By Matt Popchock


Another annual rite of passage on the western Pennsylvania sports scene is upon us. We were here for the start of the regular season, and Mr. High School Sports is back for the beginning of the “second season,” where, once again, everybody is 0-0.

Our Game of the Week takes us to Gateway High School, where the Gators, the No. 5 seed in Class AAAA, are getting set to take on the Shaler Titans, the No. 12 seed, in First Round action. Terry Smith’s Gators, the 2011 Foothills Conference runners-up, are coming off a 7-2 season, while Neil Gordon’s Titans are coming off a roller-coaster 5-4 campaign that landed them a fourth-place finish in the Northern Seven Conference.

This is a matchup not only of two of the most heralded coaches in the WPIAL, but also of two high-profile teams going in different directions. Gateway already owns a win over state powerhouse Bishop McDevitt, which, again, we were privy to on Labor Day weekend, and the Gators really raised some eyebrows with a surprisingly easy 38-0 rout of rival McKeesport in last week’s regular season finale–Smith’s 90th win in ten seasons as Gateway’s head coach.

In contrast, the Titans were also a team with high expectations surrounding it coming into 2011, but they’ve had to work harder to live up to them. Injuries and some tough conference losses, including another one to North Allegheny, and a stunning 51-7 head-scratcher at the hands of lowly Pine-Richland last week, have tainted Shaler’s credibility entering the postseason. It’ll have to rediscover itself in a hurry against a Gateway squad that boasts a lot of Division I talent.

We’re live at Gateway’s Antimarino Stadium with updates on this and all the over WPIAL First Round games–which kick off at 7:30–throughout the night. More to come…

6:57 – Both teams are warming up. Speaking of Division I talent, there’s some on the visitors’ sideline as well. Running back/tight end/linebacker J.P. Holtz, who has committed to Penn State, supplies the bulk of Shaler’s team toughness. He’s run for 337 yards, averaging nearly five per carry, scoring 15 TD’s, and made big plays at just about every position. We’ll also keep an eye on quarterback Ryan Mincher, who has thrown for 11 TD’s and over 1,000 yards. He’s matured nicely, and Gordon said earlier this year that Mincher is calling most of his own plays at this point.

7:18 – The national anthem commences just a few minutes after both teams leave the field. By the way, kudos to Coach Smith (who is also the A.D., for those who don’t know) and his staff for having us, and double kudos for the work they’ve done on this facility in the past. The acoustics are outstanding, and this is one of the most luxurious press boxes I’ve ever worked in.

Having said that, I also wondered why, number one, people who clearly aren’t media loaf in the press box so often (it happens everywhere, trust me), and number two, why some of these folks insist on bringing little kids up here. The press box is not a babysitter. It is a place of business.

Okay, enough soapboxing from me, now let’s take a look at some players to watch for the host Gators…

7:25 – Coach Smith is talking to tonight’s officiating crew moments before his team (and Shaler, for that matter) takes the field. His quarterback, Tom Woodson, is a threat with his arm and his feet, and he’s already drawing interest from Penn State as well, not to mention, Pitt, WVU, and several other schools in the Big Ten, ACC, and SEC; even UCLA has expressed interest. He’s thrown for over 1,100 yards and 11 TD’s, and is a downright scary runner. Darin Franklin will likely play at the next level as well, and he overcame an early-season leg injury to run for 14 TD’s and nearly 700 yards.

7:29 – Shaler wins the toss and defers. Gateway takes the ball, and will move right to left on your computer or mobile device to begin the game. Time to get excited!

7:31 – Good return by Hakim Oliver out near midfield. Kicker Chris Brasile forced him out along the far sideline.

7:32 – Franklin’s first carry is for 6 yards and a 1st down. His second is for 25 yards, as he took off like a rocket through right guard.

7:34 – Shaler catches a very necessary break, as a touchdown run by Franklin of 19 yards is wiped out by a holding penalty in mid-play.

7:35 – TOUCHDOWN GATEWAY! It didn’t matter. Franklin ran off left tackle for 28 on the very next play, then scored standing up from 1 yard out. 15th TD of the year for Franklin. Cody Conway converts the extra point…7-0 Gateway, 9:49 left, 1st quarter. Great job by Gator linemen putting hats on hats; that was like taking candy from a baby for Franklin.

7:38 – Shaler starts from its own 15 and comes out throwing, as Mincher finds Sean Gavin for a short gain.

