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Belle Vernon wins its first state title in dramatic fashion, 9-8, over Neumann-Goretti in the 3A state finals

Written by: on Saturday, December 10th, 2022. Follow Joseph Santoliquito on Twitter.


MECHANICSBURG, PA — Inches from history. Inches from making history. Inches from being haunted by missing history.

Inches is what separated Belle Vernon and Neumann-Goretti Saturday afternoon in the PIAA Class 3A state championship at Chapman Field at Cumberland Valley High School.

On a third-and-one with :45 left to play, and inches from the go-ahead score, Neumann-Goretti quarterback Mekhi Wharton had the ball jostled from his arms, and Belle Vernon’s Aiden Johnson pounced on it at the one, giving the Leopards a narrow 9-8 victory and their first state championship in school history.

“We knew that they going to QB sneak it, they were running double tight (ends) and I lined up outside my tight end,” Johnson said. “I pushed the tight end back into the quarterback, and the quarterback dropped the ball, and I was scrapping for it. I found the ball from there.

“Our defense always keeps its composure. That’s a very good team, Neumann-Goretti. We made adjustments at halftime with our linebackers coming down and linemen moving shades. We tried to jam the box. I was on the left side (on Neumann-Goretti’s last play). I pushed the tight end into the quarterback, and the ball fell off of someone. I had the ball in my hands. I knew we had it then.”

It wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing game, though it was the most exciting finish of the first five games played during state championship week, simply because of what transpired in the last few minutes.

Neumann-Goretti (11-4) had been hanging on its defense the whole game. The Saints were clinging to an 8-3 lead when Belle Vernon (12-2) struck on a 16-yard touchdown toss from Braden Laux to Quinton Martin with :28 left in the third quarter.

With 6:40 to play, Yasir Williams’ interception gave the Saints new life at the Belle Vernon 48. The Saints converted two fourth downs, the big play coming when Wharton hit Qaasim Major on a fourth-and-five at the Belle Vernon two with less than a minute to play.

It looked as if Neumann-Goretti was going to go ahead, when on third down, Johnson forced the fumble and jumped on the loose ball.

“They made a great play when we tried running the quarterback sneak,” Saints’ coach Albie Crosby said. “Offensively, we just couldn’t really put together anything for ourselves. But I am super proud of my group. Defensively, we played an outstanding game.”

The Saints also played without star running back/defensive back Shawn Battle, a Boston College commit who was ineligible to play after being ejected from the state semifinals on a personal foul call.

Neumann-Goretti shut down the explosive Martin, holding him to 66 yards rushing on 20 carries, which translated into 3.3 yards a carry. The Saints finished with eight tackles for losses for minus 36 yards.

If it wasn’t Deshon Dodson, it was Samuel Hobbs, Koren Robinson, Daniel Adefolarin, Kyreese Bradley, Jabril Nuriddin, Khalil Hill, or Williams coming up and stuffing Martin at or behind the line of scrimmage.

“Their defense is surprising, because they literally go one series from a 3-4, to an 80, to a cover 4, to a cover 2, to a cover 1, and they did a really good job of providing two defensive looks even mid-series in there,” Belle Vernon coach Bob Humbert said about the Saints. “We had to check out a lot of plays. We really narrowed the scope down this week and just made sure we could audible out of plays to put us in the most successful situation. They did a really good job. We thought we could get the perimeter. Their inside backers scraped really well.

“What happened, in the end, was par for the course, with all of the craziness this year. It was meant to happen. This defense has always been there as the backbone of our team. They’ve always bent and never broke. I felt like the ending was fitting. (In the end) I saw a lot of kids in a pile and I saw our kids were more excited than them.

“When you see that, it’s always something good.”

Neumann-Goretti took an 8-3 lead into halftime.

The Saints’ defense dominated the first two quarters, with seven tackles for losses for combined minus 32 yards.

“We’re not trying to win the sexiest of the year with our offense, we try to capitalize on what we do,” Humbert said. “We tried to get the ball to Quinton in 50 different ways. They’re a tough defense. When you’re playing in a state championship, you’re going to get a really good team, and they were as athletic as any team we’ve seen all year.”

Getting as many hats on Martin would be the key for Neumann-Goretti, and it worked in the first half. Martin had 56 yards rushing over the first two quarters on 16 carries, averaging a scant 3.5 yards a carry.

“We had this game,” said Dodson, who’s 6-7, 310 pounds and is getting major attention. “I’ll remember the tackle I missed in the third quarter. The key was stopping their jet sweep, and then they tried the quarterback dive with the read option, and they had that one breakaway run. That flipped the whole game.”

The play Dodson was referring to was Laux’s 23-yard scramble down the sideline late in the third quarter on a third-and-10 at the Neumann-Goretti 39. On the next play, Laux hit Martin rolling out in the left flat for the only offensive touchdown of the game.

As a team, Belle Vernon had 205 yards of total offense, averaging 3.3 yards over 62 plays. Neumann-Goretti had problems moving the ball the entire game, save for the Saints’ last drive. The Saints finished with a mere 133 yards of total offense, averaging a meager 2.7 yards a play.

Wharton threw three interceptions, two on deflected passes, in the first half. The five Saints’ first-half possessions read: punt, INT, INT, INT, punt.

Yet, the Saints were leading 8-3 at halftime.

That came courtesy of a high snap recovered by Hobbs in the end zone, followed by a Hobbs’ two-point conversion with 5:56 left in the opening quarter. A big blow also occurred in the play when Belle Vernon kicker Willie Schwerha was hurt on the play when he tried to recover the high snap in the end zone.

The Leopards scored on their first possession on a Schwerha 24-yard field goal. That was aided by a dribbling Wharton punt that rolled 12 yards.

Neumann-Goretti’s defense was so stubborn that the Saints held Belle Vernon to minus-4 yards on the Leopards’ first 11 plays. After one quarter, Neumann-Goretti held Belle Vernon to a mere 7 yards of total offense, which translated into less than 1 yard on average (.54).

Offensively, however, Neumann-Goretti was only able to move the ball 68 yards of total offense in the first half, averaging 3.4 yards a touch, which was slightly better than Belle Vernon.

Scoring Summary

Neumann-Goretti (11-4) 8 0 0 0-8

Belle Vernon (12-2) 3 0 6 0-9

1st Quarter

BV – Willie Schwerha 24 FG, 8:01

NG – Samuel Hobbs fumble recovery in end zone (Hobbs run), 5:56

3rd Quarter

BV – Quinton Martin 16 pass from Braden Laux (run failed), :28

Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been covering high school football since 1992 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter @JSantoliquito. Follow on Twitter @EPAFootball.

Follow on Twitter @EPAFootball

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