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Gateway, North Hills revisit 1986 classic in playoffs

Thursday, November 06, 2003

By Mike White, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Gateway meets North Hills in a WPIAL football playoff game tomorrow night. The last time these two met in the postseason was one of the greatest championship games in WPIAL history.

Seventeen years ago, Gateway coach Terry Smith was the school's quarterback against North Hills. (Post-Gazette photo)

Go back 17 years when Gateway won the Class AAAA championship against North Hills, 7-6, in front of more than 20,000 fans at Three Rivers Stadium. The game had loads of hype. There were memorable plays throughout the contest, a fantastic finish and a most memorable comment from a North Hills player afterward.

And how coincidental that two key players in that 1986 game are central figures in tonight's.

Terry Smith was Gateway's star senior quarterback in 1986 and scored Gateway's only touchdown. He is now in his second year as Gateway's head coach.

Pat Carey was a running back-defensive back for North Hills in '86 and caught a pass late in the game to set up North Hills' only touchdown. Carey is now North Hills' defensive coordinator.

"Calling it one of the greatest games depends on your perspective of the whole thing," Carey said with a laugh. "We lost."

When asked if it was the toughest loss in his high school career, Carey answered, "It was my only loss, so I guess it would have to be the toughest."

Smith went on to a stellar career as a Penn State receiver but said: "That game ranks No. 1 with me. High school still remains my most vivid memories in my athletic career. I had great memories at Penn State, but there was nothing like high school football."

A number of things made the '86 game special. Gateway and North Hills played to a 0-0 tie in the '85 title game, so the second meeting was like a two-year championship. Both teams came into the game with 12-0 records, and North Hills was ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Today.

"What made that game unique, too, was that we had just moved up to No. 1 the week of the game," said Jack McCurry, North Hills' coach then and now.

The Indians had moved up from No. 2 after Emmit Smith's Escambia High (Fla.) team lost.

"My biggest memory was all the hype leading up to the game," Terry Smith said.

The bottom two levels of Three Rivers were full with fans, and officials estimated the crowd between 20,000 and 25,000. The first half was uneventful and neither team scored.

"We didn't score the year before so we didn't think we'd ever score against them," Smith said. "But I remember Coach [Pete Antimarino] came to me at halftime and said, 'Terry, you're going to have to make a play if we're going to score.' "

Smith used his running ability to make some key plays in the second half and finished with 62 yards rushing on 15 carries.

"I was trying to do my Steve Breaston imitation before he even came about," said Smith, referring to the former Woodland Hills star now at the University of Michigan.

Smith completed only 1 of 7 passes for 2 yards in the game, but he scored on a 1-yard run with 6:21 left and Bill Truschel kicked the extra point to give Gateway a 7-0 lead.

With 1:37 left in the game, North Hills got the ball at the Gateway 49. On fourth-and-20, North Hills quarterback Joe Smithco hit Greg Morris with a pass to the Gateway 34. A pass to Carey put North Hills at the Gateway 18 before Smithco threw a touchdown pass to Morris with two seconds remaining.

There was no overtime then, so McCurry decided to go for the two-point conversion and the win. Antimarino and his son, Pete Jr., were on their knees on the sideline, praying before the conversion attempt. McCurry and Smithco blessed themselves. But Smithco's pass for the right corner of the end zone was tipped and intercepted by Gateway's Todd Washington.

"I'd do the same thing again because in those days, there was no thought process," McCurry said. "There was no advancing to state playoffs and no overtime. Either you went for two or you tied."

Tears flowed from North Hills' players in the locker room after the game. That's when Eric Renkey, a menacing junior linebacker who went on to play at Penn State, walked to the center of the room and addressed the team with a memorable speech.

"We came within 3 yards of the national high school championship," Renkey said. "We played our tails off, but it didn't work out. It's not one person's fault. It's not anybody's fault because we did our best. If anyone has his head down when he's walking out of here, I'll be inclined to fist him. So get your heads up."

There is no national ranking on the line in this year's quarterfinal game at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Penn-Trafford. But both teams are highly regarded. Gateway is the Post-Gazette's No. 1-ranked WPIAL Class AAAA team and No. 3 in the state. North Hills is No. 5 in the WPIAL.

Gateway is averaging 43.2 points a game, the best in Class AAAA. North Hills' defense allows only 6.9 points, the best in Class AAAA.

"Gateway's skill players remind you of the good Woodland Hills teams the past few years," Carey said.

McCurry said: "Our defense has to keep us in the game. If they do that, then we'll have a chance because we can't get in a scoring contest with them. We're just not capable of that."


Mike White can be reached at mwhite@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1975.

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