Experienced defense helps top-ranked Gateway to 7-0 start

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Friday, October 12, 2018 | 12:15 AM


Ask any coach what they key ingredient is to building to great football team, and the answers will vary. Some may say cohesiveness and experience, while others might mention such attributes as athleticism or discipline.

But ask a coach what the key is to building a championship football team, however, and the answer will most likely be unanimous.

Defense.

A year ago, Gateway had a bend-but-don’t-break defense that allowed 21 points a game, yet nonetheless went on to win a WPIAL championship and advance to the PIAA Class 5A title game. This season, however, Gateway’s opponents are barely sniffing the end zone, as the Gators are allowing a mere 5.3 points a game on their way to a 7-0 record, 4-0 in the Big East Conference.

Gateway coach Don Holl had an idea his defense could be special after last season’s run to Hershey.

“We had a lot of young guys who played a lot of snaps last year,” Holl said. “We only played two seniors on defense last year, so our young guys got a ton of work. The 16 games we played was a double-edge sword — obviously we would have liked to have gotten the win, but on the flip side, our guys got six extra weeks of work and we’re seeing the benefits of that this year.”

Top-ranked Gateway has not allowed a touchdown in three consecutive weeks and in four of its last five games. It’s lone hiccup in that span was allowing 19 points to Latrobe in a 53-19 victory. Holl credits defensive coordinator Mortty Ivy for the Gators’ dominance.

Ivy is a Gateway legend, having been an all-state player earlier this decade before going on to star as a linebacker at West Virginia and then spending time in both the NFL and CFL.

“He’s played at the highest level,” Holl said. “He’s been where these kids have been, and he knows what it takes to play Division I football and make it to the pros. He’s got credibility with the players. He knows the ingredients it takes to be successful.”

Ivy isn’t afraid to impart his lessons.

“I put a lot on these kids,” Ivy said. “Because if they want to play at the next level, they have to prepare themselves for it. It takes work.”

One lesson Ivy stressed to his defense coming into the season is not to rest on the laurels of a year ago.

“I told the kids we’re coming off a loss,” Ivy said of Gateway’s 49-14 loss to Archbishop Wood in the PIAA championship game. “They don’t want to have that feeling again. We were successful last year, but if they want to be the top dog, they have to prepare each and every day to be their best.”

Gateway’s 5.3 points allowed per game is third best in the entire WPIAL behind Aliquippa and Clairton.

While Gateway has its share of star power in defensive backs Jeremiah Josephs, a Miami (Ohio) recruit, and Courtney Jackson, committed to Syracuse, Holl said the Gators’ defense is deeper than its two NCAA Division I prospects.

“We have impact players at several positions, so it’s a cumulative effect,” Holl said. “We have a lot of talent in our secondary, but our linebackers have also been very good this season, both inside and outside. That allows our line to do a lot of good things. It’s a combination of all of the pieces fitting together and working together to be successful. And the key is everyone buys into that. We’re athletically talented, but ultimately every guy out there knows he is 1/11th of the team.”

From a purely statistical standpoint, Gateway should most likely keep its impressive defensive performance going for at least the next two weeks. Gateway was scheduled to play Albert Gallatin Friday and Connellsville in Week 8 — teams with a combined 2-12 record — before a season-ending showdown with powerful McKeesport.

Holl isn’t concerned his team may be looking two weeks ahead on the schedule. It’s simply something he can’t control.

“The fact is, they know who we’re playing down the road,” Holl said. “The best way to handle that is to address it. Most weeks, we deal with the things we have to address that make us a better team. We work on the things we do well and then we go out and do it. That’s generally the approach we take no matter who our opponent is. We work on us getting better. You do that, and everything takes care of itself.”

Jim Equels Jr. is a freelance writer.

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