PORTLAND — Anthony Verville, Alexander Asbury and Jackson Stevens had hoped to emerge from the courthouse with a decision that would allow them to participate in the first day of hockey practice next Monday.

But the students lost their battle with the Maine Principals’ Association over the formation of a Deering-Portland High cooperative team, which would have provided a way for the hockey fanatics to play their senior year.

The boys sued the MPA in Cumberland County Superior Court over its denial of the schools’ requests to form a merged boys team, arguing that the decision amounted to educational discrimination based on sex. At the same meeting it decided against the boys co-op team, the MPA allowed Deering and Portland to form a girls co-op team.

The boys were disappointed that Justice Thomas Warren did not rule in their favor, but they were gracious in defeat. After Monday’s hearing, they said they were glad to have had a voice in the matter, thanked the parties involved and spoke of life lessons learned.

“I’d rather know we tried and failed instead of not trying at all,” said Asbury, who’s known as A.J.

Deering High suspended its boys and girls hockey programs after last season due to a lack of players. In June, there were only five players for the boys team and two players for the girls team for the current academic year. Verville and Asbury attend Deering and Stevens is a Casco Bay student with an athletic affiliation with Deering.

Warren agreed with the plaintiffs that they have been harmed by being denied the chance to play hockey. He noted that it was an important part of their high school experience, fostered characteristics like leadership and that their lack of participation could affect their college application process. Warren noted that he was not ruling on the merits of the MPA’s decision but on whether discrimination occurred.

“I have to make my ruling based on the evidence and not what I would want to do if I was in the Maine Principals’ Association … I don’t know what I would do,” he said.

The boys’ attorney, Paul Greene, argued that if his clients were girls, they’d be playing hockey this season.

“At the end of the day, because they’re boys, they’re being denied this educational opportunity,” Greene said during the hearing.

But the MPA’s attorneys, Margaret Coughlin LePage and Katy Rand, argued that there was no evidence to suggest that gender played any role in the decisions. Rand also said the Maine Human Rights Act requires overall equal opportunity in athletic programs for the sexes and not identical sports teams as Greene suggested.

The schools needed waivers from the MPA rules that do not allow co-op teams when the combined enrollment of the two schools exceeds the enrollment of the largest school in the state and when both schools have offered the sport in question in each of the past two years.

MPA President Lloyd Crocker testified about the Sept. 15 meeting of the organization’s Interscholastic Management Committee. The committee voted 7-1 to grant the waiver for the girls co-op team and 7-1 to deny one for the boys co-op team.

Crocker said girls hockey at Deering and Portland is still emerging and the idea behind co-op teams is to help build sports programs. Hockey for girls has been available for three years, although last year’s Deering team folded with six players. Two joined the boys team.

As for the boys, Crocker said, there was concern that Portland players would be denied playing time with the addition of new team members and that putting players from two long-standing programs would give the co-op team a competitive advantage.

“We’re charged with making decisions that are fair and equitable to all schools across the state,” Crocker said.

That point was seconded by Norm Gagne, the dean of Maine hockey coaches. Currently the Scarborough High head hockey coach, Gagne has coached for 37 years. He was not in the courtroom Monday.

While sympathizing with the players’ plight, he was concerned about a bending of rules concerning enrollment numbers and the creation of a so-called super-sized school team. “Then why can’t Scarborough and Westbrook or Scarborough and Bonny Eagle combine teams? It’s a pretty slippery slope. If I could have two or three more good players, I’d have a much stronger team.”

“If the MPA could have allowed (a co-op team) for this year only for those three and make one exception, I would like to see that. I hate to see the kids not be allowed to play.”

Greene said the three players have no interest in seeking to transfer to another school with a hockey program. “They want to graduate with their classmates.”

Greene said the players and coach of Portland’s boys team were welcoming of Deering players. In regard to the possibility of a “super team” in Portland, he suggested that eighth-grade hockey players would flock to Portland because there was no program at Deering.

David Sherman, a lawyer for the Portland School Department, spoke in favor of the boys co-op team. Deering and Portland high schools were part of the suit as Parties-in-Interest.

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: [email protected]