EBENSBURG, Pa. — Belle Vernon (12-2) was pushed to the limit in the PIAA Class-3A playoffs, with their Leopards’ semifinal against Central coming down to a fourth down Hail Mary in the end zone, but the ball hit the turf and Belle Vernon held on to beat Central (11-3) 21-17, and advance to the state championship.
The game quickly started in the Leopards favor. Central kicked short to avoid star athlete Quinton Martin, and a dribbler went into the hands of Anthony Crews. Crews picked the ball up with a head of steam and went 69 yards to the house to start the scoring before any offense took the field.
Belle Vernon got a three and out and went to work on offense with similar results. Jake Gedekoh picked up a first down on the ground then quarterback Braden Laux took a keeper himself and went 42 yards for a touchdown.
Down 14-0, Central needed to respond. Quarterback Jeff Hoenstine hit Rylan Daugherty a few times for big gains, then found Shalen Yingling for 21 yards to convert a 4th down and 10 for a touchdown to make it 14-7.
However, that was the drive that got the senior quarterback hot. Hoenstine hit a few completions on the next drive, but finished it with a 30-yard quarterback keep that tied the game up at 14.
Central forced a three and out, and while they got pinned deep, they were able to kill the rest of the first half clock and kick a field goal as the half expired.
The teams exchanged stops to start the second half until Laux made another huge run. Laux went 58 yards, breaking tackles at the line before bursting into the second level to put Belle Vernon at the six, then took two more rushes to drive it home and take the 21-17 lead.
Central knew they needed a response. They went for it on fourth down inside their own 25, and converted it, and Hoenstine hit Hunter Smith down the sideline for a huge gain. Central was in business until a jump ball for Rylan Daugherty went into his hands before it was stolen by Chase Ruokonen. Ruokonen added a pick to a forced fumbled earlier in his big night.
Belle Vernon was forced to punt, but Central went four and out, failing to convert a 4th and 2 rush.
Belle Vernon just had to salt the game away when Quinton Martin put the football on the turf. The turnover gave Central life. Then, Hoenstine attacked Martin downfield twice. First Eli Lingenfelter caught a one-handed pass over Martin, then Martin committed pass interference to set up Central in scoring range. However, from there the Leopards forced 4 incompletions and turned the ball over to win.
Belle Vernon advanced to the final, which will be played at Cumberland Valley High School on Saturday, Dec. 10 at 1 p.m. The Leopards will face the winner of the Neumann-Goetti vs. Wyomissing game on Saturday.