Delayed 2 years by pandemic, PIHL adds girls division for high school hockey

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Sunday, April 17, 2022 | 8:32 PM


Morgan Black was the leading scorer on a national championship hockey team this winter, but she has never worn her high school’s logo on any jersey. That’s because for a girl to play high school hockey in Western Pennsylvania, she always had to play against the boys.

That changes this spring.

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League, which oversees the sport in this region, is organizing a girls division for the first time. The history-making season was supposed to launch in 2020, but those plans were scuttled in the early days of the pandemic.

Now two years later, the puck drops for the first PIHL girls division game Monday night.

“I’m just really excited I get the opportunity, and all girls across Pittsburgh get to play in an all-girls league,” said Morgan, a North Allegheny senior.

As a boys league, the PIHL got its current name in 1999 and has roots that stretch back to the 1970s. More than 100 players have signed up to play the inaugural girls season.

“This is an opportunity to continue to grow hockey, to make it more available for anyone and everyone who wanted to play,” PIHL commissioner John Mucha said. “USA Hockey has been trying to grow the girls side. It just fits naturally with what we want to do.”

The interest from players has exceeded expectations. The PIHL had about 80 girls sign up two years ago for the season that never got started. But the number of girls already playing hockey in the area continues to grow because of the success of travel teams such as the Penguins Elite, Steel City Selects and other youth programs.

So the talent pool is there.

“A lot of the girls have just finished playing their travel seasons, and we weren’t sure how many would want to continue to play into June,” Mucha said. “The turnout has been very good, and we’re really excited with the number of players we have and the coaches we have. We’ve been able to attract a really good makeup.”

Norwin defenseman Olivia Knoechel was one of those players who signed up two years ago and is excited to see the idea finally come to life. She has played for years, at times on all-girls or mixed gender teams. When she was one of only two girls on the school’s boys team, she was excited to play but admits she didn’t like always being tested by them.

“If you’re the only girl, you have to prove yourself more,” Knoechel said. “I’m looking forward to getting a chance to play with girls again. I haven’t played on an all-girls team in many, many years. I kind of want to see the skill level.”

The PIHL divided players into six teams with directional names: East, West, North, Central, Southwest and Southeast.

Each team has a roster with players pulled from multiple schools. The East has players from 11 schools, including Norwin, but also Armstrong, Burrell, Hempfield, Latrobe, Penn-Trafford and others.

Players from the same school were kept together on the same PIHL team, but the league shifted schools around geographically to better balance the six rosters.

“We tried to make sure that we didn’t have all of the more talented, more experienced players on one team,” Mucha said.

The season runs into June. Each team faces every opponent twice for a 10-game regular season. The league will use three rinks: Alpha Ice in Harmar, Ice Castle in Castle Shannon and the RMU Ice Complex on Neville Island.

“For the girls it’s exciting because they’ve gone and watched their brothers play, and now this is their opportunity to have that,” said East coach Jon Yackmack, whose daughter, Olyvia, is an Armstrong freshman and a forward on the East team.

All six teams make the playoffs, scheduled for UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry. The Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation is a financial backer of the girls division.

The team jerseys have a PIHL crest in the middle and a Penguins Foundation patch on one shoulder. But on the other shoulder will be the school logo for each player, a personalized touch that didn’t go unnoticed.

“The girls were excited,” Southwest coach Alli Paratore said. “You finally get to play kind of for your school. It’s a huge thing around Pittsburgh. Everyone wants to play for their school. And they want to wear their school on their (jersey).”

Paratore, a Johnstown native, is the lone female head coach among the six teams. She, surely better than most, understood the limited school-sponsored options available to girls. Playing with the boys might make you grittier, she said, but it’s maybe not always ideal.

“I played a year of middle school, and because I was a girl, I got hit from behind after a play and got a concussion,” Paratore said. “I never played boys hockey after that. I went to all girls and only played all girls.”

Her playing experience came with 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.

Rick Tingle, the Southeast coach, won PIHL and state titles in March with his Peters Township boys team. Now, he’s ready for a different challenge, leading a team filled largely with unfamiliar faces.

Tingle said he didn’t ask for their hockey resumes or do research into their experience. Instead, he approached practice as a blank slate, and came away impressed.

“The difference in skill level across the board — from the best player on the team to the 17th-best player on the team — is so small,” he said. “And the skill level is immense. It’s really great to see.”

Tingle had also signed up to coach a girls team two years ago. Now that it’s finally a reality, he’s hoping this inaugural girls season will lead to bigger schedules and more teams in the future.

“I’m very enthusiastic about this,” he said. “I know we’re at the beginning of it. I know it will take some time. But this is a great start.”

Tingle points to the success of girls travel teams from Western Pennsylvania. The most recent example was the Steel City Selects, who won the USA Hockey Girls U19 Tier II national title April 4 in West Chester. Black, the North Allegheny senior now playing for the North team, had 49 points in 54 games this winter.

Hockey has taken Black to rinks in North Carolina and Tennessee, but this PIHL season has her delighted.

“I’m really excited that we get the opportunity to connect with girls from other organizations,” she said.

If all goes as planned, the PIHL envisions an individual school filling an entire roster sometime in the future. And at some point, the girls could add a state championship game, too.

Regardless, adding high school hockey as an option for girls will make the game more accessible, Paratore said, and give young girls someone only a little older to admire.

“I looked up to the Olympic stars and those girls,” Paratore said. “Obviously, not everyone is going to the Olympics or the National Women’s Hockey League, but having someone closer to home to look up to is a more realistic dream. They’ll say, ‘So-and-so plays in the high school league. I can’t wait until I can play in the high school league.’ ”

Central

Schools: Avonworth, Baldwin, Bentworth, Hampton, North Hills, Pine-Richland, Thomas Jefferson

Coach: Joe Cummings

East

Schools: Armstrong, Burrell, Elizabeth Forward, Hempfield, Latrobe, Norwin, Penn-Trafford, Serra Catholic, Westmont Hilltop, West Shamokin, Winber

Coach: Jon Yackmack

North

Schools: Grove City, Franklin Regional, Knoch, Mercyhurst Prep, North Allegheny, Oil City, Seneca Valley, Slippery Rock

Coach: Tony Rivet

Southeast

Schools: Allderdice, Connellsville, Eden Christian, Peters Township, Seton LaSalle, South Park, Steel Valley, Upper St. Clair

Coach: Rick Tingle

Southwest

Schools: Bethel Park, Brooke, Canon-McMillan, Carrick, Chartiers Valley, John Marshall, Morgantown, Mt. Lebanon, Wheeling Park

Coach: Alli Paratore

West

Schools: Freedom, Linsley, Montour, Moon, Quaker Valley, Trinity, West Allegheny

Coach: Jeff Tindall

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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