The mid-1980s were a great time to be a Gateway Gator. The accomplishments of so many teams and individual athletes defined an era that many would consider the “Golden Age” of Gateway Athletics. From football, to basketball, to wrestling, to swimming, the Gators of the 1980s competed at the highest level of WPIAL and PIAA competition with tremendous success. One of those exceptional teams was the 1985 Quad AAAA Co-Champion Gateway Gators Football team.
To tell the story of the 1985 Gator team, one really must begin in 1984, when the Gator Football team of that season began a trend of success that carried forth into two more incredible, legendary seasons. The senior leadership of the 1984 team, frustrated by a first round playoff loss the previous year, had created a mindset that stuck into the psyche of all of the young men involved over those three football seasons. That mindset, quite simply, was “Togetherness”.
“Togetherness”, in the Gateway football sense, was epitomized and personified in the presence and direction of Coach Steve Klipa, a man of high intensity and character. Coach Klipa instilled that “Togetherness” every hour of every day on the practice field and in the locker room. Whether he had the team drive blocking the 7 man sled, marching in formation, focusing on snap counts and assignments, or simply doing jumping jacks, he demanded that the Gators did it together, as a team, no mistakes. He motivated not by yelling or screaming, but by looking straight into your eyes, and explaining how each of your actions, whether directly or indirectly, had an impact on the success or failure of the entire team. Every member of the 1984 team, including the juniors and sophomores, understood the importance of their role and how that role contributed to the team’s “Togetherness”.
To fast forward, the 1984 Gateway Gator football team entered their final regular season game with a 5-3 record, a play off bid assured, but needing a win to retain home field advantage for the first round. Their opponent in that final regular season game was their cross town rivals, the Penn Hills Indians, who entered the game with an undefeated record and boasting the #1 ranking in the WPIAL and the #2 ranking in the state. That evening, the Gators shocked the WPIAL and the state by defeating Penn Hills 13-10, in a physical, tremendous team effort that started the trend and exemplified the “Togetherness”. Both the juniors and the sophomores, the future leaders of two championship teams, experienced how effort and attitude can make a difference on the field. The student section stormed the field, and, quite simply, the Gators started rolling.
Securing a home playoff game, the 1984 Gators drew the upstart North Hills Indians for their first round challenge. These Northern Indians were a solid team, but the Gators were freshly motivated for the “second season” after their impressive win over Penn Hills. They did not want to experience another first round exit from the playoffs, and, true to their nickname, the Gators went on to defeat the Indians that Friday Night by a score of 6-2 in what turned out to be a swamp-like, rainy, muddy mess of a field at Gateway Stadium. The lone touchdown occurred when running back Danny Schmitt turned what looked like a 2 yard loss into an amazing, reverse field, bob and weave touchdown scamper down the Gateway sideline. After securing that victory, it was time to travel to Butler to play a highly regarded, and the new #2 team in the State, the New Castle Hurricanes.
Gateway, considered a significant underdog against the powerful New Castle team, played 48 minutes of physical, lights out football that included an 8 play defensive goal line stand inside of the 10 yard line. The Hurricanes were awarded a fresh set of downs when the Gator defense was called for a pass interference penalty on 4th and goal. The Gators held them for three more downs, then again as Paul Caldwell deflected a 4th down pass on a diving play into the end zone. Again, the Gators shocked the WPIAL world when they defeated the heavily favored Hurricanes 12-0, and earned the chance to play at Three Rivers Stadium for the WPIAL Quad AAAA Championship against Mt. Lebanon, the defending champions from 1983.
The Gators went into Three Rivers Stadium as a huge underdog once more. Of course, that team could care less what anyone else thought about it, they thought they could compete with anyone. That night, the Gators competed tremendously, battling the Blue Devils back and forth, until something finally had to break. Unfortunately for the Gators, the game breaker came when the Blue Devils returned a Greg Larkin punt for a touchdown, securing a Mount Lebanon victory 20-12.
As had always been a tradition at Gateway after the final football game of the season, the senior football players of the 1984 Gators were given their own bus for the ride home to Monroeville to reflect on what they had experienced in the black and gold uniforms during their high school careers. Naturally, the juniors and sophomores were jammed onto the other bus for the long ride home from Three Rivers. On that bus, the players that would constitute the majority of the Gator football teams for the next two years of 1985 and 1986 made a pact with one another. That pact was that they would not be satisfied until they played again at the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers. They set that goal and swore to it. They knew it would be difficult. They knew they would have to work harder than they ever had before. They knew every other team would be gunning for them. But the one thing that they learned from their teammates on the 1984 Gateway Gators football team, the one thing that they knew more than anything, was that nothing could stop them if they set their mind to it and went after it TOGETHER.
When the 1985 football season began there were many questions surrounding the new crop of Gateway Gators. The 1984 team had graduated 21 seniors and there were many holes to be filled. The biggest concerns were that the entire offensive line would need refortified and the defense had lost the majority of it’s starters from the previous year. It quickly became evident that the weaknesses, if there ever were any, had been addressed as the Gators started to roll.