7:40 – Titans go three and out, as Niko Thorpe is stopped just short after a 2-yard gain.

TOUCHDOWN GATEWAY! Cody Conway does it all, blocking the punt, and kicking the extra point after Graham Davis recovered in the end zone. 14-0 Gators just like that. 7:39 left, 1st quarter.

7:42 – UPDATE: Upset in the making? Dylan Bongiorni’s 1-yd sneak has West A up 7-0 over Knoch in the 1st.

7:44 – UPDATE: Seneca Valley takes a 7-0 lead over Penn Hills on a 43-yd TD pass from Jordan Brown to Forrest Barnes.

7:45 – Nick Piett gets Shaler’s first 1st down, but then Mincher overthrows Holtz, and Devontae Butler, another D-1 prospect, takes it back to the Shaler 30. Gateway came in averaging 6.2 points allowed per game, the best in Quad-A.

7:47 – 1st and goal Gateway, Gators on the march quickly after 12-yard gains by Brian Jones and Patrick Livsey.

7:48 – TOUCHDOWN GATEWAY! Livsey plunges in for his 7th TD of the year from 2 yards out, leaving Shaler to wonder what the heck has hit them. After a false start penalty, Sean Miller blocks the extra point, but it’s 20-0 Gators, 4:29 left, 1st quarter.

Gateway is simply out-toughing the Titans right now. Near-flawless execution.

7:51 – UPDATE: 36-yd FG by Tyler Yee…3-0 South Fayette over Beaver Falls in the 1st…meanwhile, Mars has taken an 8-7 lead over West Mifflin.

7:52 – Shaler goes three and out again, still searching for rhythm on offense. Meanwhile, Jeannette has taken a 14-0 lead over Burrell in the 1st…and Erie McDowell has also taken a 14-0 lead, over McKeesport, and that game is also in the 1st.

7:54 – UPDATES: Ford City 3, Greensburg C.C. 0 (1st)…Mt. Lebanon 7, Woodland Hills 0 (26-yd TD run by Luke Hagy)…Hopewell 7, Indiana 0 (end 1st).

7:56 – Gateway is forced to punt for the first time, as Holtz makes his first solo tackle (on Graham Davis), followed by a Jake Schreiber sack. Davis barely got the punt off, and Shaler starts off with its best field position of the half, beyond the 40.

7:57 – Holtz pulls in a 21-yarder in man coverage down the far sideline. 1st down into Gateway territory, shortly before the quarter expires. The Titans needed such a shot in the arm from one of its best players, as they trail 20-0 after one.

8:00 – UPDATES: Rushel Shell has run for 66 yards after one quarter…6-yd TD run by Zach Challingsworth gives S. Fayette 10-0 lead over B.F.

8:01 – On his first rushing attempt, Holtz is stopped for a 2-yard loss, and sharing the tackle was outstanding defensive lineman Avery Anderson, who is getting looks from local (D-1) schools.

8:02 – Holtz’s fake punt pass from near midfield falls incomplete near the Gators’ 20, and Gateway takes over with great field position of its own.

8:06 – UPDATES: N.A. 7, Fox Chapel 7 after 1st…2nd TD for Challingsworth makes it 17-6 South Fayette over Beaver Falls, 1st half.

8:07 – UPDATES: Hopewell 14, Indiana 0 (2nd); Shell with 2 TD, 97 yds, 12 rush…Central Catholic 28 Peters Twp. 0 (2nd)…14-yd TD catch by Jaquan Williams from Chaz Whittaker cuts Seneca’s lead to 14-7 (2nd)…Jeannette 20, Burrell 0 (2nd).

8:09 – UPDATES: West Mifflin 14 Mars 8 (2nd)…McDowell 14 McKeesport 7 (2nd)…Penn-Trafford 7 Bethel Park 0 (end 1st). Belle Vernon up 7-0 on Franklin Regional, early 2nd.

After three offensive penalties, Gateway had 2nd and a country mile, but got an automatic 1st down on a defensive pass interference that looked as iffy as the last of the Gateway penalties (a holding call). Story of Shaler’s night.

8:10 – TOUCHDOWN GATEWAY! Tom Woodson takes off up the middle for a 26-yard score. Extra point clangs off the upright, but Gateway takes a 26-0 lead with 5:50 left in the 2nd.

