Most of our WPIAL coverage on Steel City Blitz is objective coverage, discussing standings, playoff scenarios, and Games of the Week. This project is be something a little different – a first-person account of my family visiting different towns and stadiums throughout Western Pennsylvania. Two years ago I started the Tour of the WPIAL with visits to Rochester, Southmoreland, and West Greene. Unfortunately we weren’t able to make any visits in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, but with fans allowed back in attendance this year, the Tour continues! After visiting Sto-Rox and Laurel earlier this year, we made the trip to The Beach to see Belle Vernon.
Belle Vernon Area
Municipalities: Rostraver Twp, Washington Twp, Belle Vernon, North Belle Vernon, Fayette City
The geography that makes up the current Belle Vernon Area School District is bisected by the county line of Westmoreland and Fayette Counties. The area is bounded by the Youghigheny River to the east and the Monongahela River to the west as the two run in parallel before drawing to a confluence further north in McKeesport. On the Westmoreland side of the county line is Rostraver Twp and North Belle Vernon Borough while to the south in Fayette County is Belle Vernon Borough, Washington Twp, and Fayette City. The City of Monessen (which has its own school district) sits to the west of Belle Vernon as the Mon River makes a sweeping curve. The Mon River separates Belle Vernon (in Westmoreland and Fayette Counties) from Washington County to the west.
Belle Vernon, originally “Bellevernon” for “beautiful green,” was founded in 1813 by Noah Speers across the Monongahela river from the Borough of Speers. Noah’s son Louis who was born in a log cabin in 1810, would found the town of North Belle Vernon up the hill from his father’s original community in 1872. Louis Speers was known for owning a sandbank, coal works, and boat yard and being involved in the glass production and steamboat manufacturing business. Fayette City, a little farther down the Mon, was founded in the 1820s and mostly home to coal miners. It was the site of not just one but two mine explosions – the Naomi Mine explosion in 1907 and the Apollo Mine explosion in 1926.
Washington Township makes up the area surrounding Fayette City and is mostly rural land dotted with small communities. Washington Twp is home to the Locus 7 archaeological site, just to the north of Fayette City, where artifacts from a Monongahela village have been found. The artifacts have an estimated date range between approximately 600 AD and 1600 AD but the site has not been heavily excavated. Washington Township was one of the original townships of Fayette County, created in 1783 when the county was established. Colonel Edward Cook, a friend of George Washington, built a limestone house in 1776 that is still standing. Cook’s house was the first stone building west of the Allegheny Mountains. Cook and Washington were rivals in the land speculation business and had differing views on the rival claims of Virginia and Pennsylvania to the land in what is now southwestern Pennsylvania. Cook was a member of the Continental Congress and the State Constitutional Convention in 1776. Colonel Cook’s house and the Locus 7 site are both on the National Register of Historic Places.
Present-day Rostraver Township covers 33 square miles of land and is bounded to the west by the Monongahela River and to the east by the Youghiogheny River. The Household No. 1 archaeological site is located in the township near the Yough river which was the site of a Monongahela village and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Rostraver was one of the original townships of Westmoreland County when it was founded in 1773, but over time lost land to other municipalities. The first settlers were Isaac Hill who came from Maryland in 1754 and George Weddell who also came from Maryland in 1758. Many of the original settlers of the area came came from the County Down in Ireland and named the town (phonetically) for the seaside town of Rostrevor in Ireland. The distillery of James Cunningham was one of the sites for the airing of grievances that led to the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. In 1830, the Concord School (a one-room school house) was founded in Rostraver, likely the first educational building in the area.
The current Belle Vernon School District was formed in 1964 with the merger of Bellmar Joint School Ditrict and Rostraver Twp School District. The first football teams in the area were the Belle Vernon Borough Wildcats who played from 1922-1945 and had a perfect season season in 1941. Fayette City had a team from 1927-1938 and folded after 12 seasons. The North Belle Vernon Jackrabbits began play in 1938 and competing for 8 seasons (where they won just 4 games) before merging with Belle Vernon Borough to form the Vernon Bulldogs. Also in 1938, Marion began play in Fayette County and was a successful program, the only one of Belle Vernon’s predecessor schools to appear in the WPIAL Championship game. Marion lost to Bridgeville in the 1948 Class B (which was later Single-A) title game. Vernon competed for just 5 years from 1946-1950 and had a perfect 7-0 season in 1946, the first year after the merger. In 1951, Vernon and Marion merged to form Bellmar. The Bellmar Hurricanes had perfect seasons in 1959 and 1963 but did not reach the WPIAL title game.
The Rostraver Leopards, the other school that was part of the merger that formed the current boundaries of Belle Vernon, began play in 1933 and competed for 32 years. Rostraver tied Carmichaels 0-0 in the 1962 Class A (which would later become AA) WPIAL Championship Game. This was before the advent of overtime, so both Rostraver and Carmichaels claim to be co-champions of 1962. Since the 1964 merger to form the current Belle Vernon, the Leopards have won 15 conference championships and made 28 playoff appearances. They won the 1995 WPIAL AAA Championship, defeating Franklin Regional 22-6 at Three Rivers Stadium. They would make it back to Three Rivers twice in the next four years but fell to Blackhawk in the 1996 Championship and lost to West Allegheny in the 1999 Championship. Belle Vernon also reached the 2019 4A Championship Game where they fell to conference rivals Thomas Jefferson. Head Coach Matt Humbert, who we interviewed last week on the WPIAL Blitz Show, revitalized Belle Vernon’s program after he was hired in 2014. Before Humbert was hired, Belle Vernon had not won a playoff game since 2000 but he ended that 0-11 run in 2015. Humbert has a 61-16 record with the Leopards (at the time of this article) and has taken Belle Vernon to the 4A semifinals in 4 straight seasons, including a run to the WPIAL finals in 2019.
