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

Melanie McAleer of Whitman Hanson/Pembroke watches as Boston Latin Academy’s Rachel Wells makes a save at a game last month.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Melanie McAleer of Whitman Hanson/Pembroke watches as Boston Latin Academy’s Rachel Wells makes a save at a game last month.

When Kristyn Alexander played ice hockey at Wareham High more than a decade ago, she had no choice but to join the boys’ varsity team.

That formative experience has steeled her resolve, as coach of the fledgling Bourne/Mashpee/Wareham cooperative girls’ team, to make sure her players have the chance to compete against girls, even if that means skating under the purple and white colors of Bourne High School.

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“I wish this opportunity was there when I played high school,” said Alexander, Wareham High class of 2003.

“Unfortunately, it wasn’t, so my goal, along with the parents who founded and fund this program, is to give these girls the opportunity to continue their hockey career, and not stop after youth hockey.”

The Bourne/Mashpee/Wareham team is representative of a recent wave of cooperative hockey teams throughout the region that give girls the chance to lace up their skates alongside their peers. Other co-op teams include Cohasset/Hanover, Whitman-Hanson/Pembroke, Quincy/North Quincy, and Mansfield/Oliver Ames.

“It’s such an up-and-coming sport over the last 20 years,” said Dana Battista, athletic director at Pembroke High, which fields a squad that has eight players from Whitman-Hanson and 17 from Pembroke.

“Obviously, towns like Pembroke and Whitman, they don’t have enough girls to field their own team. So having the ability to take two schools and co-op them together really gives them the opportunity to play. That’s probably the most important thing of all.”

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“Last year, one of my freshmen couldn’t even skate, and she still can’t skate that well,” said Steve Burgio, head coach of the Quincy/North Quincy squad that has nine players from Quincy and seven from North Quincy.

“But that wasn’t the point for her. It was being part of a team, and being accepted by a group of girls, a group of peers. And her parents couldn’t say enough about how much fun she had. That’s all we want to do — let them have fun, and let them compete.”

Burgio said the Quincy/North Quincy squad sees itself as a “combined” team, rather than a cooperative team that skates under the host school’s banner. The team’s jerseys are navy and white, which is a departure from the colors of either school.

The “QNQ” logo features a president’s top hat on the first “Q,” indicative of Quincy’s nickname, the Presidents, and North Quincy’s mascot, the Native American Mr. Yakoo, atop the second “Q.” Similarly, Whitman-Hanson/Pembroke second-year coach Bill Flynn said his team elected to forgo any nickname.

“We just stayed away from it, because first one school will want it, and then the other school wants it,” he said. “So we just left it alone.”

Cohasset/Hanover adopted a “CH” logo similar to the Montreal Canadiens, and selected the colors of blue and gold, to reflect, in part, that the schools rely on each other.

“When we started this program four years ago, neither Cohasset nor Hanover had enough kids to start a program on their own,” said head coach Deb Beal, who has 14 girls from Cohasset and 13 from Hanover.

“There’s no way, if we split today, that either team could be competitive. But we have a lot of talent coming from both sides. The talent is just growing at an enormous rate.”

However, the cooperative squads have generated some intriguing byproducts. Not only do these teams afford more girls the chance to play, but they also offer a view outside traditional parochial perspectives.

“These are my best friends in the whole world,” said 17-year-old Valerie Sarren of Cohasset, a junior captain for Cohasset/Hanover. “And we just wouldn’t have known each other if we didn’t have this co-op.”

“It’s amazing how close these kids have become,” said Beal, a physical education teacher in Cohasset. “Every team you coach becomes a family in its own way. But this is unique, because the kids have to put a lot of effort into this to make it work.”

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 MIAA spokesman Paul Wetzel.

“In 2010, there were 100 girls teams, with 1,795 hockey players on them. Last year, for 2012-13, we had 125 teams, and 2,337 players. That’s another 500-plus players, and 25 percent more schools. And this year, if I had to guess, I’d say there are going to be some other new ones. It’s a pretty dramatic change.”

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. By 2002-03, that number jumped to 6,153, with a significant leap coming after the 1998 Olympics (the first to feature women’s ice hockey). For the 2012-13 season, USA Hockey had almost 9,500 registered 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 Games.

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

The Olympics also mirror another interesting dynamic of the cooperative teams. Much like the National Hockey League players who put aside professional rivalries to come together and represent their countries, girls in cooperative teams often find themselves playing against their hockey teammates during the fall (soccer, field hockey) and spring (lacrosse, softball).

“There’s no rivalry at all. We just jell completely as a team,” said McKenzie Dunphy, a 17-year-old three-sport senior from Hanover and a captain for the Cohasset/Hanover squad.

“When we play against each other, it’s always a friendly competition. We love playing against each other.”

“They do joke about it, and it’s pretty funny to hear them talk about it,” said Alexander. “I watched a softball game where I had my players on both teams, and there’s definitely that mutual respect.”

Ultimately, the objective of these cooperative programs is to act as a bridge until individual schools have enough girls to support their own teams, such as Scituate, Hingham, or Duxbury.

“Eventually, our goal is to have a Bourne team, a Wareham team, and a Mashpee team,” said Alexander. “But as of now, there’s just a handful of girls who want to play hockey in each town, and this gives them the opportunity.”

There can be complications, however, including the logistics of building a team from different schools.

“One weird part of [the co-op teams] is the cohesive part of it,” said Pembroke’s Battista. “When you’re one school, all the kids are together all day long. We’re two different schools, so they really have to develop teamwork and camaraderie. Just being at practice, and on Facebook. Social media, that’s where they keep in touch.”

The MIAA and the host school’s District Athletic Committee 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.”

The MIAA’s Wetzel said the cooperative teams are closely monitored to ensure that teams aren’t “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 committees must act as watchdogs, he said.

Schools must also protect athletes from the host communities. Although cooperative teams don’t typically cut weaker players, they can exacerbate the thorny issue of playing time.

“We do look at impact players,” said Wetzel. “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 [that] 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 the renewable two-year agreements allow cooperative 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 more complex logistics regarding buses and schedules. However, coaches and athletic directors interviewed said the MIAA has been very supportive.

“Without the co-op teams, these girls wouldn’t be competing,” said Battista. “And a lot of the girls, some of our better players, would have left Pembroke and gone to a private school if they didn’t have a chance to play hockey here. So we’re keeping the kids at the school.”

And on the ice. “We love having the team, and we don’t know what we’d possibly do without it,” said Dunphy. “It’s always our favorite season of the year. All year-round, we look forward to playing with each other.”

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

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