Nonconference matchup carries plenty of meaning for unbeaten Gateway
With a half-game lead in the Quad East, undefeated Gateway could marginalize this week's nonconference matchup with North Allegheny.
Win or lose, Friday's result won't affect much beyond playoff seeding, the team could say.
Yet, the Gators haven't taken that approach. This Week 6 matchup has been seen as a chance to prove themselves WPIAL contenders. Rich with Division I recruits, they welcome this test against the three-time defending champions.
“We're still out to show how good we are,” Gateway coach Donnie Militzer said.
The Gators are 5-0, but they can't brag much about how they got there. Twice they won by less than a touchdown, surprising for a lineup ranked third in Class AAAA. There was a 22-20 victory over Latrobe in Week 1. And last Friday, they needed a last-minute score to beat Hempfield, 22-16.
Yes, they're undefeated, but there's also a sense of unfulfilled potential, the first-year coach said.
“When you're in dogfights like that, with a play here or there, you could be 3-2,” Militzer said. “That's something we've stressed a lot; winning doesn't mean you played a great game.”
That makes Friday important. If Gateway threatens No. 8 North Allegheny's 24-game winning streak at Newman Stadium, the Gators could surge forward with added focus for their last three conference games. (A Week 9 matchup with McKeesport could decided the Quad East title.)
To add motivation to practice this week, Militzer shared some history about this series; recent years haven't gone Gateway's way. North Allegheny won 11 of the past 12 meetings, including a 14-3 victory last October in Monroeville. Gateway's most recent win came in 2007, a 28-27 overtime victory in the WPIAL semifinals.
So, Gateway won't be called the overwhelming favorite.
“We've got to show that we're better than everyone thinks we are,” senior Delvon Randall said.
When Militzer was hired in April, he welcomed the lofty expectations and still does. He understands that some will question slim victories. He does, too. The program's goal remains to win a WPIAL title, something Gateway hasn't done since 1986.
“There are high expectations,” Militzer said. “I knew that coming into this job, and that's what's great about it. That's what makes it fun. The kids have high expectations as well, so they're not satisfied with just winning, either. It's actually easier to get them to work at practice when they weren't satisfied the week before.”
The former Carlynton assistant replaced a coach (Terry Smith) who was popular with the Gateway players. There were rough spots during the transition, but now six months into the job, Militzer feels confident his staff has seen the roster bond.
Last week's last-minute rally against Hempfield is his proof. Gateway moved 92 yards in four plays, and Randall caught a game-winning touchdown from quarterback Jimmy Moore with 39 seconds left.
“If there was any questions about where the kids were as a team, last week answered that,” Militzer said. “Things weren't going well. You're losing, 16-14, and there's two minutes left. We could have easily just shut it down. The kids didn't stop believing in each other and executed the plays we called. It would have been pretty easy for them to go in the tank.”
More success will be needed against North Allegheny, which hasn't lost at home since a 2007 loss to Upper St. Clair. The Tigers have one loss this season, 20-6 at Seneca Valley, but their decline from last year's PIAA championship-winning season hasn't been terribly steep.
“They just don't make mistakes,” Militzer said. “We have to play error-free football and our best game of the year.”
NA quarterback Jeff Clemens ranks third among WPIAL Class AAAA passers with 797 yards. Pine-Richland's Ben DiNucci has 1,069 yards and Gateway's Jimmy Moore has 951.
North Allegheny rushers Seun Iwodu and Josh Bergman each have a little more than 200 yards. Elijah Zeise, a Pitt-bound wideout, has 21 catches for 414 yards.
Gateway has four senior Division I recruits playing receiver and defensive back. Randall is a Temple recruit and Ricky Rogers committed to West Virginia. Anthony Davis and Montae Nicholson remain undecided. Davis rescinded his Temple commitment to consider an offer from Pitt.
Along with its solid secondary, Gateway's defense has a strong pass rush with senior ends Brenon Thrift and Stephen Gross. Thrift, a Temple recruit, has 11 sacks. Gross has 7.5.
Offensively, Gateway uses a spread. Against Hempfield, Nicholson, Davis and Randall each caught touchdowns from Moore, a first-year starter at quarterback.
“We're pulling it all together,” Randall said.