MECHANICSBURG, Pa. — Multiple Belle Vernon players admitted they weren’t too fond of the Leopard’s 1-2 start to the year.
Yes, Belle Vernon was playing Class 4A teams while the Leopards are currently in 3A. But the Leopards still had a sour taste in their mouths because they played at that higher level prior to this season and still made the WPIAL finals in 2020 and 2021.
In turn, Belle Vernon used this as motivation to do something the program had never done before, win a WPIAL title and eventually claim the PIAA Class 3A Championship over Philadelphia Catholic League power Neumann-Goretti.
“Every coach is gonna say they’re proud, but hell, I would’ve been proud of these kids even if we weren’t successful today,” Belle Vernon head coach Matt Humbert said after his team earned state supremacy in its first-ever trip to the title game.
“We’re just gratified. It’s so cool to see a collective organization come together with a mission, and it’s so nice to see that organization achieve that goal.”
Humbert and his group have the right to be gratified, especially after Belle Vernon ran the table with 11 consecutive wins beginning on Sept. 23 over Thomas Jefferson and ending with the Leopards hoisting state gold on Saturday afternoon.
“I’m partial to my people, obviously, but it’s hard for me to wrap my head around a group of kids that deserve this so much,” Humbert said. “They grind, they work hard, they’re good students and they’re good athletes. I’m just proud of everyone and excited for these kids.”
One aspect of the team that never failed the Leopards this season was their defense, or the backbone as Humbert noted.
Even in its two losses to McKeesport and Penn-Trafford, Belle Vernon allowed just 14 points in each contest, but were stifled on the offensive side of the ball. The Leopards tallied 21 points in their win over Thomas Jefferson, then were able to put both pieces together for their remaining games.
Belle Vernon scored 42 or more points in each of its next seven contests leading up to its WPIAL championship matchup with Avonworth. A 24-7 victory gave the Leopards its first WPIAL title and set up their first PIAA playoff game since 1995.
“We never let those two losses affect us,” Leopards quarterback Braden Laux said. “We always kept a slow heartbeat and kept our heads down. We had to keep grinding if we wanted a state championship, and we definitely played like it the whole way through.”
Going into its semifinal matchup with Central Martinsburg, Belle Vernon’s defense had given up just 66 total points over a nine-game stretch, an average of 7.3 per game.
Central, headlined by 10,000-yard passer and Pennsylvania’s career passing touchdown leader Jeff Hoenstine, put up the most points (17) that Belle Vernon had seen since Week 1 against Laurel Highlands (20).
Still, the Leopards were able to contain Hoenstine from the leadership of secondary members Chase Ruokonen and Adam LaCarte. Hoenstine threw an interception, just his sixth of the season in 429 attempts, and lost a fumble.
“We battled through adversity at the start of the year,” LaCarte said. “We lost a couple starters due to injury, but our defense holds strong. Our offense does what it needs to do, always, but we have to do our part, too. We were able to perform well enough to get here, and I think we deserved it.”
Belle Vernon then closed off its run with a stellar 9-8 win over Neumann-Goretti in the title tilt, where the Leopards’ defense held the powerful Saints offense to 135 yards and forced four turnovers, including a fumble on the goal line with 37 seconds left in the game to seal the win.
Safe to say, it was icing on the cake.
“The team finally put the exclamation point on the season,” Humbert said. “I think of all the kids over the last seven years that worked so hard to get us to this point. I’d like to think this is a victory for everyone that’s come through the program over the last seven years.”