8:11 – Sean Miller fumbles the kickoff to Anthony Rollins moments later. Shaler in full meltdown right now.

8:14 – TOUCHDOWN GATEWAY! Three plays later, Franklin barrels in over the right side for his 2nd TD of the night, 16th of 2011, from 5 yards out. Woodson’s two-point pass is batted down short of the end zone, and it’s 32-0 Gators, 5:08 left, 2nd quarter.

8:18 – Piett makes the 15-yard catch after Mincher rolled to his right…and fumbled it right back near midfield. Wow. Gateway ball again, at the drop of a hat.

Nice catch by Jaymar Parrish in the right flat at the Shaler 42.

8:19 – UPDATES: both games in 2nd–McDowell 21, McKeesport 7…Jeannette 20, Burrell 7.

8:20 – UPDATES: TJ 14, Salem 14 (1st half)…Seneca 17 PH 7 (33-yd FG by Michael Denny in the 2nd qtr.)…Hopewell 21 Indiana 7 (2nd qtr.).

8:22 – UPDATES: Central Valley 34 Laurel Highlands 0 (2nd)…West A and Knoch tied 7-7 (2nd).

8:23 – TOUCHDOWN GATEWAY! It’s a running clock for the Gators; Patrick Livsey runs in from 11 yards out, his 2nd TD of the night. Conway misses again on the extra point for the third time tonight. He’s usually a pretty decent kicker, but those misses, and a kickoff that went out of bounds have been the only downers on the night for the home team. 38-0 Gateway, late 2nd quarter.

By the way, if Penn-Trafford beats Bethel Park (Warriors leading 14-0 as I speak), they would face Gateway in the Quarterfinals. When last those two Foothills rivals met, Penn-Trafford won on a walk-off field goal. Just saying…

8:26 – Titans finally on the move, thanks to the arm of Mincher, into Gateway territory. 34 seconds left, 1st half, and Gordon calls timeout. Ref out of breath…and so am I. Fast-moving game.

8:28 – Piett having a nice first half for Shaler offensively. Another catch, this time for 14 yards, goes for a 1st down, stopping the clock.

8:30 – Mincher chased literally all the way back near midfield before short-arming a pass that is intercepted by Todd Jeter. Another dagger to the Titans.

HALFTIME. Gateway 38, Shaler 0…which means the PIAA mercy rule goes into effect immediately following the 2nd half kickoff. For those not familiar with it, if a team carries a lead of 35 or more in the 2nd half, the clock runs nonstop, barring a score, a timeout, or an injury. (Technically, there are other provisos, but that’s the gist of it.)

Apologies for the lack of updates, but once again, this game has moved at a very brisk pace…

8:33 – Greensburg C.C. leads Ford City 10-3 at half. South Fayette leads Beaver Falls 17-6 at half.

8:35 – Mount Lebanon and Woodland Hills tied 21-21 at half. Hagy has 17 rush, 92 yds, TD…and a great 42-yd TD catch.

Jeannette leads Burrell 20-14 late 2nd, Springdale leads Monessen 28-17 late 2nd.

8:36 – Rushel Shell has tied Billy Sims’ national record of 38 straight 100-yard games. The WPIAL career rushing leader and his Vikings are still up 21-7 on Indiana…West Mifflin leads Mars 14-8 at half.

8:37 – Fort Cherry looking to upset Beth-Center, up 21-7 at half. Central leads Peters 35-0 at half. Jeannette leads Burrell 20-14 at half. Franklin Regional leading Belle Vernon 14-7 at half. Penn-Trafford up 14-0 on Bethel Park at half.

8:38 – N.A. leading Fox Chapel 28-7 at half…TJ and Salem tied 14-14 in the 1st half.

8:40 – USC up on Connellsville 42-0 at half (congrats to Falcons just the same, great turnaround)…Knoch leads West A 14-7 at half (told you that would be a good one).

8:41 – South Fayette leads B.F. 17-6 at half.

8:45 – McDowell 28 McKeesport 7 at half.

8:48 – Freeport up 19-11 on Ellwood City at half…Seneca Valley up 23-7 on Penn Hills at half after another Michael Denny field goal from 35 yards out.

8:49 – Ringgold up 7-3 on Highlands at half…TJ and Salem tied 14-14 at half.

8:51 – 103 yards on 16 carries for Rushel Shell entering 2nd half, with Hopewell still ahead by a pair of touchdowns.

