Gateway holds off Woodland Hills rally after former Wolverines coach is honored
In 14 seconds, Gateway’s Courtney Jackson put a damper on Woodland Hills’ celebration.
The junior fielded the opening kickoff, found a hole between the hash marks and covered almost every inch of newly named George A. Novak Field in Friday night’s 35-23 victory over Woodland Hills at the Wolvarena. His 95-yard kickoff return was the first of four consecutive touchdowns by Gateway, which claimed win No. 400 in school history.
“I told them before hand, if I get a block, I’m taking it home,” Jackson said. “I caught the ball and the whole middle opened wide. There was one dude — my teammate got a block — and I just took off.”
After another Jackson touchdown (10-yard catch) and two by teammate Isaiah Cameron (26-yard catch, 1-yard run), the Gators appeared to be on their way to an easy Week Zero win. Cameron scored three touchdowns and all-conference quarterback Brady Walker started his senior season with 253 yards passing.
The route was on, so it seemed, until Woodland Hills scored 23 consecutive second-half points.
Gateway’s 28-0 lead was suddenly 28-23.
“It happens a lot with kids and emotions,” Gateway coach Don Holl said. “We go score and then they kind of say, OK, it’s over. And (Woodland Hills) wouldn’t let it be over. Credit to them and their coaching staff for making a really good football game.”
With Gateway’s lead down to five, and desperate for one more touchdown drive, Walker marched the Gators 85 yards in 11 plays. Cameron scored his third touchdown. His 1-yard run with 6:24 left gave Gateway a 12-point lead.
“It was something we definitely needed,” Cameron said. “They were coming back, but we needed something to turn it around. I felt like that touchdown really helped us turn it around.”
Tense moments like those are why Holl said Week Zero games are much better than a second scrimmage.
“You get an opportunity to play in the Wolvarena against your neighborhood rival and program with the tradition and the distinction of those guys on George Novak’s night,” Holl said. “Come on. You want to go scrimmage instead? That’s crazy talk.”
But Gateway also was motivated to honor a former coach, Pete Antimarino, who died this spring.
“To us, we were honoring two of the great coaches in the history of Pennsylvania football,” Holl said. “Our decal was on the helmet for Coach Antimarino who we lost in May. And Coach Novak. There are no finer men than those guys. We felt like it was our job to honor the game and play our hearts out for those two guys.”
For a time, the thought of a lopsided loss seemed dreadful for Woodland Hills, which minutes earlier honored Novak’s retirement with a ceremony on the newly laid artificial turf that has his name in blue letters along each sideline. Novak, the only coach in Woodland Hills history, was one of three in the WPIAL with 300 career wins. Down 28-0, it was shaping up as a difficult debut for his replacement, Tim Bostard, the Wolverines’ second coach since Novak retired.
“Our kids are real resilient kids,” Bostard said. “They’re the never-say-die type kids. I knew going into halftime, we were down but they still had a lot of fight in them.”
Rodney Dennard had a 26-yard touchdown run, Naszhir Taylor caught a 49-yard pass from Daniel Jones, and Gateway put a punt snap through the end zone as the pressure started to build. Jayquan Smith added a 5-yard touchdown run early in the fourth.
The team started slow, but Bostard said the off-the-field issues, which included would-be coach Kevin Murray’s resignation, wasn’t a factor.
“I don’t think the kids were distracted by everything that happened,” Bostard said. “A lot of people believed that they were distracted, but our kids come here every day ready to work hard. They sort of ignore what’s going on out there, what the public perceives. They know what they have here. And they know if they work hard, good things are going to happen.”
Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.