Harrison Middle School girl's long-range goal is to play in Olympics

| Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Maddie Earley watched the Team USA women's hockey games with particular interest.

The Harrison Middle School student has been playing hockey for more than half her life. Her ultimate goal is to play in the Olympics.

Earley, 13, is dedicated to her sport, choosing rink time over social events and other typical teen activities.

“I always give up sleep for hockey,” Earley said. “But I love it. I love how intense it is.”

Maddie's mother, Wendy, recalls when Maddie decided to play hockey when she was just 6 years old, after watching her brother, Hunter, practice.

“She started the next day and has been playing ever since,” Wendy said. “The Olympics were her goal from the start.”

Maddie plays hockey for the Pittsburgh Predators U14 girls' team. She competed for boys' teams until last year, switching over to the girls because boys begin to body check at the bantam division.

“My parents didn't want me to play with the boys' teams if there was checking,” Maddie said.

Maddie, a forward, believes the girls' game is equally competitive as the boys.

Bob Sabilla is Maddie's head coach with the Predators. He has been coaching both boys' and girls' hockey for 18 years.

Sabilla says with the exception of checking, there's not much difference between the games.

“The girls can get pretty rough out there too,” he said. “We play (against) boys' teams a lot, and we do very well. I'd put my girls' team up against any boys' team of the same age.”

According to Sabilla, Maddie is a good athlete who has developed her hockey skills, and she is very coachable.

“She's very disciplined. She works out on her own and I can definitely see the difference,” Sabilla said.

Maddie hopes to play hockey eventually at the collegiate level. There are increasing numbers of college women's hockey programs, including Penn State, Robert Morris, Mercyhurst and Syracuse.

“I know how much time and dedication it will take,” Maddie said.

She is determined to play hockey at a high level, but for now, she is focused on finishing out the Predators' season.

The team recently won the Patriot's Day tournament championship in Amherst, N.Y., hiking its overall record to 41-8-1.

They were 18-1 in regular-season play through 19 games, and will travel to Indiana in mid-March for the district championships. A win there will mean another trip to Amherst for the national finals.

“I like our chances,” Sabilla said. “We've already beaten the team we'll face at districts, and we didn't have three of our better players.”

Maddie continues weekly private lessons in addition to Predators' practices, striving to improve her skills daily.

“I understand how much time and dedication it takes to reach my goals,” she said.

Wendy (Mortimer) Earley, a 1986 Baldwin graduate, played tennis while in high school.

“I really wanted to play hockey, but my dad wouldn't let me,” Wendy said. “We were always a hockey family.”

Wendy and her husband, Jeff, are thrilled their daughter is a hockey player and are optimistic about her future. They believe the sport already has taught Maddie a lot of life lessons.

“The biggest thing is the discipline it teaches,” Wendy said. “They really have to love the sport. They devote a lot of time to it. We live in the car, traveling to tournaments. But hockey families are very close-knit.”

One thing is for sure. When Team USA faced Canada in the gold medal game last week, you can be sure Maddie had a hard time focusing on her classes as she waited for the results.

Jennifer Goga is a freelance writer.

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