Donnie Militzer always dreamed of being a head football coach.
"Ever since I was 5 years old and was drawing X's and O's in the dirt," Militzer said. "It's something I've always been passionate about doing."
Militzer's dream became a reality in April when the Gateway School District ended a three-month search and hired him as its new high school football coach. He has a sizable hole to fill replacing Terry Smith, who left his high school alma mater for an assistant's position at Temple University.
In 11 seasons at Gateway, Smith had a 101-30 record, qualified for the WPIAL playoffs all 11 years and advanced to the WPIAL title game four times, but lost every time. He sent 23 players to NCAA Division I-A colleges and 17 more to Division I-AA colleges.
"It's really amazing and a dream come true for me," said Militzer, 31, who lives in Dormont and is the vice principal at St. Thomas More Grade School in Bethel Park. "Getting a head coaching position, no matter at what level, has been something I've wanted for a long time.
"To get hired to coach a program that is held at such a high respect like Gateway means even more."
Smith, who left Gateway in January, resigned as football coach and athletic director soon after the school board decided to reduce the athletic director position to part-time. The new policy also prevented administrators from serving as coaches.
Despite Smith's impressive resume, Gateway's last appearance in the WPIAL Class AAAA title game was in 2008 and the program last captured a district crown in 1986.
"This is a program that everyone knows about," said Militzer, who is the program's fifth coach since it began in 1958. "When you look back at the history of the team and the great coaches from Pete Antimarino up to Terry Smith, this is a program that has experienced a lot of success."
A former player and 1999 graduate of Keystone Oaks High School, Militzer spent the past two seasons as the defensive coordinator at Carlynton. He began his coaching career at Bishop Canevin a decade ago and spent three seasons under legendary coach Bob Jacoby. Militzer also served as an assistant coach at Peters Township (one year), Carnegie Mellon University (three years) and Washington & Jefferson College (two years).
"More than anything, any pressure will come from myself because I expect to win," Militzer said. "No matter where I've coached, I expected to win. That's not going to change.
"But I am at a place where winning is expected already. That's a gift because these kids know how to win. The attitude is already there, which is going to be a big help."
Last year, Gateway posted a perfect 8-0 record to win the Foothills Conference title and finished its season 9-2 after losing a 17-14 quarterfinal decision to east suburban rival Woodland Hills in the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs.
"This is a very skilled group," Militzer said. "We have five kids [Anthony Davis, Montae Nicholson, Delvon Randall, Ricky Rogers and Brenon Thrift] who have Division I offers. That's on top of another group of guys who will get the Division 1-AA and Division II offers. We have some nice depth at the skilled positions.
"We have some seniors who have experience and we're looking at these guys for leadership and ownership to get this team ready to play.
"So far, everyone has picked up our offense and defense quickly. We've been able to put in our offense way faster than I expected. We're definitely off to a good pace."
This summer, Gateway will participate in 7-on-7 passing camps at both the University of Pittsburgh and Youngstown State.
"We're going to continue to work on spreading the field and put our athletes in position to make plays," Militzer said. "We're going to create plays from the space. We're also going to be aggressive, not only offensively but also on defense.
"We have to put the kids in the right position to get the football and get the yards we need."
Implementing a fresh game plan and the continuous preparation for the upcoming season remains Militzer's key focus this summer. He hasn't had to worry about his players adjusting to a new system, however.
"I am really proud to coach these kids," Militzer said. "Especially everything they've been through with losing teammate Darrell Turner [who was fatally shot in 2011 during a team trip to a 7-on7 competition] and the whole coaching change.
"This is a big family that welcomed me immediately. They've showed me so much love and respect. To me, that says a lot about these young men."