Nicci Piccioni brought a field hockey resume as long as her stick to Juniata College as the newcomer in a five-goalie pecking order.
Though she didn’t doubt her ability following an all-state career at Midd-West, Piccioni understood she’d have to prove herself worthy of playing time at a vastly different level.
“I was very intimidated,” she said. “I was the youngest (goalie) — a freshman with three seniors and one sophomore — so I was very much the underdog and intimidated. But the Juniata team itself was so inviting. They welcomed me with open arms and they were nothing but kind.
“I wanted to do really well, keep working really hard, and have a similar experience to what I had in high school, not knowing for sure when or if I would play. I would have taken any opportunity, even if I had to wait until my senior year.”
Piccioni developed a sisterhood with her fellow goalies, forming a bond — particularly with Eagles four-year starter Kylie Edwards — that helped prepare her to take over in the cage as a sophomore this past season.
In the face of what she called “one of the biggest (challenges) I could have thought of,” Piccioni excelled to a such degree that she was recognized as the Landmark Conference Defensive Player of the Year among several league honors.
“She’s like a baby bird,” the affable Edwards said with a laugh. “It’s so satisfying to think I helped her grow in the position. I’m so proud of her for the things she’s accomplished. Every single thing she received from the Landmark Conference she has earned wholeheartedly through her passion, her dedication, her skill and her willingness to be coached.”
‘Who I looked up to the most’
Edwards, like Piccioni, was a three-year high school starter and twice a Daily Item first-team all-star. She led Danville to its first district playoff game in a decade as a junior in 2013, and was Heartland Athletic Conference-Division I first team in consecutive years.
Edwards became Juniata’s starter from the moment she arrived in Huntingdon. She was brought in by Caroline Gillich, the Eagles’ 18-year coach who was an All-American goalie and two-time national champion at Lock Haven (1994-95).
In the course of four seasons, Edwards started all 74 games and played nearly 4,800 minutes, going 42-29-1 with a 1.36 goals-against average and program-record 12 shutouts.
“I’m a person who set really high standards and goals for myself,” she said. “There were things I wanted to do, and there are times when I look back and wish I did more. But I know now that, being a year removed from it, I know I did what I needed to do (on the field).”
Edwards had her best season as a junior in 2017, posting a 1.26 GAA and .792 save percentage to help Juniata reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since her senior year of high school. The Eagles were beaten in the first round at Kean, 2-1 in overtime, despite Edwards’ career-best 12 saves.
“I made a mistake (on the game-winner) — even though Coach said I didn’t,” Edwards said. “I came out (of the cage) too soon, and their girl got it around me and scored. I know I made a junk decision.”
The following season, Edwards’ last at Juniata, with the memory of that NCAA loss searing her inside, Piccioni showed up wide-eyed and eager to learn about the college game. She immediately gravitated to Edwards, the alpha dog with familiar roots.
“Kylie and I had the bond of coming from pretty much the same place, knowing the same (high school) teams, and having a similar high school experience. It helped to share those similarities,” said Piccioni. “All of them helped to take me under their wing. Kylie was who I looked up to the most — I felt she knew most because she was the starter — but they all went out of their way to help me.
“Every time I did a drill we had three people behind the cage who would say, ‘This is what I noticed,’ or, ‘You did this well’ — so many different, valuable perspectives. I was scared when I got there that they’d be like, ‘Oh, we really don’t need another person,’ but they were so kind, like big sisters to me. I just tried to stay out of the way and be a sponge. I thought I’d be able to establish myself in time.”
Edwards could have been laser-focused by her desire to make another NCAA run, or so consumed with the mission that she ignored a freshman from a rival high school. No one would have batted an eye if the Eagles’ four-year starter concentrated on the program’s present rather than its future. Kim Edwards’ daughter isn’t wired that way, though. She currently works in Geisinger’s emergency department while awaiting her annual Air Force Reserve training in two weeks and the start of nursing school soon after.
“I would try to take every opportunity I had for a teaching moment — for Nicci or any of our goalkeepers,” Kylie Edwards said. “I always did my best to try to show her things, whether it was the heart and passion you need to play, or maybe technical skills she didn’t get at Midd-West. She didn’t just learn from me, though; we all showed her different things.
“I was sure Coach had an eye on Nicci to take my place, so if not as good I wanted her to be better than me. I wanted to make sure she was prepared, and, as I was leaving, I wanted the team to be set up.”
Edwards purposefully passed the torch.
Piccioni tried not to get burned by it.
