Coach Kaylee Whitten speaks to her Westbrook/South Portland field hockey team before a game at Gorham High on Tuesday. Drew Bonifant photo

SOUTH PORTLAND — The update was one Leah Cromarty didn’t want to hear.

The forward was eagerly anticipating her senior season with her Westbrook High field hockey team when she got an email saying that the fall would be taking on a different look. The Westbrook and South Portland teams were merging, with low numbers making it difficult for both programs to fill their own rosters.

Cromarty had a feeling the announcement was coming. That didn’t make it any easier.

“When I first heard the news, I wasn’t really happy about it. I wanted to play for Westbrook,” she said. “But the first day of the preseason, we came and we were all so welcoming. We got along really well.”

Now, the South Portland and Westbrook players who have come together are happy they did. Clad in red South Portland uniforms and playing under first-year coach Kaylee Whitten, a former Red Riot who graduated in 2019, the co-op team is 2-6-1. Given the difficult 2021 seasons for both schools and dwindling numbers on both sides, however, being able to take the field has been rewarding enough.

“It was tough at first,” said forward Rain Jordan, a South Portland senior. “It was tough knowing it wouldn’t just be South Portland, but it was definitely a relief to at least have a season.”


South Portland and Westbrook have enjoyed success in the sport. The Red Riots had a decade of dominance in the late 20th century, going to eight state finals and winning two from 1986-96. Westbrook’s success was far more recent. The Blue Blazes went 101-53-8 between 2010 and 2019, making the playoffs each year but one and going to a state final in 2017 and a regional final in 2018.

Turnout, however, became a concern for both programs. South Portland’s numbers declined from 45 players in 2016 to 17 in 2021, and the team sank to 0-14 last fall. Westbrook fell to 3-11 last year and has seen its numbers decline from 26 player in 2019 to just 12 this fall.

Westbrook’s interim athletic director, Beth Murphy, who coached the Blue Blazes from 1989-2017 and was an assistant in 2018, said the decline in numbers was caused by two middle school seasons being wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is not something that I ever thought would happen at Westbrook,” she said. “I was quite shocked and kind of sad to hear that numbers just weren’t there.”

The answer was to join forces, and the coaching job went to Whitten, a South Portland assistant last year, after head coach Sarah Millington resigned and Westbrook’s Rachelle Violette couldn’t coach after becoming pregnant.

Whitten, a 20-year-old senior at the University of Southern Maine, was eager for the challenge.


“I’ve kind of been going about it and learning on my own,” Whitten said. “All my coaches that I’ve ever had in my life have taught me at least one thing, if not many more. I’ve kind of taken those and put them together.”

The main obstacle was unfamiliarity between the players, who had only a few weeks to get their chemistry down before the new season began.

“It was awkward the first day, but what’s to expect when you put a bunch of strangers together?” said South Portland junior goalie Emily Keefe, the team’s lone returning first-team all-SMAA pick. “But we all realized we had to get over that super quickly if we were going to be successful this season.”

The team found ways to bridge the gap.

“Name games and stuff helped a lot,” Keefe said. “Some girls came over to my house one day and we made posters for our car wash the next weekend. … Learning (about) other people outside of field hockey, learning things they like to do, really helped.”

It also helped that the merger was a good blending of styles. South Portland brought a strong defensive core, while Westbrook had most of its talent on offense. There have been some encouraging signs: South Portland/Westbrook earned a 1-0 win over Portland/Deering – the only other co-op in Class A South (forming in 2018) – and a 3-2 victory over Bonny Eagle, and battled to a 1-1 tie against Kennebunk.


“I feel like we’re going to be more competitive, and that’s exciting,” said center midfielder Grace Wallace, a Westbrook senior. “Everybody on this team brings something special to the table.”

Maine Principals’ Association rules require merging teams to play together for two years. After that, both Todd Livingston, the athletic director at South Portland, and Murphy said they plan to field their own teams if numbers are high enough.

Until then, Murphy is happy to see Plan B working out.

“I thank Todd Livingston for reaching out and saying ‘Hey, what do you think?'” she said. “These kids are getting a chance to play. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

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