Belle Vernon gets another shot at mighty Thomas Jefferson when the Big Eight Conference rivals meet on Saturday at Heinz Field for the WPIAL Class AAAA Championship in the Herald-Standard Game of the Week.
Kickoff is scheduled for 5 p.m., and will be the third of four games played.
The Leopards (10-1) are seeking their second district title in program history after winning the championship in 1995, while the Jaguars (12-0) are eyeing their ninth WPIAL championship and eighth in the last 15 years. Thomas Jefferson, who is coached by Bill Cherpak, won its first WPIAL title in 1980, and has been on a roll in the last 15 years with championships in 2004, ’06, ’07, ’08, ’15, ’16 and ’17. TJ won state titles in ’04, ’07 and ’08.
“We have been working to try and get to Heinz Field since I took over the program,” said Belle Vernon head coach Matt Humbert, who is in his sixth season with the Leopards. “I am very proud of the kids and the next step is to win it. I can’t say enough about our kids and coaches.”
The Jaguars downed Belle Vernon, 34-7, on Sept. 6 at Thomas Jefferson, but the game was tied at seven late in the third quarter before turnovers doomed the Leopards.
“When you sit back at look at it, that’s a moot point for us,” said Humbert in reference to the regular-season contest against TJ. “They took advantage of some of the mistakes we made, but ironically, that game was a positive for us because we have worked harder since then.”
Belle Vernon had come up short in the semifinals for two straight seasons, with the Jaguars winning, 27-0, in 2017 on their way to WPIAL gold and South Fayette pulling out a 28-10 victory last year en route to the district title, but the Leopards exorcised those demons last Friday in rallying for a 41-30 triumph over the Lions. Belle Vernon beat New Castle, 49-6, in the quarterfinals.
“Everything we did this past year was to get back to the semifinals,” Humbert said.
Thomas Jefferson has steamrolled into the final with a 49-7 victory over Montour in the quarterfinals and a 49-0 shutout of Blackhawk in the semifinals. TJ had five shutouts in the regular season, and 10 of its 12 wins this year were by at least 35 points.
“They key is to be physical, defensively,” Humbert said. “You can’t settle on one thing when you play TJ. They are very complimentary. We have to be consistent and can’t give up splash plays.”
Jaguars quarterback Shane Stump is 95 of 161 for 1,963 yards with 28 touchdowns and one interception. He has rushed for 404 yards on 40 carries and six touchdowns. Stump’s favorite target is Daniel Deabner, who has 38 receptions for 834 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Dylan Mallozzi has ran for 1,205 yards on 123 carries and scored 17 touchdowns, but DeRon VanBibber is a threat, and the Leopards found that out first hand in their regular-season matchup when the junior gained a season-high 127 yards on 21 attempts and scored two touchdowns.
Belle Vernon senior quarterback Jared Hartman was injured during last year’s playoffs, but he has come back strong this year. Hartman has a completion percentage of 78.6 % (119-155) for 1,718 yards with 29 touchdowns and five interceptions. Teammate Nolan Labuda has pulled in 46 receptions for 580 yards and 11 touchdowns, including two against South Fayette in the semifinals. Labuda also has five interceptions on defense.
Senior Larry Callaway leads the Leopards’ rushing attack with 1,023 yards on 137 carries and 18 total touchdowns (16 rushing). Sophomore Devin Whitlock brings a unique threat, as he can line up at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. Whitlock has 1,147 all-purpose yards and scored 11 total touchdowns.