8:52 – Montour smacking around Chartiers Valley 41-12 at half. Had a feeling that one might be ugly with Wayne Capers not healthy.

8:53 – Clairton 48 Cornell 0, late 2nd half. Bears going for 41st straight win, 2nd longest streak in WPIAL history. Braddock has the record with 46 (Clairton breaks it if it defends its PIAA title this year).

8:55 – Another mercy rule game in Class A…Sto-Rox 56, Frazier 18 late in the first half. Vikings and Clairton are on a collision course for Heinz Field, mark it down now.

8:57 – Both teams out on the field warming up for 2nd half. Not much to say, except Gateway, as a team, seems to be peaking at the right time. With the exception of their kicking game, the Gators look as poised as can be.

Darin Franklin unofficially with 123 yards to go with his two 1st-half TD’s.

9:01 – The nightmare picks up right where it left off for Shaler, which fumbles the 2nd half kick; Keenan Sommerville recovers for the Gators just inside the red zone. Brian Jones now in at QB for Gateway.

9:03 – TOUCHDOWN GATEWAY! Jones does his best Woodson impression, shedding a couple would-be tacklers, and scores on a 23-yard run right up the gut. Conway shakes out the cobwebs and makes the extra point…45-0 Gators, 9:51 left, 3rd quarter.

Not that I would ever directly question the heart of a Neil Gordon-coached team, but on that play Shaler looked like a team that wants this game to be over now.

9:07 – Give Holtz credit for continuing to fight, picking up YAC after a wide-open reception from Mincher. 1st down Shaler past midfield.

9:08 – Niko Thorpe, younger brother of basketball standout Geno Thorpe, is quietly having a nice game in defeat at tailback. 25-yard run for a 1st down inside the 25 yard line.

9:10 – Mincher starting to click, but Gateway continues to play solid man-on-man defense and get good pursuit to the ball. 45-0 Gateway, Shaler threatening…4:20 left, 3rd quarter.

9:12 – TOUCHDOWN SHALER! Mincher is flushed all the way back to midfield, rolls right, and hits Sean Gavin, who makes a nice catch in the back corner, from 24 yards out. At least the Titans get the goose egg off the board, and make no mistake, it’s an accomplishment to score against this defense. Two-point fake extra point is no good, as an option run fails. 45-6 Gateway, 4:12 left, 3rd quarter.

9:14 – UPDATES: Jeannette 26, Burrell 14 (late 3rd)…Central 35 Peters 7 (late 3rd).

9:15 – UPDATES: TD run and 2-pt. run by Wes Nesmith help B.F. cut deficit to 24-14 against S. Fayette…Springdale up 34-24 on Monessen in the 3rd.

9:16 – UPDATE: Zac Lynch with a long TD run to put Freeport up 26-11 over Ellwood City in the 3rd.

9:18 – End of the 3rd quarter here at Antimarino Stadium, with Gateway up 45-6 on Shaler. Good work on this drive by backup tailback Andre Martin, with 51 yards on 6 carries.

Meanwhile, potential 2nd round opponent and conference rival Penn-Trafford has opened up a 21-0 lead on Bethel Park in the 3rd.

9:20 – TOUCHDOWN GATEWAY! Jones gets Shaler to bite on the fake to Martin, and he keeps it himself down the right side for a 13-yard score, 2nd of the night for him. Conway’s kick is up and good…52-6 Gators, 11:05 left in the game.

9:22 – UPDATES: Michael Kizzie blocked punt recovery…28-21 Salem over TJ late 3rd quarter. TJ’s streak of WPIAL Semifinal appearances, which spans over a decade and a half, seems to be in peril. GCC leads Ford City 17-3 after three…W. Mifflin up on Mars 14-8 after three.

9:24 – UPDATE: Jeannette 39, Burrell 14, thanks to a 90-yd punt return TD by Shavontae Craft.

9:25 – Holtz gets a fortuitous midair bounce (one of the few fortuitous things to happen to the Titans tonight) and picks up 37 on a catch-and-run. Looks like a good get for Joe Paterno; brings a lot of skill and a lot of heart.

On a separate note, it’s impressive how deep Gateway is. They’ll be real tough to beat moving forward.

9:27 – TOUCHDOWN SHALER! Alex Conway keeps his feet in bounds as he hauls in a fade pattern from Mincher. 2nd TD pass of the night for Mincher, 13th of the season. Brasile’s extra point is good…52-13 Gateway, 6:24 left in the game.

