The Belle Vernon football team is no stranger to first-round Class AAA playoff games, but winning them has been a different matter. Entering the 2012 season, seven years removed from a winless 2005 season, the Leopards had qualified for the playoffs five of the past six seasons, but had yet to win a game, a run that has included some close calls.
Last Friday, the program's recent playoff shortcomings looked like they would be coming to an end -- in spectacular fashion no less.
Playing the WPIAL's No. 3 seed, Central Valley, the No. 14 seeded Leopards were on the verge of a stunning upset, clinging to a 16-14 lead in the final minute. But Central Valley's Elliot Taylor kicked a 22-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining to allow the Warriors (8-2) to escape with a 17-16 victory.
It is worth noting that Central Valley was playing without a number of key players. Star wide receiver Robert Foster sat out because of a one-game suspension handed to him after he was ejected from the Warriors' regular-season finale, a loss to Beaver Falls. Starting quarterback Nate Climo and starting running back Jordan Whitehead were both sidelined with injuries.
Even with the loss, it was the closest that Belle Vernon has come to a first-round victory since a 21-20 loss to Uniontown in 2009. The narrow defeated also marked the ninth time since 2000 that the Leopards have lost in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.
Additionally for Belle Vernon, there is hope heading into next year. Running back Anthony Levis, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in the regular season and had two touchdowns against Central Valley, is just a sophomore, as is starting quarterback Travis Snyder. Altogether, the Leopards are a relatively young team, as 40 of their 63 players are freshmen or sophomores, with only 13 seniors on the roster.
For a brief moment last Friday, it looked as though Belle Vernon was on the precipice of a benchmark win, but when taking into consideration what it has coming back, this is a team that will look to make more noise in 2013.
As can often be the case in sports, especially football, the team with the star player who puts up the biggest numbers usually finds itself on top by the end of a game. Last Friday in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs, that convention was upheld in some respects and completely debunked in others.
In the high school game, one which is based primarily on running the ball, perhaps it's not too surprising for the team with the most rushing yards to win and that notion held last Friday. Of the 35 players who rushed for 100 or more yards, just six played for teams that lost, only one of which came from the South Xtra region (Mike Minjock of Peters Township, which lost to Gateway).
Among quarterbacks and receivers, however, the results were the opposite. Maybe it should be expected because teams that trail by a larger margin have to play catch-up early, which usually involves throwing the ball more than normal. Consider 13 of the 27 quarterbacks who threw for 100 yards or more had those performances in losing efforts. Several players from the South Xtra region were among that group -- McKeesport's Eddie Stockett and Frazier's Charles Manack.
Last week was even rougher for the standout receivers catching those passes, as only two of the 10 wide receivers with five catches or more were on winning teams, with Bishop Canevin's Mike Tambellini being the South Xtra region's lone representative in that group.
Bethel Park has been a consistent, winning program for some time, which made last season's 4-6 finish and 9-12 record over the previous two seasons that much more confounding.
This year, however, the Black Hawks responded with a 6-3 regular-season record and, last week, they defeated McKeesport, 31-20, on the road in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs. Bethel Park's appearance in the Class AAAA quarterfinals marks the first time the program has gotten that far after a winning regular season since they advanced to the semifinals in 2009.
Maybe no conference had as rough of an opening week of the WPIAL playoffs as the Tri-County South, which saw all four of its teams get eliminated last Friday. The conference's four teams were outscored by a combined 161-34 margin, including Beth-Center, the section's top seed, which lost to Union, 21-7.