Led by captains Jar Darr, Verne Howard, Greg Larkin and Brian Mikol, the 1985 Gators began their quest to return to Three Rivers Stadium in a smash-mouth fury. The offensive line had been strengthened with outstanding play by Brian Mikol, Greg Larkin, Mark Swank, Jerry Samek, Matt Lynskey and Mike Livorio. The offensive backfield was executing on all cylinders with Dan Schmitt, R.D. McKinley, Johnny White and Boomer Schmitt at running backs. Layne Vranka’s arm was as strong as ever at Quarterback and was delivering bullet passes into the sure hands of the running backs, Larkin at tight end, and Johnny Washington at split end. They had plugged all of the holes and were lighting up score boards every Friday Night.
Defensively, the Gators kept to their hard-hitting, gang-tackling ways, and played with a reckless abandon that was shutting teams down. Due to graduation, the Gators had to replace 8 starters, yet they didn’t miss a beat. Jim Nuccetelli and Jay Darr were racking up tackles from their middle linebacker spots, while Doug Williams and Curtis Bray were playing the outside backers better than any pair in the WPIAL. The defensive line, made up of ends Verne Howard and Fabian Pugliano, and tackles Joe Ryan, Chuck Rhine and Jim Roscoe, quite simply dominated the line of scrimmage. In the defensive backfield, Johnny Washington, joined by Terry Smith at safety and Todd Washington at the right corner, flew to the ball every time it was in the air; intercepting passes and making receivers pay for trying to catch it. If there were any questions about the defense, they were soon settled when teams were struggling to move the ball against the Gators.
Chartiers Valley, North Allegheny, Butler and Norwin scored a combined 6 points on the Gators in their first 4 games. The offense, driving on those same four opponents, had scored 95 points using a multiple attack of dives, power running, misdirection counter plays, options and passes. In no way was this Gateway team one or two dimensional. They could hurt you in so many ways that teams must have had a terribly difficult time trying to prepare. If a team tried to stop Danny Schmitt, R.D. McKinley would pound them up the middle. If they stayed tight to stop R.D., Johnny White would scoot around the outside. If a team tried to make the Gators throw, Vranka threw with authority or would option to the outside.
Up until the Connellsville game, folks still seemed unsure about how good this Gateway team really was. The Falcons, strong up front and featuring one of the top recruits in the state in running back Arnold Walker, were another highly ranked team at #2 in the PIAA. Gateway kicked the ball to the Falcons, who proceeded to march right down the field and score on their first drive. The defense was stunned.
On the sidelines, Coach Betts and Coach Gratton pulled the defense together. Coach Klipa looked at them with disappointment, and the fans were somewhat shocked. Then, something snapped, and the Falcons never saw it coming.
The offense marched right down the field and scored, then the defense came in and proceeded to pound on the Falcons like they had not been beaten up to that point. Arnold Walker was soon frustrated. The Gators offense soon racked up 42 points, and the “Togetherness” that is vital to a team’s success, came blasting through that October night. Quite frankly, players just started making plays. Seniors, juniors, sophomores, starters, reserves, special teams, offense and defense just started firing until the final horn that night. The next day, the newspaper reports and polls rewarded the Gators with a #1 ranking in the WPIAL and the #1 ranking in the State of Pennsylvania.
The Gators steamrolled over their next four opponents ranked as the new #1 team in the WPIAL and in the PIAA. McKeesport, Hempfield, Plum and Central Catholic yielded 131 points to the potent Gator offense, while the defense kept the four of those teams to a total of 29 points. Going into week 10 with a 9-0 record, the Gators would have to travel to Penn Hills to face the Indians for the regular season finale.
The only blemish of the 1985 season came in the form of a loss to a highly motivated Penn Hills team that was thirsty for revenge. As Gateway had done to them the year before, the Indians played an emotional game and defeated the Gators 20-6. Plagued by turnovers, the offense sputtered for the 1st time all season, and the defense struggled to hold the Indians who kept getting short fields with which to work. Enough about that.
The Gators rebounded in the first round by spanking the Bethel Park Blackhawks 36-7. Again, so many players contributed from Terry Smith’s punt return for a touchdown, to the offensive line’s supremacy over the Bethel defenders. The Gators scored nearly at will, and the Junior Varsity players played the entire fourth quarter, gaining some valuable experience.
The next step on the return path to Three Rivers Stadium went through Valley High School where the Gators would play the Butler Golden Tornado for the second time that season. The Butler team played well in the first meeting and felt like they could compete with Gateway, but the Gators were focused on their goal of a championship.
At halftime, the score was Gateway 7, Butler 3, with the only score coming on a Vranka to Johnny Washington pass early in the 2nd quarter. The Gators went into the locker room to regroup, when team captain Brian Mikol jumped up during the meeting, punched into a chalkboard that was next to Coach Klipa, asked the coaches to leave, and addressed the team with emotion and determination. He reminded the team of their commitment to each other, and of what it would take to get there. He challenged everyone in that locker room to play like they’d never played before. Much like the Connellsville game, something snapped in that locker room.
The Gators came out into the mud and rain that had been soaking the field and literally dominated and manhandled the Butler team in the second half. Butler could not generate even a first down, let alone a scoring opportunity. The offense caught fire and scored four unanswered touchdowns on each of their next four possessions. Again, the junior varsity would get playoff experience for the majority of the fourth quarter after the Gators pulled together to take the wind out of the Butler Tornado.
Then it came to pass that the Gateway Gators of the 1985 football season had earned the right to play at Three Rivers Stadium for another WPIAL Quad AAAA Championship. This time, it would be against North Hills, the team that replaced the Gators as the #1 team in the WPIAL and the #1 team in the State of Pennsylvania. They were also ranked #4 in the country by USA Today’s new Super 25 High School football rankings. The Gators had fulfilled their commitment to each other, and now it was time to see who was going to come out as the true number one team.
