Bolstered by improved offensive line, Gateway builds confidence for run at WPIAL title

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Thursday, August 11, 2022 | 12:23 PM


Gateway’s offensive line was pushed around at times last season by some of the best defensive fronts in the WPIAL, but the Gators say they’re ready to bite back.

“The big thing for us was definitely confidence,” said senior tackle Matt Brooks, a Duquesne recruit. “We didn’t have that confidence last year. Going against TJ’s line and Penn-Trafford’s line and Pine-Richland, our confidence was just destroyed. But coming into this year, we’re not going to have that (doubt). We’re going to have a ‘we’re unstoppable’ kind of confidence.”

If so, the Gators can be considered preseason contenders to add their third WPIAL title in a six-year span.

The roster is blessed with skill-position talent, including a star quarterback in junior Brad Birch, the WPIAL’s leading passer a year ago. If the blocking is bolstered as expected, that makes life easier for Birch, running back Jaquon Reynolds and a Gators offense that has potential to be dangerous.

The five starting linemen are senior center Baron Vowler (5-9, 235), sophomore left guard Chase Gabriel (6-1, 275), junior right guard Jake Santo (6-3, 260), senior right tackle Louie Douglas (5-11, 240) and left tackle Brooks (6-2, 255).

“Our tackles are going to be super athletic and our two guards are going to be big-strongs,” coach Don Holl said, “so I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good all the way around.”

The tight ends aren’t little either — junior Remy Bose (6-2, 210) and senior Racari El (6-1, 205).

Combined, Holl said he sees an offensive line that’s a year older, clearly stronger and better used by the coaches. All five linemen started at some point last season, but a few have new positions this year.

“We sort of changed the philosophy because our tackles do more athletic things,” Holl said. “They usually block guys who look like defensive ends or outside ‘backers in a lot of schemes. So we got more athletic outside and more physical inside. I think we’re going to be pretty good upfront, and I think we’re going to be really good skill-wise.”

Gateway went 7-4 last season, 4-1 in the Big East. The Gators reached the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs but lost in the first round when they played without two of their starting linemen.

The regular-season schedule included losses to Thomas Jefferson, Pine-Richland and conference rival Penn-Trafford, opponents that had strong defensive lines. The Gators averaged 46 points in their seven wins and 11 in three losses.

“Against average players, we held our own,” Holl said. “You can get around it sometimes by being skilled or getting the ball out quick or whatever. Against good players, if you can’t block the three-technique and he’s free, nothing looks right.”

Still, there were plenty of bright spots.

Birch passed for a WPIAL-best 2,623 yards and threw 27 touchdowns in his first season with the Gators. Birch is part of a talented junior class that’s starting to attract Division I offers.

Reynolds, who rushed for 604 yards, has offers from Akron, Bowling Green, Temple and UMass. Bose, a linebacker and tight end, lists UMass and Toledo.

However, the team did graduate wide receiver/safety Patrick Body, a Cincinnati recruit. Body led the team with 43 catches for 882 yards. Second-leading receiver Brett Birch (33 catches) also graduated, so there are job openings.

Senior Malachi Moore, Anez Jordan and Dallas Harper will bolster that receiving corps.

Gateway is chasing its third WPIAL title in six years after winning in 2019 and ’17. Five different schools have won a WPIAL 5A title since the sport expanded in 2016, but the Gators are the only team with two.

“You don’t want to put targets all over yourself, but I think we’re pretty good,” Holl said. “We had the senior cookout at my house and my message to them was … if we maximize what we have, I think we could be as good as anybody. That’s a big ‘if,’ but if we do, that would be really good.”

Gateway

Coach: Don Holl

2021 record: 7-4, 4-1 in Class 5A Big East Conference

All-time record: 449-220-13

SCHEDULE

Date, Opponent, Time

8.26 Mt. Lebanon, 7

9.2 Woodland Hills, 7

9.9 at North Hills, 7

9.16 at Franklin Regional*, 7

9.23 Plum*, 7

9.30 at Hempfield*, 7

10.7 Penn-Trafford*, 7

10.14 at McKeesport, 7

10.21 Norwin*, 7

10.28 at Central Catholic, 7

*Conference game

STATISTICAL LEADERS

Passing: Brad Birch

162-269, 2,623 yards, 27 TDs

Rushing: Jaquon Reynolds

150-604, 6 TDs

Receiving: Patrick Body*

45-882, 7 TDs

*Graduated

FAST FACTS

• Don Holl is 57-16 in six seasons at Gateway with six playoff appearances, two WPIAL titles and one PIAA runner-up.

• Brad Birch (quarterback), Matt Brooks (defensive tackle) and Remy Bose (outside linebacker) earned first-team all-conference honors last year.

• Birch, a junior, needed only two seasons to surpass 4,000 career passing yards. He played his freshman season at Jeannette.

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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