Gateway fall sports teams see significant changes with WPIAL realignment

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Friday, February 7, 2020 | 6:55 PM


The Gateway fall sports programs received a shakeup when WPIAL officials announced the district’s classification and sectional realignment Jan. 20.

Not every autumn sport was affected at Gateway, but the teams that were saw significant change.

The WPIAL championship-defending football team will see additions and subtractions to Class 5A as well as an old rival becoming a new conference foe.

The boys and girls soccer teams are staying put in their 5A sections but with a reshuffling of section partners and more convenient travel arrangements.

Both cross country and golf squads along with girls tennis will stay in their alignment for the next two school years.

The girls volleyball team, however, will join the sport’s highest level of competition — Class 4A — advancing past the PIAA’s 4A enrollment cut-line of 421 girls between ninth and 11th grade by five girls.

While Class 5A football likely will remain strong, the Gators’ paths to conference and WPIAL championships have shrunk.

The classification went from 23 to 18 teams, and the Gators’ conference (unnamed at the moment) decreased from seven to six.

Low enrollment numbers moved Plum and McKeesport to Class 5A, shifting Woodland Hills to the unofficial Big East Conference with the likes of Franklin Regional, Penn-Trafford and Latrobe along with Connellsville.

Even though there are fewer 5A teams, the biggest move was a perennial 6A power dropping down: Pine-Richland.

WPIAL officials were on the verge of breaking traditional thought in football conference alignments.

“Given that (coaches voted for the status quo realignment proposal), we knew we would be playing in either two nine-team conferences or three six-team conferences,” Gateway football coach Don Holl said. “Our conference loses McKeesport (as well as Plum) and gains Woodland Hills, so that’s probably a wash in most regards.

“You’ve got to give Pine-Richland a lot of respect (as a favorite to win the championship). It’s going to make for a lot of good football in 5A and an exciting tournament at the end of the year.”

The regional alignment proposal placed schools in conferences with schools in the surrounding area, regardless of classification, relying on a point system to earn teams a spot in their class’s playoffs.

The idea would have put Gateway in a section with Central Catholic, Penn Hills and Hempfield along with Penn-Trafford among 10 total teams in either 5A or 6A.

“Both had merit, but I liked the setup of playing the (nonconference games) first, then have your league games,” Holl said.

“I wasn’t sure what the point system would be like. There were good and bads for both proposals. Hand-picking nonconference opponents helps because it had made for some exciting matchups.”

The Gators will open their 2020 season with four nonsection games against championship-caliber programs in defending Class 4A PIAA and WPIAL champion Thomas Jefferson, Penn Hills and Bethel Park along with Class 6A WPIAL runner-up Pine-Richland before opening conference play at Latrobe. They will close the regular season with a home meeting against Franklin Regional.

Despite moving up to a larger class, the girls volleyball team is in Section 3-4A with familiar schools in close range (Norwin, Oakland Catholic and Penn-Trafford, among others).

Hempfield won the section last season with a 10-2 record. Coach Phil Randolph believes the closer games will help his players.

“The level of competition is going to rise, and we are going to be facing teams that are more established, but I don’t think this program is afraid of or allergic to hard work at all,” Randolph said.

“There’s some shorter travel times when we go to places like Hempfield and Latrobe. There were places like Armstrong and Indiana that took a toll on the girls’ schoolwork with the challenging classes they had.”

Only two teams from last year’s section — Franklin Regional and West Mifflin — will join Gateway boys soccer again next season.

The Gators go from a section containing schools that have travel times 40 minutes or longer (Chartiers Valley, South Fayette and Thomas Jefferson) to playing teams east of Pittsburgh within 30 minutes (Penn Hills, Plum and Woodland Hills among others).

“My initial thoughts (to realignment was) that it will be beneficial for our team,” boys soccer coach Bernie Stiles said.

“We were playing in the toughest section in the WPIAL Class 3A for the past two years when Franklin Regional dropped down into our section and Chartiers Valley, who won the 2017 WPIAL championship and were runner-ups in 2018.”

Stiles said that while the longer travel was not a detriment to his players physically, shorter bus rides are for the better.

“We talked about the travel with the south hills teams all the time, going through the two tunnels and the traffic,” he said. “Being that they are high school players and not professional, having everything local is good.”

The team’s farthest travel time for a section game is West Mifflin (32 minutes).

The lone change to the girls soccer team’s section was significant. The defending PIAA and WPIAL Class 3A champion, Mars, was moved from Section 1 with Gateway in Section 4.

Robert Scott III is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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