Belle Vernon looks to get past semifinal hump against No. 2 South Fayette
It’s the matchup those in Leopard Country have wanted to see in recent years. Now they got it.
No. 3-seed Belle Vernon will face No. 2 South Fayette on Friday at Ringgold’s Joe Montana Stadium for the right to play for the WPIAL Class 4A championship at Heinz Field next Saturday.
The Lions (10-1) have been a consistent program through the years, rising from a Class 2A school into a 4A power.
“They’re one of the fastest-growing districts in Western Pennsylvania,” Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said. “I have a great relationship with Coach (Joe) Rossi, and he’s done a great job with them. They’re so good at what they do, and he’s turned them into a powerhouse at three different levels.”
What the Lions do well is pass the ball. They will throw the ball all over the field, and it’s something Humbert and the Leopards are trying to prepare for.
“They’re very pass heavy. They’ll throw the ball in rain, snow, sleet, 90-degree weather — it doesn’t matter,” Humbert said. “One thing Coach Rossi has done is produce such good quarterbacks.”
This year, the Lions are led by Jamie Diven, who came to the Lions via transfer from West Allegheny.
Diven has completed 126 of 203 passes for 2,373 yards. He’s tossed 35 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
“I think the thing about (Diven) is he has four very capable receivers,” Humbert said. “They can all catch the ball, obviously, but they’re very disciplined on their route running. If you bump them off their route, they know the best angles to get back on the route.”
Mike Trimbur leads the Lions’ receiving corps with 809 yards on 41 grabs. He’s averaging 19.7 yards per catch and has 13 touchdowns. Charley Rossi has 27 catches for 477 yards this season.
“That’s what they rely on,” Humbert said of the Lions’ passing attack. “The biggest thing we’re telling our guys in the defensive backfield is to be sound in their assignments and be aware of the situations.”
Humbert said the key for his team will be the defensive line staying fresh and making Diven uncomfortable as he looks to throw.
“Our D-line has been solid the entire year,” Humbert said of the unit. “We’re definitely going to need to impose more pressure on the quarterback, especially this week.
“We’ve been good against the run, but we’re going to be more pressure-oriented this week. We need to make sure we’re fresh on the line and make him move around.
“For our secondary, if you’re not disciplined and hone in on your assignments, they’re going to be able to bite you.”
The Leopards got a big piece of the line back with the return of senior Kirk Popelas. He has four sacks and eight tackles for loss in three games this season. Senior Eric Oblak has three sacks and eight tackles for loss.
Other contributors include Collin Pallotta, Anthony “Moose” Rebar, Mitchell Pohlot and Dakota Marion.
“The one thing I’m sure about is Joe will have a plan for everything we do,” Humbert said.
“They have good size line-wise and they’re some space-eater kids. Depending on what they’re doing, they require a double team.
Mason Pascoe continues to lead the way for the Belle Vernon offense. The senior has run for 1,648 yards and is averaging 10.2 yards per carry.
Last week in the Leopards’ quarterfinal win over Beaver, Pascoe finished with 146 yards on 22 carries. He has 21 touchdowns on the year.
“In the third and fourth quarter, we were really able to get him running downhill,” Humbert said. “He was getting 20-, 30-yard chunks for us. He hit a lot of really good runs late.
“And Larry (Callaway) has shown what a great back he can be for us. So we’re confident in the two guys we have back there.”
Callaway has run for 653 yards and 14 touchdowns this season.
While the Leopards’ offensive style isn’t the same as the Lions, they showed they can be dangerous in the passing game even though they have lost starting quarterback Jared Hartman for the season.
“Nolan (Labuda) finished with what, six touchdowns in some way, shape or form, last week,” Humbert added. “And Andrew (Pacak) has shown he’s able to come in and get the job done, too.
“Nolan and Hunter Ruokonen are two guys that are about the same level as their receivers. They’re great route runners and always know the situation.”
So, what would getting over the semifinal hump mean for Humbert’s Leopards?
“This is something we’ve been setting the stage for this past four years,” Humbert said. “It’s a testament to the kids and the sweat equity they’ve put into this. There’s a decent amount of excitement around this group. This is the next step for the kids that have been in the program and helped lay the brick and invested a lot building its foundation. We want to win a championship here. We need to win this game to get the chance to play for it.”
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
Jeremy Sellew is a Mon Valley Independent staff writer.