When Orono High School was in danger of losing its hockey program 5 1/2 years ago due to low numbers, Orono athletic director Mike Archer reached out to Old Town athletic director Brett Hoogterp and the Old Town administration about forming a co-operative team — even though the schools are archrivals.
Orono faced the prospect of having only six players returning for the 2013-2014 season, which would have forced them to eliminate the program, but Old Town returned 13 players off a team that went 0-18.
The administrations and communities realized that being able to offer its students a hockey program far outweighed any potential negatives. Thus, the Old Town-Orono Black Bears took the ice under the guidance for former Bangor High School coach Denis Collins.
On Saturday, the Black Bears become the first cooperative boys team ever to compete for a state championship in hockey when they play Greely of Cumberland Center for the Class B title. Puck drop is 1 p.m. at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.
Old Town-Orono (19-1) and Greely (17-2-1) lost regional championship games in overtime last season.
Archer and Collins admitted they didn’t expect to be playing in a state championship game this soon after the merger.
“This is not what we envisioned,” said Archer. “We just wanted to provide an opportunity for our kids to be able to keep playing hockey.”
He said even after the team went 2-16 in its first season, “we knew it was the right thing to do.”
“When we started out, we just wanted to rebuild the program and get it to a high level,” said Collins. “In the third year, we started to see that we were becoming very competitive.”
Archer said the administrators and booster groups have been unified since day one and he said the camaraderie among the players is second to none.
“We don’t have a team that is as close-knit as this one,” said Archer. “There are no issues. They go to each other’s games in other sports. It has been fantastic.
“Hopefully, we’ve created a template for other schools (to form cooperative teams). It can work,” added Archer, who noted Old Town-Orono fielded a junior varsity team that played 10 games this season.
Collins was told by opposing coaches at the outset of this season that his Black Bears would be the team to beat but he was wary.
“You still have to play the game. But the kids started developing and using their speed to their advantage,” said Collins.
Their practices include a lot of uptempo drills designed to mimic game conditions and the players adapted, showing the ability to to make and receive precise passes.
The Black Bears won their first 13 games before being upset by Houlton-Hodgdon-Southern Aroostook-Katahdin 4-3 in overtime. That was valuable wakeup call according to Collins, whose team has won six straight and scored 39 goals since.
Collins praised his top-notch corps of assistant coaches in Chris Thurlow, who has been with him since the beginning, Cory Thibodeau and Lucas Shorette.
“We’re a well-oiled machine,” said Collins.
He will always have a special place in his heart for the players on his first Old Town-Orono team.
“They took a lot of hard hits but they stuck together. They had to prove that it could work and they did that,” said Collins.
The Black Bears received goals from six different players in their 6-1 win over Presque Isle in the Class B North championship game and junior goalie Kohle Parker “played the game of his life,” according to Collins. Parker stopped three breakaways.
The future is bright with over a dozen players expected to compose the freshman class next season and join a solid nucleus.
The Black Bears roster includes senior forwards Jacob Dubay (18 goals, 28 assists) and Ben Allan-Rahill (13 & 18) along with defensemen Josh Wheeler (6 & 17), Austin Soucy (2 & 3) and Finnish exchange student Antti Jarvikare (9 & 17).
They feature sophomore forwards Tyler McCannell (25 & 14) and Sam Henderson (15 & 17), along with freshman Tanner Evans (16 & 13) and junior Trent Lick 10 & 15). Junior Cam Tower (6 & 14) and sophomore Dylan Street (1 & 10) headline the defense corps in front of Parker, who is 17-1 with a 1.71 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage.
Collins said his players are excited and focused for Saturday’s game.
“Greely is very disciplined, they have a rich tradition and they are extremely well-coached,” said Collins. “We’ve got to play fast and stay out of the penalty box.”
Coach Barry Mothes’ Rangers are led by sophomores Matt Kramlich (24 & 23 in the regular season) and Jake MacDonald (25 & 16), son of Colby College men’s hockey coach and former UMass Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald. Andy Moore (13 & 17) and Jackson Williams (11 & 13) complement Kramlich and MacDonald up front. Senior Ben Kennedy (2 & 10) is their top-scoring defenseman and junior Karsten Bourgoine (15-2-1, 1.72, .915) is their goaltender.
Saturday’s Class A final between two-time defending champion Lewiston (18-2) and Biddeford (15-6) starts at 6 p.m.
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