The WPIAL Championship Game between Gateway and North Hills was like a heavyweight title fight. Both teams played physical, hard-nosed football, and threw every punch they had at each other. Pads popped all over the place, and neither team was able to have the kind of success they had experienced against previous opponents. The defenses were unbelievable. The tension built as the game wore on with both teams looking for someone to make a mistake. North Hills would make a minor mistake, and then back it up with another great football play. Gateway would make a minor mistake, and then stuff a running play in the backfield for a loss.
At halftime, Coach Antimarino seemed frustrated, Coach Betts was trying to keep everyone motivated and the players still had that fierce look of determination in their eyes. They had not come this far on their promise to each other just to lose. They would fight until there was no fight left in them. They would pull together and battle like their teammates before them, and the many great teams that defined what Gateway football was supposed to be.
The second half delivered the same as the first half. The game ended in a 0-0 tie, and the Gators were crowned as Co-Champions of the 1985 WPIAL Quad AAAA Football Season. Of course, every player on that team would have rather settled the tie that day, but due to WPIAL regulations, there was no format for overtime. Therefore, the 1985 Gators Football team hoisted another Championship Bench into the rafters of Gateway’s Gymnasium and posted another picture of a Championship team on the walls of Gateway Sr. High School.
North Hills was an excellent football team that challenged the Gators to the final second of the 1985 WPIAL Championship. They were good, but they couldn’t beat Gateway. They couldn’t defeat a team that came together with a focus and a vision and a determination to reach a collective goal. On paper, the Indians were much bigger than the Gators, but the Gators played larger than life and would not be denied a share of the title.
Like most other Gateway football teams, the 1985 Co-Champion football team was made up of young men from all walks of life and all parts of the district. Kids from Pitcairn, Haymaker Road, University Park, Garden City, Alpine Village, Turnpike Gardens, Patton Heights and Mellon Plan, broke down their personal barriers and committed to each other in a common goal. They relied on each other, regardless of their differences off of the field, to help make each other better players and better people. They made the Gateway School District Community proud and reached personal and team accomplishments that most other teams never get the opportunity to enjoy.
The “Togetherness” of the 1985 Gateway Gator football team stands out in that, although the team scored 342 total points over the season, there was no 1,000 yard rusher, passer, or receiver on the team. Each week, someone new would make a big play or have the big game. It was a true team effort that consisted of exceptional contributions from the senior, junior and sophomore classes.
1985 Co-Champion Gateway Gators Football Team
Team Record: 11 wins, 1 loss, 1 tie
Gateway 33 Chartiers Valley 0
Gateway 14 North Allegheny 0
Gateway 21 Butler 6
Gateway 27 Norwin 0
Gateway 42 Connellsville 12
Gateway 29 McKeesport 7
Gateway 21 Hempfield 10
Gateway 40 Plum 6
Gateway 41 Central Catholic 6
Gateway 6 Penn Hills 20
WPIAL Quad AAAA Playoffs
Gateway 36 Bethel Park 7 Gateway Stadium
Gateway 32 Butler 3 Valley High School
Gateway 0 North Hills 0 Three Rivers Stadium – November 23, 1985
Jay Darr – Linebacker
Verne Howard – Defensive End
Greg Larkin – Tight End
Brian Mikol – Offensive Tackle
Words from Coach Antimarino
for the 1985 Gateway Gators Football Team.
“I am truly happy and lucky to be here tonight to congratulate the 1985 Co-Champs along with the other awardees. I also want to thank our coaching staff, both Senior High and Junior High coaches.”
“In 1985 this team started out like a house on fire with nine straight wins. They featured a strong offense, averaging 33 points per game and a formidable defense giving up only 6.4 points per game.”
“Then we met our archrival Penn Hills in Game 10 and got beat 20-6. We ran into a hornets nest! Penn Hills had everything to gain having only a mediocre season and no playoff hopes. They controlled the line of scrimmage and the ball and we made too many mistakes.”
“Of course, we have to mention how during your sophomore years in 1983 we knocked them out of the playoffs 6-0 at Gateway, and in 1984, as juniors, we upset their previously unbeaten team that was ranked Number 1 in the WPIAL 13-10 in the final regular season game.”
“Anyway, that defeat really humbled us, and, looking back, that loss was a factor that helped prepare us for the Playoffs where we came out storming to beat Bethel 36-7 and then Butler 32-3 the following week. Those two teams won their conferences, but couldn’t hang with the freshly motivated Gators.”
“Let’s turn to the 1985 Dream Game, North Hills vs. Gateway at Three Rivers Stadium in the WPIAL Championship final. Both teams had been ranked 1 and 2 in the Post-Gazette’s Quad A rankings since the start of the season. North Hills was 12-0 and was undefeated. They were #1 in the WPIAL, #1 in the State, and ranked #4 in the country by USA Today. We were ranked #2 in the WPIAL and #4 in the State. The game was being called the Super Bowl of High School Football.”
