PIHL girls division’s 3rd season highlighted by more teams, close games

Saturday, June 8, 2024 | 11:01 AM

Expansion and parity were the name of the game for the PIHL Girls Division in the league’s third year of existence.

The popularity of girls hockey in the area had grown so much that two new teams were added — the South and Northwest squads — bringing the total number of teams to nine.

Forming the rosters for the newly added teams took a lot of hard work by a committee to make sure all the teams were fair and balanced, while also trying to keep girls who attended the same high school on the same team.

“Coaches have zero input in where the girls are placed, which is a great thing,” said Southwest coach Tony Mucci. “You don’t want coaches picking certain players. You want it to be even. The directors sit down and place the girls based on talent level, while keeping the teams balanced.”

It came as no surprise to Mucci that the make-up of his team was different for the 2024 season.

“I had Canon-McMillan and Trinity last year. This year I picked up Upper St. Clair but lost Trinity,” Mucci said. “They try to keep the kids in the same region, but having a mix really makes it nice.”

“There’s a lot of talent in this area,” said Joe Cummings, coach of the West team. “On our team, even though we lost three players from last year, we gained three new players. We’re still pretty even across the board, pretty spread out with the talent we have.”

With girls moving around to leep the talent on each team balanced, the league enjoyed another year of parity, which is what PIHL girls division committee chairman Chris Chiusano was looking for.

“What we’ve tried to do over the last three years is to make it as competitive as possible and really have as much parity throughout the league as we can,” Chiusano said.

Parity was reflected in the final regular season standings as the top five teams were separated by eight points.

The newly added South team finished the regular season 9-0-1 with 18 points, good for first place. Southwest finished second with an 8-0-2 record and 16 points. The West was third at 7-3-0 with 14 points.

Last year’s champions, Southeast (6-3-1) finished in fourth with 12 points and the East (5-4-1) closed out the year with 10.

The final four teams in the division were North (4-6-0), Northwest (2-6-2), Central (3-7-0) and Northeast (1-9-0).

Competitive games were in abundance as six of the eight playoff games, including the championship game, were decided by one or two goals.

“It’s great when you have competition like that and not have too many lopsided games because the games are more exciting and you draw a lot more interest,” said Chiusano.

The Northeast and Northwest played each other in a play-in game, with the Northwest winning 2-1. Northwest then upset the top team in the regular season.

Behind a hat trick from Sydnee Pitkins, a senior from Knoch, Northwest upset South, 4-3.

The other close game in the first round was a 4-2 East victory over defending champ Southeast. The league leader in goals, Freeport sophomore Madyson Kirsch, scored a hat trick and freshman Lily Ash of Elizabeth Forward scored the other goal.

In the two games decided by three goals or more, Southwest blanked Central, 6-0, behind goals from a pair of Upper St. Clair sophomores. Natalia Disora scored a hat trick and Kayla McCarthy scored two goals.

In the other contest, West won 4-1 over North with two goals by Montour senior Lakyn Schaltenbrand and another from Moon sophomore Caroleena Genco.

In the semifinals, Southwest won 3-1 against Northwest as McCarthy scored two more goals, and West prevailed over East on an overtime winner from Genco.

“You want to have competitive games throughout the playoffs, and the regular season for that matter,” added Chiusano. “I think (the championship game) was a great example of that where you had evenly matched teams who competed down to the very end to decide a winner.”

The third annual PIHL girls championship game saw Mucci’s Southwest team defeat Cummings’ West squad 5-3 to claim the title.

With the tilt tied 3-3 with 37 seconds left, Southwest’s McCarthy threw the puck to the front of the net and it bounced of a defender for the game-winning goal.

McCarthy’s teammate Disora recorded a hat trick, bringing her season point total to 21 points with 17 goals and four assists.

Both are grateful that they have the opportunity to show off their skills and help grow the game.

“It’s a great opportunity for high school girls to finally get recognition,” said McCarthy. “A lot of people don’t know how good girls are at hockey. This just shows what we can contribute and how we represent the game.”

“This is a huge step in girls high school hockey,” added Disora. “It hasn’t been that big of a game in the most recent past, but now it’s growing a lot more and a league like this just shows how much the sport has grown.”

The Southwest win made it three different champions in three years.

The league is flush with talent from places like Erie, Wheeling, Morgantown, Eastern Ohio and State College and most of the girls are used to playing on club teams.

The majority of players are young, being juniors, sophomores and freshmen in high school.

Mt. Lebanon freshman Amanda King of the South led the league in scoring with 27 points (17 goals-10 assists).

Kirsch repeated as top goal scorer with 21. She finished tied in second place in total points (26) with McCarthy (16-10).

Disora finished her year with 21 points (17-4) and a pair of Southeast and Peters Township teammates, sophomore Talia Mertens and senior Leela Nemani, finished tied for fifth with 19 points apiece.

The West’s Genco was sixth in the league with 18 points (13-5).

“The talent is an indication is how far girls hockey has come in a short period of time, not just within the PIHL, but generally speaking, across the area and nationally,” added Chiusano. “To me it’s a great thing to see. There are a lot of really talented young ladies playing hockey who have some great opportunities moving forward.”

Chiusano’s goals are to continue to grow the sport in the short term, expanding as the interest and registration grows.

Long term, he would like to see the sport get to the point where schools have enough interest to field their own teams.

For now, he is satisfied with providing the girls with a chance to pursue their dreams.

“For me, it’s very gratifying to give girls the opportunity to play and compete at the high school level and that they can go up against other girls and share in that camaraderie, share in that experience, that they may not get otherwise,” said Chiusano.

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