By Stephen Catanese
Published: Sunday, December 30, 2012, 10:08 p.m.
By all accounts, Plum senior goaltender Taylor Cestra is a good hockey player.
A three-year starter, Cestra was a PIHL Class AA all-star selection last season and played an important role for the Mustangs, who earned a playoff berth and finished above .500 for only the second time in the past seven years.
But the thing that really separates Cestra from the crowd of high school hockey players is her gender.
"It's important for me to play with the best players," she said. "Playing with the boys is how I get better."
Her primary concern? Just like any player, it's proving herself at the highest level, even if that level is male-dominated.
"I don't want people to just think of me as a girl playing with the boys," she said. "I just want people to think that I'm good."
Though she's one of only a handful of girls competing at the varsity level in the PIHL, Cestra is part of a growing trend of girls picking up hockey at a young age and sticking with it.
Last season, PIHL commissioner Ed Sam surveyed the league's member organizations to get an idea of how many had at least one female player in their system. He said that of the 52 organizations that responded, 48 had at least one female player.
While the results of this year's survey are not available, Sam not only thinks the numbers will continue to grow — particularly at early age levels — but they could increase to the point where establishing a girls division would be an option.
"We're continuously looking at the status of the rosters we have and where our goals are in the future. If it requires that we do have a girls division, we certainly will do that," Sam said. "If we see it's something that can be done, and if there would definitely be interest, we'd definitely do a girls division somewhere down the road, whether it would be next year or in the future."
Sam doesn't think such a division would be used to segregate the league, and that players should be given the chance to play where they want on merit. He said that the primary concern is encouraging growth in scholastic hockey.
"Our associations are very aggressive at getting girls to play," he said. "The associations are just going after players that want to play, that want to participate in the game of hockey."
Quaker Valley hockey coach Kevin Quinn has had more experience than most PIHL coaches with girls hockey players over his 16 years at the program's helm. The Quakers now have five female players, including two at the varsity level. While a proponent of girls hockey, he's skeptical that the PIHL would be ready to establish such a division in the near future.
"The growth (of girls hockey) has been incredible. However, a lot of that's with the travel hockey," he said. "At the high school level, even if you had the numbers, the skill disparity would be too much at this current age. You'd have to see the number of female players double. It's doubled in my (16 years) here, and then you'd have to see it double again."
A possible solution could be regionalizing the division or encouraging co-ops between schools. Quinn wondered if that would be within the spirit of the league.
"Part of the thing with playing in the PIHL is that you want to play for your school," he said. "If you're doing co-ops, are you playing for your school?"
Kittanning senior defenseman Caroline Mundy is playing in her third season of varsity-level hockey for the Wildcats.
At 5-foot-6, 150 pounds, Mundy isn't imposing, but she has the physical tools to keep up with opposing skaters.
"I do my best," she said. "Obviously, they're faster than me, but I can hold my own. I have to be a little nastier."
Like Cestra, Mundy has grown up playing with her teammates and couldn't imagine finishing high school any other way. But she also believes establishing a girls division would be a positive step.
"I don't even really know if they could get the numbers, but it'd be really nice. It'd open more girls up to the sport," she said. "Maybe if I was younger and they had (a girls division), I'd have played in it."