Cedar Creek Park
The leaves were just starting to change colors as we travelled down Route 51 for our visit. We stopped by Cedar Hill Park in Rostraver Twp for dinner. The park covers a lot of land with ball fields, a dog park, playgrounds, and even a camping area down the hill against a curve in the Youghiogheny River. The park is a bit hidden behind a development of new houses situated just off 51 and the Rostraver Twp municipal building.
After dinner, we made the short drive over to James Weir Stadium for the Big Eight conference showdown between 4-0 Belle Vernon and 5-0 Laurel Highlands. Belle Vernon was coming off a victory over two-time defending State Champions Thomas Jefferson in which QB Devin Whitlock scored the game-winning walk-off touchdown on a 4th and 14 play from the 40 yard line. Laurel Highlands was off to their first 5-0 start in school history. Driving in, we hit a line of cars backed up along Crest Avenue in front of the stadium. The parking areas were loaded and we wound up parking in a field, which is a quintessential part of the Western Pennsylvania high school football experience.
James Weir Stadium
There was a long line heading into the stadium and this was certainly not only the premier game in the Big Eight Conference, but around the region. Waiting in line we saw people with attire from Monessen, California, Albert Gallatin and other schools. In 2015 Belle Vernon installed gold turf at James Weir Stadium and it has affectionately become known as “The Beach” (complete with a lifeguard chair in one end zone). Since installing the gold turf, Belle Vernon is 30-2 at home (playoffs included). The Beach was absolutely jam packed for this game, with a great showing from fans from both teams. The entrance to the stadium is set atop a hill (just behind Bill’s Golfland and Dek Hockey, an institution in the area), but the home bleachers are built into the hillside and the visiting bleachers on the far side create the feeling of the field being set down in a valley. The field sits in a north-south orientation so the sun sets behind the massive press box on the home side of the field. We were able to get through the lengthy ticket line just after kickoff, and given that this was an early October affair the sun had mostly set, though once we got to our seats (it was standing room only on the home side, so we sat on the visiting side) we could still see the last glow of the setting sun framing the press box and home bleachers.
Belle Vernon vs Laurel Highlands
The game featured a matchup of the two most exciting players in the WPIAL with the ball in their hands – Belle Vernon’s Devin Whitlock and Laurel Highlands’ Rodney Gallagher. Both teams were without their starting running backs who were out with injuries. The first quarter saw teams exchanging punts before Whitlock put forth a moment of brilliance. Returning a punt, he juggled the ball initially but was able to secure it and cut back from right to left, burning Laurel Highlands down the sideline and splitting the punter and a would-be tackler for a 67-yard touchdown.
Whitlock would score again in the second quarter, this time from 5 yards out to stretch the lead to 14-0. Belle Vernon’s defense was dominant in the trenches, and Laurel Highlands wasn’t able to get anything going on the ground, particularly up the middle. One of the most impressive aspects of Belle Vernon’s team was their tackling. They did not let the Mustangs break tackles and the first guy to the ball usually got the ballcarrier on the ground. Laurel Highlands would strike back on a beautifully thrown deep ball by Gallagher, hitting Keondre DeShields in stride for a 78-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 14-7.
Our kids were enamored with Laurel Highlands’ Student Section shooting off smoke and confetti after the touchdown. Momentum seemed to be swinging back in the Mustangs favor and after a stop they mounted a drive going into the half to potentially tie the game. Rodney Gallagher made some excellent plays with his feet and drove LH into Belle Vernon territory, but a timely interception with less than a minute left put a stop to the scoring drive. Then came another moment of Whitlock wizardry as he scampered 61 yards before finally being pushed out inside the 5. In a matter of seconds, it was a 14-point swing as sophomore Jake Gedekoh dove in from 2 yards out just before the half ended. What went from Laurel Highlands driving to tie turned into a 21-7 halftime lead for the Leopards.
At the half, I did a quick spot with WMBS Radio as the Laurel Highlands band played some Bon Jovi hits. In the second half, Belle Vernon absolutely imposed their will in the trenches. Gedekoh, who had 100 yards rushing in the first half, became an absolute force and wore down the Laurel Highlands defense. The Belle Vernon line continued to dominate as Gedekoh, who was filling in for fellow sophomore Quinton Martin (who was injured last week against Thomas Jefferson) added another touchdown run. Laurel Highlands would answer with another Gallagher touchdown pass, but after that it was all Belle Vernon and Gedekoh. The sophomore finished with 247 rushing yards on 23 carries and FIVE touchdowns. Devin Whitlock would add another for good measure in the fourth quarter, and Belle Vernon finished off a statement victory by a 56-14 margin.
The Beach is something that every high school football fan needs to experience for themselves. It was a fantastic atmosphere for a game that was absolutely jam-packed. The talent on the field did not disappoint. Belle Vernon played a tough, gritty game with stout, assignment-sound defense and had a dominant rushing attack. Devin Whitlock alone was absolutely worth the price of admission. For the history buffs, there is plenty of interesting historical sites around the region. Cedar Creek Park was an absolute treat that had a variety of play areas for kids of different ages and abilities as well as plenty of room for both structured and unstructured play. Belle Vernon is lucky to have Matt Humbert as both head coach and athletic director. He is a rising star in the coaching ranks and has done an excellent job building up the Leopards program into a consistent contender. This was by far the most jam-packed atmosphere we have seen in our Tour of the WPIAL. The Beach was loud, it was rocking, and the Leopards put on a show.