Gateway's Montae Nicholson set a record in winning the WPIAL title in the 110-meter hurdles event.
By Ryan Riordan Tri-State Sports & News Service
On a mid-November evening in 2011, the 9-2 Gateway High School football team was preparing for a WPIAL Class AAAA semifinal game later in the week against defending state champion North Allegheny.
At one point during the practice, Thomas Woodson, the team's junior quarterback, unloaded a 60-yard pass down the field that looked to be out of the reach of one of the Gators' sophomore backup receivers.
But what receivers coach Loran Cooley witnessed over the next few seconds made his jaw drop.
"I thought there was just no way he was going to catch the ball," Cooley said. "But he had like seven gears and made a circus one-handed catch. It was ridiculous and I knew we had something special."
That receiver was Montae Nicholson, who Rivals.com ranks as the No. 1 rising senior in Pennsylvania, and who now has 33 NCAA Division I football offers after a breakout junior campaign on the gridiron.
He also won the WPIAL 110-meters hurdles championship and finished second in the event at the PIAA meet.
All of which leads Nicholson to be selected as the Post-Gazette East Xtra Male High School Athlete of the Year.
It's quite a rise for someone who had trouble even getting on the field during his sophomore season.
"It really all started with that week of the North Allegheny game," Cooley said. "He had the typical growing pains that any sophomore goes through. We have a complex scheme and it was just a matter of him learning the system and getting adjusted to Quad-A football."
Nicholson isn't upset that he didn't start his sophomore season. In fact, he is thankful that former Gateway coach Terry Smith let him sit and learn.
"Coach Terry had everything to do with my development," Nicholson said. "My sophomore year, he didn't think I was ready. And when I look back at it, he was right and I appreciate why he did that because I was able to work on my skills."
Nicholson, who also plays safety for the Gators, started to turn many heads during the 2012 spring camp season. He said he picked up his first offer at Pitt's 2012 Junior Camp and many schools have followed suit.
He now holds offers from perennial powers Florida State, Ohio State, Michigan and Oregon.
Even Nicholson is surprised how quickly his stock has soared.
"I'm ridiculously shocked," Nicholson said. "My coach knew it would happen and my mom told me it would happen. But I didn't expect it to escalate to this magnitude."
Nicholson had 25 receptions for 653 yards and nine touchdowns on offense last fall, using the speed he shows on the track to average 26.1 yards per reception.
He was also the leader of the defense and many recruiting websites project him as a safety at the next level.
Then in the spring, Nicholson broke the 13-year-old WPIAL championship record in the 110-meter hurdles with a time of 14.39 seconds. He did even better at the PIAA meet, running a 14.09 to finish second to Garnet Valley senior Wellington Zaza.
It helps Nicholson that he doesn't have to look far for advice on the track. His mother, Jackie Crawford, was a star hurdler at Robert Morris and was inducted in the university's athletic hall of fame.
She is also Nicholson's coach.
"I can't even explain how much she has helped me," Nicholson said. "Because she's not just my coach. She tries to push her little baby to be the best I can. Sometimes it grinds my gears, but I understand why she does it and it has really helped."
In addition to football, Nicholson said he'd like to run track in college, too.
But first he has big plans for his senior season at Gateway.
"I want to repeat in the hurdles [at WPIALs] and then improve at states," Nicholson said. "This should be my year. And this should be our year in football."