as a recruit and the second Belle Vernon player since offensive tackle and future Pitt Panther, Dorian Johnson.
Martin starred for the Leopards in their win against the Mustangs, rushing 14 times for 68 yards and three touchdowns.
Humbert said that there isn’t just one aspect of Martin’s game that stands out from the rest, describing him as a versatile player that can beat you on either side of the ball.
“He does everything really well and I think that’s what separates him from a lot of players,” Humbert said. “You can find a really good tailback who’s a really good tailback. You can find a really good safety who’s a really good safety. But the thing with him is he’s just so versatile and he’s good at everything. From running the ball, catching the ball, defending the ball, tackling the ball [carrier]. I think his attitude and the way he approaches everything then just puts him on that next tier. He’s quintessentially the entire package.”
With his great play and attention from schools across the nation, it wouldn’t be hard for Martin to potentially get in over his head and start to display a cocky attitude. Penn State head coach James Franklin came to the game just last Friday against Laurel Highlands and watched Martin dominate in the first half with those three rushing touchdowns.
Humbert spoke highly of Martin’s character and who he is as a person. He also said that the team mentality within the Belle Vernon program keeps him humble and straightforward on the team’s goal of winning that WPIAL title.
“I don’t want to say we downplay it, but we definitely don’t engage in it, and I think that’s the key,” Humbert said about the attention Martin receives. “I think that’s even more of a marketing aspect about Quinton is that he goes about his business, and he does what he needs to do. He communicates well with coaches; he communicates well with media…He has the right mind on his head to handle it and he has a lot of coaches in his corner who are mentoring him and guiding him the right way.”
Belle Vernon faced heartbreak in two of the last three WPIAL Class AAAA Title games, losing to Thomas Jefferson in 2019 and Aliquippa last season.
The Leopards dropped down to Class AAA this offseason due to decreased enrollment, after playing in AAAA since the six-class play began in 2016. Still, they look like the best team to many in AAA, especially with the return of six players on offense and seven on defense. It also doesn’t hurt for back-to-back WPIAL AAA champions Central Valley to move up to Class AAAA, allowing for the Leopards to achieve that goal of a WPIAL title, the first for the school since 1995.
Dropping down a classification could hurt some teams, but Humbert insists that his team keeps the same approach they do to any game. He also mentioned that the first four teams that Belle Vernon faces are either Class AAAA or AAAAA and that he is preparing his team for those opponents before conference play.
“Aside from a few people on the outside, no one in the program and the stakeholders of the program really bat an eyelash at it,” Humbert said of the drop to class AAA. “We treat every team the same and we prepare the same for every team. We haven’t really even batted an eyelash at conference play. We got four really good teams up front we are facing that are taking all of the attention and all the focus.”
While Martin takes the headlines as the most talented player on the Leopards, there are many other players that standout.
Players that Humbert looks to help his team achieve that goal are junior running back/outside linebacker Jake Gedekoh, senior wide receivers/cornerbacks in Evan Pohlot and Chase Ruokonen, plus offensive tackles in senior Steve Macheska and junior Dane Levi. He also hopes to see continued development of junior middle linebacker/fullback Tanner Moody and sophomore wide receiver Alonzo Wade.
He also hopes to see great quarterback play from both junior Braden Laux and senior Tanner Steeber, as passing is an important part of his offense.
“Having good quarterback play to me is key number two because as much as we’re trying to get the ball to Gedekoh and Quinton, we’re gonna need to be able to rely on a kid to throw the ball and to advance the chains and manage the game”, Humbert said. “So, we can’t have any inconsistent play from the quarterback position if we wanna win the games that we wanna win.”
Belle Vernon faces off against a strong McKeesport team Friday night on the road in one of their biggest tests of the season. Humbert is excited for the matchup and says that this is the most complete McKeesport team he has seen as head coach, as he mentioned their speed, physicality and girth on their lines.
“I think that’s one thing about this McKeesport team is they’re confident,” Humbert said. “We’ve had a great deal of success against them the past two years, but unfortunately you don’t carry any points or anything over from the previous season. So, we gotta be ready to roll and we gotta be ready for a dog fight because that’s a quintessential western Pennsylvania matchup right. McKeesport and Belle Vernon, two kind of blue collar programs. We’re looking forward to it.”