After 2-year wait, high school girls hockey team skated into inaugural season

Three young girls clutched a sign: “I Play Hockey Thank You For Paving A Path For My Future.”

Those girls — Emma Abramowicz, Hannah Spradley and Angela Marshall — entered the locker room before a playoff game June 5 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.

They play youth hockey at Robert Morris University Island Sports Center and wanted to wish the Southwest team of the first-year Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League for high school girls good luck.

“It is important that young girls see themselves within the highest levels of our game, and that they understand there are opportunities to play, compete and work in hockey as they grow,” said Jim Britt, executive director of the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, which helps fund the league. “Our game will only become stronger as it grows, and investing in the girls game is a vital key to that growth.”

Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

Southwest’s Alina Donahue listens to head coach Alli Paratore talk in the locker room prior to the start of their game against East in the first round of the PIHL girls division playoffs Sunday, June 5, 2022, at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.

Pittsburgh has a tremendous girls hockey community, Britt said. That was evident for this first year when Southwest joined five other teams in the league — the first of its kind in Western Pennsylvania. They will forever be known as the ones who set the foundation, leading the way for future generations of players such as Emma, ​​Hannah and Angela.

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Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

A braid hangs down the back of Southwest’s Abby Daffner during a game against Central on Thursday, May 5, 2022, at RMU Island Sports Center in Neville Township.

The teams

Players were divided by skill level and geographical location into East, West, North, Central, Southwest and Southeast. Most have experience playing on boys teams, but this league gave them more of an opportunity to be on the ice and have a league of their own, said Alli Paratore, coach of Southwest. She was the only female head coach. There were some female assistants. The girls league started later in the high school year to give players an opportunity to play on their high school boys teams, which compete into March.

Southwest lost that playoff game 2-1 to eventual champion East.

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Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

Young female hockey players high-five and talk to Southwest players Robin Anderson (11), Kirsten Lallone (29) and Alexandra Chappell (far right) after their 2-1 loss to East in the first round of the PIHL girls division playoffs Sunday, June 5, 2022, at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry. The girls were carrying a sign that read, “I play hockey. Thank you for paving a path for my future.”

But there were many victories that didn’t show up on the scoreboard. The girls prevailed after having to wait two years to take the ice because of the pandemic. They overcame challenges from varying skill levels on teams, to navigating graduations and other school events to traveling to various parts of the city to play.

Worth the wait

But if you ask them, it was all worth it.

“I would not have wanted to play on any other team,” said Riley Mackiewicz, a recent Chartiers Valley graduate who was a defenseman. “We were the first girls high school hockey league in Pittsburgh, and that’s pretty cool.”

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Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

Southwest’s Riley Mackiewicz tries to make a play as she falls to the ice during the final regular season game against East on Wednesday, June 1, 2022, at Ice Castle in Castle Shannon.

“It was cool to see this finally happen,” said Heather Downey, mother of Chartiers Valley incoming senior Chloe Downey, a forward for Southwest. “It was a totally different vibe than other hockey games I have been to.”

Chloe Downey is on the Steel City Selects travel team with some of the players from the girls high school league. Some compete for other hockey programs and a few for Pens Elite. Downey has been playing hockey since she was 12 years old, the year she told her mom she wanted to play hockey.

“I told her, ‘You don’t know how to skate,’ ” Heather Downey said. “She told me, ‘I will learn.’ And she did.”

“It is a huge pleasure to be on this team,” Chloe Downey said of the Southwest squad. “It’s an even playing field. And we all get a chance to play.”

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Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

Southwest’s Chloe Downey and teammates grab their sticks before heading to the ice for the third period against Southeast on May 10 at Ice Castle in Castle Shannon.

Growing

According to USA Hockey, girls hockey is among the fastest-growing youth sports in the US In the 2018-19 season, more girls and women participated in ice hockey than ever before with nearly 83,000 lacing up the skates. Over the past 10 years, girls and women’s hockey participation has grown by 34%.

The goal of this first season was to make everyone better, said Paratore, who grew up in Johnstown. She played her first hockey game at the age of 7 and competed on all-girls travel teams from Johnstown, Altoona and Pittsburgh before playing college hockey at Cal (Pa.). She is now a youth coach in the South Hills Amateur Hockey Association and assists her boyfriend, Nick Battista, with Battista Hockey camps and clinics.

Paratore told the girls being a part of this groundbreaking season was about empowering each other. Before the playoff game, she told them to make good passes and that it doesn’t matter who scores.

