Making the playoffs in 2013 for the first time in 31 years - that was step one for the Gateway wrestling team.

Returning to the South Jersey Group 2 tournament and matching the school-record with 19 victories for the second season in a row in 2014 - that was step two.

The Gators are no fluke. They are a deep, solid team, capable of competing with many of the top squads in South Jersey. They begin the 2014-15 season as a legitimate contender to capture the first sectional title in the history of the program.

But wrestlers know one thing deep in their bones: It only gets tougher, the higher you climb the pyramid.

"We have to work harder than ever," Gateway senior Tyler Bloss said. "That's what we plan on doing."

It's some story, the way the Gators have developed into a South Jersey power at a school without much of a tradition of team success in the sport - or in many other sports, for that matter.

"I know what people say, 'It's Gateway, they're used to losing,' " Gateway coach Jim Rutter said. "I can't accept that. I won't accept that."

Rutter, who is beginning his fourth season, refers to himself and his assistants as "grinders."

That's a good description of most successful people in the sport. They are plenty of natural talents, of course, and some coaches with a slick knack for teaching techniques, motivating youngsters, and manipulating the lineup on match night.

But the vast majority of winning wrestlers and winning wrestling coaches tend to take a simple, straightforward approach to the sport: They work at it.

That's been the key to Gateway's emergence as a team that - while probably still a few notches below perennial powerhouse Paulsboro, along with squads such as St. Augustine, Clearview, Delsea, and revitalized Highland - is pushing into the next tier in the South Jersey hierarchy.

That's rare air for a program that never made a playoff appearance from 1982 until Rutter's 2012-2013 squad squeaked into the field on the final day of qualifying.

"It makes you feel like you're part of something bigger than yourself," Gateway senior Vinny Ferretti said.

Ferretti was 28-6 last season at 138 pounds. Bloss was 30-9 at 132 pounds. They join with senior Tommy Miller, who was 25-12 at 160 pounds, and junior Austin Holmstrom, who was 26-11 at 182, to form the nucleus of the Gators lineup.

But perhaps the clearest indication of the Gators' growth in status is that wrestlers are finding their way to the team's wrestling room. Junior Frank Weyhmiller is a transfer from Deptford who was 24-8 and a Region 8 qualifier at 220 last season, while freshmen twins Antonio and Dante Minnino were national-caliber youth athletes who are projected to make an immediate impact at 106 and 113, respectively.

"It feels different than a regular high school room where you have a lot of kids who are new to the sport," Ferretti said of the Gators' room. "It feels more like a club-team room, where so many guys are committed to wrestling."

Rutter is quick to note that his team "hasn't done anything yet."

The Gators will face plenty of challenges in the Colonial Conference from the likes of powerhouse programs such as Paulsboro, Collingswood, Haddonfield and West Deptford, along with typically tough teams such as Haddon Township and Audubon.

The addition of a Group 5 in team wrestling this season has bumped Highland and Delsea to Group 3. But Gateway is merely one of several teams that projects as a serious contender in South Jersey Group 2, along with tradition-rich programs such as Haddonfield, West Deptford, and Buena.

Still, just being part of the conversation is a big deal for the Gators and their school.

"We're turning the corner," Rutter said. "People see us in the summer, people see us working at this all through the year. They know how hard we work at it.

"This school wants a winner. They won a baseball title a few years ago and it was like the Eagles won the Super Bowl.

"But nothing comes easy. Nothing is going to be given to us. We know how hard we're going to have to work to make it happen."

panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

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