The closing of paper mills in the Katahdin region has fueled talk for years of consolidation between Stearns High School of Millinocket and neighboring Schenck High School of East Millinocket.
In one instance, a Stearns supporter reportedly suggested that should such consolidation take place, the new school colors already had been determined — “the Stearns blue and the Schenck white” — a notion that proved amusing to just one side of the rivalry.
Such community pride has played a major role in limiting the consolidation conversations, yet with the general population and student enrollments in the area on a steady decline Schenck and Stearns have collaborated on several programs in recent years, perhaps most notably their Unified Harmony show choir.
The two schools also have attempted to field cooperative teams in some varsity sports only to be thwarted in part by a rule that would have forced the team to compete in a higher classification because of the schools’ combined enrollments.
But a revision to that rule by the Maine Principals’ Association earlier this year has sparked an increase in efforts to develop more collaborative sports efforts around the state.
That includes some Stearns and Schenck student-athletes who plan to wear their rival school’s colors this fall while participating on newly formed cooperative teams in field hockey, football and boys and girls soccer.
“We’re just trying to provide opportunities for kids who might not have that same opportunity at their home school, that’s what it boils down to in our book,” Stearns athletic administrator and assistant principal Chris Gosselin said.
Under the previous MPA standard, the total enrollments of all schools that contributed to a cooperative team were combined to determine that team’s classification.
With the new rule, a host team for each cooperative team is determined, with 100 percent of that school’s enrollment combined with a percentage of another participating team’s enrollment based on the percentage of the roster from that school.
Three years ago Schenck and Stearns had a cooperative girls soccer team, but that was disbanded a year later when the MPA’s biennial statewide reclassification would have moved the combined team up a class based on the total enrollments of both schools.
“We didn’t want to put our soccer teams at more of a competitive disadvantage by having to compete against larger schools,” Schenck athletic administrator John Montgomery recalled.
But now if a combined Schenck-Stearns girls soccer team has 20 players with 18 from the host school Schenck and two from Stearns, 100 percent of Schenck’s enrollment would be applied to the total while just 10 percent of Stearns’ enrollment would be applied because only 10 percent of the roster would be from that school.
That would leave the collaborative team in the same class as Schenck’s team previously was individually.
“I’m so happy they did this, not just for Schenck and Stearns but for these other programs in football and hockey that are joining together,” Montgomery said. “Now, if we get one or two students from Stearns, we only have to use a percentage of their enrollment, which enables us to stay in Class D where we can have the most competitive games for our students.”
Stearns will be the host school for cooperative teams with Schenck in the fall sports it has offered traditionally, football and field hockey, while Schenck will be the host team for the sports it has offered, boys and girls soccer.
Stearns’ enrollment as of June 1 was 161 students, while Schenck is at approximately 120, which meant that under the old rule a combined team in boys or girls soccer would have been moved up to Class C as the sport’s Class D cutoff for the next two years is 174. But with Schenck as the host and just a percentage of Stearns’ enrollment to be counted under the new policy the combined team can remain in Class D.
The new rule doesn’t have a direct impact on Stearns and Schenck in football and field hockey, with the Class D cutoff for football at 469 students while the smallest class for field hockey, Class C, allows for a maximum enrollment of 425.
“It just made sense for us to try to reach out and create that handshake between East and us,” Gosselin said. “It’s been well received.”
Informational meetings were held this week for student-athletes from both schools interested in playing fall sports.
“I anticipate getting a couple of players for girls soccer,” said Montgomery, who also has individual athletes from his school competing in cross country, track and field and wrestling with teams from Mattanawcook Academy in Lincoln. “As of right now we don’t have any interest from Stearns for boys soccer but hopefully we can get a few kids to come down.
“I’m predicting anywhere between three and seven guys going up to play football from our school, and right now field hockey is in the same boat as boys soccer where nobody that has shown interest yet, but once we get back to school and see some of the kids it will be easier to see if some of them might want to play.
“The best thing is this just provides extra opportunities for students at both schools.”
The Stearns-Schenck collaboration is perhaps the most widespread effort to date by schools attempting to join forces on fields of play in the immediate aftermath of the MPA rule change, but it’s far from the only example.
Longtime rivals Waterville and Winslow will field a cooperative ice hockey team for the first time next winter, while at least three new varsity football cooperatives — Dexter with Piscataquis of Guilford, Houlton with Hodgdon and Greater Houlton Christian Academy, and Lisbon with Saint Dominic of Auburn — are set to begin preseason practices next week.
“There’s a few more and I think it’s going to continue,” MPA assistant executive director Mike Burnham said. “Football has become our second-leading sport with regard to cooperative teams (behind ice hockey) and I think the new policy using the percentages and schools not having to move up in classification has made the difference.
“I think you’re seeing many more conversations because of the lesser impact on classification,” he added.