MECHANICSBURG, Pa. — In total appearances in the PIAA Championship Game, Belle Vernon is now 1-for-1.
A stellar defensive effort from the Leopards led to the WPIAL winners claiming a 9-8 victory over Neumann-Goretti on Saturday afternoon at Cumberland Valley High School’s Chapman Field
Belle Vernon upheld its strong defensive reputation to start the game, forcing a quick three-and-out by Neumann-Goretti. The Leopards, after a very short punt, took over at the Saints’ 28-yard line following a 14-yard return.
Following a negative rush to begin the possession, Belle Vernon’s Quinton Martin took a jet sweep for 22 yards to set up first and goal. The Saints held, as two short runs and an incomplete pass in the endzone led to a 24-yard field goal by Willie Schwerha, giving the Leopards an early 3-0 lead at the 8:01 mark of the first quarter.
Martin intercepted Neumann-Goretti quarterback Mekhi Wharton on the Saints’ next offensive play, but Belle Vernon was unable to capitalize. As the Leopards lined up to punt, the snap sailed over Schwerha’s head and into the endzone. As Schwerha attempted to recover the ball, he suffered a knee injury, allowing Saints defensive lineman Samuel Hobbs to pick up the fumble for a score. Hobbs then added the two-point conversion to put Neumann-Goretti in front 8-3 with 5:56 left in the first.
No further scoring ensued for the remainder of the half, but the Belle Vernon defense gave the Saints’ offense consistent fits. Braden Laux and Adam LaCarte picked off Wharton on back-to-back possessions, marking three straight drives with an interception for Neumann-Goretti, before the Saints punted just prior to the end of the second quarter.
Belle Vernon was able to move the ball, but the Leopards’ drives were hindered by penalties. A personal foul for hurdling on Martin negated a first down run, forcing a punt. On the next possession, the Leopards faced a 4th and 4 at the Saints’ 36, but were called for an illegal block. Belle Vernon attempted a conversion on 4th and 20, but Laux’s pass was incomplete.
The Leopards had a final offensive opportunity before the end of the half, getting the ball at their own 13 with 1:10 to go. Belle Vernon drove into Neumann-Goretti territory and attempted a hook-and-ladder lateral play as time expired, but the runner was stopped, keeping the Saints ahead 8-3 at the break.
The opening drive of the third quarter saw the Leopards work around a holding penalty, as Belle Vernon tallied a 13-yard pass play on 3rd and 16 before forcing Neumann-Goretti to jump offsides on fourth down. The Leopards then faced another fourth down needing two yards, but only received one on a Martin direct snap, resulting in a turnover on downs.
Belle Vernon wasn’t hurt by the stalled drive, as a sack on third down by Steve Macheska forced another Neumann-Goretti punt.
The Leopards came up with big plays on their ensuing possession, with Laux converting a 4th and 1 and taking a run for 23 yards on 3rd and 10. Laux then found Martin wide open in the flat for a 16-yard touchdown pass to put Belle Vernon in front. Laux attempted a two-point conversion run, but lost the ball, putting the Leopards ahead 9-8 with 28 seconds to go in the third.
Neumann-Goretti picked up two first downs by strictly pounding the run, but faced a 3rd and 9 at the Belle Vernon 47. Attempting their first passes of the second half, the Saints recorded back-to-back incomplete throws, resulting in a turnover on downs. Neumann-Goretti was able to take the ball right back after Yasir Williams intercepted a pass that went through the hands of Belle Vernon receiver Colton Lee.
The Saints drove to the Leopards’ 7-yard line, where they converted a 4th and 5 following a measurement on a pass play to Qaasim Major. After Neumann-Goretti attempted two consecutive runs that were stopped, Wharton fumbled the ball at the goal line, which was recovered by Belle Vernon, allowing the Leopards to run out the clock.