Gateway girls volleyball to lean on deep lineup in quest for return trip to playoffs

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Sunday, September 3, 2023 | 11:01 AM


The Gateway girls volleyball team was happy to finally kick off its regular-season competition schedule Tuesday (Sept. 5) against Woodland Hills after several weeks of workouts in the gym leading to the past three weeks of official season practices.

The Gators didn’t have a scrimmage, and second-year coach Nicole Riley said the girls are amped up to get the season going and face someone on the other side of the net who is not a teammate.

“We started with open gyms twice a week July 18, and we got a lot of good work in together,” said Riley, who guided Gateway last year to an 8-4 record (third place) in Section 1-3A behind Hampton (12-0) and Plum (10-2) and a spot in the WPIAL playoffs after a four-year postseason hiatus.

“The girls did a nice job of keeping on track and working to get better, but at some point in time, they need that competition. We’re excited to see where we are at this point. We still have some things to work out at different spots in the rotation. But the girls are excited. We have a really nice team that I know can play well and win matches.”

Gateway fielded a deep lineup and rotation last year.

While five all-section performers moved on because of graduation, seven players who earned differing degrees of starting time last year — four seniors and three juniors — are back in 2023.

The team is rather youthful with just four seniors — sisters Mallory Brown (middle blocker) and McKenna Brown (outside hitter), Michelina Estremera (defensive specialist/libero) and Alice Childs (outside hitter) — on a roster of 27.

Estremera and McKenna Brown are team captains. Estremera also was a captain last year as a junior.

“I love how much we have the grades intertwined, and I think we will do really well despite there only being four seniors,” Estremera said.

“We have a nice mix in our lineup. The (nine) freshmen have looked really strong. They’ve come out and shown they can play at this level and be an asset to this team.”

Other returning starters are part of an 11-member junior class: middle hitter Ana Lowrey, setter/opposite hitter Jolina Estremera and middle hitter Ashlee Young.

Last year’s group gave Laurel Highlands all it could handle in a WPIAL Class 3A preliminary round game before falling, 3-1.

Gateway lost the first two sets but rallied to win set three, 25-23. Set four went to extra points before the Mustangs prevailed, 27-25.

“It was tough and a little frustrating to not be able to win that match, but now that we got so close, we want to get past that first round,” McKenna Brown said.

“We want to do what we can to do better in the section and maybe get a higher ranking for playoffs.”

Riley, who has coached almost all of the players as the junior high coach before taking over the varsity program, said the varsity and junior varsity players practice together unless they need time to work on specific lineups and coverage.

“We work together so the girls realize that there always are opportunities to step up and shine,” she said.

Riley said she has seen players who might be designated junior varsity take a step forward and challenge for a spot in the varsity lineup.

“The practices are very competitive because the girls know what is available,” she said.

“It’s exciting to see the girls work. A lot of times, court dynamics can change, and we’re always working to put the best possible lineup together. The girls are never satisfied.”

Gateway’s home opener is Thursday against section foe West Mifflin, a team it beat twice last year in section play.

The Gators then pay a visit Sept. 12 to rival Plum. The Mustangs scored a pair of 3-0 victories in last year’s series.

“The competition in practice makes our team better,” McKenna Brown said.

“We are all working for more in the section and in the playoffs.”

Gateway gets its first crack at Hampton on Sept. 21.

“I think we are going to have a really good season,” Riley said. “This team has a lot of talent. The program has come a long way from when it was hard to get enough players to now where there is 27. We had to make cuts and turn girls away, which is always tough.”

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at mlove@triblive.com.

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