Pawling Freshmen Shine in the Development of Girls' Varsity Ice Hockey
Pawling High School ninth graders Katie Anderson and Sascha Brightman have laced up their skates to join a game-changing development in girls’ sports in lower New York State: the expansion of a girls’ varsity ice hockey Section 1 league.
As brand-new members of the North Avalanche, a team combining players from 11 districts throughout the lower Hudson Valley, Katie and Sascha have made history as Pawling’s first student athletes to join an all-girls’ ice hockey team. The league comprises three teams – East Avalanche, West Avalanche and North Avalanche – and has been a driving force in the development of girls' varsity ice hockey in the area.
The Section 1 league was established in 2020 as a sanctioned varsity sport for girls' ice hockey after two years of operating as a club program. It was created in response to a formal proposal made by a group of educators and athletic directors who wanted to provide more opportunities for girls to play hockey at the high school level.
North Avalanche Coach Stacey Wierl said that the support from Pawling’s Board of Education as well as Pawling Athletic Director John Bellucci was invaluable as the league developed.
"We desperately needed a group of athletic directors to get support around the Section 1 development of girls' ice hockey,” said Wierl. “John was an incredible supporter from the start both at the rink and among Section 1 athletic directors, and we are so grateful for the board’s careful consideration and approval.”
Fast forward to the 2023-24 season, and the North Avalanche has grown both in size and reputation. What started as a modest club has now become a beacon for girls whose hockey careers may have ended in high school; though female hockey players in districts without an girls’ hockey team have historically joined a boy’s varsity team, Wierl said that it’s not always ideal.
“Though these girls could easily hold their own on a boys’ team – and some really enjoy playing on boys’ teams, which is also fantastic – the social elements can make a big difference,” she said. “It’s hard to feel like part of a team when you’re changing in a bathroom or closet while everyone else is hanging out together in the locker room.
“Our team has such an incredible culture; they really enjoy each other’s company on and off the ice and the Pawling girls are part of that.”
As the North Avalanche’s first line right and left wings, Katie and Sascha have already made an impact. Wierl praised the duo for their leadership and chemistry on and off the ice, noting the responsibility, speed and stamina that it takes to be successful in their positions.
"Sasha has a hockey IQ that is so uncommon for a ninth grader and Katie brings such a kindness and coachability to the team," Wierl said. "They're on a line with our only senior on the team and the three of them have demonstrated a unique chemistry together on the ice."
Though Katie spent much of her childhood playing youth hockey, she never expected to be part of a girls’ team in high school.
“From a young age I thought that I would have to play with boys in high school since it was the only team that Pawling had to offer,” she said. “When I found out about the team, I was so excited.”
“So far my experience has been great,” she continued. “Our team traveled to Lake Placid to play a few games and we bonded over the trip. We are like a family. I’m also excited because it feels like I am participating in the movement of growing girls hockey.”
Katie’s observation is spot-on; Pawling’s involvement in the new Section 1 league happens to come at a significant moment in national women’s ice hockey history; just last month the Professional Women's Hockey League (PWHL) – the first professional league for women's hockey in North America featuring six franchises in the United States and Canada – debuted. The PWHL aims to provide a platform for the best female players in the world to showcase their talent and inspire the next generation of hockey players.
As women's hockey gains traction nationally, the growth of the Section 1 girls’ varsity ice hockey league mirrors the significant step forward for female athletes in the sport. Wierl said that she stresses the importance of being part of this movement with her team.
"We talk about how special it is to be part of anything that’s a ‘first,’” said Wierl. “They can be proud that their decision to join the first rostered team in Section 1 North is also opening doors for younger girls to play all-girls’ ice hockey in high school as well.”