“I remember that being a grueling, physical game and I remember how hard you fought. I remember how the #4 team in the nation could not score or defeat the Gators. As juniors, you beat them 6-2 in the mud and slop at Gateway Stadium. As seniors, you went toe-to-toe and proved what a great football team you were. Then in 1986, after you had graduated and passed the torch to the class behind you, your teammates fought the way you had fought. They beat the high ranking North Hills Indians for the second time in three years, and you guys made sure that they didn’t win the middle win either.”
“As a team you were dedicated and worked hard to continue the winning tradition for the Gateway Football Fans. Led by Captains Brian Mikol, Greg Larkin, Jay Darr and Verne Howard, your team put together a great year and a great experience for our community.”
“You did a great job guys. Congratulations on your induction into the Gateway Sports Hall of Fame.”
Game Summaries of the 1985 Gateway Football Season
Coach Pete was kind enough to write up summaries of every game from the 1985 Gateway Football season. The following are snapshots of each, written from his perspective.
Gateway – 33 Chartiers Valley – 0
The first victory came against Chartiers Valley. The score definitely indicated a team effort on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Layne Vranka hit Terry smith for an 18 yard touchdown. On the next Gator possession, Dan Schmitt ran for 44 yards and another TD. Layne then completed a 20 yard pass to John Washington for his second TD pass of the game. John White and R.D. McKinley also contributed with touchdowns scored within the 5 yard line.
The Defense, led by Joe Ryan at Tackle, Verne Howard at End, and John Washington at Corner, looked very promising getting their first shut-out. I remember Coach Betts saying, “All the linebackers and defensive backs are new except Washington, and they did a really good job.”
Gateway – 14 North Allegheny – 0
The Gators were still looking for that Number 1 ranking in the WPIAL when they lined up against North Allegheny on the following Saturday afternoon. The exhibition game was played in a blistering 90 degree heat, but we always knew we were in excellent condition.
We scored a TD in the second quarter on a Danny Schmitt 13 yard run that capped an 80 yard drive that began in the first period. On that drive Vranka ran well and completed a 14 yard pass to Tight End Greg Larkin to keep us going.
Our Gators scored again in the last quarter on a 25 yard pass from Vranka to John Washington, which Johnny audibled at the line because he thought he could beat the North Allegheny corner to the end zone. Vranka saw the sign from Washington and delivered a perfect fade route pass for the TD. We had missed the extra point on the first touchdown, so Danny Schmitt ran for two more points on the next play to complete the second Gateway shut out of the year at 14-0. That drive covered 36 yards.
Danny Schmitt had 98 yards rushing on 16 carries and was among the leading rushers in the WPIAL.
Vranka completed 7 of 15 passes with no interceptions for 87 yards.
The coaches were very pleased with the team’s performance, especially the defense, which gave up only 71 yards rushing and 83 yards passing. Terry Smith and John Washington had interceptions and covered receivers well. Defensive End Fabian Pugliano and Linebackers Jimmy Nuccetelli and Jay Darr were among the defensive standouts that day.
I knew we were in great shape and the staff was pleased with our physical conditioning. Nobody wilted in the 90 degree heat that day! It really was a team effort all the way around.
Gateway – 21 Butler – 6
Our “hot-streak” continued as we claimed a victory over the Butler Tornadoes at Gateway Stadium. With a 3-0 record, the offense was looking good and the defense was looking really sharp. The team was ready to ramble, ready to roll, and ready to make a run for it! That was the attitude of the players after the Butler victory.
Butler scored first with 4:13 left in the first quarter. From Butler’s 43 yard line, a halfback pass play was complete to the Gator 15 behind our star defensive back Johnny Washington. They scored 3 plays later, and for the first time, we were behind 6-0.
When Johnny came off of the field, he told defensive coach Art Betts, “I’ll get it back, coach.” From that point on, Washington dominated the game with 3 interceptions including one late in the 1st half in the Tornado end zone. On the next Gator possession, a Greg Larkin punt was fumbled by the Butler return man and Gator Linebacker Jim Nuccetelli recovered the ball on the Butler 30. The Gators were in business.
Fullback R.D. McKinley ran to the 23 yard line in 2 carries. Then Danny Schmitt hit off his right tackle for a touchdown.
Early in the 2nd quarter, Butler was on the Gator 47 yard line when the Butler QB tried a slant pass to John Washington’s side again. And like Johnny promised, he intercepted another one and sprinted down the sideline for a 70 yard touchdown. That put us ahead 13-6.
Defense! Defense! The Gators really knew how to play defense.
In the second half, Butler ran only 6 times for minus 5 yards and got only 41 yards passing. Meanwhile, the Gators never looked better when they went on an 86 yard march and scored in 15 plays. QB Layne Vranka scored from the 1 yard line on a QB sneak. Danny Schmitt rushed for 75 yards on 14 carries, R.D. McKinley rushed for 65 yards on 8 carries and Vranka had 29 yards on 6 carries. The offensive line, led by Captain Brian Mikol, was really gaining confidence and controlling the line of scrimmage. I remember Brian telling me and Coach Klipa, “We’re really playing together now.”
Gateway – 27 Norwin – 0
The 3rd shut out of the season came against Norwin with a 27-0 score as the Gators continued their winning ways. The Gators scored in every quarter against Norwin, who was coached by former Gateway Linebacker, Randy Rovesti. We drove 80 yards in 7 plays. The big play on the drive was an off tackle run of 54 yards by Danny Schmitt. With the ball on the Norwin 7 yard line, R.D. McKinley took it in for the T.D.
