The merging of two of the state’s most prominent high school hockey programs, Waterville and Winslow, is following a trend in Maine.
Due to low numbers, the two archrivals have been forced to become a cooperative program beginning next season. The paperwork was sent to the Maine Principals’ Association after each school board recently approved it.
Waterville-Winslow will be the state’s 14th co-op boys hockey program among 37 teams.
Waterville is the defending two-time Class B state champion but graduated nine seniors from its 17-player roster and head coach Dennis Martin said freshman standout Zaharias Menoudarakos is transferring to Kents Hill, leaving the team with seven returnees. Some of the returnees saw very limited duty.
“And we have only five or six freshmen coming in and most freshmen aren’t ready to play at the varsity level,” said Martin.
Winslow will return all 13 of its players but the Black Raiders went 3-15 this past season including a 15-0 loss to Waterville. The Black Raiders had only two freshmen on the team.
“It’s all about numbers,” said Martin. “You don’t want to have to do a co-op team with another school but you have to do what is best for the kids. If we didn’t merge, we could lose both programs.”
Martin pointed out a small roster can put players in a dangerous situation because they will wear out.
“It’s not fair to the kids,” he said.
The merger is receiving a mixed reaction from some Class B North coaches.
“Co-op teams are good. They save hockey,” said Old Town-Orono coach Denis Collins.
Old Town-Orono is a prime example of how cooperative teams can save programs.
Four years ago, Orono was on the brink of losing its program because it was going to return just four players and had only two coming in.
Archrival Old Town had 13 returnees but the Coyotes were coming off an 0-18 campaign.
So they merged into a co-op team and, following a 2-16 showing in their first season (2013-14), the Black Bears continued to improve and went 16-3-2 this past season and reached the Class B North final, losing 6-5 in overtime to Waterville in the regional championship game.
Brewer High School coach Lance Ingerson said he never wants to see a program disband.
“I’m happy to see kids having an opportunity to play,” he said.
Presque Isle coach Carl Flynn said “if you need to amalgamate to keep hockey alive, by all means do it.
“Losing programs like those two would be a major blow to hockey across the state. With the exception of Lewiston and St. Dom’s [of Auburn], they’re two of the most storied programs in the state,” he added.
Waterville has won 22 state championships, 20 in Class A and two in B, while Winslow has 11 state crowns, all in Class B.
Waterville/Winslow will remain in Class B based on new MPA guidelines and Flynn admitted that is a source of frustration for him because longtime stand-alone Class B teams like his Wildcats have been denied opportunities to win championships by teams like Brewer, Messalonskee of Oakland and Waterville, who each dominated Class B after dropping down from Class A.
Brewer captured Class B state championships in 2007 and 2010, Messalonskee hoisted the trophy in 2014 and 15 and Waterville has done so the past two seasons.
A potentially powerful co-op team could do the same thing, Flynn speculated.
“We’ve had some real good teams,” he said. “It’s a kick in the chops to have a chance at a championship only to be hammered down by a team that didn’t exist [in your division] the previous year.”
Waterville/Winslow will stay in Class B because the MPA formula is designed to keep co-op teams from being forced to play in a class against larger and more prominent single-school programs. The co-op teams could have trouble competing with those teams.
Under the original policy, the enrollments of the schools in the cooperative team were added together and that dictated its classification.
But the new criteria allocates a host school and its enrollment is combined with a percentage of the enrollment of the second school based on the number of participants in the program.
Martin said a host school has yet to be determined.
Waterville’s enrollment was listed at 583 and Winslow was at 464, according to the MPA hockey bulletin.
The cutoff for Class B is 859 so under the old formula, Waterville/Winslow would have a combined enrollment of 1,047 which would have sent them to Class A.
But under the new format, if Waterville is listed as the host school and supplies 12 players and Winslow has 14, Winslow would be providing 53.8 percent of the players and that percent of its 464 students amounts to 250 toward the total. Adding Waterville’s total enrollment of 583 to Winslow’s percentage-based 250 is 833, which keeps the team in Class B.
Collins said just because two schools merge into a co-op program doesn’t ensure success.
A co-op team has never won a state hockey championship and Collins pointed out that his Black Bears are the first co-op team to even reach a regional final.
Collins said co-op teams are essential because prep schools and junior hockey programs pluck players from the state’s high school teams.
There is plenty ahead for administrators at Waterville and Winslow to determine, including the establishment of an academic policy.
They will also have to select a coach and a name for the team.
Winslow coach David Leach isn’t interested in the job but Martin said he has submitted his paperwork to become a candidate.
Martin, who played at Waterville High, has led the Purple Panthers to three state championships in the past nine seasons. He has been the head coach for 14 years after being an assistant for eight.
Martin said at the root of the problem causing the co-op team is the lack of numbers in the central Maine youth programs.
“I am coaching my son’s team in squirts [ages 9-10] and there may be only five Waterville kids, total, in this age group who are playing [in the league],” said Martin.
He also said that having a long-term co-op program with Winslow “isn’t etched in stone” if the numbers return. Then they could each field a team.
But he doesn’t see that happening in the near future.
The co-op team will probably practice and play at Colby College in Waterville. The closing of Sukee Arena in Winslow last year left the Black Raiders in a bind this past season as they wound up practicing at the Camden National Bank Ice Vault in Hallowell and had limited practice time.