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Football: Jared Clayton leads Gateway into S.J. tourney

The senior linebacker's physical play has sparked the surprising Gators, who are set to host the first home playoff game in school history.

Gateway senior Jared Clayton (No. 2 in white), making a tackle against Haddon Heights in 2016, has led the Gators to a 7-1 record entering the S.J. Group 1 tournament.
Gateway senior Jared Clayton (No. 2 in white), making a tackle against Haddon Heights in 2016, has led the Gators to a 7-1 record entering the S.J. Group 1 tournament.Read moreElizabeth Robertson/For the Inquirer

As an eighth grader, Jared Clayton watched the Gateway High School football team for the first time.

It was the 2013 season opener.

The Gators lost, 76-0.

"I remember thinking, 'Man, when we get to high school, we're going to have a lot of work to do,'" Clayton said of watching that game against West Deptford.

Clayton and the rest of the Gateway seniors entered the school as Josh Mason was taking over as the Gators' coach. Together, they've turned a pedestrian program into one of the success stories in South Jersey football.

The No. 3 seed in the South Jersey Group 1 tournament, Gateway (7-1)  will host sixth-seeded Woodstown (4-4) on Friday
in the first home playoff game in school history.

"It feels like it's supposed to feel around here," Mason said after a rainy practice this week at the school in Woodbury

Gateway has secured a winning record for the first time since 2006 thanks to a balanced, ground-oriented offense and a
dominating defense.

"Physicality," Clayton said of the Gators' style of play. "Our whole goal this offseason was to be as physical as possible
on both sides of the football. Last year, we were slowly making our way up and this year, we're bullying people. People hear the name 'Gateway' and they still think we're one of those 0-7 teams. We show them how different we are."

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Clayton has been one of the leaders of Gateway's revival, along with fellow seniors such as two-
way linemen Evan Sheehan, Adam Taitano, and Christian Calloway, running back/defensive back Evan Wilkinson and wide
receiver/defensive back Sean Venore.

Mason said Clayton is the leader of a defense that has posted two shutouts and held four other opponents to a touchdown or
less. The Gators' first-team defense has allowed just five touchdowns, according to Mason.

Clayton leads the Gators with 77 tackles. He has generated 11 tackles for losses as well three sacks and two interceptions.

"He's everything you want your middle linebacker to be," Mason said. "He makes all the calls, he's just a real solid
football player, always in the right position.

"We're a balanced team and on defense, we just have a lot of guys running to the ball. He's the first guy that leads with

Gateway was 5-45 from 2009-13. The Gators made progress in their first three seasons under Mason, going a combined 12-18 and raising the competitive level of the program.

But this season has been a revelation. Gateway's lone loss was by 21-14 to perennial Group 1 power Paulsboro, the defending champion and No. 1 seed in South Jersey Group 1, on a touchdown in the game's final five seconds.

The Gators beat the No. 1 seed in Central Jersey Group 1, Burlington City, by 32-8 on the road. The Blue Devils entered
that game with a 6-0 record, and averaging 41 points.

"From the day we started working out last year, I thought, 'This group of guys, we can really do something,'" Clayton said.
"It was always in my mind that we could do this."

Mason said the Gators' success has ignited school spirit, engaged the student body and brought alumni back to the program.

"The first game I coached here, I think there were 30 people in the stands, maybe 7-8 cheerleaders," Mason said. "Now we're drawing a lot of fans, the kids in school are excited, I'm hearing from alumni that I don't even know, just telling me how excited they are to see how well these kids have been doing."

Clayton, who lives in Westville, is likely nearing the end of his football career. He plans to enroll in the Air Force
after graduation in June. He sometimes finds it hard to believe that the team he watched lose its opener by a 76-0 score four years ago is set to host a playoff game with a 7-1 record and its sights set on deep tournament run.

"I'm so excited that it's my senior year and we're making this happen," Clayton said. "It means the world to me that we're
having so much success."