It was exactly what Gateway’s players had been waiting to hear.
As the “Victory Bell” rang out Friday night across Penn-Trafford’s Warriors Stadium, the sound signified more for Gators running back Jaquon Reynolds than just a reward for his team beating its most bitter Big East Conference rival for the second season in a row.
The ringing in Reynolds’ ears after Gateway knocked off Penn-Trafford, 31-27, for its fourth consecutive conference victory drowned out the noise from a rough stretch that saw his Gators open the 2023 season with three losses in a row.
“It was real frustrating,” recalled Reynolds, a 5-foot-8, 185-pound senior running back of the Gators’ season-opening losing skid after his team clinched the Big East Conference title Friday night. “We were missing a couple of guys, missing our starting quarterback but, you know, we’re back now. We’re getting everything back together, clicking everything back together.”
After Gateway’s offense struggled to find its footing in the first half, the Gators offense finally began to click against the Warriors (3-4, 2-1) in the final two quarters.
Gateway (4-3, 4-0) trailed, 13-7, at the half, but surged for 24 second-half points led by Reynolds, quarterback Brad Birch and receiver Kenny Lewis.
“The whole nature of what we do, and it’s no secret, is we’re big splits and spread you out and go fast and make you make some decisions,” Gators coach Don Holl said. “Are you going to keep two high safeties and keep them wide and high or are you going to bring guys down in the box? Their choice was to sort of make them, if they were going to get beat, beat slowly, stay on top of everything.”
Holl said that was a mistake.
“When that’s the case, if we pierce runs, there’s space at the second level,” he said. “Our running back is really good and our quarterback is really good at making the decision with what’s in the box and what’s on the roof and I think we did some good things in a lot of regards.”
Birch completed 18-of-29 passes for 232 yards and 2 touchdowns against Penn-Trafford, while finding Lewis for 6 catches, 108 yards and a score.
Reynolds, meanwhile, carried the ball 18 times for 76 yards and a touchdown and also caught 4 passes for 72 yards and an additional score.
“I think just coming out and doing something different other than just trying to go long or something,” Birch said. “That’s all we had to do. We just had to mix it up and have them thinking what are we going to do next.”
Penn-Trafford was led by junior running back Tasso Whipple, who rushed for 181 yards and 2 touchdowns on 26 carries, while also hauling in a 73-yard, first-half touchdown. Warriors quarterback Jonny Lovre threw for 248 yards while also tossing a 19-yard touchdown pass to Jessie Lisbon.
That Gateway overcame such a strong offensive output by Penn-Trafford, is a testament to its veteran leadership, Jenkins said.
“Leaders have got to be leaders,” he said. “We’ve got to step up, everybody. The first half we were messing up, small mistakes and all that. The second half, our leaders stepped up and started making plays, our energy came up. Once we got the energy, the sky’s the limit.”
There has been no end to the Gators’ energy in its recent four-game winning streak.
After being outscored, 81-15, in losses to Mt. Lebanon, Woodland Hills and North Hills with Birch mostly sidelined with an injury, Gateway has surged over the past four weeks to notch impressive wins over conference foes Franklin Regional, Plum, Hempfield and Penn-Trafford.
Gateway has outscored its past four opponents, 187-86.
“Someone had to be a leader on the team,” Birch said. “Me, Steve Jenkins, Jaquon Reynolds, Kenny Lewis, everybody is being a leader now. The line is feeling good, their energy is pumped up and everything and honestly, just me getting into an injury just really made me think that I can’t take nothing for granted.
“I just had to go 100% at everything.”
Birch now has passed for 1,243 yards, 12 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions this season, while Jenkins – who transferred from Woodland Hills over the summer – now has 22 receptions for 476 yards and 4 scores.
Lewis has a team-high 28 catches for 477 yards and 4 touchdowns.
“Everybody was doubting us,” Lewis said. “We just had to keep fighting, every day at practice, work harder and harder. Teammates in school had to pick it up. Everybody had to pick it up 1,000%.”
The Gators’ road now will only get harder over the final three weeks of the season.
After playing host next Friday to McKeesport (6-1, 4-0), the Gators will travel to face conference foe Norwin (2-5, 1-2) before wrapping up their season against Class 6A power Central Catholic (6-1, 3-0).
“We want to keep doing what we’re doing every week, practice hard, keep doing what we’re doing, and keep it up,” Reynolds said.
If it can continue to maintain its focus, Gateway could have a deep WPIAL postseason run in its future.
“We had some guys out that were really critical guys,” Holl said. “I love the guys who tried to step up but there’s no contingency plan for when your best players are out. I’m not the first guy to say that. The whole next-man-up thing sounds great but the reason they’re not up in the first place is because the guy that was playing was probably better.
“I give credit to the guys who stepped in. I give credit to the guys for the effort they made. When the guys are the guys and playing, I think we have a pretty good team.”