Behind all-star forward Taylor Siwik, all-star defensemen Camden Cacolice and Jake DeHass and all-star goaltender Tyler Perhac, Gateway qualified for the PIHL Class AA playoffs the past two seasons.
But all four Gators are gone this season, as is the second-leading scorer from last season, Jonathan Kasper.
Because of those losses, Gateway decided to drop from Class AA to the Open Class this season. Unlike in WPIAL-sponsored sports, hockey classification is not based entirely on enrollment numbers. So when a program is obviously headed for a "down" or rebuilding season, it can opt to compete in the Open Class.
"Basically we looked at what we had coming up and what we lost," Gateway coach Gene Perhac said. "We had an inexperienced team that was small in size and didn't have any experience in net. We thought this would be best for us to develop as a squad. It would give our younger players a chance to develop.
"They would be thrown into the fire, but not a forest fire."
The Gators have just two seniors -- Zach Dusch and Brenden Hamilton -- and three juniors -- Luke Fossati, Nick Falvo and Griffin Ware -- on the roster. The rest of the team comprises seven sophomores and seven freshmen.
The roster composition has forced Perhac to change the way the team approaches practices.
"When we had a more experienced group, we would just concentrate on refining our game and our system," Perhac said. "Now we're trying to bring our players up to the speed and physicalness of the game at this level. Our practices are quite different."
The young Gators have struggled in the early going this season, losing their first two games by a combined score of 16-2.
Without Siwik, Kasper, Cacolice and DeHass -- who combined for 97 points last season -- Gateway has struggled to score. Perhac said he is counting on Dusch and Fossati, who combined for 18 points last season, as well as freshman Matt Doman, to pick up the scoring slack.
"They seem to have the most pop so far," Perhac said.
Dusch and Fossati have scored the team's only two goals through two games.
Defensively, Falvo is the lone returning starter, but Perhac has been happy with the play of freshman Tanner Davis.
They help protect Gateway's most inexperienced position, which is goaltending.
Tyler Perhac, the coach's son, would have been one of the top goaltenders in the PIHL this season, but he decided to play amateur hockey in Florida.
Without Perhac, Gateway was going to count on Ben Shapiro, a transfer from Virginia, to protect the net this season. But Shapiro was ruled ineligible by the PIHL recently.
So the Gators have turned to Ware, who had only played goal in dekhockey prior to this season.
"He's done an admirable job," Perhac said.
Perhac is hoping the team will gain enough experience and show enough improvement to move back up in classification next season.
"We're just trying to get better each day," Perhac said. "We want them to improve their mindset and just the little things about the game so they can become quality varsity players."