9:30 – Franklin Regional and Belle Vernon tied 14-14 after 3rd.

9:31 – UPDATE: Central up 42-7 on Peters late in the game.

9:32 – Shaler calls timeout with exactly 4 minutes left. If my ears do not deceive me, sounds like we’ll have a Gateway/Penn-Trafford rematch in the Quarterfinals next week (site TBD).

9:35 – Thorpe picks up 12 yards. Brad Goode in at QB for Shaler. Thorpe, only a sophomore, is going to be a heck of a ballplayer the next couple years.

9:36 – UPDATES: Lebo and Woody High tied at 21 in 2nd half…Ky Kenyon throws a TD pass to extend Knoch’s lead over West A to 21-7 (midway through 4th).

9:37 – FINAL: Gateway 52, Shaler 13. Shaler ends 2011 season at 5-5. Gateway advances to 8-2, and the WPIAL Quarterfinals next Friday.

12:50 AM – A tip for future high school sports journalists: if the game ends in a blowout, they like to go home early. So, after a long search for Internet access, and an even longer drive back to our cushy Foster Plaza studios in Green Tree, I’ve got some final numbers and a few words from the victorious Gators, along with a few other tidbits from the First Round of the 2011 WPIAL Football Playoffs…

1:00 AM – Darin Franklin had the best night of any player statistically for Gateway, with 123 yards on 12 runs and two TD’s. Tom Woodson, who was right behind him, went 4-of-6 for 49 yards, was sacked once, and ran for 33 yards and one TD on three carries. He’s now completed about 60% of his passes for 1,192 yards, and he’s run for well over 200. Patrick Livsey ran for 40 yards on six carries, unofficially (which is above his average), to go with his two scores. Niko Thorpe ran for 54 yards and caught one pass for 20 yards. Mincher finished up 12-of-17 with two picks, two TD’s, and 205 yards, unofficially. Holtz caught three passes for 90 yards.

Tom Woodson is scheduled to appear during the second hour of “The UPMC Centers for Rehab Services High School Football Show,” which starts at 7:00 A.M. Saturday on 93.7 The Fan.

1:13 AM – Woodson on Friday’s win: Thinks it’s the best the offense has executed thus far; “We just played Gateway football…hard-nosed football.” Team is forgetting regular season failures and successes. Excited to face Penn-Trafford next week; feels like they didn’t play best game against them earlier this season, team was eager for a second shot at them.

1:17 AM – Franklin on Friday’s win: Practiced hard this week, executed game plan really well. Feels team is getting hot at the right time. Excited to face Penn-Trafford next week. Most impressive about tonight’s performance by his own team? “Our effort. We played hard every play. We played 48 minutes, just like Coach says.”

1:20 AM – Terry Smith on Friday’s win: Still corrections to be made, especially in the penalty department, despite red-hot start (up 38-0 at half). Shaler is well-coached, tough kids, very physical team, had some tough breaks go against them tonight, and they simply capitalized. “That’s what a good team does.” Different team from first meeting with upcoming opponent Penn-Trafford; defense is different, wants to come up with better game plan for Manny Simpson. “They had the ball for 32 minutes out of 48. You can’t win a game when the ball is being controlled like that.” Impressed with his own team physically Friday night? “We’ve been playing that way the past few weeks, even in our loss to Central, our kids still played physical.” Defense has been more aggressive. Depth at running back showed tonight, which, to him, is ironic, because they only dress 38 players (one of the smaller Quad-A programs), but “they give maximum effort every night.” Early impressions of Penn-Trafford: “We’ve got to control the ball, and get their offense off the field.”

1:30 AM – Rushel Shell ran for 268 yards and four TD’s on 32 carries in Hopewell’s win. In addition to tying the Sims record, Shell now has 8,799 career yards, and needs just 228 to become the leading rusher in PIAA history.

1:40 AM – Click here for tonight’s First Round scores. Here are the ones we missed:

Pittsburgh Central Catholic 42, Peters Township 14

Montour 55, Chartiers Valley 20

Thomas Jefferson 34, Greensburg-Salem 28 (OT)

Springdale 65, Monessen 30

Keep reading the “Mr. High School Sports” blog this weekend, and keep tuning in to 93.7 The Fan for continuing coverage of the 2011 WPIAL Football Playoffs!

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