East Xtra: Gateway battling for playoff spot

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His team's slow starts in games had first-year Gateway softball coach Andy Popajas worried; the way they closed games though, had him anything but concerned.

Gateway overcame slow starts to blast its first three opponents of the season, Penn Hills, Oakland Catholic and Allderdice. The three section wins allowed the Gators to vault to the top of the Class AAAA Section 2 standings. Losses to Plum and McKeesport last week dropped them to third in the section standings, however.

In those first three section victories, Gateway did not once reach the seventh inning, activating the 10-run mercy rule in all three wins.

"I was a little concerned, the bats didn't really roll in the early innings," Popajas said. "We seemed to struggle in the early innings and then all of a sudden we caught fire after the third inning and that was it. Things started happening."

Big offensive things started happening for Gateway. The Gators blasted Penn Hills 13-1, Oakland Catholic 10-0 and Allderdice 15-3.

The Gators (3-2, 3-2) were brought back to earth last week, however, losing to Plum, 11-7, and McKeesport Area, 11-0. They were scheduled to play Woodland Hills Wednesday.

The offensive sparkplug has been sophomore catcher Ufuoma Ogagan. Batting leadoff, Ogagan, a left-hander, has been a terror on the basepaths with her speed.

"She is really fast," Popajas said. "When she gets on base, that sparks a fire and everybody starts waking up. She is really lighting it up out there. She is a real key asset on base because of her speed. When Ufuoma gets on, things get moving."

Gateway finished 7-10 last season but all of its wins came in section play and the team qualified for the WPIAL playoffs. It was ousted in the first round by Hempfield Area.

Four senior starters return from that team, including pitcher Danielle Kochka. Kochka and sophomore Madison Lewis have been sharing innings so far this season.

"I have been mixing [the pitching assignments] up through the week," Popajas said. "It depends on who we play. Madison is a little quicker and Danielle has more 'junk pitches.'"

The other returning senior starters are Brianna McCarthy, Kelly Kapp and Kim Mignogna.

Popajas previously coached in the WPIAL at Serra Catholic in 2009. He also coaches a travel softball team.

"I just think the girls are really excited to play this year," Popajas said. "They are all positive and they are all jelling. The practices are really structured and they like it. They are getting along well."

Gateway started 3-0 in section play last season but dropped its next three section contests and had to fight its way back into the playoff race.

"They reached the playoffs last year but they were one and done. They know they have more in them this year," Popajas said. "It is just a good group of girls. They are all pretty confident in what they are doing.

"The facilities at the school, it is like being at a Division I school [college] in a sense -- that certainly helps a lot."

Along with Ogagan, the offensive leaders have been Kochka, Lewis, McCarthy and sophomore Jasmine Copeland. Lewis bats leadoff. Copeland, a standout on the Gateway girls basketball team, has had a hot start this season.

"Jasmine Copeland is a big hitter," Popajas said. "She has a very smooth swing and a lot of natural ability. She also plays basketball, which helps."

Copeland plays at either first or third base. She bats in the six spot. When she is not pitching, Lewis plays third base.

"I think our defense is real solid," Popajas said. "I am not worried about our defense at all. Once the bats get going, they roll. I would just like them to spark a little bit sooner in the game, but once they come around, it is a good thing."

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