In the second quarter, D.B. John Washington intercepted a Norwin pass on the Gator 15 and Gateway marched 85 yards in 10 plays with Danny Schmitt reeling off a 37 yard run to Norwin’s 30 yard line. R.D. McKinley scored from the one. Then Danny scored on a 5 yard run in the third quarter capping an impressive 57 yard drive.
Big plays were Layne Vranka’s 12 yard TD pass to Greg Larkin and a 21 yard run by Johnny White. In the last quarter the Gators moved 73 yards in 12 plays featuring a 33 yard Vranka to Washington pass, a 12 yard sprint by Johnny White and another Vranka to Washington pass for 15 yards that took us to the four yard line. Danny Schmitt scored from the two.
The Gators later got a safety when Verne Howard and other Gators sacked the Norwin Quarterback in the end zone.
Norwin gained a total of 204 yards while the Gators had 257 rushing and 103 passing for 360 total yards.
The leading tacklers were three of our linebackers: Curtis Bray with 10, Jay Darr with 10 and Jim Nuccetelli with 9.
Gateway – 42 Connellsville – 12
The headlines in the papers read, “Shocker! Gators 42 – Falcons 12.” The Gators remained undefeated at 5 and 0. The Gators sent shockwaves throughout the WPIAL football circuit with a huge win over the host Connellsville Falcons. Both teams were undefeated with a 4 – 0 record. The Falcons scored first, taking the opening kickoff to their 39 yard line, and then moving 55 yards to the Gator 5 yard line in 10 plays. On 4th and one, the Falcon QB could not find a receiver open, and then ran the ball in for a T.D. We blocked the extra point and the Falcons had a 6-0 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, Dan Schmitt returned it to the Gator 20 yard line. Then, the Gators took an old “Flea Flicker” play from a dusty shelf that got them to mid field. QB Layne Vranka passed 15 yards to Split End John Washington. John White was trailing him to receive the lateral pass from Washington and got 5 more yards. We practiced that play over and over and over, and it should have been a touchdown, but Washington got hit as he pitched the ball, and Johnny White bobbled the pitch which slowed him down.
Danny Schmitt followed the Flea Flicker play with runs of 12 and 9 yards. But on the next play Vranka passed 20 yards to Schmitt who got behind the last defender and scored a TD. We kicked the extra point and led 7-6.
Early in the 2nd quarter the Gators got possession on their 38 yard line and drove 62 yards for the score with R.D. McKinley crashing over from the one. Shane Rolin kicked the extra point and we were up 14-6. The Falcons returned the kick to their own 20 and a big 3rd down sack by Joe Ryan forced a Falcon punt to the 39. Then Vranka passed to Sophomore Boomer Schmitt who went in for a TD. Gateway scored on their 1st three possessions and we started rolling over the stunned Connellsville team.
The Falcons, who were a very good football team, were not finished trying to get back into that game. Their QB Davis hit running back Arnold Walker on a screen pass for 19 yards, and later a 47 yard pass down the middle of the field to the Gator one with time running out in the first half. With 7 seconds left in the half, Davis was sacked for a 5 yard loss and the half ended with the sack.
The Gators received the 2nd half kick and later had to punt from the Falcon 40. The ball sailed out of bounds on the 29. Two plays later, John Washington snatched another interception and returned it to the Gator 44. Vranka then completed a pass to Washington to the Falcon 35. A few plays later, R.D. took in another TD from the 2 yard line.
Shortly after that score the Gators got the ball again on a punt to the 43. Vranka then threw a screen pass to Danny Schmitt, who ducked and weaved and ran for a 53 yard TD. Now it was 35-6 and the whole stadium couldn’t believe it.
Late in the 4th quarter, Connellsville’s star running back Arnold Walker swept around the right end and down the sideline. Suddenly there was only one Gator left, and it was our 135 pound Safety, Terry Smith. Walker usually ran over defenders, but Terry brought him down with a tough tackle on the Gator 28. The Falcons went on to score on a 15 yard pass, and the extra point failed making it 35-12 with 7 minutes left.
The Gators went back to work on offense using our reserve backs and they still marched 58 yards for the final score of the game. Dale Banks went in covering 26 yards, which sealed the Gators a huge victory.
The Gator defense attacked Connellsville’s offense and their super running back, Arnold Walker, and made him nearly a non-factor in the game. On one particular play, Defensive End Fabian Pugliano got hold of Walker’s shirt in the backfield. Arnold Walker was a tough kid and was hard to bring down. Of course, Fabian was tough, too, and the two of them swung around and fought for about 10 yards toward the sidelines until Pugliano took him out of bounds and into the cheerleaders.
The leading tacklers that night were Jay Darr with 11, Linebacker Doug Williams with 8 and Curtis Bray with 7. Defensive Tackle Joe Ryan had 1 and a half sacks.
Gateway – 29 McKeesport – 7
Gateway played McKeesport like it was a championship game that night, and they were rewarded on the scoreboard and in the WPIAL standings. Gateway and North Hills were the only Quad A teams that were still undefeated going into week 6 that year.
The Gators, after stopping McKeesport on its 1st drive, took the ball over at their own 29. Then we ground out 10 running plays. On the last of them, Johnny White took off on the Tiger 38 and ended up in the end zone. At the start of the 2nd quarter the tiger’s Running Back broke a long run to go 43 yards for the score. It was tied 7-7.
