SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Years from now young Payton Billingsley may not even remember the moment.
But her free throw during the waning seconds of a consolation-round game at the 19th annual Great Harbor House Shoot-out at Pemetic Elementary School on Saturday morning marked a new beginning for a schoolgirl basketball program that officially still doesn’t exist.
Billingsley, an eighth-grader at Rockland Middle School, was one of 10 players competing in this popular undergraduate tournament for Oceanside, which represents the merger that will begin next fall between neighboring Midcoast high schools from Rockland and Georges Valley of Thomaston.
The clutch free throw gave Billingsley and her teammates a one-point win over the Lady Knights from Harrington, marking the first victory on the hardwood for the combined basketball forces.
“I think it’s gone well here,” said Greg Gould, an eighth-grade coach at Rockland Middle School this winter and one of the Oceanside coaches at the Harbor House tourney, which draws more than 70 high school- and middle school-age teams from around the state to Mount Desert Island and Ellsworth each March for the chance to get a head start on next season.
“There weren’t a lot of differences between the coaching styles at Georges Valley and Rockland, just a few things that were different. But basketball’s basketball no matter where you play it, and the girls are having fun on the court.”
Athletics figure to be one of the more emotional aspects of the consolidation between the two schools from their rival communities, particularly among older generations who fear losing the separate identities of their alma maters.
For come this fall, the Rockland Tigers and Georges Valley Buccaneers will become Oceanside High School Mariners, and the orange and black of Rockland and green and white of Georges Valley will give way to the light blue, dark blue and white of Oceanside.
Those changes aren’t lost on current students, too.
“At first I kind of wanted to graduate from my home school my senior year,” said Jill Bradbury, a junior at Georges Valley and one of two Buccaneers who played for the Oceanside girls squad Saturday. “But there’s nothing we can do about it so I just want to be positive about it from now on.”
Bradbury’s melancholy sentiments aren’t unique, particularly to those Georges Valley students who will move to the current Rockland High building for their final three years of high school — freshmen from both systems will attend classes at the current Georges Valley site.
But as the reality of the consolidation sets in those thoughts gradually are being replaced by anticipation for the opportunities the merger may create.
Athletically, a larger number of sports will be available to students from both schools, and a larger combined student body — in the upper 600s — should provide a bigger talent pool as well as more subvarsity teams from which to draw upon as Oceanside assumes Rockland’s place in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B ranks.
“I’m excited and looking forward to it,” said Kennadi Grover, a sophomore at Georges Valley, currently a Class C program. “I’m most excited about playing up in Class B sports.”
One of the more interesting aspects of this consolidation is that while the two high schools are just five miles apart, they have been worlds apart in the state’s athletic arena.
In addition to competing in different classes by enrollment, Rockland has been an Eastern Maine fixture on the Maine Principals’ Association map while Georges Valley has been largely a Western Maine school. Oceanside will compete as an Eastern Maine school.
That means there hasn’t been a lot of athletic interaction between the schools, save for preseason contests, offseason travel teams and some recreation department offerings.
“A lot of people think that would be difficult, but I don’t think it is,” said Casey Carroll, one of five Rockland High sophomores on the Oceanside girls squad at the Harbor House tourney. “It’s just playing together with other people who love the game.”
Some of the schoolgirl athletes at both schools got an early taste of consolidation last fall when Rockland and Georges Valley fielded a cooperative varsity field hockey team.
“When we started we didn’t really know [the Georges Valley girls] and how they played, and especially being from different schools we didn’t see them on a daily basis,” said Carroll. “But at practice I felt like we mixed really well. It was pretty much like there was an automatic connection.”
That connection has served as a meeting point that slowly is transcending the fields of play.
“We made a lot of friends with the Georges Valley girls,” said Phoebe Ferraiolo, a sophomore from Rockland who also played on the cooperative field hockey squad. “I think people made a lot of friends that they hung out with outside of field hockey.”
A similar scenario was playing itself out on Mount Desert Island this weekend, with players from the two schools again combining to pursue the same goals while also laying the groundwork for friendships both on and off the basketball court.
“We’re all getting used to the way each other plays,” said Grover, whose mother is a Rockland graduate and father a Georges Valley alumnus. “And we’re getting better together.”