Gateway hopes for strong finish after season full of growing pains

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Sunday, October 17, 2021 | 11:01 AM


Gateway football players receive a video scouting report every Sunday from coach Don Holl that starts with an update on the state of the season.

“Here’s where we’re at. Here are the standings. Here’s the deal. We talk about it every week,” said Holl, who provides the voiceover for the video.

He’s tried to keep focus on the big picture.

Gateway was ranked as the preseason No. 1 team in WPIAL Class 5A but lost three times in its first seven games, dropping contests to Thomas Jefferson, Pine-Richland and Penn-Trafford. Yet, with limited weeks left in the regular season and the WPIAL playoffs fast approaching, the Gators won’t dwell on the past.

“You can’t undo anything,” Holl said. “You can’t go back and revise history. Obviously, everybody starts their season hoping to run the table. We’ve got a young group, and we’ve struggled to be consistent. But the mission is still the same.”

Yes, that’s winning a WPIAL title.

There’s no question the team has talent, starting with a wide receiver/defensive back headed to Cincinnati and a sophomore quarterback with an Oregon offer. But that preseason No. 1 ranking was earned largely on reputation, Holl said, noting that the Gators also start a sophomore running back, a sophomore right tackle and field a lineup dotted with first-year starters.

So, the Gators are a work in progress.

“There are a lot of young guys on the field for us,” Holl said. “I’m always flattered and we always think it’s cool that people think enough of our program to rank us highly, but we really didn’t have anything to hang that ranking on. That was a reputation ranking. We knew it was going to be a growing process.

“Everyone wants to be great at the end of the year playing their best football, but we knew we had a lot of guys that needed to get ready to go.”

The key, Holl said, will be finding consistency. The Gators won their first five victories by a combined 169-43. Yet, against ranked opponents, they took competitive losses to Thomas Jefferson, 21-16; Pine-Richland, 21-7; and Penn-Trafford, 15-10.

The results weren’t what they wanted, but Holl said his coaching staff won’t overreact either.

“We really hang our hat on the fact we’re going to do what we do as well as we can possibly do it, and that’s going to give us our best chance,” he said. “We’re not going to reinvent scheme. We have little tweaks and little wrinkles every week on both sides of the ball, but we’re going to try to be really true to the core of what we do.”

There are bright spots. Gateway quarterback Brad Birch ranked second among all WPIAL passers with 1,542 yards through seven games with 18 touchdowns. His top receiver, Cincinnati-bound senior Patrick Body, had 29 catches for 615 yards and eight TDs.

The Gators’ offense averages 28.9 point per game, which ranks third-best in WPIAL Class 5A. The defense ranks second, allowing only 14.3 points.

“Our goal is to just keep worrying about ourselves and get better,” Holl said. “Without disrespecting anyone in 5A — Moon probably has the best claim right now — but I don’t know that anybody is unbeatable. I guess that’s encouraging if you’re a team that’s trying to get in the conversation.”

The WPIAL playoffs start Nov. 5. The Gators have won the Class 5A title in two of the past four seasons and reached at least the semifinals five years in a row.

For now, they’re focused on making the playoffs.

“Once you’re in the tournament, you’ve just got to keep winning and advance,” Holl said. “Might we have to play on the road? Sure. Possibly. Might we have to play a really good team? Yeah. But at some point you’ve got to beat those teams anyway.”

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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