At one point, McKeesport’s Quarterback went out of the game with an injury. It didn’t look like he took a big hit, but apparently he twisted his ankle when he tripped over big Joe Ryan getting off of a pile. He was an excellent player, so not having him really put the Tigers in a bind.
The long touchdown was to be the McKeesport climax of the game. Gateway again took the lead just 14 seconds later when Dan Schmitt received the kick and made a great run up field for a TD. The halftime score was 14-7 Gateway.
Gateway didn’t skip a beat to start off the second half. The Gators took the second half kickoff and in 7 plays Layne Vranka ran the ball in from the one yard line. He also ran the ball for the 2 point conversion to give Gateway a 22-7 lead.
QB Vranka scored once more before the game was over. With the ball on McKeesport’s 38, Vranka rolled out and took off sprinting into the end zone. Rolin added the extra point with 9:02 left to play.
“Our offensive line has come along real strong. They are opening up some nice holes for the backs” Coach Klipa had told me. The Gators gained 266 yards rushing with Dan Schmitt leading the way with 89 yards on 12 carries. Total offensive yards were 320, while McKeesport only managed 132.
The defense stuffed McKeesport, who was a very physical team. That night, the Gators played more physical and kept the defensive domination trend rolling into week seven.
Gateway – 21 Hempfield – 10
The Hempfield Spartans held a 10-7 lead after 3 quarters of play in their East Conference game at Gateway. The Gators rallied in the 4th quarter with some shining defense and a penalty against Hempfield Head Coach Joe Naunchik then really pushed in our favor.
The key play in that game came when Gator Linebacker Jim Nuccetelli intercepted a Spartan pass at the Gator 13 yard line. Jim returned the ball to midfield where it appeared that he had the ball stripped and fumbled. Hempfield recovered the fumble, but the official ruled that his knee was down before the ball came out. Naunchik came on the field to argue the call which ended up costing Hempfield 15 more yards to put the ball at the 34 and that was the turning point. Seven plays later, John White was into the end zone from 15 yards out. That made the score 14-10.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Hempfield took the ball around the 5 then ran up the far sideline and looked like he was going the distance for a TD. Gators kicker Shane Rolin, the only player left between the returner and a TD, solo tackled the returner in front of the Hempfield bench, his only tackle of the year, which saved a possible game changing TD. Hempfield’s offense started with the short field but they didn’t have the ball for very long. John Washington got his first of two more interceptions that set the ball at the Gators 14. QB Vranka completed his only pass in 7 attempts for a 30 yard gain to Dan Schmitt. At the Hempfield 47, Vranka dropped back to pass but saw a lot of running room, and then headed to the end zone for a touchdown. That impressive scramble and run ended the scoring at 21-10 Gators.
Together with a record of 7-0, the Gator defense yielded only 76 yards rushing, and the secondary contributed with 4 key interceptions in the game.
Gateway – 40 Plum – 6
The Gators defeated the host Plum Mustangs handily in their annual back yard scrap.
“They are a great football team”, Plum Head Coach Bill Helsley said. He said it like it is!
The Gators overall quickness became evident early as Wingback John White took a handoff on Plum’s 42 on the first possession. Johnny White exhibited a couple of beautiful moves, and then slashed down the left side line for a touchdown.
We scored again on Vranka’s 17 yard pass to Tail Back Dan Schmitt. With the ball on the Plum 390 yard line, Plum QB Kinney passed over the middle, but Linebacker Jim Nuccetelli picked it off on the Plum 20 and ran it in for a TD. Rolin’s extra point was good.
Our star linebacker Jim Nuccetelli picked off another pass later in the quarter. Then, with the ball on the Mustang’s 37 yard line, Schmitt hit a big run for 30 yards and Fullback R.D. went the rest of the way for the score. That put us up 26-0.
The Gators took the 2nd half kickoff to their 21, then Dan Schmitt ripped off 79 yards for a second TD and the Gators led 33-0. With 1:16 left in the game, speedy back Al Lardo took off on a 63 yard run for the final TD.
Our Gateway linebackers had a busy night against the Mustangs. Jay Darr had 7 tackles and 1 and a half sacks, while Nuccetelli had 7 tackles and 2 interceptions. Dale Banks had 7 tackles.
I remember Defensive Coach Art Betts saying, “The defense played really well and Nuccetelli is playing terrific football. That Tom Keller did a good job subbing in for Verne, and Chuck Rhine played really well at the Defensive Tackle.”
Four different Gator Running Backs, Dan Schmitt, R.D. McKinley, John White and Al Lardo, each had TD runs of more than 39 yards.
Gateway – 41 Central Catholic – 6
The Gators continued unbeaten with a 9-0 overall record and 6-0 to lead the Quad AAAA East Conference when they clashed at Gateway Stadium against Central Catholic. I wouldn’t have believed it, but it was a blowout for the Gators.
I remember telling the other coaches after the game, “This is the first time we’ve really broken it open against Central. They have always been tough, close games in the past.”
On their first possession, the Vikings moved to midfield, and then had to punt it away. Safety Terry Smith took the punt on the 31, ran up the middle for 30, then hit the outside the rest of the way for an 87 yard touchdown.
The Gators opened the second quarter and began moving when Wingback Johnny White sped around left end to the Gator 43. He picked up another first down on the next play. The drive continued as Dan Schmitt hit off Left Tackle Mike Livorio and on his way for a TD. Layne Vranka ran for two points to make it 14-0.
