Two-time defending champion Gateway has chance to make history
Gateway's D.J. Boyce already has picked the perfect spot in the rafters for his jersey to hang whenever the Gators decide to retire his No. 23.
His coach quickly sank the lighthearted request.
“I guess I have to give up on the dream for now,” Boyce said with a big laugh, but he hasn't abandoned his other dream of hanging another WPIAL championship banner inside Furrie Sports Complex. The senior already has hung two, yet believes there's enough room and talent left for a third.
“The mindset hasn't changed from this year to last,” he said. “It's a four-game season now; all we have to do is win four and we're back to where we want to be.”
Boyce understands the process better than most. The point guard has played varsity since his freshman year and never has his team not reached Palumbo Center for the WPIAL championship. It's a remarkable stretch that includes a second-place finish in 2010 and titles the past two seasons.
In all, Gateway has won 81 games during his four seasons. Boyce played sparingly as a freshman, but started the past two seasons and was vital to both title runs.
“D.J. puts so much pressure on himself because he wants to be the best,” Gateway coach Mitch Adams said. “I may be partial but I don't know very many point guards that have done what he's done in WPIAL history.”
Gateway could become the first boys team to make a fourth consecutive trip to the title game in Class AAAA since the largest classification was created in 1984, should it navigate a bracket that matches it with Kiski Area in the first round.
The Gators (15-5) enter as two-time defending champions, but they're far from favorites. Seeded ninth, they're overshadowed by undefeated New Castle and number of others. That's fine, Boyce said, remembering Gateway won last year's title as the No. 11 seed.
“I'm used to us going into the playoffs as a low seed and people not really saying much about us,” he said. “I actually like it because there's no hype. We can just go out there and handle business.”
Boyce has noticed that seeding often means little. Gateway's opponent in last year's championship was Central Catholic, then seeded No. 12.
The Quad-A boys bracket can be unpredictable. Only five No. 1 seeds have reached the final in the past decade, and just four of those teams won. That means more times than not, the favorite when the pairings were made didn't win the title.
“Once the ball bounces, everybody's equal,” Adams said. “When you get to the playoffs, anything can happen. And it usually does.”
As the ninth seed, Gateway could meet No. 1 seed New Castle in the second round. That matchup would be fitting, considering the Red Hurricanes were the only boys team to ever win three consecutive Class AAAA titles (1997-99), a mark the Gators would like to match.
In all classifications, only six other teams have won three consecutive boys titles: Midland (1973-77 in AA), Washington (1984-86 in AA), Blackhawk (1990-92 in AAA), Sto-Rox (1991-93 in AA) and Duquesne (1992-94 in A).
“I explained to the team that until March 3, we're the defending WPIAL champions,” Adams said. “So play and act like it.”
The Gators' path starts with Section 1 co-champion Kiski Area (16-5) on Wednesday, but the site and time have not been announced. Gateway placed second in Section 2 but played an exciting schedule. Eight of their games were decided by one basket, and the Gators won five.
“That says a lot about the character of the kids I've got,” Adams said, “They found a way to get it done.”
Boyce and senior Tom Kromka have been steadfast in the lineup. The other starting spots have been held at times by senior Deon Baker, senior Jordan Landfair, junior Shomari Thomas, junior Henry York and junior Delvon Randall, who averages 12.4 points to lead the scoring.
As one of the few players left who have been to Palumbo Center multiple times, Boyce has used his experience to bolster those around him.
“I have to make sure nobody forgets why we're here and why we worked so hard all year,” Boyce said. “It's for this moment, to be in the playoffs and have a chance to make history.”
Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com.