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Co-op programs give more girls a chance to play high school hockey

Masconomet High School hockey coach, Nicole Twomey during game against Peabody at Graf Rink in Newburyport.

Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

Masconomet High School hockey coach Nicole Twomey during game against Peabody at Graf Rink in Newburyport.

If you were to draw a map of the communities represented by the Masconomet Regional High School girls’ ice hockey program, it would resemble a gerrymandered congressional district. The team has players from six school districts and 11 cities and towns — Boxford, Topsfield, Middleton, Hamilton, Wenham, Georgetown, Rowley, Newbury, Salisbury, Newburyport, and Amesbury. Make it an even dozen if you include tricaptain Dana Valletti, who is from Peabody but attends Hamilton-Wenham Regional High under school choice.

All those communities provide 22 players united in a single girls’ hockey team, which is exactly the idea behind the “co-op’’ system.

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“The opportunity to play is one of the biggest positive factors of having a co-op team,” said second-year Masco coach Nicole Twomey, who played for Phillips Exeter Academy and the University of New Hampshire.

“I’ve advocated every year that we add a new team, and not because I’m trying to load my roster. It’s truly because I want these girls to have the opportunity to continue to play hockey, the same opportunity that I had growing up, but except for their public high school.”

The co-op squads are collections of players from communities that are unable to field a full team on their own. It’s hometown hockey of a sort, often reuniting girls who played at the youth level on regional squads.

North of Boston, there are cooperative teams hosted by Peabody Veterans Memorial High (with Lynnfield), Marblehead (with Swampscott and Manchester-Essex Regional), Winthrop (with Lynn and Revere), Beverly (with Danvers), Cambridge (with Somerville, Everett, and Malden), Tewksbury (with Methuen), and Haverhill (with North Andover and the Pentucket Regional towns of Groveland, Merrimac, and West Newbury).

“There just aren’t enough numbers here in Marblehead to support a team. Right now, we have nine Marblehead High School girls that play hockey. And you can’t have nine girls on a team,” said Mark Tarmey, athletic director at Marblehead.

‘The opportunity to play is one of the biggest positive factors of . . . a co-op team.’

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Last year, North Andover was aligned with Masconomet, but elected not to renew its two-year agreement, opting instead to join forces with Pentucket on the new Haverhill team. It was smart move. North Andover now has 13 girls on the 18-player Haverhill roster, a number that might have been unwieldy for the Masconomet squad.

“It was actually a logical fit, because the youth programs are combined,” said Haverhill athletic director Tom O’Brien. “We really tried to make it a combined team. It’s not just a Haverhill team with the other schools playing on it. We really want to make them feel like it’s equal. It’s truly a three-way team.”

Not only do co-op teams afford more girls the chance to play, but they also expand the horizons of the players.

“It’s great to have that exposure,” said Masconomet’s Valletti. “Kids that stay in one town their whole lives may not be as open minded. They’re not exposed to everything. Being from Peabody, going to Hamilton, playing for Masco, and adding in the fact that there are five other schools, is just unbelievable. I really appreciate the chance to know everyone on this team.”

According to the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association , the cooperative team concept came about through school administrators developing creative methods “of saving existing programs and of establishing new ones, in an effort to increase overall participation in interscholastic sports.”

“Girls hockey has been growing very rapidly,” said Paul Wetzel, with the MIAA. “It’s a pretty dramatic change.”

Statewide, high school girls’ hockey has grown from 100 teams, with 1,795 players, in 2010 to 125 teams with some 2,337 players last school year.

The MIAA numbers reflect the nationwide growth in women’s ice hockey. According to USA Hockey, there were 1,268 female players registered in Massachusetts in 1990-91. In 2002-03, the number jumped to 6,153, with a significant leap coming after the 1998 Olympics (the first to feature women’s ice hockey). Last winter, USA Hockey registered almost 9,500 female players in Massachusetts.

