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How cooperative sports teams could boost participation

Some high school sports in Maine — including ice hockey and football — are feeling a numbers crunch, but a proposed policy revision making its way through Maine Principals’ Association committees could provide schools more flexibility in joining forces to more fully fill out undermanned rosters.

The MPA’s current cooperative team policy requires the total enrollments of all schools that join together to field a varsity team to be added together to determine in which class the joint entry will compete.

A proposal developed by the MPA ice hockey committee would require only the full enrollment of the host school for a cooperative team to be counted toward the total for classification, along with a percentage of any other participating school’s enrollment based on the percentage of players it has on the team.

“From the hockey standpoint, making these changes hopefully will increase opportunities for kids, that maybe there will be more of a willingness to open up and form a cooperative if it doesn’t impact your classification quite so much,” said MPA assistant executive director Mike Burnham.

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While cooperative teams are common in boys and girls ice hockey and also are sprinkled into the state’s high school football ranks, many include a small number of players that aren’t from the host school.

Yet when both enrollments are totaled, the cooperative team is required to move up a class — often into a much less competitive situation against much larger single-school programs.

“If I’ve got a school that’s average or competitive in Class B and then they’re going to take one or two students from another school and now all of a sudden they have to try to compete in Class A? … That’s a difficult thing to ask another school to do,” said Hermon High School athletic administrator Steph Biberstein.

A small number of hockey players from the Hermon area are among those who could potentially benefit if the policy change gains final MPA approval next spring.

Those players aren’t nearly enough for Hermon to consider fielding its own team, Biberstein said.

But being able to facilitate access for those players to an already existing high school varsity program in the area is unlikely under the current policy, since Hermon’s enrollment, approximately 500, would be added to any other school’s total for classification purposes.

If, for instance, a local Class B school such as Hampden Academy, Brewer or John Bapst of Bangor was to add a small number of players from a school of Hermon’s size, the combined enrollments would force that cooperative entry into Class A North — and at a competitive disadvantage — with the likes of perennial state powers Lewiston and Saint Dominic of Auburn along with Bangor and several other co-ops with much larger combined enrollments.

Biberstein said some high school-age hockey players from the Hermon area have played junior varsity hockey for John Bapst, while a few families have moved to a school district where their child could play varsity hockey.

“It’s difficult because you don’t want to see your kids come up through and then all of a sudden get to a point where they no longer have it available to them,” Biberstein said.

Hermon’s situation doesn’t appear unique, given that most of the state’s high school ice hockey programs are centered around existing rinks. A goal of the proposal is to enable more players from schools without varsity teams to play the sport on a cooperative team if the enrollment stipulations for classification are relaxed.

“I know some schools are struggling with numbers and need just a handful to really keep it at the numbers they want their programs at,” Biberstein said. “It’s really a win-win for a lot of schools and for hockey and for kids from the outlying areas.”

Maine’s proposed revisions are modeled after a policy used by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, that state’s equivalent of the MPA.

Under the proposal, the formation of a cooperative team may not displace any students from the program, meaning no players may be cut. And the modified grades 9-12 enrollment of all the schools involved in a cooperative entry may not exceed the full enrollment of the largest high school in Maine.

It also would allow a maximum of three schools forming a cooperative team. Adding a fourth school would require an MPA waiver.

The use of co-op teams in Maine is most pronounced in ice hockey, with 14 of the state’s 40 boys varsity squads and 10 of the 16 girls’ programs composed of two or more schools.

Burnham presented the proposal to the MPA classification committee at its Oct. 3 meeting, “with the understanding that it was written and developed by the ice hockey committee looking through the lens of ice hockey.”

“[But] at some point between now and when the classification committee makes its final recommendations, that will be discussed as it relates to every other sport,” he added.

Burnham said the proposal may require some tweaking to accommodate the needs of other activities if the classification committee recommends expanding its reach beyond ice hockey. If supported by the committees, the revised cooperative team policy likely would be subject to a final vote of the MPA’s general membership next spring.

Some supporters of the proposed revisions also see the potential for cooperative team growth in football, with players from outlying schools similarly joining existing programs as part of a cooperative team.

Currently 74 high schools, or approximately one-half of the full MPA membership, sponsor varsity football teams.

But several programs, including Sacopee Valley of South Hiram, Telstar of Bethel, Boothbay, Camden Hills of Rockport and the Calais-Woodland cooperative, have suspended their varsity teams during the last five years because of a lack of varsity-ready players.

All of those schools except Calais-Woodland are attempting to rebuild at the subvarsity level.

Numerous other varsity programs are battling low roster numbers.

In the LTC Class D North, which serves the smallest football programs in central and northern Maine, just five of the 10 schools have enough players to stage junior varsity games this fall, prompting conference officials to schedule three “JV jamborees” with subvarsity players from the shorthanded schools meeting at neutral sites and forming teams for scrimmages.

One Class D South school that does not have a JV team this fall, Maranacook Community School of Readfield, reportedly will hold meetings after the season to determine whether it will retain its varsity status in 2017 or focus on junior varsity play.

Chris LeBlanc, athletic administrator at Madison Area Memorial High School, believes his Madison-Carrabec football cooperative team would benefit from the revision to the enrollment policy even as the Bulldogs are 5-1 this fall — the program’s best season in two decades.

Madison-Carrabec lost in the first round of the playoffs each of the last two years after the cooperative and its single-school Madison High predecessor endured a lengthy postseason drought dating to the mid-1990s.

Under the proposed rule change, Madison-Carrabec’s modified combined enrollment would put the team in Class D, where LeBlanc believes the Bulldogs would have a much better chance to contend for playoff berths from year to year.

“To go 10 or 15 years without Madison making the playoffs was awful hard to swallow and for four of those years I coached,” he said. “I’m certainly glad with our current success, and if we continue to do what we’re doing right now in football I’m sure everybody’s going to raise an eyebrow and say, ‘Geez, why are they having such a great season?’

“Well, we’ve got a good group of kids right now and Scott [Franzose] has done a great job of coaching, but with our enrollment we’re not going to have a problem hopefully continuing to have a good year this year and then going down next year to play in Class D where we should be.”

LeBlanc believes the option of fielding cooperative sports teams under modified enrollment rules would benefit smaller schools in another way involving player safety — by not forcing teams to play freshmen and sophomores on the varsity before they’re physically ready in order to fill out the lineup.

“I’m wholeheartedly enthusiastic about this proposal because I’ve felt like there should have been a percentage piece all along,” said LeBlanc. “I felt if that was the case schools would be more apt to do [cooperative teams] in even more sports.”


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