The Gators began another drive from their 28. Boomer Schmitt scored to finish the drive on a screen pass from Vranka. At halftime it was 20-0 and Central didn’t know what hit them.
Central kicked to us to open the second half, which we returned to the 40. The Gators drove the remaining 60 yards in 5 plays. R.D. McKinley had 20 yards, Johnny White had 9, and Danny Schmitt ran 38 yards for his second TD. Johnny White scored on another 10 yard run, and then Dale Banks finished the scoring with a 16 yard run later in the game.
The final statistics showed Gateway with 390 yards total offense, and Central only being able to gain 57 yards rushing and 74 passing, for a total of 131. I didn’t have to ask Coach Betts how the defense did that night. They took it to the Vikings and never let up. Coach Klipa was feeling really good about the running game as the O-line blasted through Central to move up and down the field.
Gateway – 6 Penn Hills – 20
When asked by a reporter before the Penn Hills game, what I thought about the playoffs, I said, “We’re not thinking about the playoffs. We still have to play Penn Hills first, and it’s always a tough game with them.”
Unfortunately, the Gators ended up suffering their first defeat that Friday night. Penn Hills knew they had to play a near perfect, mistake-free game to beat the Gators, which they happened to put together as we made too many mistakes. We turned the ball over too many times, and the Indians had nothing to lose.
A reporter asked me about that game afterward, and I said, “We didn’t have the ball enough. They had the ball and moved it. You have to give them credit for how they played.”
Penn Hills Running Back Crossey carried 26 times for 90 yards. He only had one fewer carries than the entire Gator backfield. Danny had 6 carries for 16 yards, R.D. ran 11 times for 44 yards, and Johnny White had 8 carries for 24 yards. Vranka was only 2 for 7 throwing the ball and they shut down our offense. I still think that we really benefited from that loss because it woke us up and refreshed us for the WPIAL Playoffs. That game put our mean streak back into us.
WPIAL Playoffs: Gateway – 36 Bethel Park – 7
Upon entering the first round of the playoffs the Gators only needed one more win to claim their 199th all time victory and then would need a second round win to reach 200 wins in the school’s history. They went out and secured both of those milestones and got back on track with their winning ways beginning with a 36-7 win over Bethel Park.
Our Gateway Gators rebounded that Friday Night with a resounding 36-7 triumph over Bethel Park in the quarter finals at Gateway Stadium. In bouncing back from their only loss of the season the Gators set the stage for the Championship run. “Gateway Wallops Bethel Park” was what the headlines said the next day.
Things didn’t start out great as we punted after our first possession. But then Bethel fumbled on their 16 yard line, giving us a new opportunity. Curtis Bray recovered that ball, and on the next play, QB Vranka passed to Greg Larkin for a TD. Bill Truschels extra point gave us a 7-0 lead. We got the ball back shortly after, and two plays later, Johnny White, who wound up with 120 yards rushing on 9 carries, raced 75 yards for a TD. Trueschel made the kick and it was 14-0 before you knew what happened.
Early in the 2nd quarter, Gateway’s Terry Smith took a punt at the 35, broke to the outside and ran untouched into the end zone for the third TD. R.D. McKinley ran for 2 points to stretch the lead.
Then with 29 seconds in the half, Vranka, who completed 4 of 6 passes for 123 yards, found Johnny White in the end Zone for a 57 yard TD play.
In the 3rd quarter, the Gators ate up 9 minutes on a huge, pounding 16 play drive. Dan Schmitt plowed in from the 1 yard line, putting the Black Hawks out of reach. Then, the offense, who knew they would be coming out of the game so that the younger kids could play, got together in the corner of the end zone for a little celebration. That was the last play that many of our seniors ever played at Gateway Stadium.
It was another great night for the Gator Defense as they allowed only 34 yards rushing and 134 yards passing. They beat up Bethel Park and looked ready to go into the Semi-finals.
WPIAL Playoffs: Gateway – 32 Butler – 3
Gateway claimed an impressive 32-3 victory over Butler in a WPIAL Quad AAAA playoff game at Valley High School on Saturday, November 16, 1985. It had rained all over Western Pennsylvania for several days, but had stopped that morning. The WPIAL had a helicopter flying over the field surface to try to dry out the turf for the game.
At the start of the game, the Gators took the kickoff and marched 60 yards for a quick TD. QB Vranka tossed a 32 yard pass to John Washington on a post pattern when we noticed that their Safety was cheating up to try to stop the Gator running game.
Butler managed to kick a 33 yard field goal later in the 2nd period for their only score, but it put them in the game because we couldn’t get back into the end zone. The Tornadoes were playing well and were looking to pay us back for the defeat that we handed them earlier in the season.
At halftime we were only winning 7-3 and we went into the locker room to regroup and make our adjustments. The players were talking amongst themselves when Team Captain, Brian Mikol jumped up and took charge of his team. He asked the coaches to leave the team alone so that he and the other captains, Greg Larkin, Jay Darr and Verne Howard could talk to the guys. Coach Klipa encouraged Brian to get the team ready to play and we left them in the locker room to take care of their business.
While we were waiting for the team to come out for the 2nd half, the rains came back and started to soak the field again. It looked like it was going to be tough playing conditions, but whatever happened in the locker room must have got the Gators fired up for a fantastic performance in the new swampy Valley Stadium. Butler simply could not stop the Gators in the 2nd half.
