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Schenck, Stearns high schools move toward cooperative fall sports teams

Stearns High School of Millinocket and Schenck High School of East Millinocket are taking steps to field cooperative sports teams beginning this fall.

A joint application authorized by the school boards that oversee the neighboring rivals to field cooperative teams in field hockey, football and boys and girls soccer has been approved by the Maine Principals’ Association.

Primary issues remaining to be worked out include any financial considerations involved in the effort and differences in the schools’ athletic eligibility and student conduct policies.

A committee made up of the schools’ two athletic administrators and school board representatives already has met once to discuss the remaining issues and plans to meet again before forwarding its findings to the full school boards.

“What we’re looking at is the possibility of combining fall sports programs,” said Stearns athletic administrator Chris Preble. “The sports Schenck offers in the fall are not the same as the sports we offer, so it would give kids from both schools the opportunity to play more sports.”

Schenck offers boys and girls soccer each fall while Stearns offers football and field hockey. Under the plan, Stearns students would be able to play on the cooperative Schenck-Stearns soccer teams, while Schenck students would be able to play field hockey or football for the Stearns-Schenck cooperative entries in those sports.

“Everybody is dealing with a lot of budget cuts,” said Schenck High School athletic administrator John Montgomery, “and this is a chance to provide more opportunities for kids at what should be a minimal cost.”

Since the individual teams involved are not new, the infrastructure for each sport — including coaches, facilities, transportation costs for road games and funds to pay game officials — already has been accounted for in existing school budgets. There also is some bus service during the day among the communities that send students to the two high schools, which could help minimize any additional transportation costs involving students getting from one school to the other for practices or games.

“We’re limited on what we can offer, so if we can work with somebody to offer more, why not?” said Preble, who is Stearns’ head football coach.

Such an athletic relationship between the schools is not unprecedented. Stearns and Schenck shared resources for cross country and golf teams several years ago, as Schenck fielded a cross country team on which Stearns students also participated while Stearns fielded a golf team on which Schenck students competed.

But because those activities are defined as “individual cooperative sports” by the MPA, individual runners or golfers scored for their own high school, not the school that fielded the particular team.

The schools also have had a thriving relationship in the performing arts, with their Unified Harmony Show Choir winning numerous awards during the past decade.

“If it works in that area, why wouldn’t it work for us?” said Preble.

The possibility of the schools pooling athletic department resources has been brought up before, Montgomery and Preble said, but never went beyond the discussion stage.

Within the past year, that sentiment has grown.

“There has been a lot of talk among school board members and the administrators about trying to provide more opportunities for students to participate in sports,” Montgomery said.

Cooperative teams have become an increasingly popular way of maximizing athletic offerings at high schools around the state amid tight budgets and shrinking enrollments.

Such teams have been fielded in a variety of sports, particularly ice hockey. Of 42 varsity boys ice hockey teams statewide, 12 are cooperative entries. Of 15 girls ice hockey teams, five are co-ops.

A survey conducted last fall of students who will attend Stearns and Schenck in the fall of 2014 indicated support for cooperative fall sports teams.

“The kids all know each other at a younger age today and get along,” said Preble. “We get a lot of their kids coming to our games, and our kids go to their games.”

Neither Montgomery nor Preble expects any significant shift by high school student-athletes from one fall sport to another, but both hoped the pending move would spur increased participation by students who are not now playing a fall sport.

Preble and Montgomery suggested the greater value in fielding cooperative teams may come at the younger levels, with pupils from the sending communities more likely to take up a particular sport at an earlier age if they know they will be able to compete in that sport through their high school years.

That could lead to a stronger feeder system for the high school programs in all those sports.

“I don’t expect a lot of changes among the high school students,” said Montgomery. “It’s more for the younger kids to have more chances to play sports.”

Stearns had a student enrollment of 185 and Schenck an enrollment of 155 as of April 1, 2012, the date used by the MPA in its current two-year classification cycle for interscholastic sports that began last fall.

That means with a combined enrollment of 340 students, cooperative Schenck-Stearns boys and girls soccer teams likely would move up from Schenck’s Class D status to Class C this fall given the designated enrollment cutoff between the two classes, according to MPA assistant executive director Mike Burnham. Class D soccer schools may have between 0 and 189 students, while Class C schools may have between 190 and 474 students.

The Stearns-Schenck cooperative entries in football and field hockey would remain in their current classes — Class D for football and Class C for field hockey — under MPA enrollment cutoffs, Burnham added. Class D football schools can have as many as 454 students, while Class C field hockey schools can have as many as 474 students, he said.

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