Cheverus won the girls’ hockey state championship last winter as part of a cooperative with Kennebunk and Old Orchard Beach. While OOB will remain with the Stags as a co-op, Cheverus is seeking other partners for its girls’ and boys’ ice hockey teams. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Because of low numbers, Cheverus High has been seeking co-op partners for the upcoming ice hockey season – so far to no avail.

The dilemma seems most acute for the girls’ hockey program, which won the state championship last winter as a cooperative team with Kennebunk and Old Orchard Beach.

Cheverus athletic director Amy Ashley said she spent much of the offseason trying to find co-op partners, including Greely of Cumberland as well as the Portland/Deering co-op program. Her school has seven girls planning to play ice hockey, “so we cannot survive on our own,” she said.

The program lost nine seniors to graduation as well as leading scorer Abby Lamontagne, who transferred from Kennebunk High to a Massachusetts prep school. Kennebunk is not planning to send any girls to play with Cheverus this winter;  Old Orchard Beach is likely to send three, according to ADs at both schools.

Ashley said it’s much easier to find a home for two players than for a dozen, which is the number of returning male players at Cheverus. A handful more boys have expressed interest, she said, so her fall-back plan is to continue the boys’ program without a partner school, if necessary. Mike Carmody, second-year head coach of the Cheverus boys’ team, said his roster appears likely to number around 14, down two from last winter.

The closest, and most obvious, partnership with the Portland-based parochial school would be Portland and Deering high schools, which already have co-op ice hockey teams made up of players from both schools.

“I know we are open to (a cooperative team) and we’re trying to make something happen for Portland,” Carmody said. “We want to make sure we’re giving our kids a chance to play and make sure we’re competitive. Ultimately, when you have these low numbers it becomes a safety issue.”

At a meeting last week, parents of the Portland/Deering boys’ team expressed their opposition to any such merger, citing reduced playing time and opportunity for their sons.  That opposition appears to have torpedoed any chance of a merger between the girls of Cheverus and Portland/Deering as well. The following morning Superintendent Xavier Botana announced there would be no new mergers of any sports teams in the current academic year.

“My decision to hold off on the the merger discussion was based on two factors,” Botana said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. “1. The district had done no planning for sports mergers this year.  These are important and complex decisions that will necessitate significant staff and school board engagement and planning.  This escalated rapidly to a point where communication was not conducive to good decision-making.

“2. From my discussions with staff, I understand that Portland schools will be able to field a girls hockey team, albeit perhaps not at full strength. And that is before any recruitment or outreach has taken place in the district to assure and encourage (Deering High) students.”

Botana also said his staff would take a comprehensive look at all sports that might need to form co-op teams in the next three years, “so that we can have a complete, data-informed conversation in the near future.”

His decision caught parents of the Portland/Deering girls by surprise. Rachel Pargeter, whose daughter is a junior at Portland High, is angry not only with the decision, but with the events that led to it.

“This shuts the girls out of the process,” Pargeter said. “Making a universal decision in such a sexist way is intolerable, in my opinion.”

As a member of the Casco Bay Hockey Board of Directors, Pargeter said she has a good sense of how many girls are prepared to play at the high school varsity level. She said Portland/Deering is likely to to have roughly half a dozen such girls this winter. Another parent suggest perhaps as many as eight. About half of the 15 non-seniors on last winter’s roster were in their first or second year on ice skates.

As for potential recruits from Deering, Pargeter said the girls’ hockey community is small enough to know that Deering has no more experienced players who can be recruited beyond those already involved.

“Without enough varsity-level players it becomes a dangerous situation,” said Will Cheever, who has a son and daughter who play for Portland/Deering and who serves as assistant coach for the boys and a volunteer assistant for the girls.

Cheever did not attend the meeting between the boys’ hockey parents that included Botana and Roberto Rodriguez, chair of the School Board. Now he said he wishes he had gone.

“I think I would have been able to be clear with the people most vocal that their words were unfounded,” Cheever said. “The thing that really bothers me is that it’s a win-win situation for everybody. Cheverus needs it now and we’re going to need it (in the boys’ program) next year or the year after. Why not do it now and move on?”

Rob O’Leary, athletic director at Portland High, said Tuesday he was not yet prepared to comment on the situation. O’Leary, a member of the Maine Principals’ Association ice hockey committee, will attend a hockey scheduling meeting Wednesday morning at MPA headquarters in Augusta. Cooperative team requests are on the agenda for a Sept. 25 meeting in Augusta.

Participation in ice hockey dropped considerably throughout the state last winter. The number of boys playing hockey dropped 7.1 percent to 1,030 and the number of girls fell 11.5 percent to 410. Over a five-year period, the boys were down 8.1 percent and girls up 2.5 percent.

Mike Burnham, executive director of the MPA, said two boys’ cooperative teams have disbanded heading into this winter (Massabesic/Old Orchard Beach/Bonny Eagle and Skowhegan/Lawrence).


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