MONROEVILLE, Pa. (93-7 THE FAN) — The final whistle of 2012 was supposed to mark the end of an era for the two teams that met in WPIAL Class AAAA First Round action at Antimarino Stadium last Friday. By the end of this game, however, not much had changed.
Jack McCurry, within the past year, decided it was time to hand his North Hills program over to ex-player and longtime assistant Pat Carey. Meanwhile, Terry Smith found himself caught in a game of political football before former Peters Township assistant Don Militzer succeeded him at Gateway.
But for all their mettle, the Indians (5-5), who searched for consistency on offense all season and finally found some, still couldn’t out-slug the Gators (8-2), who advanced with a 33-21 win and proved their usual bumper crop of Division I talent is still capable of seizing the moment.
Senior receiver and defensive back Montae Nicholson might be the first to admit Militzer is becoming more adept at how to use all that talent each week.
But the way he’s embraced that pressure makes him that much more attractive to college coaches, including Paul Chryst at Pitt, and his defensive assistant, Chris Haering, the former Mount Lebanon sideline boss.
In a 22-20 season-opening squeaker over Foothills Conference rival Latrobe, Nicholson scored a critical special teams touchdown to help the Gators avoid a major upset in Militzer’s debut.
When Hempfield had them on the ropes in further conference play, Nicholson hauled in an 11-yard touchdown pass that changed momentum for good in an eventual Week 5 come-from-behind victory.
The following week, his 63-yard touchdown play loomed large in a three-point win over PIAA champion North Allegheny, the team that denied Gateway a trip to Heinz Field at the last minute when Nicholson was a sophomore.
With the Gators, improbably, slumping against struggling Norwin, Nicholson broke a scoreless fourth-quarter tie with two touchdowns in a 13-6 win.
Last Friday, when North Hills was driving again with under two minutes to go, a deep throw by backup quarterback Kindhal Taylor down the Gators’ sideline was picked off by a leaping Nicholson (6’2″, 205 lbs.) to secure the victory.
“All the coaches told me to run pass. They were in ‘true blue,’ which is straight corners. I dropped back, saw the ball in the air, and broke on it,” he said.
The Big Red had broken onto the board with a 31-yard bootleg by Taylor to make it 13-7 in the second quarter. Nicholson then converted a 4th and 8 in North Hills territory that set up an important answer, a 19-yard touchdown reception by Randall.
“I get mad, shake it off, come back, make a play,” said Nicholson, who embodied the attitude of those vintage Gateway teams.
These were exactly the sort of big-time plays in big times that would have made Smith proud.
He helped the WPIAL’s top-ranked passing attack from the regular season to establish itself early in that First Round game. Nicholson accounted for 74 of Jimmy Moore’s 290 yards on five catches, including an early 44-yard strike that went for his team-leading 14th TD of the season.
“It was a good connection,” a smiling Nicholson said of the fly pattern that was a near-exact facsimile of the one on which Moore helped WVU commit Ricky Rogers score the first points of the night. “When you’ve got that connection going, it’s not that hard.”
Nicholson, rated the No. 3 overall prospect in Pennsylvania by 247Sports, as well as one of the top 15 safeties nationally, has made the game look easy many times.
He leads the Gators with 746 yards on 37 receptions, but his coverage skills, as he displayed against North Hills, have generated almost 30 offers from FBS programs. Pitt, which sent Haering to hang out with him earlier this fall, is still believed to be one of his favorites, but he has also visited FSU, Oregon, and, most recently, Michigan State over the course of his senior season.
Nicholson would not divulge details on a formal short list of any kind, though he did say only a dozen of those 30 schools will receive serious consideration, and that said dozen could still change.
He’s spent much more time worrying about forming a bond with the new coaching staff at Gateway than he has the recruiting process, and lessons have been learned by both parties along the way.
“At the beginning of the season, the coaches had an idea. But as the season has gone on, it’s gotten a lot better,” Nicholson said. “It’s not like these coaches are straight dictators. We bounce ideas off each other. We go with what works. We do what we need to do to win.”
That whatever-it-takes mentality might be the only way the Gators can survive the WPIAL Class AAAA Quarterfinals at Fox Chapel’s Burke Stadium at 7:30. Second-seeded Pittsburgh Central Catholic (10-0) enters this meeting having won the last ten, not to mention all four postseason contests.
“We’ve stuck together as a family,” Nicholson said.
That’s a good thing, too, because, last week, North Hills paid homage to its own patriarch about as well as it could have, never giving up and giving Gateway yet another scare. This week, facing not only the top-scoring team in Quad-A, but also the least scored-upon one, Nicholson must be ready to make more big plays on both sides of the ball.
Chances are, Central coach Terry Totten will try to force a matchup at some point with fellow safety Tre Tarpley, who has received interest from a number of FCS schools while ranking among the WPIAL leaders in interceptions.
“At the end, when they said, ‘We got the big boys next week,’ everybody cheered,” a confident Nicholson recalled.
If Pitt ultimately gets some much-needed help in its secondary from Nicholson, Chryst will be hearing some cheers as well.
(Contact me at email@example.com and/or follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)