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Mid-Am Girls Feature: Team Pittsburgh continues nationals tradition at 19U

By Jim Smith - Special to, 03/19/13, 10:30AM MDT


LAKEWOOD, Ohio — For several members of Team Pittsburgh Tier I 19-and-Under girls’ team, the tradition of competing for a USA Hockey National Championship continues after the squad won the Mid-Am District championship at Serpentini Arena in Lakewood, Ohio.

Among those who have made a routine out of going to the national championships is defensive stalwart Gracen Hirschy, who will be making her sixth consecutive trip to the national tournament when she competes April 3-7 in San Jose, Calif.

“Every year, you’re nervous and you want to go,” said Hirschy, who is committed to play at the University of North Dakota and was also a member of the Under-18 U.S. team that competed in the 2013 IIHF Under-18 World Women’s Championships in Finland. “It’s awesome, it’s a great experience. I’ve been going with some of the same girls since ’08.”

Included among those who have played with Hirschy repeatedly in the national event are Taylor Cestra, Monica Cramer, Jackie Gellner, Kristin Lewicki, Kelli Mackey and Christina Zalewski.

Goaltender Gabri Switaj, making her third trip to the USA Hockey National Championships, expressed a level of appreciation in her observation of the victory in the districts and the chance to compete at nationals in San Jose.

“It felt pretty great,” she said. “Just the experience of being able to compete at districts with teams that I have so much experience with in the past; it felt great to be on top and have that feeling of accomplishment.”

In preparation for the national event, Switaj, who averaged a stingy 1.5 goals-against average in district play, detailed that the team needs to be not only physically but mentally prepared for the games.

“Last year we came in third place,” she said. “We have a tough schedule and we need to know we can do this and have a positive attitude.”

Team Pittsburgh coach Greg Carter has been the mentor of this team since it competed at the 14U level, leading the squad to its first USA Hockey national championship.

“They’ve all been playing together for so many years, they read off of each other and make smart hockey decisions,” he said. “These kids are very coachable.

“They can adjust in the middle of the game and they understand what my expectations are. We give them a lot of freedom in terms of being creative in the offensive zone. They read and react.”

As coach of a pre-post team with limited practice opportunities available, Carter’s mission in those rare practice occasions is to get the players “on the same page,” relying on each player’s solid foundation developed during their experiences at the younger levels.

“We couldn’t play the way we play without the skills they have,” he said. “We give them that freedom because they have good hands, they pass the puck well, they shoot the puck well and they skate and transition from forward to backward and keep their heads up. Those fundamental skills were learned when they were younger.”

Carter sets an expectation of wanting his players to enjoy the experience as they prepare for this year’s trip to the USA Hockey National Championship.

“I always tell the kids to enjoy it because they’ve earned it,” he said. “I tell them the most important game is the first game, and then we will take one game at a time. We break it down to one period at time, one shift at a time, and keep breaking it down and work hard. At this level everybody is skilled. Everybody can shoot. Everybody can skate. We need to outwork our opponents.”

In advancing to the USA Hockey National Championships, Team Pittsburgh defeated Gilmour Academy 2-1, won a back-and-forth battle against neighboring rival Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 5-3, and closed out their championship effort defeating the Ohio Flames 4-2.

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

Mid-Am District Girls Tournament Champions

Girls' Tier I
14-U: Pittsburgh Penguins Elite
16-U: Team Pittsburgh
19-U: Team Pittsburgh
Girls' Tier II
16-U: Steel City Selects
19-U: Columbus Blue Jackets