VAN BUREN, Maine — For the first time in her memory, Kylie LaPlante won’t play soccer this fall.
The Van Buren High School senior is one of the nine girls who signed up for the varsity soccer this year, until low enrollment in the program forced the school to shut the team down before the season began.
It isn’t just that students aren’t interested in soccer — though that may be a factor. Van Buren’s class sizes are shrinking, and losing girls faster than boys. Most class years at the high school have between 20 and 30 kids, though the junior class only has 12. There are only five girls in the sophomore class, and just three in the junior class.
The population of Van Buren has declined steadily for several decades, and as more young people leave northern Maine, the median age has risen to 54. As the school district shrinks, it will get more and more difficult to field sports teams over time.
Although the Crusaders had a 12-person team last year, and played several games short-handed at the end of the season, Athletic Director Matthew Rossignol said this will be the first year the team has been so short they’ve been unable to play at all.
“It’s heartbreaking not having a team,” LaPlante said. “Senior year is something that a lot of people look forward to, and I think for me, it was just being completely blindsided by not having a team.”
Van Buren hired a new girls’ coach for this season and practices had just begun in August when Rossignol said he began to notice something was wrong. At the most, nine girls were showing up to practice, at the least, four.
Rossignol and the players began to try and recruit among the remaining high school girls, and even the eighth-graders earlier this month. They came up empty-handed.
“When you’re in such a small school it’s hard to get numbers to begin with and the people who you’re encouraging to play just do it because you need the numbers,” senior Renee Lapointe said. “They’re not doing it because they want to do it. They’re just doing it because they feel like they need to.”
Other varsity sports at Van Buren have also struggled with their rosters, Lapointe said, though between basketball and tennis, no other sport needs the raw numbers that soccer does — 11 just to put a team on the field.
Soccer didn’t go totally out the window for the remaining players, though. Teams that are too small to play can either send their players to another team, or let them combine to form a co-ed varsity team with the other players at the school. The catch is that all players have to make the same choice.
After a close vote, the team ultimately decided to join Madawaska. Two girls are playing for the Owls this year, but the rest quit either because they preferred other options or because they couldn’t make the hour-long round trip every day after school for practices and games.
Lapointe decided to go to Madawaska and finish her senior season. Alongside junior Elyssa Violette, they’re all that’s left of the Van Buren soccer program.
The transition hasn’t been an easy one — Lapointe said it’s disappointing not to play for her home team, but her new teammates in Madawaska have treated her and Violette like “their own.”
“Soccer has been my favorite thing. There’s nothing else like it,” Lapointe said. “I wanted to make sure I play the sport that I love one last time.”
LaPlante, on the other hand, wasn’t ready to play for another team, and made the difficult decision to leave behind the sport she’s been playing since elementary school.
Both girls hope to play soccer in the future. Lapointe plans to attend the University of Maine and wants to try out for a team there.
Rossignol said there were several girls in the middle school who had been playing with the middle school boys team and would be good candidates for a varsity team in the future. LaPlante and Lapointe hope future Van Buren high schoolers will come to the sport’s rescue.
“When I play soccer, it literally lights up my world. I’ll be having a bad day and I’ll go on the soccer field and it changes everything — it’s just a boost,” Lapointe said. “Especially when you have a team that appreciates you and lifts you up. It’s just an amazing experience as a player.”