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Defending champion Gateway girls ready to ‘prove ourselves again’

When the Gateway girls basketball team convened for preseason practices, the Gators started to make the transition from WPIAL champions to starting fresh.

The Gators will have defending champions attached to their name when they walk into every gym this season after making historic run last year as a No. 7 seed that culminated in winning their first title with a 29-27 win over Oakland Catholic in the Class 5A final.

They have three returning starters from that team in Mary Kromka, Lexi Jackson and Jenna Guido.

As they prepare for a new season they know there will be plenty of challenges ahead, but they are ready to show that they’ll be a tough competitor again.

“It was a great feeling to win last year, but we know this year is going to be different,” Kromka said. “We still have to work hard, and we’re going to have to prove ourselves again.”

Kromka has been a captain the last couple of years and will take an even larger role as a leader this year, along with Jackson and Guido after the graduation of Jordan Edwards. Maya Paquet, another starter last year, moved to Canada.

Edwards, who’s at Niagara, was Gateway’s leader and lone senior last year. She hit the game-winning shot in the waning seconds in the WPIAL championship.

“Jordan was a great leader, so we’re just trying to mirror what she did,” Jackson said. “She kept us all playing well together, so we’re trying to do that again.”

Jackson, a 6-foot-3 junior, has offers from Western Michigan, James Madison, North Carolina A&T and Radford. Kromka admitted she’s soft spoken and has to come out of her comfort zone a bit this year and become more vocal.

Gators coach Curtis Williams has talked to all three of his returning starters about leadership, and he’s excited to see how they’ll develop into the role.

“Mary has always led by example by being one of the hardest workers and most dedicated kids we have,” Williams said. “I’ve talked to her about being more vocal this year, because we have some freshmen coming and they’re going to need some direction. I’m looking forward to what Mary, Jenna and Lexi can do in terms of leadership, and hopefully they can continue to pick up where Jordan left off as a vocal leader, as well as leading by example.”

Sophomore guard Joelle Jenkins and junior forward Annie Garness were role players last year who will see increased responsibility. Dynasty Shegog, a sophomore transfer from Seton LaSalle, will see time at both guard and forward.

Williams has Will Battle back as his top assistant and added two new assistants, his son David Williams and Amanda Estock.

The Gators open the season against Connellsville in the Laurel Highlands tip-off tournament Dec. 7.

After going through a tough Section 2-5A schedule last year and finishing second between Thomas Jefferson and Oakland Catholic, Gateway stayed in Section 2, but will have all new opponents.

The Gators are housed with defending state champion Mars, Hampton, Franklin Regional, Kiski Area and Plum. Mars eliminated Gateway, 50-38, in the PIAA quarterfinals last season.

“I thought we were in a grinder with Oakland Catholic and Thomas Jefferson, and now we’re going to go against the defending state champions twice in section,” Williams said. “I guess it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

Class 5A proved to be very deep last year with a No. 7 and No. 8 seed meeting for the championship, and Williams expects a difficult road full of strong teams again.

“Class 5A is probably the most competitive of all of the classifications,” Williams said. “No disrespect to 6A, and I’m a little biased, but I think there’s tougher competition in 5A. That makes it all the more to try and defend at this level. There’s a lot of talent here. Oakland Catholic has a lot of its players back. Chartiers Valley has a really good team. West Allegheny has a good team. Penn Hills dropped down (to 5A). Then there’s Trinity and South Fayette. I mean it’s a grinder. It will be interesting.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer.


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