Unbeaten Hempfield faces another stern Big East test in No. 4 Gateway

Wednesday, September 28, 2022 | 6:50 PM

Hempfield football coach Mike Brown said the goal for the 2022 Spartans was to play meaningful games at the end of the season.

That goal already has been achieved.

After defeating then-No. 1 Penn-Trafford, 28-17, in a WPIAL Class 5A Big East Conference showdown last week, the No. 3-ranked Spartans (5-0, 1-0) host another big game Friday when No. 4 Gateway (4-1, 1-1) visits Bill Abraham Field at Spartan Stadium.

The Spartans are celebrating homecoming and would like to continue their impressive start by going 6-0 for the first time since 1971.

The Gators lead the all-time series 14-2 and have won the last six games between the teams, though they haven’t played since 2013. Hempfield’s last win was 43-40 in 1989.

Gateway was the preseason favorite to win the conference, but the Gators were upset 16-7 in Week 4 by Franklin Regional.

Gateway scored on its first offensive possession against Franklin Regional and then was blanked the rest of the game.

Last week, the Gators held on to defeat Plum, 28-26, after building a three-touchdown lead in the first half.

“Class 5A has been a little crazy this year,” Gateway coach Don Holl said, “and we’ve been a little inconsistent offensively. We’ve had too many lapses during our games that have slowed us down.

“All the games are big. Hempfield is playing with a lot of confidence, and we can’t afford to look ahead.”

Only the top two teams in the conference are guaranteed berths in the WPIAL playoffs. The top two third-place finishers in the three conferences also qualify for the playoffs.

Hempfield rallied from a 10-point deficit in the second quarter last week to defeat Penn-Trafford, the returning WPIAL and PIAA Class 5A champion.

Halftime adjustments made by the defensive staff slowed down Penn-Trafford’s running game.

This week, the Spartans face the potent passing attack of former Jeannette quarterback Brad Birch and his talented receiving corps. Birch played for the Jayhawks as a freshman in 2020 before transferring to Gateway in 2021.

“They are scary talented and athletic,” Brown said. “They have a handful of talented receivers.”

Birch has completed 71 of 124 passes for 777 yards and seven touchdowns. He also has thrown seven interceptions.

His offensive coordinator at Jeannette was Ray Reitz, who is now the offensive coordinator at Hempfield. Reitz spent countless hours with Birch before his freshman season grooming the budding star.

Birch’s top receivers have been Dallas Harper, Anez Jordan and Jaquon Reynolds.

Hempfield’s offense, which is averaging a Class 5A-high 44.8 points per game, has garnered much of the attention, but the defense also has been staunch.

“Some people have asked if this would be a trap game after our win against Penn-Trafford,” Brown said. “I don’t think our players know what a trap game is. They are committed to keeping the ball rolling.

“They know their hard work in the offseason is paying off. They realize what they’re doing has a big impact on their fellow students and the community.”

Hempfield’s up-tempo offense is something Holl and the Gators are familiar with. Holl said his defense has to formulate a gameplan that will slow down the Spartans.

Senior Gino Caesar is the Spartans’ top running back with 484 yards and 10 touchdowns. Quarterback Jake Phillips has rushed for 248 yards, and Elijah Binakonsky, who was teammate with Birch at Jeannette, has rushed for 116 yards.

Binakonsky had a key 41-yard touchdown run against Penn-Trafford.

Phillips has completed 65 of 91 passes for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns. Ian Tuffs has 18 catches for 433 yards and two touchdowns.

Daniel Katonka has 14 catches for 172 yards and four scores, and Keiran Lippman has 10 catches for 181 yards and two scores.

While both teams feature numerous offensive threats, the game could be decided in the trenches.

Hempfield’s lines acquitted themselves well against Penn-Trafford’s strong front, but now they have a tough group of Gateway linemen to deal with.

It comes with the territory for teams playing meaningful games at this point in the season.

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Paul by email at pschofield@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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