Cheverus/Old Orchard Beach girls’ hockey Coach Scott Rousseau talks to his team in the locker room after a scrimmage last week at Troubh Ice Arena. The defending state champs have 14 players on the roster – up from eight just two months ago. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In February, they celebrated on the ice, hoisting the state championship trophy.

Before the next school year began, they did not have enough players for a team.

The Cheverus/Old Orchard Beach girls’ hockey team is back on the ice this season. But two months ago it was no guarantee.

“We had eight players,” Cheverus Coach Scott Rousseau said. “Our options were figure it out or don’t play. We decided to figure it out.

“We’re cutting it close. Our total roster is 14.”

Cheverus is one of many girls’ hockey programs in Maine struggling to attract players. After several years of growth, participation in the sport was down 10 percent last winter to its lowest level since 2014-15, according to the Maine Principals’ Association. Nationally, participation in all high school sports declined in 2018-19 for the first time in 30 years, with the number of girls playing ice hockey up less than 1 percent from the year before.

Several girls’ hockey teams are having to recruit within the student body to find players, some of whom are novice skaters.

“The skill set of experienced players continues to get better, but the biggest challenge continues to be finding enough players to play,” said Bob Mills, in his ninth year as head coach of Cape Elizabeth/South Portland/Waynflete. “Many teams struggle to retain and attract players. We average 15 to 17 players per season, which is really not enough to adequately field a true varsity program.”

The Capers cooperative team is the norm. Of the 16 high school teams in the state, only five come from one school. Two of the co-ops feature four schools, six others have three. Cheverus/Old Orchard Beach also used to have Kennebunk High as a partner, but the Rams did not have any players this year.

With only two players coming from Old Orchard Beach, and several players graduated from last year’s state title team, Cheverus sought to merge with Portland/Deering, a program with young, inexperienced players. However, Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana announced in September there would be no new mergers of any sports teams during this academic year.

That left the Stags scrambling.

Cheverus/Old Orchard Beach girls’ hockey players watch their teammates during a scrimmage against Yarmouth/Freeport at Troubh Ice Arena last week. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“We had to go recruiting in the halls,” said junior Lucia Pompeo, the team’s top forward.

Pompeo, who also plays field hockey, said enticing new players for ice hockey is challenging. “Finding people to play (field hockey), they are more comfortable (than ice hockey) because they don’t have to skate,” she said.

Often, ice hockey teams feature players with extremely different skill sets.

“You have athletes that have played their entire lives and hope to play beyond the high school level, and then you’ve got them on a line with a girl that started skating a month ago,” said Nate Guerin, who won three championships in 10 years as the coach at Greely High.

“It can be tough to convince your beginners to stick with it, while at the same time creating a culture that more experienced players want to continue in.”

The ideal would be a junior varsity program for new players, but “we have yet to have enough players to field a true JV team,” said Lewiston coach Ron Dumont, “and a lot of these players have limited opportunities for playing time.”

Dumont has coached Lewiston since girls’ hockey became a sanctioned sport in 2008-09, and he has one of the few one-school teams. Falmouth is another team that has not needed a co-op.

“Having a dedicated girls’ middle school hockey team that can act as a feeder program helps a lot,” said Falmouth coach Rob Carrier, now in his 11th season.

Goalie Trinity Atwater is one of two players from Old Orchard Beach High who play for the Cheverus/OOB girls’ hockey team. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Guerin said it can be “cyclical for a lot of programs. My first year at Greely we had 40 kids come out. … That number dropped down to 20 and then into the low teens at times.”

St. Dominic Academy is another school to see dramatic swings in its girls’ hockey program, winning a state title in 2011, failing to field a varsity team in the 2013-14 season and rebounding to capture state titles in 2016 and 2017.

Guerin stepped away from high school coaching this year to spend time with his young children, including time as a youth coach with his 6-year-old daughter.

“I’m definitely encouraged when I am coaching the beginning skaters that are 4 to 6 years old,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of participation and excitement from boys and girls in the area.

“Hopefully we can retain a high percent of them, and they will continue playing hockey into their teenage years.”

That is what Rousseau sees happening. He is on the Casco Bay Youth Hockey board, and has seen the girls’ Mites division (8 years old and under) grow from eight teams to 12 last year. This season there are 14.

“The numbers are coming,” he said.

But the Mites weren’t going to help Cheverus this year. Still, the Stags found players. Three freshmen joined the team, as did a transfer from Brunswick (Emily Factor). From the student body, the Stags found two students who used to play youth hockey (Erin Libby and Jordina Coleman) and convinced them to lace up the skates again.

“I think we’ll be OK,” Rousseau said, figuring his team will be competitive in a down year for the sport.

“The league is changed a lot this year. The last four years, we had an era with elite offensive players. Those players are all gone. Clearly, Scarborough is the toast the of our (South) division. Lewiston’s depth is surreal. St. Dom’s and Cape will be able to push those teams. After that, 12 (teams) of a lot of the same – flawed rosters that are thin and struggling for offense.”

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