MECHANICSBURG, Pa. — The final two minutes of Saturday’s PIAA Class 3A football championship could draw similar feelings to the intense ending of a movie.
As WPIAL champion Belle Vernon held a one-point lead, Neumann-Goretti walked to the line of scrimmage with a first and goal at the Leopards’ 2-yard line. All signs pointed to a possible go-ahead touchdown after the Saints pounded the run the entire second half.
But Belle Vernon’s defense, after allowing 50 yards on the drive, never gave up the final six feet.
The Leopards made a goal line stand that ended in Aiden Johnson recovering a fumble to seal a 9-8 victory for Belle Vernon at Cumberland Valley High School’s Chapman Field.
“It was a storybook ending,” said Belle Vernon head coach Matt Humbert, whose team was making its first championship game appearance.
“A goal line stand to win the state championship. You literally can’t make this (expletive) up. There was an eerie calmness with us on the sidelines during that final two minutes, but we knew we would make it work. Intuition kind of led us to a calm approach, and the kids made a play.”
With Neumann-Goretti needing just two yards for the go-ahead score, the Saints lined up in a three-deep I-formation and attempted back-to-back fullback dives to no avail.
On third and goal, Saints quarterback Mekhi Wharton tried a sneak through the middle of the line, but lost the ball in the scrum, as the Leopards recovered with 37 seconds to go.
“On that last play, I was told to just jump the line like Troy Polamalu,” said Leopards safety Adam LaCarte, who was on top of the pile that forced the fumble. “I don’t know who knocked it out, but whoever did is the hero, right? Johnson got the huge recovery and gave us the title. A one-point game ended by a stop on the goal line; there’s no other way that I would’ve had it go.”
The game-winning fumble recovery was the final leg of four turnovers the Leopards forced in the contest. Belle Vernon (12-2) recorded interceptions on three consecutive Neumann-Goretti drives between the first and second quarter.
Quinton Martin, Braden Laux and LaCarte all recorded picks for the Leopards, who allowed just 86 total yards of offense prior to the Saints’ final drive.
“We knew (Neumann-Goretti) was going to be good, they’ve been solid all year,” Martin said. “We also knew that they had a little downfall without their Division I running back (Shawn Battle). So, we knew they were going to try to pass more, and we threw in some man and press coverages that really worked out.”
Battle, a Boston College commit, was serving a one-game suspension handed down after he was flagged for striking an opponent in the Saints’ semifinal win over Wyomissing.
This forced Neumann-Goretti (10-4) to turn to the air, but Belle Vernon, as Martin noted, was ready.
The Leopards held Wharton to 6-for-15 passing for 69 yards and three interceptions. Wharton’s three picks came on his first six pass attempts.
“Offensively, we weren’t able to put everything together for ourselves,” Neumann-Goretti head coach Albie Crosby said. “Not having our premier runner kind of put us in a bad spot. I feel like if we had him, things would’ve been a little bit different. But that’s how it goes.”
The Saints’ offensive struggles were pertinent, as their lone score of the game came defensively.
With Belle Vernon holding a 3-0 lead following an early 24-yard field goal by Willie Schwerha, the Leopards lined up to punt on their second drive, and the snap sailed over Schwerha’s head into the endzone.
While Schwerha attempted to recover the fumble, he suffered a knee injury, allowing Neumann-Goretti’s Samuel Hobbs to pick up the ball for a touchdown. Hobbs then added the two-point conversion to give the Saints an 8-3 lead with 5:56 left in the first quarter.
This score stood until Laux found Martin wide open out of the backfield in the flat for a 16-yard touchdown pass putting Belle Vernon ahead 9-8 with 28 seconds left in the third quarter. Laux attempted to run in the conversion but fumbled.
“It’s obviously not ideal losing your kicker in the first quarter,” Humbert said. “But it’s resiliency. Everyone did their jobs today. We held on until the end, and we scored when we needed to score. This is the stuff those posters are made out of, all those catchy adjectives.
“They did it.”