When you think of the most consistent winners in WPIAL football, what teams come to mind?

Surely, the list has to begin with Aliquippa, the reality-defying Class 1A-size school that has reached 15 consecutive WPIAL championship games even while being forced up to Class 4A. Then there’s Thomas Jefferson, which has advanced to the WPIAL semifinals in 24 of the past 25 seasons. Beyond that, several schools can make a case for being true “models of consistency” — Central Catholic, North Allegheny, Pine-Richland and Penn-Trafford, just to name a few. But you can’t have the conversation without mentioning the Gateway Gators — and this year, they’re not settling for anything less than a championship banner.

Since taking over the program in 2016, coach Don Holl has only enhanced the Gators’ status as one of the WPIAL’s perennial powers, with Gateway reaching the playoffs in every season under Holl’s watch and 20 of the past 21 seasons overall. The Gators have captured a pair of WPIAL titles in Holl’s tenure in 2017 and 2019, with one PIAA Class 5A championship appearance and another trip to the state semifinals.

Still, there’s a sense around Gateway’s preseason camp that there’s more work to be done — almost as if back-to-back years without a playoff win and three years without playing for a WPIAL championship just isn’t good enough. It might sound crazy for some programs, but there’s a certain standard these Gators are expected to uphold — and expectations are higher than ever going into 2023.

Why so much optimism after back-to-back playoff exits in the WPIAL quarterfinals? Well, it all starts under center with Brad Birch. A 6-foot, 190-pound all-state quarterback, Birch is one of the area’s most prolific passers in recent memory and the rare case of a star senior and former WPIAL champion who still has something to prove — and he knows it.

“It’s definitely a better atmosphere than any other year I’ve been here,” Birch said. “Everybody is contributing to the team. There are a lot of younger guys starting or getting a lot of playing time. … I think it’s going to be a better year than last year. I’m ready for the season, and I think everybody else is, too.”

After bursting onto the scene as a freshman and putting up jaw-dropping numbers at Jeannette while leading the Jayhawks to a WPIAL Class 1A title, Birch transferred to Gateway the following offseason along with his older brother, Brett. The high-profile transfers, which were contested by Jeannette for claims of athletic intent, and the ensuing hearings regarding the brothers’ eligibility received plenty of coverage in the media.

Eventually, both were ruled eligible to play in both the regular season and playoffs, and although it took Birch some time to acclimate to the differences in physicality and pace of play going from Class 1A to Class 5A football, he put together an impressive sophomore season while throwing for 2,623 yards and 27 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. The promising campaign came to a disappointing end in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs, though, as Birch led the Gators back from a 17-0 deficit against Penn Hills with 20 unanswered points, only for the Indians to come back to win, 23-20, after a missed field-goal attempt by Gateway as time expired.

Birch’s numbers slightly regressed last year when he passed for 2,018 yards and 19 TDs with 13 interceptions, and again the Gators got bounced in the WPIAL quarterfinals, this time on a late touchdown by Upper St. Clair in a 24-21 defeat. Birch himself admitted that he didn’t spend as much time watching film and studying game plans as he should have, instead relying on his natural arm talent and football instincts to get the job done.

“I would say the last two years were kind of learning, and I kind of needed those two years for this year to really have a great season,” Birch said. “I feel good about everything, and I’m really not stressed about anything. … I just needed to cut down on my mistakes, because I just tried to make a big play every time.”

This time around, Birch insists he’s taking a whole new approach into the last ride of his high school career. After receiving some FBS interest following his breakout freshman season — including an offer from Oregon — Birch said his recruitment has cooled off a bit lately, and he plans on waiting until after his senior season to make his college decision while devoting his full focus and commitment to winning another WPIAL title.

“Every time I got an interview last year or the year before that, I said we’ve got a chance [to win the WPIAL]. But I think I was just saying that to put it out there,” Birch said. “I knew I needed to learn more and needed to put myself out there. I just needed two years, honestly, to come out here and see how it is. Because I never had the coaching like this, never had the players like this.”

For his career, Birch has passed for 6,317 yards and 74 touchdowns, and this year he’ll have a chance to work his way up the all-time WPIAL passing yardage leader board while also taking aim at the exclusive 100-TD club. In order to get there, he’ll be counting on some help from his newest targets out wide, along with an old friend in the backfield in senior tailback Jaquon Reynolds.

Reynolds is one of the most versatile pass-catching backs in the WPIAL, coming off back-to-back seasons with 25-plus receptions for at least 250 yards. He has accounted for 1,921 yards from scrimmage and 15 total TDs over the past two seasons, and he’ll likely be in for an even bigger role on offense this fall.

After losing a memorable battle against Upper St. Clair in last year’s WPIAL Class 5A quarterfinals, Gateway has its sights set on a much deeper playoff run in 2023. (Steve Rotstein/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

At wideout, junior Kenny Lewis will step into a featured role after spending most of his time as a standout defensive back as a sophomore. He’ll be joined by senior Steven Jenkins, a Bowling Green recruit who transferred in from Woodland Hills after a productive junior season at defensive back. Jenkins (6-3, 185) is a strong, physical presence and gifted athlete who will be a matchup nightmare outside, and Lewis is a shifty, speedy receiver who can burn defenders after the catch. Jenkins has already been ruled eligible for postseason play.

“Most teams we play, we probably have equal, if not better athletes,” Holl said. “The way that other teams close the gap is, they do the little things better. … Our approach with our guys has been, ‘Look — if we’re better in terms of talent, and if we do the little things better than everybody we play, how do they close the gap?’ How do they beat us?”

Gateway should boast one of the most explosive offenses in the area this season, but when you take a look back at their most successful teams under Holl, a strong defense has always been the Gators’ backbone. This year should be no different, as all-conference linebacker Remy Bose (6-2, 220) returns to lead a fast and physical unit with talented athletes at all three levels.

“Both of those championships that we won were sealed with defensive plays,” Holl said. “Everybody is in it together. It’s all three phases, but our defense is always going to be a key part of who we’re going to be.”

The pieces are all in place for Gateway to make a run at its third WPIAL title in seven years and eighth overall, but if there’s anything the past two years have shown, it’s that the Class 5A tournament is an unpredictable gauntlet where everything has to go just right in order to reach the top. One minor mistake can be the difference between hoisting the hardware at the end of the season and going home empty-handed in the opening round. And for Birch and the rest of this senior class, there will be no tomorrow if they come up short again.

“I just want my [teammates] to know that they can do it, too,” Birch said. “We’ve just got to show everybody that we can do whatever we want.”

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.

Steve Rotstein

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.