ROCKLAND – The shirt she was wearing at practice last week, said Reilly Cousins, has no special significance.

Green with a Georges Valley field hockey logo, it was a practice jersey given to the Buccaneers players a year ago.

Now?

“It’s just a shirt. When I see these girls,” she said, sweeping her arm toward the practice field where about 30 girls were doing drills, “there’s no division between schools.”

Cousins is a member of a truly unique field hockey team this year: Rockland-Georges Valley. The Class B team includes players from Rockland and Georges Valley. Those schools will merge next year to form a new school district, with grades 10-12 attending what is now Rockland High and grades 8-9 heading to what is now Georges Valley.

The field hockey team simply got a jump on the consolidation. School officials had cut the field hockey program at Georges Valley last spring, citing low numbers and lack of interest. But then they petitioned the Maine Principals’ Association to allow their girls to form a co-operative team with Rockland and were given the approval to do so.

“We’re the guinea pigs,” said Coach Joanna Hall, a physical education teacher at Rockland. “We’re really glad that we’re the first team to combine. The girls want to show (other teams) how to do it.”

And, stressed Hall, there are no longer any divisions between players from Rockland and Georges Valley.

“They’re all just field hockey players,” she said. “These girls, they don’t care what color they wear or what you call them, Tigers or Bucs, or what cheer you shout. They just want to play field hockey and have fun.”

As Tamika Brown from Rockland said, “We think of it as one school.”

That one school is 2-2 entering Saturday’s game at Mt. View. Most view that as a strong start: Rockland was 4-10 in 2009 and Georges Valley was 1-13.

“We weren’t sure how it would change our program,” said Allison Ward, a junior midfielder from Rockland. “But it’s actually changed it for the better. The holes we had last year have been filled with Georges Valley players. It’s just made us a lot stronger.”

“And we kind of made history,” said Brooke Fournier, a junior forward from Georges Valley. “We won our first game (3-0 over Oak Hill). We’ve done well and can show that combining schools, it’s not all bad. It’s cool to say we’re the first team to come together.”

But for the girls, the results on the field are almost secondary. For those who travel the five miles or so along Route 1 from Georges Valley in Thomaston to Rockland, it is a chance to play field hockey.

Period.

“When we found out we were going to play here, we were really excited,” said Fournier. “In the back of our minds, we were like, ‘How is this going to work out?’ But we just wanted to play.”

And that was the primary reason athletic directors Jim Leonard of Rockland and Ed Hastings of Georges Valley approached the MPA.

“We felt it would be an injustice to the Georges Valley kids,” said Hastings. “We pleaded our case and I think the MPA made absolutely the right decision, to afford these kids the opportunity to play. We see this as the first cornerstone to the merger.”

Tom Forti, the principal at Rockland, agreed, saying, “It’s bolstering people’s confidence that the whole consolidation thing can work.”

The schools met five of the six criteria needed to form a co-operative team, and received a waiver from the MPA’s management committee on the sixth.

“I think it’s all been positive” said Mike Burnham, an assistant executive director for the MPA.

Leonard said his own program has low numbers as well. “We were hovering around the mark where we could be in trouble, and they were in trouble,” he said.

“It seemed natural. And we’d be able to see some issues that might arise when the schools finally merge.”

So far there haven’t been many issues. Georges Valley provides an extracurricular activities bus — which also carries middle-school students — to drive field hockey players over to Rockland, although many provide their own transportation.

“It’s involved a little creative scheduling,” said Hastings.

Initially that was some concern. In the lower levels of the two school systems, there is a little rivalry between Georges Valley and Rockland. And, according to assistant coach Kristy Hastings, who teaches math at Georges Valley, there was some dismay when word got out that the teams would merge.

“A lot were saying, ‘I’m not going over there. I’m not playing with those Rockland girls,’ ” she said. “But they all came out. And they were very excited.”

“At first it was, ‘Oh no’ when they told us our team got cut” said Cousins. “Then they told us we were joining Rockland and I said, ‘Well, I’ll do it because I love field hockey.’ “

Hall tried very early to ease any anxiety. She held summer practices and several team bonding outings (including pool parties).

But the best bonding experience came during a summer jamboree with the field hockey team from Marlborough, Mass. The Rockland-Georges Valley players camped out behind Rockland High, in a grassy area near the field hockey field.

The schools were mixed, forcing them “out of our comfort zone,” said Madison Sturks, a junior back from Rockland. “There’s nothing more eye-opening than sharing a tent with someone and realizing ‘She’s my teammate now.’ “

And relationships began to form.

Fournier and Ward, two talented players who gravitated to each other, were the first to start spending time together.

“The first time I talked to Brooke, I told her if she needed any help, anything about Rockland, she should come to me,” said Ward.

“We ended up talking a long time and found out we have a lot in common. We hang out a lot away from school.”

“Allison became one of my first friends,” said Fournier. “She was always at the summer practices and we were like, ‘This is going to go really well.’ I think this is really going to be good for both programs.”

Then came the tryouts. Not knowing the girls from Thomaston, Hall took her time deciding who was varsity and who was junior varsity.

“You know, there were some girls that might have made the varsity (at either school) but are going to have to wait a bit,” she said. “I certainly didn’t want to overlook a player (from Georges Valley) for the varsity because I didn’t know her that well, because I wasn’t as familiar with them as I was with my girls from last year.”

Sturks was never worried about how the team would be picked.

“She’s the fairest coach I’ve ever known,” said Sturks. “This wasn’t a matter of someone taking a spot. It was more like (Hall) was going to put somebody where they needed to be. I knew we would have a fair tryout.

“I knew you were really going to have to work hard. It’s about earning a spot.”

Hall, said Forti, has been a positive influence on everything. “She has given the sense that this is one team, not two factions,” he said.

And not just on the field. Girls from Thomaston have attended Rockland football games. “We all sit together as one clan in the bleachers,” said Sturks. “We all walk around together.”

“I feel like I’m part of two high schools now,” said Fournier. “It’s weird to think that I attend one school and play sports for another. It’s weird thinking that I have to go to two Homecomings and support two schools.”

But that’s what teammates — and friends — do.

“We’ve got some really good friendships,” said Sturks. “There were definitely some people, in the school system and parents, who were iffy about this. They didn’t know if we’d get along.

“But we love each other. It’s like we’ve been together forever.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]