Northgate finds strength in numbers

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Monday, August 21, 2023 | 9:26 PM


Every time Northgate players walked into the weight room this offseason, they were confronted with the same reminders.

Whether it was “75-19” or “69-20” or maybe “49-0” or “51-6,” there it was, day after day.

“I’ve had all of the blowout scores up on the wall in the weight room all offseason,” second-year coach Chris Lucas said, “so that they can remember every single day.”

While there was no escaping the not-so-subtle reminders, nobody was scared away.

Northgate enjoyed outstanding attendance in the weight room this offseason, and the strength work gives the Flames encouragement as they continue to rebuild after a disastrous 2-34 stretch from 2017-20.

“There were 30 guys a day in the weight room,” said Lucas, a ‘98 Northgate graduate. “They have really bought in. They have worked their tails off. Our goal was getting stronger.”

The difference in the program is remarkable. Three years ago, when the current seniors were freshmen, the Flames played the season finale against Bishop Canevin with only 11 players. They had started the season with a roster of 18.

This season, Northgate had about 35 players in uniform at a mid-August afternoon practice.

“It’s so awesome,” said senior linebacker Aidan Gross, who started both ways as a freshman in that 11-player ‘20 finale. “It really motivates me. I love coming out here and seeing this.”

Northgate, which went 4-6 last season, is reaching goals, one by one. Two years ago, the Flames snapped a 32-game losing streak. Last season, they won their first road game since 2017. This season’s goal is to make the WPIAL Class A playoffs out of the rugged Big 7 Conference.

“We’ve come a long way,” said senior quarterback/safety Austin Mitchell, who also survived the tough times of ‘20. “I knew it was going to come eventually. People have seen that we can be a good team if we actually worked. If you come around and just be here (doing nothing), then you really don’t know what you can get out of yourself.”

Mitchell will share time at quarterback with junior Sonteon Layne. The two combined last season to pass for 1,004 yards and eight touchdowns. Mitchell was the team’s leading rusher with 769 yards and 13 TDs on 99 carries.

“It’s going to depend on who’s hot and what type of team we are playing,” Lucas said of the QB platoon. “They have different skill sets.”

The Flames, who lost only two full-time starters from last year’s team, also return junior Darius Fields (85-321 yards, 3 TDs) and senior Donavin Boone in the backfield.

Left tackle Kaleb Billings, a 6-foot-3, 310-pound roadgrader, anchors an all-junior offensive line that also returns right tackle Nick Balzer, guard Jake Lenoski and center Angelo Valeriano. The second guard spot is up for grabs. Sophomore tight end Kaden Stiger also is back, while the wide receiver positions will need training camp to firm up.

The defense returns nine starters from a leaky unit that allowed an average of 46.5 points per game in Big 7 Conference action. Among the low points was a 75-19 loss to previously winless Shenango (0-5).

“We were young and we weren’t real strong,” Lucas said. “We really committed to the offseason weight room program. Overall team strength and speed is one of the biggest things we’ve improved on. … They have in the back of their minds, what happened last year. They definitely don’t want that to happen again.”

Alex Wozniak, one of only six seniors on a still-youthful roster, will start at nose tackle, flanked by ends Balzer and Stiger.

Gross, Lenoski and Layne will man the linebacker spots, with Mitchell and Fields at safety. Cornerback auditions were ongoing as camp got underway.

There is no questioning the team chemistry. The Flames’ Aug. 10 workout was energized, and the coaches treated the players to a paintball competition at the end of heat acclimation week to boost team bonding.

“We try to do as much together as possible and try to build that bond,” Lucas said. “I think that’s helped us with numbers. People want to be a part of it now.”

Northgate

Coach: Chris Lucas

2022 record: 4-6, 1-5 in Class A Big 7 Conference

All-time record: 212-246-7

SCHEDULE

Date, Opponent, Time

8.25 Fort Cherry, 7

9.1 at Springdale, 7

9.8 Riverview, 7

9.15 South Side*, 7

9.23 at Summit Academy*, 12:30

9.29 Shenango*, 7

10.6 at Laurel*, 7

10.13 Union*, 7

10.20 at Rochester*, 7

10.27 at Frazier, 7

*Conference game

STATISTICAL LEADERS

Passing: Sonteon Layne

34-53, 554 yards, 3 TDs

Rushing: Austin Mitchell

99-769 yards, 13 TDs

Receiving: Lewis Clark*

33-733 yards, 9 TDs

*Graduated

FAST FACTS

• The Flames are 1-26 in their past 27 road games. The lone win was a 32-26 victory at Riverview last season, snapping a 23-game road skid dating to Week 1 of 2017.

• Three of the four semifinalists in last year’s WPIAL Class A playoffs were from the Big 7 (Union, Rochester, South Side).

• Sophomore WR/OLB Tylan McCune-Daniels, a 6-foot-3, 160-pounder who helped the 2022-23 Northgate boys basketball team reach the WPIAL finals for the first time in 35 years, came out for the football team.

• Northgate is fielding a junior varsity team for the second consecutive season. Prior to this, it had been a decade since the school had the numbers to sponsor a JV team.

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