East Xtra: Gateway's Nicholson goes out with a bang

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Just as he did a week earlier at the WPIAL track championships, Gateway's Montae Nicholson donned sunglasses as he glided over the hurdles and sprinted down the track last weekend at the PIAA championships.

But the shades had nothing to do with trying to look cool.

The weekend before the WPIAL meet, Nicholson suffered an eye injury while playing in a pickup basketball game with friends. He wore the sunglasses out of necessity.

It turned out that Nicholson's competitors could have used some, too, after watching Nicholson shine so brightly on the state's biggest stage.

Nicholson grabbed two gold medals at the PIAA Class AAA track championships Saturday at Shippensburg University. Nicholson, a senior, won the 110-meter hurdles and ran a leg on Gateway's 400 relay team that ran the fastest time in WPIAL history. He added a fourth-place finish in the long jump.

A year after placing second in the 110 hurdles, Nicholson was at his best running his favorite race for the final time in his high school career, setting a school record with a time of 14.02 seconds. Elizabeth Forward's Matt Bernadowski (14.25) finished second.

"He dominated a really good field," Gateway coach Tom LaBuff said. "He ran only one-hundredth [of a second] faster in the final [compared to the semifinals], but he really ran a much better race in the final. He dominated the race. By the second hurdle it was over."

Nicholson avenged his loss to Bernadowski at the WPIAL championships. In that race, Bernadowski (14.0) set a meet record in edging Nicholson (14.08), who placed second.

"He hates to lose. In some fashion, losing at WPIALs motivated him even more," LaBuff said.

Bernadowski added: "He just had the cleaner race, which you really need to do to win."

Later in the day, Nicholson and senior teammates Jae'Len Means, Cameron Gray and Kevin Jeter ran the 400 relay faster than any group in WPIAL history. The four ran a blistering 41.16, which topped the 42.91 they ran in claiming gold at the WPIAL championships. Jeter ran the first leg, Means the second, Nicholson the third and Gray the fourth.

It was the second consecutive PIAA 400 relay title for Nicholson, Means and Gray, who teamed with 2013 graduate Julius Rivera -- last year's 100-meter champ -- to run a 41.65 last year. This year's group was even better and nearly the fastest in PIAA history.

"That's a great team," LaBuff said. "Our goal was 41-flat. The only disappointment was that we didn't get the state record [41.14]."

Nicholson's excellent versatility once again extended to the long jump, where his best leap was 23 feet, 31/4 inches and earned him fourth place. The jump was farther than the 23-11/2 he attained a year earlier to finish third. Nicholson was the WPIAL long jump champion. He jumped 23-21/2 in that meet.

The successful day ended Nicholson's excellent high school track career. He owns school records in the 110 hurdles and long jump, and owns a piece of the 400 relay record.

Of course, Nicholson is a pretty good football player, too.

He will begin his playing career at Michigan State this fall. He also has the OK from his soon-to-be football coaches to compete in track next fall. LaBuff said Michigan State track coaches actually offered Nicholson a scholarship before the football coaches.

"He's going to be competitive at the national level [in track] if he's able to give it the attention that's needed," LaBuff said. "He can approach 13 [seconds in the 110 hurdles] and even lower if he focuses on that."

No matter what Nicholson accomplishes at Michigan State, the success he attained at Gateway will be remembered for a long time.

LaBuff placed Nicholson with 1987 graduate Curtis Bray as the greatest athletes he has coached in his more than three decades at the school.

Bray, who died in January, is considered one of the best football players in WPIAL history and won the PIAA javelin title his senior year before going on to star in football at Pitt.

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