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Co-op option looms for public hockey schools

December 25, 2011

New Lincoln High coach Dick Ernst, right, is handling a first-year girls hockey program that is trying to stand on its own. (ERNEST A. BROWN photo)

Some RIIL history was made last March when the Johnston/North Providence team became the first co-op club to win a state championship, doing so when it swept defending champ Mount Hope in their best-of-three Division III title series.
While Johnston/North Providence’s championship didn’t come as much as a surprise -- the team was 14-1-1 during the regular season and the top seed in the playoffs -- it was a bit shocking to see a boys’ co-op squad capture a state crown before a girls’ team.
The girls’ co-op movement has been around since the RIIL introduced girls’ hockey to the varsity scene nine years ago. Of the five teams that took the ice in that inaugural year, two were co-op teams, the Lincoln School/Providence Country Day and Bay View/Bishop Keough squads.
Since then, the number of co-op clubs has slowly grown, not with the private schools, but with the public schools, and it’s at a point now where the co-op teams (five) outnumber the individual ones (three).
Interestingly, those three public school teams are also the three smallest in the state in terms of numbers. Lincoln, which is in its first year as a varsity team, has 15 players, and North Smithfield and Smithfield each have 14.
And that’s not the only thing they have in common. They each also have their share of players who are skating and playing organized hockey for their very first time and not seeing nearly as much ice time as the established players on their teams.
That was evident in North Smithfield’s 4-0 win over Lincoln on Friday night at Adelard Arena, as both teams used two lines and not many bench players. N.S.’s Hannah Decelles took just two shifts off the entire game, and Lincoln defensemen Lauren Hervieux and Madison LaRose never left the ice.
The three teams are also near the bottom of the standings. The Northmen are 2-5 (with both wins coming at the expense of the Lions). Lincoln is 1-4, and Smithfield, which is a second-year varsity team is 0-6.
And while the Lions have just two seniors on their young roster, the Sentinels will graduate seven players after this year and the Northmen will bid farewell to six.
This begs a few questions. Could this be the end of the Smithfield and North Smithfield programs? Would a co-op between the two schools possible?
And what about Lincoln? Sure, the Lions could be in good shape next season, but in 2013, they will graduate five players. Will the team’s numbers improve by then or will they also be forced to take the co-op route?
Bill Nangle, who is the longest tenured head coach in the state, having been with the Northmen since the 2002-03 inaugural season, has seen it all during his time behind the bench, including the rise of co-op teams around him, and he weighed in on his team’s future as an solo squad.
“I can’t speak for Lincoln and Smithfield, but I know our days are numbered if we don‘t co-op,” admitted Nangle. “We have to co-op a year from now or I don’t see how we put a team on the ice. Without a feeder program, it’s really difficult to try to encourage these kids to play.”
Before mid-November practice started, Nangle feared that he wouldn’t have enough players to field a team because he only knew of 10 players who were coming out for his team.
“Then we had four kids come out,” he offered. “One was a figure skater and three had never skated before. Just to get them in equipment and understand what it’s like to be in equipment was a monumental task.”
Lincoln’s story is almost the same as N.S.’s, and it’s a admirable one that saw its junior captain, Jean Bray, actively recruit students -- some without hockey experience -- to join the team and learn about the sport.
“They have the fighting heart and they have the spirit,” admitted veteran head coach Dick Ernst, who is in his 50th season of coaching high school hockey. “I love these girls and they’re doing everything that you can hope for. They’re out there doing their best and playing good hockey together.”
Long before the season started, Ernst actually discussed the possibility of co-opping with Lincoln principal Kevin McNamara, but that talk never picked up steam.
“I’m leaving that up to the administration what they want to do,” he reported. “I asked this year, and the principal said not this year, but that’s as far as the conversation went. It’s a tough decision.”
As for North Smithfield, the co-op talk has started, and the coaching staff and athletic director Matthew Tek are trying to figure out the best step to take.
“It’s been fun to keep (the team) as a solo, but at some point, you have to do what’s best for the sport, and I think the best thing would be to co-op with somebody,” noted Nangle. “I know our A.D. is talking to other schools right now and trying to figure out what to do next to keep this thing going.”
And what if the best way “to keep this thing going” is to create a co-op with Smithfield (and maybe Lincoln down the line) and possibly end the existence of individual public school teams in girls’ hockey?
“You never know,” said Nangle. “To me, it makes sense. I’ve never been in favor (of co-op programs), but at this point, to keep our team alive and keep this sport growing, I think it’s the best thing to do.”
If you’re looking to see some of the premier high school boys’ hockey teams from the Northeast region in action this week, you certainly can’t go wrong with Mount St. Charles Academy’s three-day Holiday Face-Off tournament at Adelard Arena.
This 16th annual tournament, which kicks off Tuesday and ends on Thursday with three consolation games and a championship final, offers no weak sisters among its eight entries, just talented teams who traditionally compete for state championships in their respective states.
In Tuesday’s quadrupleheader, St. Dominic Academy of Auburn, Maine faces Bishop Guertin High of Nashua, N.H. in the 2 p.m. opener, and Fairfield Prep of Fairfield, Conn., battles unbeaten MSC rival Bishop Hendricken at 4.
Cathedral High of Springfield, Mass., who will play Mount on Monday, Jan. 2 at Fenway Park, takes on LaSalle College of Wyndmoor, Penn. at 6, and St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute of Buffalo, N.Y. faces off with the Mounties, the tournament’s defending champion, in the 8 p.m. nightcap.
On Wednesday, the losers from Tuesday’s games will play at 2 and 4, and the winners will play at 6 and 8 and vie for a spot in Thursday night’s title game.
In a smaller tournament of local interest, Lincoln and Cumberland will play in the Toll Gate Holiday Tournament on Monday and Tuesday at Thayer Arena.
In Monday’s doubleheader, the Division II Clippers face off against Division III Mount Hope at 5 p.m., and the Division I Lions play Division II Toll Gate in the 7 p.m. game. The losers of those games will battle in Tuesday’s 5 p.m. consolation contest, and the winners will skate in the 7 p.m. finals.

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