Youth not stopping Predators girls hockey team
When looking at the roster of coach Bob Sabilla's Pittsburgh Predators girls hockey team, it seems to be tailor made for Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League's U14 league.
The 13-player roster features 11 athletes who are 13 years old and two who are 14.
But after his peewee squad last season – featuring several members from this season's team and the first all-girls peewee squad in PAHL history– dominated a U14 team, 15-0, in a scrimmage, Bob Sabilla knew what had to be done.
“With PAHL, there is only U14 and U19,” Bob Sabilla said. “There is no (U16). So I said let's go for it. A lot of the girls we play are bigger and stronger but we're still playing hockey. We're not fighting them. It worked out pretty well.”
Pretty well may be a bit of an understatement as the youngest team in the U19 league has battled its way to a 15-2-1 record.
The team features three local athletes in forwards Natalie Walielewski and Brittney Lisowski and defender Erika Sabilla, all of whom live in the Chartiers Valley School District.
The rest of the team includes forwards Morgan Gloeckl (Bethel Park), Mackenzie Chan (McMurray), Cali Heidenreich (Canonsburg), Charleigh Wagner (Murrysville), Katherine Jones (Plum) and Zoe Horne (Shadyside) as well as defenders Moreen McGrath (Ross Township), Sydney Fox (Imperial), Sophie Guthrie (Mt. Lebanon), and goalie Hannah Lindey (Slippery Rock).
Despite facing players typically anywhere from three to six years older, the Predators are in second place in the U19 league. The team trails only Mt. Lebanon (15-1-1) in the standings.
“I really didn't think we would be doing so well,” Wagner said. “I knew we would be up there but not this high. We beat some really good teams. I was thinking we might be like 9-6.”
The Predators got their marquee win of the regular season on Jan. 13 when they defeated Mt. Lebanon, 3-2. The Predators had fallen to the top-seeded team twice earlier in the season by scores of 3-2 and 3-1 but the third time proved to be the charm.
“It was really big because we had lost to them twice before and they were undefeated,” Erika Sabilla said. “We worked together to beat them.”
The other teams in the PAHL U19 league are North Hills (9-8-2), South Hills (8-9-1), North Pittsburgh (7-9-2), Armstrong (5-8-6), Westmoreland (3-10-3) and Morgantown, W. Va. (0-15-2).
The league features similar rules to what one would see during a PIHL game or any boys game except for one exception –no body checking on the open ice.
“They still get rough along the boards and in front of the net,” Bob Sabilla said. “When watching the game, you still will see roughing penalities and checking penalties.”
Bob Sabilla said coming into the year he was not concerned with competing for a banner but instead teaching the team solid hockey. The team's success has just been an added bonus.
“I just wanted to do the simple things,” Bob Sabilla said. “You don't need to reinvent the wheel with amateur hockey. It has been played the same way forever.
“You have to have hockey sense to play hockey.”
Walielewski has been the catalyst for the Predators success on offense. She has recorded 27 goals and 12 assists. Bob Sabilla said without her, the season could be very different.
“It is always fun to score goals and make assists,” Walielewski said. “But my main goal is to make the players around me better. Everyone is so positive. We are always saying ‘good pass' or ‘nice play.' There is never anything negative.”
Other leaders on the offensive end of the ice include Horne with 11 points; Wagner and Heidenreich with eight; Jones, Chan and Erika Sabilla with seven and McGrath with six.
What has really made the team special has been the way the defense has shut down the opposing teams. The Predators feature the second-best goals against average with .77 – behind only Mt. Lebanon's .76.
Lindey has been a brick wall in front of the net as she has recorded 11 shutouts this season.
“She just turned 13 a few weeks ago,” Bob Sabilla said. “She plays on a boys team also. She committed to us because we didn't have a goal tender. She has done well for us.”
Team work has been the driving force behind the team's success. The Predators said they are committed to helping one another each time they hit the ice.
“Everyone kind of gives advice to each other so the next time they go out they know what to fix,” Wagner said. “It helps us to get better and better.”
In addition to finding success in the PAHL, the team won the 2012 Pittsburgh Girls Thanksgiving Classic U14-Tier 2 tournament. The 10-team tournament featured six teams from Canada along with two from Michigan.
The team also won the 2013 York City Ice Arena Martin Luther King Jr. U16 tournament in York, Pa. The Predators defeated teams from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia to bring home the trophy.
“It is always fun to play different teams and see what everyone has and compare ourselves to different teams,” Walielewski said. “It gives us an idea what we need to work on to get better.”
With two tournament trophies under their belt and only two regular-season games left on the schedule, the Predators have their sights set on the U19 playoffs.
The tournament will be held in Morgantown this year and features the top four teams with No. 1 facing No. 4 and No. 2 facing No. 3.
If things play out like they have all season, the Predators may get a shot to even the score with Mt. Lebanon.
“We have the motivation now that we can beat any team, even undefeated teams,” Heidenreich said. “I think we will do really well in the playoffs.”
Nathan Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5813 or firstname.lastname@example.org.