Another season of coaching WPIAL football is about to begin for Tom Nola as the official start of practice in Pennsylvania is a day away. But Nola is different this season, and not just because he has changed school colors.
“My wife tells me I’ve been better emotionally. She says I’m in better spirits,” Nola said. “I guess I am.”
In what was one of the most significant WPIAL football coaching changes in decades, Nola stepped down as Clairton’s coach in February to become Gateway’s coach. Nola, 60, won numerous WPIAL and PIAA titles at Clairton and his team’s 66-game winning streak gained the school national recognition.
Maybe not since 1989, when Don Yannessa left Aliquippa for Baldwin, has there been a bigger coaching move in the WPIAL. But the change has been uplifting for Nola, who said when he left Clairton that he wanted a new challenge at a bigger school. Clairton is in Class A; Gateway plays in Class AAA.
Nola is not a rah-rah coach. He is reserved and speaks almost quietly in media interviews. Clairton has a special place in his heart, but Nola insists going from the black and orange of Clairton to the black and gold of Gateway has been invigorating.
“They’ve always had good teams at Gateway,” said Nola, who won six WPIAL titles and four state championships in 12 years at Clairton. “What I’m trying to instill in them is the same kind of goals we had at Clairton. Even though we’ll have a young team with a lot of juniors and sophomores starting, we still are thinking big.
“The players’ attitudes have been very positive. They’re catching on. For me, it was a little slow in the summer workouts. Gradually, they have caught on to the point where they now are really getting the hang of it.”
Since it opened in the 1950s, Gateway had always played in the WPIAL’s largest classification. This is the Gators’ first season in AAA, the second-largest classification. Graduation hit Gateway hard. Running back Adam White is the only skill-position player returning with much experience. Robert Hainsey, Hunter Dale, Adam Clark and Alex McCollum are returning linemen and will be centerpieces of the team.
About 55 players are on the team. Nola kept four former Gateway coaches including Shayne Hale, who played at Pitt. Mark Gambino is the only former Clairton coach on staff.
“It’s a little different than what I am used to because there are a lot more players that you have to take care of, think about and decide who will play,” Nola said. “But everything is good so far.”
At the official start of football practice in Pennsylvania, 10 seniors from the WPIAL have made verbal commitments to NCAA Division I-A schools.
Pitt has commitments from five WPIAL players — Canon-McMillan offensive lineman Alex Paulina, Hempfield offensive lineman Tony Pilato, Quaker Valley quarterback/defensive back Dane Jackson, Apollo-Ridge receiver/defensive back Tre Tipton and Kittanning tight end Nick Bowers.
Other WPIAL seniors who have committed are Baldwin offensive lineman Sterling Jenkins (Penn State), Franklin Regional linebacker Brett Zanotto (Maryland), Woodland Hills running back Art Thompkins (Toledo), Seton-LaSalle receiver Danzel McKinley-Lewis (Toledo) and Pine-Richland running back Connor Slomka (Army).
Two juniors already have made commitments — Woodland Hills running back Miles Sanders to Penn State and Freeport linebacker Logan Thimons to West Virginia.
Playbacks for basketball?
The WPIAL could change its policy on deciding some boys and girls basketball PIAA playoff teams. The WPIAL might actually go to “playbacks.”
The way the WPIAL does things now, it uses a “follow the leader” system to determine seeds for the PIAA playoffs. For example, if five teams from a classification make the PIAA playoffs, the No. 5 team is not determined with a playoff. The No. 5 team is the team that lost in the quarterfinals to the team that won the WPIAL championship. The No. 3 team is the team that lost to the WPIAL champ in the semifinals and the No. 4 team is the team that lost to the WPIAL runner-up in the semifinals.
In some other sports such as soccer, baseball and softball, the WPIAL has a playoff for the No. 3 seed for the PIAA tournament. Also, other districts around the state use “playbacks” to determine playoff spots. Now the WPIAL is considering the same for basketball, but only for spots No. 5-7 and not 1-4.
“Our board of directors is going to consider it,” said WPIAL executive director Tim O’Malley. “The board will then vote on it at an upcoming meeting.”
The biggest issue for the WPIAL? It does not want to lose money playing the games. There are costs of gym rental, staffing and officials. The WPIAL fears the “playback” games might not be well attended.
Rowan gets some air time
Lincoln Park basketball standout Maverick Rowan played on live national television Monday night.
Rowan played on ESPNU in the prestigious “adidas Nations” championship, the final game of a nine-team tournament in Long Beach, Calif., that included many of the top non-senior players in the country. Rowan, a 6-foot-7 junior guard who already has made a verbal commitment to Pitt, played for Team Wall, named after NBA player John Wall. The tournament had nine teams — four from the U.S. and one from Asia, Canada, Africa, Europe and Latin America.
Rowan’s team made it to the title game before losing to Team Lillard, 106-78.
It was significant that Rowan was invited to play in the event and he did some good things, averaging 12 points in five games. He had 21 against Latin America and 10 in the title game.
Rowan’s reputation seems to have risen on the national level this summer. Rowan is ranked the No. 43 player in the class of 2016 by both Scout.com and Rivals.com.
For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh.