Baldwin, TJ players among trailblazers in PIHL girls hockey league

Sunday, May 22, 2022 | 9:01 AM

Team Central of the PIHL is playing not only for today but for the future as well.

Coached by Joe Cummings, Central is one of six teams participating in the inaugural PIHL girls division this year.

The history-making season was supposed to start in 2020; however, those plans were put on hold in the early days of the pandemic.

“The number of girls playing hockey has been increasing, and it is wonderful there is another place for the girls to play,” Cummings said. “I’ve told my team that although they are having fun and enjoying the games, they are not playing for themselves. They are playing for all of the little girls that are just starting to play.

“They are playing today so those little girls can hopefully play for their schools when they get to high school.”

There are 16 players on the Central squad, ranging from six freshmen and four sophomores to five juniors and one senior.

Three players attend Baldwin; two are students at Thomas Jefferson.

Baldwin is represented by freshman forward Delaney Howard and defenders Evie Wright, a junior, and Maggie Overn, a freshman.

The two TJ girls are junior defender Jillian Piscitelli and freshman forward Brooklyn Joyce.

“Delaney Howard is a strong, fast skater and has a great shot. She scored the first goal in league history,” Cummings said, “and Evie Wright got the first penalty. Maggie Overn is one of our stronger players who mainly plays defense; however, she is ready to step up and play forward when needed.

“Brooklyn Joyce is probably one of our fastest skaters and Jillian Piscitelli is our team captain. She has not disappointed with her natural leadership.”

Howard is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals and seven assists and hadn’t been assessed a single penalty through eight games.

“I have always wanted to play high school hockey, but the only option I had was to play with the boys,” Howard said. “I think it is really cool the PIHL decided to make a girls league, and I’m very excited to be a part of this league.

“It is amazing to be able to play in the first-ever season and the first-ever game. I think Team Central will go far. We have a great group of girls and we have all come together very fast. I think we are going to have a successful season.”

Howard started skating when she was 4 and began her hockey career at age 6.

“My dad had season tickets for the Penguins when I was young,” she said. “I would always go to watch with him and I just fell in love. I told my dad I really wanted to play, so he signed me up for skating lessons.

“Once I learned to skate, I started with the Little Pens program. I have played for my school developmental program, SHAHA, Steel City Selects and Pittsburgh Penguins Elite.”

Howard, who tackles the game of roller hockey in the summer with girls on her ice hockey teams, owns a 4.0 GPA and would like to play Division I hockey (two of her early candidates are Ohio State or Penn State) and study sports medicine.

Other players on the Central girls team are senior Mya Hennigan (Avonworth); juniors Erica Gynn (Hampton), Audrey Monro-Neeley (Avonworth) and Paytyn Blackburn (Bentworth); sophomores Poppy Acheson (Avonworth), Julia Yeloushan (North Hills), Abigail Dille (Pine-Richland) and Kaylee Lazaro (Hampton); and freshmen Sophia Scatena (Pine-Richland), Danica Gynn (Hampton) and Braidee Blackburn (Bentworth).

Monro-Neely, who netted eight goals in eight games, Scatena, Yeloushan and the Gynn sisters are forwards; Hennigan, Acheson, Paytyn Blackburn, Dille and Lazaro are defensive specialists.

Braidee Blackburn is the team’s starting goaltender. Sshe had a 2.11 goals-against average and .912 save percentage, stopping 177 of 194 shots.

Team Central was near the top of the standings in league play with a 6-2 record that included a five-game winning streak after a 1-2 start.

Most recenty, Central skated past the East, 5-2, Southeast, 3-2, Southwest, 5-2, Southeast, 3-2, and North, 3-1, in succession.

“Our team has been playing well,” Cummngs said. “This is probably the fastest I have seen a team jell. The girls communicate very well and they have been playing like they have been together for a long time.

“Girls are more focused on the technical side of the game, whereas most of the boys are focused on the physical side. Practices are designed and run like any other practice; however, in my opinion I think I have seen more smiles and dancing at a girls practice.”

The 55-year-old Cummings could be considered a “hockey lifer.”

He started playing the sport while in first grade and continued his career on the ice through high school.

“I started coaching in 1990,” Cummings said. “I coached a few years before being transferred for work. I began teaching ‘Learn to Play Hockey’ at RMU in 2010 and became the youth hockey coordinator in 2015.

“Since 2018, I have been coaching solely girls hockey and recently had the honor of being asked to coach the girls team for the 2022 Keystone State Games.”

Cummings, who is assisted by Steve Broskey and Howard Smith, attended the USA Hockey Level 5 clinic at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 2018.

“I coach a hockey team that happens to be girls, so my philosophy is no different than coaching any other team,” Cummings said. “Our team goal is to have fun and enjoy the season.”

More than 100 players signed up to play in the PIHL inaugural girls division. The Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation is a financial backer.

“One of the neat things about this league is, no matter how competitive it gets during the game, watching a lot of the girls from both teams interacting after the game,” Cummings said. “I was told by a few referees it is difficult at times calling the game because it is hard to distinguish between who is joking with a friend and who is truly mad at another player.”

The girls season runs into June with games at Alpha Ice in Harmar, Ice Castle in Castle Shannon and the RMU Ice Complex on Neville Island.

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