Start fast and never look back.
It might be easy to say but it’s much harder to do, unless you are the South Fayette and Belle Vernon football teams.
The two teams meeting in the WPIAL Class 4A semifinals for the second straight season will try for another fast start as second-seeded South Fayette plays third-seeded Belle Vernon tonight at Peters Township. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to settle into your seat before the opening kickoff.
In 11 games, South Fayette (10-1) has outscored its opponents in the first half 352-33. The first-half success for Belle Vernon (9-1) has been just as impressive as the Leopards have been looking at lopsided scoreboard numbers by halftime in a majority of their games. The Leopards have allowed only 46 points in the first half while scoring 329.
Neither team has trailed entering halftime and have combined to lead by three or more touchdowns by the break in 14 of 21 games.
“It’s key every week. You want to get off to a good start,” said South Fayette football coach Joe Rossi. “When you get a lead, you can feel comfortable and play loose.”
Slow starts prevented Belle Vernon from advancing to its first WPIAL championship appearance since 1999. In 2017, Thomas Jefferson jumped on the Leopards for a 21-0 lead before the half. Last year, South Fayette scored all of its 28 points in the first two quarters to beat Belle Vernon, 28-10. Both Thomas Jefferson and South Fayette went on to win a WPIAL championship after defeating Belle Vernon in the postseason.
Tonight’s winner will advance to the championship next Saturday (5 p.m.) at Heinz Field and will play either Thomas Jefferson or Blackhawk.
The difference between Belle Vernon now and this time last year is senior quarterback Jared Hartman. After working his way back from torn knee ligaments and a lateral meniscus that ended his junior season, Hartman has broken multiple school records this fall.
He has completed 75% of his passes (103 of 136) for 1,530 yards and 27 touchdowns in his comeback senior season.
“From pee-wee football to the NFL, when you lose a quarterback it’s so detrimental,” Rossi said. “Kudos to them last year for being able to remain status quo. We will look across the field Friday night and (Belle Vernon) is pretty much all back. He is throwing the ball very well and is their leader.”
The early leads haven’t always led to South Fayette blowouts. The Lions suffered their only loss Aug. 23 in a back-and-forth second half against Upper St. Clair. They then had to hold of Highlands and Montour in two of the final three weeks of the regular season, each trimming Lions leads to one possession in the fourth quarter.
“We have played some tight games,” Rossi said. “Montour was an onside kick from getting a chance and Highlands was much improved in the second half. Those were instances where we were ahead at halftime but had faced some situations later. On the flip side, Belle Vernon has steamrolled everybody. It’s going to come down to who makes mistakes.”