Gateway football uses summer to get comfortable with new system
Eleven days from now, it all goes live for the Gateway varsity football team.
Shoulder pads and practice pants and jerseys will be added to the helmets the Gators team members have worn in 7-on-7 and team workouts the past four months.
Veteran Gateway players will play for their third head coach in as many seasons, and the process of learning the new system of first-year head coach Tom Nola and his staff has developed since Nola was hired in March.
“We started a little slow (in the spring), but through hard work, we're really seeing everyone catch on to what the coaches want us to do,” rising junior wide receiver and safely Dom Fultz said.
“We're developing team chemistry more and more, and I think we will do pretty good this year.”
The transition to Nola, who developed championship teams and helped author a record-setting national win streak as the head coach at Clairton through the 2013 season, began in November when the Gateway School Board and one-year Gators coach Donnie Militzer parted ways.
Militzer guided Gateway with a plethora of senior starters and Division I standouts, to an 8-3 overall record and the quarterfinals of the WPIAL Quad-A playoffs.
The coaching search stretched several months before Nola agreed to leave Clairton for Gateway.
The change at head coach came at the same time as the change in classification for the Gators.
In early December, the PIAA announced its new classification lineup, and Gateway, based on its boys enrollment in grades nine through 11 for the 2013-14 school year, dropped down to Class AAA.
The Gators open the season Aug. 29 against Greensburg-Salem and close the campaign with a week-nine clash with rival Franklin Regional.
“We lost some bigtime players from last year, but we had a lot of guys, including us wide receivers and defensive backs, waiting for our chance,” Fultz said.
“We got our opportunities in some games, but this year will be bigger for us. We have to step up. We've been coming together the past couple months, and we're ready for camp to start. We've been waiting to see who can hit and who can play.”
Senior Dylan Smith, who has battled through injury, hopes to make an impact either fullback, tailback, tight end or at slot receiver. He's worked at all four spots in the new system.
“We've progressed slowly because we lost a lot of talent,” Smith said.
“Three coaches in three years is tough, and a new system is always a challenge to get used to. But a lot of guys have stepped up this spring and summer — on the line, at quarterback, at wide receiver on defense — and we have a team. Offense, defense and special teams are coming together.”
Junior tailback Adam White is excited to see the talent that returned from last year on display in workouts and in 7-on-7 tournaments.
“We know we have the talent, we just had to see where it would all fit,” White said.
“It's about being patient and being ready when your name is called. The summer has been so important with the new coaching staff. They brought in stuff we haven't seen before.”
One of those new impact players — rising senior John Horner — is actually not new to the Gators program.
Horner, a 6-foot-4 wide receiver and defensive back, was a JV player for Gateway as a sophomore in 2012 before playing as a junior at Renaissance Christian Academy in the east suburbs of Pittsburgh. RCA closed in December, and Horner returned to Gateway for the 2014 spring semester.
He wowed collegiate scouts at camps, including one at Youngstown State University, and earned scholarship offers from Akron and James Madison shortly after.
Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia also have shown interest in Horner's size and speed.
Gateway's top four receivers from 2013 — Montae Nicholson, Anthony Davis, Delvon Randall and Ricky Rogers — are about to begin their freshman seasons at Division I schools.
“I've been learning a new system, but I haven't had to get use to my teammates,” Horner said.
“I've known all of them for a long time. Coach Nola has championships, so we know he knows what he's talking about. It takes the whole team to focus and learn from him and the other coaches.”
Gateway's opener with new conference foe Greensburg Salem is at Antimarino Stadium, and then the Gators travel to West Mifflin for nonconference contest.
Conference games with Hampton, Hollidaysburg, Indiana, Knoch, Mars and Yough follow before the finale with FR.
“We're looking pretty sharp in a number of areas. We're just getting all of our responsibilities down. It's been a steady work in progress,” senior linemen Hunter Dale said.
Dale is one of three returning starters on the offensive line.
“Everyone's been working hard,” he said.