Gateway volleyball says goodbye to senior class after playoff loss

Oct. 30—The Gateway and Laurel Highlands girls volleyball teams were paired up as the No. 16 and No. 17 seeds in a WPIAL Class 3A preliminary-round game Oct. 24 at Hempfield High School.

And the match played out as close as the seedings set it up to be. Each of the final two games of the Mustangs' 3-1 victory were decided by two points.

Gateway first-year coach Nicole Riley, who saw her team lose the first two games 25-18 and 25-19, said she was proud of the way her team battled back with a chance to send it to a fifth game.

Gateway took Game 3 by a 25-23 score, but Laurel Highlands outlasted the Gators, 27-25, in Game 4 to finish off the victory.

"It seemed like we just couldn't get a groove going early on offensively," Riley said.

"Laurel Highlands, too, was getting a number of points by dumping the ball into an area called 'the doughnut' between the front and back lines. We would move up, and I don't know if the girls then thought Laurel Highlands would go deep. We just couldn't pick up that dump. The girls were frustrated, and they started to kind of get in their own heads and weren't doing what I know they were capable of doing.

"They didn't want (Game 3) to be their last game, so they rallied and got into a groove. It was really tight and back and forth the last two games. We were so close to sending it to a fifth game. We thought we were ready to complete that reverse sweep, but it just didn't work out for us."

Riley said she was taken back by the sudden end to the season. Gateway earned a spot in the playoffs after finishing third in Section 1 with an 8-4 mark.

"It was a weird feeling (the next day)," Riley said. "It was like I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing. I was so used to heading to practice with the team. We had been together so many days, and the girls put in so much work to get to where they were."

Riley said her players bounced back well in practice for the playoffs after a tough final week of the regular season. The rescheduling of a postponed match with Plum gave Gateway a challenging three-game gauntlet, starting with Hampton, the section champion, and continuing with the Mustangs before finishing with a nonsection match against a Hempfield team which earned a WPIAL playoff spot out of Section 3.

Gateway's playoff-qualifying campaign was rewarded with several players earning all-section honors.

Senior outside hitter Becky George was voted to the first-team, while senior setter Avrey Ferczak and senior libero Taylor Bumbaugh picked up second-team selections.

Named to the third team were senior defensive specialists Rachel Graham and Ayva Harris.

Riley said the senior group — six of the seven were regular varsity rotation contributors — will be missed.

Bumbaugh, Ferczak, George, Graham and Harris, along with Ella Miller and Aniah Yarbrough, were honored in a ceremony

before the Oct. 11 home section match with Penn Hills.

The Gators then went out and swept the Indians, 3-0.

"I will remember how the seniors would show great leadership by lifting up each other and everyone on the team," Riley said.

"Everyone would make a mistake here and there, but they wouldn't let it get to them and let things spiral. They encouraged and supported each other because they all committed themselves, as a group, to reaching their goals. It was a true team effort."

Riley said she is excited for the future of the program as it heads into the offseason with workouts and matches on the court.

Underclassmen able to return to the lineup in 2023 include junior team captain and defensive specialist Michelina Estremera, junior right side hitters Mallory and McKenna Brown, junior outside hitter Alice Childs, sophomore middle hitter Ana Lowry, sophomore setter Jolina Estremera and sophomore middle hitter Ashlee Young.

Riley said there are opportunities for this year's junior varsity players and others who will be new to the high school team to challenge for varsity roles.

"The girls really dedicated themselves to turning things around from last year (2-10 record in section play)," Riley said. "They don't want this to be a one-year thing, so I know they will work hard to be ready to go when next year comes around."

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