MILLINOCKET, Maine — When girls soccer players from Stearns High School join forces with Lee Academy for the 2016 season beginning next Monday, their commitment won’t be reflected only in their love of the game, but the distance traveled just for practices and games.

The schools are approximately 40 miles apart, meaning a one-way commute of nearly an hour from campus to campus.

“I know that from time to time, more in an individual sports setting where it was one or two kids and it was swimming or wrestling and there wasn’t another program close by, there has been some traveling, but in those cases it was easier because it was one family or one athlete,” Maine Principals’ Association executive director Dick Durost said.

“But in terms of cooperative teams, this may be the longest distance they’ve had to travel.”

How to facilitate that travel remains a work in progress.

There’s no money in the Stearns athletic budget to subsidize daily bus trips to and from Lee Academy for the estimated three to six students from the Millinocket school who wish to play girls soccer, as was understood when the schools agreed earlier this year to field a cooperative team this fall.

“The busing or transportation piece to this thing was always on the parents and the students,” Stearns assistant principal and athletic administrator Fredy Lazo said.

“They came to us to see if we could do something as far as busing. Our bus director said he’d do whatever he could, but there’s still a cost to it. It’s easily 40 miles one way.”

Now a fundraising effort is under way to come up with the estimated $3,500 needed to pay for such transportation expenses as the bus, fuel and a bus driver for the season, which typically runs until mid- to late October.

A GoFundMe page for the cause has been established by Gary Allen, an ultramarathoner and road race director from Great Cranberry Island, who has taken an interest in helping the Katahdin region cope with the aftermath of paper mill closings in Millinocket and East Millinocket.

Allen also established a marathon in Millinocket last December as a means of drawing people to the area and plans to stage that event again this year.

The Stearns soccer GoFundMe page, established Monday, raised $560 in its first 24 hours.

The MPA, which oversees interscholastic sports in the state, does not require descriptions of such financial issues as transportation costs on its cooperative team application form, though it does require evidence of local support for the effort.

“Things like transportation are left up to the two or — as is sometimes the case with ice hockey — three or four school systems to work out,” Durost said. “One of the reasons we require school board minutes with the application is so we know right from the front end that there’s support at least in terms of the concept and that the school boards are aware of what needs to be done between the schools.

“I think fundraising is a last resort,” he added, “but certainly, if that’s the only way they’re going to be able to arrange for the kids to get there we have to respect that local approach to doing whatever it is they need to do.”

If this particular fundraising effort doesn’t reach its $3,500 goal, it won’t represent a death knell for the Stearns players who want to join the Lee Academy girls soccer program this year.

“The opportunity for them to play soccer is not going to go away,” Lazo said. “What they’re trying to do now is make it more feasible and make something more consistent to get the kids there.

“If the bus doesn’t work out, the opportunity for them to play soccer is going to be there. It is going to make it harder for the kids who want to play soccer, but there’s a core group of girls who are going to go regardless of whether the transportation works out or not.”

The expected alternative would call for private transportation involving parents.

“We always have the concern when the parents are providing the transportation about liability issues,” Durost said. “We don’t want to put the parents in those situations, but sometimes that’s the end result.

“Our advice would be for the school to get some legal advice or at least advice from their insurance company, and then are there any types of forms or documentations that the school might want the different sets of parents to sign off on so there’s a clear understanding on liability, particularly if it’s not able to be covered by school insurance.”

Stearns has never fielded its own girls soccer team, but a small number of players from the school played on a cooperative team with neighboring Schenck of East Millinocket two years ago. At that time, the team was granted an MPA waiver to remain in Class D despite the schools’ combined enrollment being greater than the cutoff for Class C.

That waiver went away last fall, but two Stearns players were grandfathered to play on the Schenck varsity for one more season without the team having to move up a class. Other Stearns players participated at the junior varsity level.

During the most recent offseason, the school board that oversees Schenck opted to end its cooperative status with Stearns in girls soccer, concerned that a move up to Class C would put the team at a competitive disadvantage.

Schenck has 134 students according to enrollment figures used by the Maine Principals’ Association to place teams under the current two-year statewide classification cycle while Stearns has 181, bringing that two-school total to 315 — well above the 189-student maximum for Class D soccer.

“Once we were turned down with Schenck, the options for us were real thin,” Lazo said. “If I had pursued this with Katahdin (of Stacyville), that’s another 45 minutes in the northern direction, where Lee is 45 minutes to the southeast.

“(Penobscot Valley of) Howland is 35 or 40 minutes in another direction and their program is strong so they wouldn’t have an interest in doing it, and it’s the same thing with MA (Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln). Their soccer program isn’t hurting for numbers so they wouldn’t be interested, either.

“The options are really thin.”

Lee Academy’s girls soccer roster typically numbers in the mid- to upper teens, according to Lee athletic administrator Randy Harris earlier this summer, leaving open roster spots for Stearns players to fill.

The Lee-Stearns girls soccer cooperative will compete in Class B North this fall, the final year of the current classification cycle, as the combined enrollment for those schools is 417. Class C soccer involves schools with enrollments between 190 and 399.

The girls soccer collaboration between Lee and Stearns is among the latest in a gradually growing number of cooperative teams that are being established to provide more interscholastic athletic opportunities during an era of shrinking public-school enrollment around the state.

“The farther north of Augusta you go as enrollments continue to shrink, I think these types of conversations are going to take place on a much more regular basis,” Durost said. “For some of those sports that not a lot of schools offer, the closest neighbor may be 50 or 60 miles away, and then that becomes a huge commitment for the kids as well as the school’s transportation system or parents.”

For Stearns, this particular effort is largely a chance to enable several of its students who have played several years of soccer to conclude their high school careers on the pitch.

“We’re optimistic,” Lazo said. “This is a one-year cooperative agreement, and we’re hoping it works out and the kids have a good experience.

“The bottom line for me is that the opportunity for those girls who want to play soccer is there. Like anything, it’s not as easy to do when the sport is not at your school, but they have the opportunity to play soccer, if they so desire.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...