Gateway to celebrate 50th anniversary of 1st WPIAL football championship

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Friday, August 16, 2019 | 2:55 PM


As the United States was putting a man on the moon in the summer of 1969, the Gateway football program was preparing to hopefully put a Gator on the turf at Pitt Stadium in Oakland.

There was optimism heading into the campaign that Gateway would be able to reach the WPIAL Class AAA title game.

Gateway ran the table in the regular season and capped the fall with a 22-15 win over Altoona at the home of the Pitt Panthers for the program’s first WPIAL championship.

“We were a special team,” said Rich Hrenko, the team’s starting quarterback as a senior that season.

“A lot of us had played together since early in junior high, and we were told at that time we had something special. It kind of came to fruition (in 1969).

“We were like brothers. We were really close, and it showed on the field.”

This fall marks 50 years since that landmark title, and several members of that team will gather Friday evening with family and friends to celebrate the anniversary of the championship.

In addition to an early-evening reception, the team will be recognized and celebrated on the field before or at halftime of the current Gators’ Week Zero matchup with Mt. Lebanon at Antimarino Stadium.

Hrenko said he is looking forward to coming back and reuniting with his former teammates and classmates.

“We had gotten together at class reunions but never as a team,” Hrenko said.

“I can’t believe it’s been 50 years since that season. I also have my 50th reunion next August. Looking back on that time, it seems like it was only five or 10 years ago. Time flies so fast. The hard part is realizing some of our teammates have passed, and a number of the coaches, too. We wish they could be there and share this with us.”

Randy Rovesti, Gateway’s athletic director and a senior starting right guard on the 1969 team, said close to a dozen former members are slated to be on hand for Friday’s festivities. The celebration will include a presentation on the video board of the new scoreboard.

It was a breakthrough championship for the program which was established a decade earlier with the merging of Monroeville and Pitcairn High Schools. Walter “Pete” Antimarino became the head coach, and he embarked on a legendary career that would span 31 years and include five total WPIAL titles and 236 career wins.

Players on the 1969 team were on a mission after falling short of the WPIAL title game a year before. The Gators were denied a perfect season in 1968 with a 7-6 loss to Penn Hills.

“We had a lot of extra incentive to not let something like that happen again,” Hrenko said.

“We had really good coaches that kicked us in the butt when we needed it. We all had that mindset that we were going to go do what we needed to do to win.”

Gateway scored at least 30 or more points in seven of their nine regular-season games, including 49 in a rout of Moon Township, and captured the West Penn Conference championship.

“A game that stands was the one against Churchill,” Rovesti said. “We were both undefeated heading into the game. There was a lot of thought that Churchill was the better team, but we won 30-0.”

The Gators had to wait a number of weeks after the regular season to play for the WPIAL championship. Gardner Points decided who would play for the crown as opposed to the current playoff system, so an undefeated season was almost a must.

The players recalled the overwhelming amount of support from the school and the community, not only in and around Monroeville and Pitcairn but along the Parkway as the team headed to Pitt Stadium.

“There was a huge turnout at Pitt Stadium,” Rovesti said.

Gateway held Altoona to two touchdowns. The Mountain Lions had averaged 22.9 points in 10 regular season games.

The Gators’ 22 points in the title game was the most Altoona had given up all year.

“To a man, we felt we should’ve won by more than we did, but we did win, and looking back after all these years, we see what a great accomplishment it was,” Rovesti said. “When we won the (WPIAL 5A) title two years ago, it had been 31 years since winning the previous one (in 1986). Those things just don’t happen. It takes a lot of hard work by a lot of people.”

In addition to the team title, several Gateway players earned individual all-conference accolades.

They included Hrenko, Rovesti, fullback Mark Campbell, wide receiver/defensive back Dave Jagdmann, wing back Mike Devine, lineman John Kuster, tailback Jack Campbell, center Rob Leerburg, defensive end Mike Baklarz, left tackle Mike O’Toole and left guard Kip DeLeonibus.

Jagdmann and Kuster also were named to the Associated Press All-State first team, and Campbell was an honorable mention selection.

“It wasn’t just one guy,” said Jagdmann, who caught a touchdown pass from Hrenko against Altoona. “It was a group of guys who knew what their roles were and played as a team. We all respected each other, and no one put themselves ahead of anybody else on the team.”

Gateway would win the WPIAL Class AAA title again in 1972 and shared the crown with Upper St. Clair in 1974.

The WPIAL established the Quad-A classification in 1980, and five years later, the Gators were back at the top. They shared the title with North Hills after a 0-0 tie in the 1985 title game at Three Rivers Stadium.

The next year, Gateway stood on the top rung of the ladder all by itself.

Led by head coach Don Holl, quarterback Brady Walker and others, the 2017 team won the Class 5A title at Heinz Field and advanced to the state final in Hershey.

But the 1969 team will always be the first.

“We were energized every week,” Jadgman said. “It was a special season with such special people.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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