On our first possession of the 3rd quarter, the Gators drove 55 yards in 9 plays when Johnny White, with great speed to the outside, scored a TD for Gateway. On the next possession John White, R.D. McKinley and Dan Schmitt continued to batter the stunned Butler defense.
Todd Washington got an interception that gave us the ball on the Butler 30 yard line. Johnny White then scored on a 6 yard run and we led 20 – 3. The Gators third 2nd half possession used 5 running plays to get to the 36 yard line. From there, QB Layne Vranka connected on a 15 yard pass to Greg Larkin for another TD.
Not done with their fun in the swamp, the Gators scored the game’s final TD on a 3 yard run by Dale Banks.
The Gators had 299 yards total offense in the game, to just 73 yards total for Butler. McKinley had 87 yards on 13 carries and White had 54 yards on 11 carries.
For season totals, Danny Schmitt would end up with 861 rushing yards, while R.D. put up 617 yards. Together with Johnny White’s 598 yards and Boomer Schmitt’s contributions, they pounded and scooted to make the Gator Offense roll.
Our passing game was strong all year, too, with Layne Vranka passing for 848 yards for the season. Greg Larkin, John Washington, Boomer Schmitt, Terry Smith and Danny Schmitt all played a big part in catching balls for Layne and the Gateway offense.
In the total season, the defense allowed only 74 points in 13 games for an unbelievable 5.7 points per game. We constantly won the turnover battles by jarring the ball loose at the right times, and intercepting all over the place. Johnny Washington finished the year with 10 interceptions, and our defensive secondary shut down passing games every week. We stuffed the run and pressured the Quarterbacks to make it very difficult for teams to move the ball. Coach Betts and Coach Gratton did another fantastic job with that defense.
In 13 games our offense scored a total of 331 points for an average of 25.4 points per game.
WPIAL Championship: Gateway – 0 North Hills – 0
The Gators returned to Three Rivers Stadium and played a powerful North Hills team to a scoreless tie to become the Co-Champs of Quad AAAA for the second time in 12 years. I was very happy for this team, and they can always say that North Hills never could manage to beat us.
North Hills was the number 4 team in the nation according to USA Today. They replaced us as the number 1 team in the WPIAL and in the State after our loss to Penn Hills.
What a hard hitting, physical, well-executed football game by two great teams. I still say that any time you can come out of a game like that without getting beat, you have to attribute it to your program, your coaching staff and your kids. They all did a great and our school name will be recognized for all time as a champions.
I can remember our 2 defeats in the WPIAL Championships of 1979 and 1984, but not many other people do. Danny Schmitt put it best when he said to me, “It would have been nice to win, but I’m not disappointed. There was no winner but there is nothing to be ashamed of.”
Going into that game, I recall High School sports writer Mike White’s pre-game analysis in the newspaper saying that the teams where mirror images of each other. North Hills was averaging 28.1 points per gain, and was giving up only 5.9 to each opponent. Gateway had averaged 29.7 points per game, and was only giving up 6.4 points per game.
Both teams had super, strong running games and relied on the run. But, they both can come up with the big pass play when they need it.
I remember North Hills Head Coach, Jack McCurry saying about the Gator defense, “Gateway’s defense deserves a lot of credit. We never had good field position in the 2nd half. They kept us bottled up.”
For the lack of scoring, it is difficult to talk about the big plays. However, in that game, every play was a big play. All it would have taken was for one person to make the mistake, but it didn’t happen. Joe Ryan, Chuck Rhine, Verne Howard and Fabian Pugliano stuffed the run and battled all day long on the defensive line. Our linebackers filled holes and made big hits, while our secondary knocked away the passes and refused to give up the big play.
Our offensive line, led by Brian Mikol, Mark Swank and Jerry Samek battled in the trenches against a much bigger North Hills defensive line. Our backs ran hard, trying to break that one tackle to get us on the board.
The one big play that everyone talks about was when North Hills ran a fake punt down inside our 20 yard line. Three plays later, they lined up for a field goal. T.J. Osman, the North Hills kicker, hit the upright of the goal post, and the ball fell back into the playing field. Later, he and Coach McCurry commented on the size of the goal posts not being big enough for regulation high school goal posts. Either way, the score stayed 0-0.
All in all, we had to accept that a tie is always better than a defeat, and at the end of the game, Gateway had amassed 141 total yards on offense. North Hills was able to gain 187 yards total and did not complete a pass in the 2nd half. R.D. McKinley was the leading rusher with 42 yards on 12 carries.
I really wanted to show true sportsmanship by saying that both teams played well enough to be champions, and I still believe that. But, for the record, I have to mention that with all of the talent and hype around North Hills during those years, they still couldn’t beat Gateway. If they were the best team in the state, and the number 4 team in the nation, then the Gators of that 1985 football season should be recognized in the same light, because that North Hills team couldn’t beat us.
All together, the seniors from the 1985 Gateway Gators Football team had a record of 20 wins, 5 losses and 1 tie over the two years that they played Varsity Football. They played in the WPIAL Quad AAAA Championship game at Three Rivers Stadium two years in a row and helped set the stage for a third appearance in 1986. They beat North Hills 6-2 in 1984, and then tied them 0-0 in 1985 to share a piece of history as a Championship team that refused to lose the big one.
1985 WPIAL Co-champions and Champions forever!