“You are only as good as your weakest link,” Paratore said.

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Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

Southwest assistant coach Caitlin Dee cheers in the locker room as players look on following their 4-3 overtime win against Southeast on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, at Ice Castle in Castle Shannon.

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Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

The manicured hands of Southwest’s Athena Renton grasp a water bottle in the locker room prior to the third period against Central on Thursday, May 5, 2022, at RMU Island Sports Center in Neville Township.

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Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

Southwest’s Madeline Bank and East’s Leah O’Donnell collide as they go for the puck during the final regular season game Wednesday, June 1, 2022, at Ice Castle in Castle Shannon.

‘Greatest game on earth’

“Hockey is for everyone,” Britt said.

“We work year-round to ensure that statement is true. Hockey is the greatest game on earth, and we believe everyone should have access to learn, play and compete, regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic status or any other factor.”

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Southwest’s Alexa Carney is reflected in the glass as she and teammates line up for their game against Southeast on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, at Ice Castle in Castle Shannon.

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Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

Southwest head coach Alli Paratore holds an ice pack to her ear after getting hit with a puck during game against Central on Thursday, May 5, 2022, at RMU Island Sports Center in Neville Township.

The girls play by USA Hockey rules. They are not permitted to check, but the game does get physical.

“It is more of a finesse game,” Paratore said.

Girls came from West Virginia to participate. Forward Robin Anderson, a junior at Morgantown High School, said she traveled here because it’s a wonderful opportunity. Gretchen Rine, a defensemen from John Marshall, said it is nice girls high school hockey is being taken seriously. Goaltender Kirsten Lallone came from Brooke High School and said it’s about the importance of equality for girls and women.

“We play the puck better than boys,” Lallone said. “We want to be taken seriously.”

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Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

Southwest assistant coach Mike Dale offers encouraging words to goaltender Kirsten Lallone before the third period of a game against Central on Thursday, May 5, 2022, at RMU Island Sports Center in Neville Township.

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Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

Southwest’s Samantha Kern looks on as coach Alli Paratore talks in the locker room during a game against North on May 23 at RMU Island Sports Center in Neville Township.

Defensemen Nina Romary, an incoming junior at Bethel Park, said it was about playing hockey with friends and making new ones. Mt. Lebanon rising junior Madeline Bank, a defenseman, said the league felt more easygoing and was less intense than playing with the boys.

Title IX milestone

June 23 marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX. This federal civil rights law helped unlock access to educational and athletic opportunities, paving the way for inroads into historically male dominated professions, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.

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Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

Southwest’s Riley Mackiewicz (center) congratulates Southeast players after their win against North in the first round of the PIHL girls division playoffs Sunday, June 5, 2022, at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry. The Southeast team hadn’t won a game all season, but beat North 4-1.

PIHL commissioner John Mucha said he has watched the teams evolve and said they became more competitive throughout the season.

“It’s a unique group of people who are like a family,” he said. “We really hope to grow the game.”

Each team faced every opponent twice for a 10-game regular season. The league used Alpha Ice in Harmar, Ice Castle in Castle Shannon and the RMU Ice Complex on Neville Island. All teams made the playoffs.

Paratore said each girl brought something different.

“Their personalities and just how the team bonded in such a short amount of time I will always remember,” Paratore said. “I just hope I made a difference for them, even if it wasn’t with hockey, even the small talks in the locker room or on the bench. The seniors, I wish them luck in all their future endeavors and hope they come back to say hello once in awhile.”

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Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

Gretchen Rine covers her face in embarrassment as she is teased by her Southwest teammates in the locker room prior to the start of a game against Central on Thursday, May 5, 2022, at RMU Island Sports Center in Neville Township.

Paratore said she was happy to welcome the three young girls into the locker room and watched them cheer from the stands.

“The look of joy and awe in the faces of those younger hockey players as they got to be so close to the high school girls,” Paratore said. “They were reaching over the stands for high fives as if it were a professional team leaving the ice. Having favorite teams already, mainly because they attend one of the schools the team is made up by. I’m excited to see what this league has in store for future generations.”

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Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

Southwest’s Cameran Evans talks to teammates in the final minutes of their 8-0 win against North on Monday, May 23, 2022, at RMU Island Sports Center in Neville Township.

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Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

Southwest players and coaching staff stand for a portrait after their 2-1 loss to East in the first round of the PIHL girls division playoffs Sunday, June 5, 2022, at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact JoAnne at 724-853-5062, jharrop@triblive.com or via Twitter ,

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