Keri-Ann Allan, president of Massachusetts Hockey (an affiliate of USA Hockey), said she expects another increase next season, thanks to the exposure of the Sochi Winter Games next month in Russia.

“With it being an Olympic year, we always see a boost,” said Allan.

Ultimately, the objective of these cooperative programs is to act as a bridge until individual schools have enough girls to support their own team. “Our goal here is to eventually have a Haverhill girls’ team,” said O’Brien. “It may take three years, it may take 10 years.”

Newburyport teen Ashley Hodge, a tricaptain for Masconomet, is a perfect example of the opportunities created by a co-op team.

The 16-year-old junior is the daughter of former Boston Bruin Ken Hodge Jr. (and granddaughter of Bruin great Ken Hodge). She grew up figure skating, but stopped when she began playing field hockey for her hometown high school.

“Then the co-op team came up, and it was something I’ve always wanted to try,” she said. “Especially after hearing about my dad. So that opportunity came, and I took it.”

If Newburyport weren’t part of the Masconomet program, Hodge said, “I honestly probably would have never played hockey.”

Valletti agreed with her teammate. “If Hamilton didn’t have a co-op team, I might look at the Shamrocks,” a private club team, she said. “They play all year round. But it’s not high school. It’s a different level. Some teams are more competitive than high school, but high school is really the main event. Everyone looks forward to playing high school, being on the varsity, playing with their friends.”

There can be complications to forming co-op teams, however. The MIAA and the District Athletic Committee overseeing the host high school are charged with maintaining programs that “protect competing schools from competitive disadvantage, guarantee increased participation, ensure that no displacement of athletes occurs, [and] rest on a firm financial commitment by the schools involved to support a viable team.”

MIAA spokesman Wetzel said the cooperative teams are closely monitored to ensure that, as Twomey said, they are not “loading” their rosters. The temptation, Wetzel acknowledged, can be strong for coaches to identify talented youngsters from neighboring towns and recruit them via cooperative agreements. That’s where the district committee must act as a watchdog, he said.

Coaches must also protect athletes from the host school. Though cooperative teams don’t typically make cuts, they can exacerbate the thorny issue of playing time.

“We do look at impact players,” said Wetzel. “You have to look at the possibility of unfair advantage. Is the coach going to drop five or six local kids to make room for these other kids? The host school has to worry about it because of their own parents. They’ll end up at the School Committee, saying, ‘We pay taxes, my kid’s been playing all these years, and all of a sudden they bring in five kids from next door, or 10 miles away.’ That’s worrisome.”

Wetzel said two-year co-op agreements allow the schools to adjust quickly if circumstances change (such as a large influx, or loss, of players). The schools also must agree on issues regarding eligibility (primarily grades) and discipline, and deal with potentially complex logistics regarding buses and schedules. However, coaches and athletic directors interviewed said the MIAA has been very supportive.

“For our program, it’s definitely been a positive,” said Marblehead coach Emily Hudak. “I don’t know if some schools are looking at [cooperative teams] as a way to get the best kids. We’re just trying to keep the program running, and be successful with the kids we have.”

Co-op teams also feature another intriguing element rarely seen in high school sports. Many of the girls who play on the same team during the winter might well find themselves as opponents in the fall and spring, in soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, and softball.

“People can get too serious about sports,” said Valletti. “When we’re playing lacrosse against Masco, obviously it’s intimidating, because they’re good at everything. Meanwhile, I knew half the team, so I was just having a great laugh, because I spent every day for the last four months with them.”

“When I tell people I play for Masco, they’ll sometimes say ‘Why can’t you wear a Newburyport jersey?’ said Hodge. “I have the Masco varsity letter hanging up in my room, and the picture of my Masco team, and I think, ‘You know what? Half of these girls aren’t from Masco.’ It doesn’t even matter.”

What matters to these girls is simply having a chance to play.

Brion O’Connor can be reached at brionoc@verizon.net.
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