Gateway baseball players looking to build on past success with holdovers from ’19

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Sunday, March 21, 2021 | 10:01 AM


Luke Jackson played 14 games and collected 33 at-bats as a sophomore in 2019 as Gateway finished 13-7 and qualified for the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs.

The senior center fielder, along with a returning group that included nine seniors, hoped to build on the experience, which included a tough 2-1 loss to Shaler in the WPIAL first round. But covid concerns wiped out that chance to play the 2020 season.

Now, Jackson and the few other holdovers from two years ago, combined with a crop of younger talent new to varsity baseball, hope that his spring is one of golden opportunities, both in the section and beyond.

“It is great to be back playing,” said Jackson, who collected 10 hits in his 33 at-bats and added five RBIs in 2019.

“We missed out on so much last year. It was tough not being able to play with those seniors. We aren’t taking anything for granted. We have a good group of guys. We just have to take it one game at a time and make sure we are doing our thing.”

Fellow senior Joe Schulte, a co-captain with Jackson, is just as confident.

“There are a lot of good teams, but we are one of those good teams, too,” said Schulte, who will see time on the mound and also in the infield.

“We are grateful to have the chance to chase that ring, for not only us, but for those seniors who didn’t get a chance last year.”

Both the 2020 graduates and those returning in the program got a chance to be together for more than a dozen games last summer in the Western Pennsylvania Baseball League, a venture born out of the canceled spring season.

For Gateway, the summer experience led into fall workouts with eyes on the 2021 campaign.

“Any time you can get more reps, whatever they are and whenever you can get them, it’s a big thing,” said Gateway coach Mark Wardzinski, who enters his eighth year at the helm of the Gators.

“For the most part, we had half of this team playing on the varsity team in the summer, and the other half played JV. But they got in about the same number of reps and games. With the JV getting about 14 games and the varsity getting 18, it was almost like a regular varsity season. We then played one or two games each week in the fall.

“Through all of that, a lot of the younger kids got a chance to see what varsity baseball is all about.”

Wardzinski said the team rounded into shape as much as possible with weight room work and conditioning in the weeks leading to the season and continued that with several opportunities to get on the field in dry conditions under sunny skies since the start of preseason practices March 8.

“These guys have been together working hard towards this season and are really building that camaraderie,” Wardzinski said.

“Over the next week, the more we continue to get on dirt, the better. Any time it’s not raining, the guys want to go out. It doesn’t matter how cold it is. Indoors, it seems like you get stuck in that rut where it’s the same set of drills. Getting outside, everything opens up, and it feels more like baseball.”

Also back with experience from two years ago are juniors Ryan Greggerson (first base) and Grady Otterman (second base/shortstop). Both are expected to bolster the pitching staff with Jackson and Schulte.

Junior Carsen Engleka caught a couple of games as a freshman backing up graduate Jordan Stancovich, and he is slated to take over the full-time catching duties this year.

Gateway hoped to get a chance to test its abilities Monday with a home scrimmage against Pine-Richland. The Gators are set to host a scrimmage at 4 p.m. Thursday against Burrell before the season opener Tuesday at home against Peters Township.

Junior Will Roper, a utility infielder, will be in the varsity lineup for the first time. Wardzinski said he’s impressed with his strength and hitting abilities.

Senior Justin Longo is expected to man right field.

Gateway will mix it up in Section 1-5A with Franklin Regional, Latrobe, Kiski Area, McKeesport and Penn-Trafford.

The 2019 section standings saw Franklin Regional go undefeated at 12-0, followed by Gateway at 9-3. Kiski Area is the only other holdover to this year’s section.

All section games will be home-and-home matchups on consecutive days. The WPIAL revealed this new format last May as a way to prevent a team from riding the same starting pitcher in both section games. Pitching depth will be revealed.

“It’s tough to gauge, every year, how the section is going to go,” Wardzinski said. “There are so many factors. It’s going to be tough to compare until we play these teams.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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