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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 Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League for high school girls good luck. It was the league’s inaugural postseason.

“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.”

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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 forever will 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 out on the ice and to 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.”

Mackiewicz said she was honored to be a captain. She plans to attend Michigan State and try out for its club team.

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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. She traveled to Canada this past weekend for the Rush College Showcase. She’s 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.”

Chloe Downey played with boys on a middle school team and the Pittsburgh Aviators club team when she was 13.

“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 Tuesday, May 10, 2022, at Ice Castle in Castle Shannon.

Growing

According to USA Hockey, girls hockey is among the fastest-growing youth sports in the U.S. 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’s 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 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.

As with any new venture, there are challenges. Starting later in the school year created some conflicts. There were times they didn’t have the entire 17 players. Injuries kept some players sidelined.

But they learned to adjust.

The girls created an atmosphere that included rooting for players on other teams. They entered the rink wearing nail polish and skirts and their hair in ponytails. They suited up in full uniform, laced up their skates, put on a helmet and went strong for the entire game. They fought for the puck, got knocked down and bounced right back up.

They are athletes.

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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.

Players wore their school’s name on their sleeve and a patch of the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, which held a 50/50 raffle during the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association game between the U.S. and Canada in March at PPG Paints Arena, in Pittsburgh Uptown. Funds from that were donated to the league.

“Girls hockey is booming in Pittsburgh, and it is important that these athletes have the opportunity to compete in interscholastic play alongside their classmates,” Britt said.

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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,” Brit said.

“We work year-round to ensure that statement is true,” Britt said. “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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Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

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.

Paratore said she is seeing growth at the younger levels. The most important skill is to learn to skate.

“Even the times when they got frustrated, they were still having a good time,” said Paratore, of Scott Township, who during a regular-season game at Robert Morris University Island Sports Center got hit in the ear by a puck that deflected off a player. “I want it to be competitive, but this was our first season and we are all still learning. I told all the players … we need everyone. I told them they are the pioneers.”

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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.

A player of the game is chosen after each contest. Paratore’s team chose to give away jibbitz, decorative charms for crocs. Paratore started the season with hockey sticks and an orange pylon on her shoes. She tells her players to not be a pylon and stand around — she wants them to move on the ice. Some of the charms were an orange car, a green parrot, a Hello Kitty fairy, George from “Peppa Pig,” Cera, a dinosaur from “The Land Before Time,”and Bubble Puppy, from the children’s television show “Bubble Guppies.”

Pittsburgh Hockey Digest streamed the games.

“Hockey is a family,” said Kimberly Mackiewicz, mom of Riley Mackiewicz. “We’ve met so many great people through hockey.”

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.

Defenseman Samantha Kern, a rising junior at Bethel Park, said she loves the social aspect of hockey.

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Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review

Southwest’s Samantha Kern looks on as head coach Alli Paratore talks in the locker room during a game against North on Monday, May 23, 2022, at RMU Island Sports Center in Neville Township.

“It’s a high level of hockey,” said forward Lidia Lorenzi, an incoming junior at Bethel Park. “I love the competition, and I am glad to represent this team.”

Lorenzi said Paratore is a great coach in that she takes the game seriously but can be light-hearted off the ice. She understands the players, Lorenzi said.

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.

It’s about equal opportunity, said incoming sophomore at Chartiers Valley, Abby Daffner, a forward.

Title IX milestone

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

Madysen Myers, a Greensburg Central Catholic graduate, wanted to play, had the league started when it was planned.

“What a monumental journey this year,” said Myers, who came to watch the playoffs. “I love to see this sport become more widespread and create more opportunities for women. I want it to be as popular as boys hockey. It would be great to have an outdoor girls hockey game. People would love that. Girls can do whatever they want to do, and sometimes they can do it better than boys.”

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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’s 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.”

Everything they did was a first, said Southwest assistant coach Mike Dale of Bethel Park.

“They learned patience, and I am proud to have been involved in this first year,” Dale said. “They did everything right. I really enjoyed this.”

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.

The PIHL envisions an individual school filling an entire roster in the future. And at some point, there could be a state championship game. Paratore said girls hockey always has been limited, to the point where many girls quit at a certain age because teams are either unavailable and or it becomes a safety concern.

“Having a girls high school league means these girls actually have the opportunity to continue their playing career as teenagers and hopefully further into college,” Paratore said. “I kept telling my team this league is bigger than they think and means a lot more to girls hockey than they will ever know.”

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.

The leading scorer in the regular season, forward Cameran Evans, a Bethel Park graduate, is playing for the Tier I Florida Alliance amateur team.

“I love hockey,” said Evans, who had 13 goals and six assists in the regular season. “It is a different sport for girls, and I love being different. There is no other game like this.”

Evans said everyone worked hard this season, and she was proud to be on the team.

“I think we set high standards for those who follow,” Evans said as the three little girls with the poster walked by. “They will have big skates to fill.”

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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.

Southwest roster

Pos., Name, School, Class

F, Lidia Lorenzi, Bethel Park, So.

F, Robin Anderson, Morgantown, Jr.

F, Abby Daffner, Chartiers Valley, Fr.

F, Cameran Evans, Bethel Park, Sr.

D, Madeline Bank, Mt. Lebanon, So.

D, Nina Romary, Bethel Park, So.

D, Athena Renton, Mt. Lebanon, Fr.

F, Alexa Carney, Wheeling Park, So.

G, Kirsten Lallone, Brooke, So.

F, Kelcie Stack, Mt. Lebanon, Jr.

D, Gretchen Rine, John Marshall, Sr.

D, Samantha Kern, Bethel Park, So.

F, Alexandra Chappell, Carrick, Fr.

F, Alina Donahue Mt. Lebanon, Fr.

F, Chloe Downey, Chartiers Valley, Jr.

F, Svetlana Yarosh, Canon-McMillan, Sr.

D, Riley Mackiewicz, Chartiers Valley, Sr.

Note: Grades reflect the 2021-22 school year

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact JoAnne at 724-853-5062, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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