Gabby Bittner admits that her presence on the New Albany High School hockey team can lead to some delicate situations, one of which is that she has her own locker room whenever and wherever the Eagles play.
"I'm in my own locker room over there, and I go over there when we have to talk before a game," Bittner, a senior wing, said during a practice last week at Chiller Easton, gesturing in a different direction beyond the ice from where the team's locker room is located before smiling. "They make sure I am not in anyone's business."
Sometimes, her teammates have to make sure that's the case.
"On senior night, another hockey team was showering right near us and we had to form a wall so she couldn't see," teammate Dev Patel said. "She's a good player considering she started so late. She's very talented for her age. She only played on one hockey team before she came here, but she adapted really well."
Bittner, who took up hockey in the eighth grade, became the first female player in the six-year history of the program when she came aboard as a junior. Bittner has played on the junior varsity team each of the last two seasons but celebrated her senior night Feb. 4 along with the varsity squad before it played Upper Arlington.
Bittner became hooked on hockey when she attended a Blue Jackets game during middle school. She played on U12 and U14 teams in the Columbus Chill Youth Hockey Association for two years and joined a U14 team in the Capital Amateur Hockey Association as a sophomore, first as a defenseman and then as a wing.
"I don't have as much responsibility (at wing) as a center or a defenseman, and I get more opportunities to score," said Bittner, who still is seeking her first goal as an Eagle.
A friend suggested she join the Eagles before her junior year.
"I didn't have an excuse anymore to play down (in age), plus one of my friends suggested I join the team because I didn't have anywhere else to go," Bittner said. "It was a lot harder (than previous teams). The skill level and speed were something to get used to."
Junior varsity coach Grant Reader said Bittner has more than made up for any disparities.
"From a skating aspect alone, she was seconds behind everybody when she started. She's right there with the guys now," Reader said. "That's the hardest part about hockey. Anybody can handle a stick. The skating aspect separates people.
"She'll say 'nice hit' or 'great play' and she'll let them know 'hey, pass to that winger next time.' Her growth in the game has been substantial. It's been so cool to see."
Bittner plans to follow the varsity team throughout its postseason, which begins Sunday, Feb. 17, when New Albany takes on 13th-seeded Springboro or 20th-seeded DeSales in the second round of the district tournament at Chiller North. The Eagles, who defeated Springboro 5-1 on Jan. 12, are seeded fourth of 26 teams.
The winner will play fifth-seeded St. Charles, 15th-seeded Columbus Academy or 16th-seeded Centerville in a district quarterfinal Feb. 23 at OhioHealth Ice Haus.
New Albany is 16-10-2-5 overall after going 1-1 in the Blue Jackets Cup last weekend at OhioHealth Ice Haus, defeating fifth-seeded St. Charles 4-3 in the first round Feb. 7 before losing to top-seeded Dublin Jerome 6-1 in a semifinal Feb. 9. The Eagles were seeded fourth.
Bittner's primary passion is art and she plans to attend an art school for college, but is not sure where.
A digital photo Bittner composed two years ago of Blue Jackets teammates Nick Foligno and Scott Hartnell was shared on Twitter by her mother, Mindy, and drew compliments from Foligno.
"Well done!!! #impressed," Foligno tweeted in part.
"She has a painting of a pair of hockey skates and you can't tell it's a painting. It's remarkable," Reader said. "We love having Gabby. It's a huge stepping stone and it opens the door for other girls who are interested. And the guys step up for her for sure."
Swimmers thrive at sectional
Four swimmers won two events apiece during a Division I sectional meet Feb. 9 at Thomas Worthington, leading to a sweep of the boys and girls team championships as 15 girls and 11 boys advanced to district Friday, Feb. 15, at Ohio State.
On the boys side, Patrick Daly won the 100-yard breaststroke (1 minute, .82 of a second) and 200 individual medley (2:04.56), Darden Spychalski won the 200 freestyle (1:46.9) and 500 free (4:53.59) and Pearson Spychalski was first in the 100 backstroke (52.5) and 100 free (47.6), leading New Albany to 358 points and first place ahead of runner-up Gahanna (179.5) as 12 teams scored.
Led by Lexi Elkovitch's wins in the 50 free (23.87) and 100 free (51.82), the girls team scored 363 points and placed first ahead of runner-up Gahanna (192) as 13 teams scored.
The winner of each sectional event automatically qualified for district. In addition, 27 at-large district berths were awarded in each swimming event based on times from the Central, East and Southeast sectional sites.
Other boys winners at sectional were Tommy Morris in the 50 free (21.7), the 200 medley relay (1:37.32) and the 400 free relay (3:18.4). For the girls, Ava Lachey was first in the 200 free (1:55.13), Mia Lachey won the 200 IM (2:11.94) and the 200 free relay (1:38.28), 200 medley relay (1:50.89) and 400 free relay (3:36.04) all won.
The boys 200 medley relay is seeded first at district, as is Elkovitch in the 100 free.
Divers did not compete at sectional.
The boys competition is Thursday, Feb. 14, at Ohio State, followed by the girls the next day.
At district, the top two placers in each swimming event automatically advance to the state meet Feb. 21-23 at Branin Natatorium in Canton. In addition, 16 at-large state berths will be awarded for each swimming event based on times statewide.
The top four boys divers at district advance to state Feb. 23, and the top five girls divers will advance to their state competition Feb. 21.
Wrestlers wrap up regular season
The wrestling team will hope for a share of the OCC-Capital championship Thursday, Feb. 14, when it finishes the regular season at home against Big Walnut.
New Albany is 3-1 in the OCC-Capital, coming off a 28-25 loss at Groveport on Feb. 7. The Cruisers, who are 4-0 in the league, will try to finish off their third consecutive league championship Feb. 14 at Newark.
The Eagles swept a tri-meet Feb. 8, defeating host Sparta Highland 46-25 and Logan Elm 45-27.
Athletes announce college choices
Four student-athletes announced their college decisions Feb. 6.
Adriane Hammond will bowl at Wright State, Will King will play football at Ashland, Michael O'Shaughnessy will be a preferred walk-on to the Ohio State football team and Zach Rutledge will play football at Ohio Wesleyan.
Below is the coming schedule for the New Albany boys basketball team:
*Feb. 15 -- Home vs. Franklin Heights. The Eagles defeated the Falcons 56-45 on Jan. 11.
Feb. 23 -- At sixth-seeded Hilliard Davidson in first round of Division I district tournament. The Eagles are seeded 34th.