Woodland Hills faces its 'biggest challenge' with Gateway
George Novak has spent a lot of time going over game film during his 26 years at Woodland Hills. But he's rarely been in the state he is this week while preparing for Gateway and their WPIAL Class AAAA quarterfinal matchup 7:30 p.m. Friday at Norwin: perplexed.
“It's very, very hard. Let's just say they have no weaknesses,” Novak said. “They're big and strong on their offensive and defensive lines, their running back is tremendous, they've got big athletic kids, their secondary is unbelievable, they have great speed, great athleticism, and, offensively, they have a Division I quarterback.”
Gateway (9-1) senior quarterback Thomas Woodson leads the highest-scoring offense in Class AAAA, one that averages 40.8 points per game. Considering how well he has played with such heavy expectations, it would be an understatement to say the Arizona recruit has been tantamount to the Gators' success in winning the Quad East Conference and earning the No. 2 seed in the tournament.
In 10 games, Woodson has completed 97 of 154 passes for 2,210 yards — fourth in the WPIAL — and 21 touchdowns. He's also been a versatile part of the running game with 245 yards, a 7.2 yards-per-carry average and three scores.
Running backs Andre Martin and Darrin Franklin have combined for more than 1,100 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. Receivers Montae Nicholson, Jaymar Parrish and Delvon Randall make for an imposing and difficult threesome to stop downfield.
“This is the biggest challenge we've faced all year,” Novak said. “That's a very strong team.”
Woodland Hills (8-2) will counter with a solid squad that slowly has come into its own this season. The seventh-seeded Wolverines had some problems with growing pains earlier in the year, but behind the outstanding play of senior quarterback Cody McClelland and defensive prowess of linebacker Alex Beasley, they have won five consecutive games and could be peaking at the right time.
“We're still improving, and we're still working on things.” Novak said. “We're not a team of particular stars. The kids just all play well together, and we're pretty good at all positions.”
This isn't the first dance for either team. Woodland Hills has won five WPIAL Class AAAA championships under Novak, the only coach in the school's history, and the Wolverines defeated Gateway, 10-0, to win their most recent title in 2009.
Even though 2009 was the last time the two teams played, they have a storied past dating to their days in the old Quad East Conference, when it was more of the 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust division rather than the 2012 incarnation of the two teams with their pass-happy offensive schemes.
Still, despite the lapse in playing each other, don't think this isn't a rivalry game with the heightened stakes of a berth in the semifinals on the line. The teams shared a conference as recently as 2007 and are still in the same section for basketball.
“Our old conference when I first started coaching here (in 1987) was Central Catholic, Gateway, Penn Hills, McKeesport, and they are all schools that have had great football programs over the last 25 years,” Novak said. “Gateway has been extremely good since Coach (Terry) Smith took over.”
Keith Barnes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-664-9161 ext. 1977.