After appearing in three games as a freshman in relief of Edwards — including nearly 16 scoreless minutes in a midseason loss at York — Piccioni said she realized, “I need to step up my game.”
“Girls in high school play field hockey for a whole range of reasons. The majority of college players have worked really hard to play in college, and they’re very passionate about the sport,” she said. “So it’s a whole new level, and I don’t know that it compares to anything I’d done in high school. It’s like playing the hardest games you could think of and playing them consistently.
“It’s like going from scrappy high school play to more refined college play. Now, all of a sudden, you’re in a whole new pool of how teams play, the speed and level of intensity. It really opened my eyes.”
The daughter of Scott and Sharon Piccioni added, “I definitely like a challenge, and it’s one of the biggest I could have thought of.”
Last fall, surrounded by familiar faces from Mifflinburg (sisters Grace and Sarah Alexander), Lewisburg (Grace Woolway) and Selinsgrove (Kalee Rothermel), Piccioni started every game in Juniata’s 10-10 season. She amassed 93 saves for a .769 percentage, and recorded four shutouts — one off the single-season school record. She was thrice honored as the Landmark Conference Defensive Player of the Week en route to the year-end honor and a first-team conference nod.
“I went to a game last fall and Nicci did a great job,” said Edwards. “I was watching her primarily, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow — she really grew.’”
Perhaps the highlight of the season was a 1-0 overtime loss at Messiah on Sept. 11. The No. 7 Falcons outshot Juniata 16-1 in the game, peppering the cage with eight shots through the scoreless regulation time. Messiah scored the winner just more than a minute into OT. The Falcons ultimately went to the NCAA second round.
“I was talking to Kylie before the game. She wished me luck and said, ‘We lost 7-0 a few years ago, so stay tough,’” Piccioni said. “One goal? In overtime? I left the game shocked because I didn’t believe I did that. I was really disappointed at first that they did score, but my coach said, ‘I don’t know why you’re upset. You just had the game of your life!’”
A little more than a month later, in a home conference game, Sarah Alexander’s second assist of the game helped the Eagles top Susquehanna 2-1 in OT. The River Hawks’ lone goal was scored by Katie Koch, who helped Lewisburg earn a split of two HAC-I overtime games with Piccioni’s Mustangs in 2017.
“It’s almost nostalgic in a way that I get to play against so many girls who I played with and against in the past,” Piccioni said. “Any game is intense in the moment, but when it’s over you just want to go over and hug each other and say, ‘Good job.’”
Playing to win
Juniata’s 2019 season ended in the ECAC semifinals with a 1-0 loss to Lebanon Valley on Selinsgrove grad Dani Alba’s goal. Piccioni made five saves to finish her first year as a starter with a 1.39 GAA.
“One of my biggest downfalls is I’m just so hard on myself,” she said. “As a sophomore starter I was not wanting to let the team down, so even if there was one goal against me I would focus on that one goal. It always has been something I’ve struggled with, and it will probably continue right up until I’m not playing field hockey anymore. It’s the No. 1 thing holding me back. Coach Gillich would tell me, ‘You did this well and you’re still so hard on yourself — think what you can do when you’re mentally sane.’
“So going into next year I definitely want to change my mental game to be more positive and accepting of the good things I’ve done.”
Edwards can relate.
All-American Jenna Patrone’s steal and one-on-one goal against her that lifted Kean in the 2017 NCAA playoffs is like an immovable thorn. That similar drive only strengthened her bond with Piccioni.
“Both of us have so much passion and heart, and a lot of perseverance,” Edwards said. “We weren’t playing not to fail, but playing to win. We’re both aggressive, not afraid to come out and challenge (a play). She’s a little taller, so our ground skills were a little different, but there was not a lot different between us other than her being a little more novice and new to the JC field hockey way.”
Edwards’ kindness, however, may one day contribute to her name being erased from Juniata’s record book.
See, Piccioni, whose Program of Emphasis is Biochemistry with a Pre-Med track, was aware of Kriss Dimm’s 1997 shutout mark. She has since learned Edwards owns the career shutouts record. And, well, Edwards did say she wanted Piccioni to be better than her ...
“I like having goals, and the (season) shutout record was definitely one,” Piccioni said. “I get that way, like I could have done better and got it this year. But it’s OK — I got close this year and I have two more years. I feel like I’ll get it next year or I’ll beat it twice over the year after.
“So, yes, the shutouts record, that is something I definitely plan to achieve, and (success) beyond.”