MILLINOCKET, Maine — For Emma Alley, life on a bus during her middle-school and high school years has consisted largely of road trips to various sports competitions.
The Stearns High School senior is likely to amass many more frequent-rider miles this fall, but she’s glad for the chance.
Alley is one of several girls soccer players from the school who are getting to continue their careers in that sport this fall thanks to a cooperative arrangement that enables them to play on the team at Lee Academy.
But Lee Academy is approximately 40 miles away from the Stearns campus, meaning approximately two hours spent each day making the round trip to practices and games — or twice that amount Tuesday as the Pandas held double sessions with separate workouts in the morning and early evening.
“I just really like soccer and I’m really glad I get to play, so I look at the travel like that,” said Alley.
That Alley and several other Stearns players would get to ride on a school bus back and forth to Lee for this opening week of fall sports practices was uncertain until a recent fundraising drive generated the estimated $3,500 needed to subsidize the bus, fuel and the bus driver for the season, which runs through at least mid-October.
Players and other supporters held a car wash and a bottle drive, placed donation cans at different locations and solicited area businesses for support.
But the biggest source of revenue was a GoFundMe page for the cause established barely a week ago by Gary Allen of Great Cranberry Island. He is a road race director who previously established a marathon in Millinocket last December in an effort to draw visitors to this community hard hit in recent years by paper-mill closings.
As of mid-afternoon Tuesday, the GoFundMe page had raised $3,285 in donations, with 69 different donors making pledges ranging from $5 to $500.
Had the fundraising effort not been successful, parents of the players would have been responsible for providing transportation back and forth to Lee.
“We’d like to thank [the community],” said Alley. “A lot of the people who donated were Stearns alumni and we really appreciate it because we all really wanted to play soccer and we’re just happy we’re able to this year and that our parents don’t have to drive us.”
Between seven and nine Stearns girls soccer players are expected to join the Lee roster — including Alley’s younger sister Katherine, an incoming freshman.
“It’s been working out great,” said Stearns athletic administrator Fredy Lazo. “There will always be bumps along the way when you’re doing something for the first time. This is the first time we’ve done this with Lee Academy and they’ve been a great host.
“We’ve just been trying to figure out what makes the most sense to give these kids the opportunity to play soccer.”
Stearns has never fielded its own girls soccer team, but Emma Alley was among a small number of players from the school who were part of a cooperative team with neighboring Schenck of East Millinocket two years ago. At that time, the team was granted a waiver from the Maine Principals’ Association to remain in Class D despite the schools’ combined enrollment being greater than the cutoff for Class C.
That waiver was not renewed last fall, but Alley and one other Stearns teammate were grandfathered to play on the Schenck varsity for one more season without the cooperative entry having to move up a class. Other players from Stearns 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 MPA 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.
Lee Academy, a Class C soccer school by enrollment with its 236 students, will compete in Class B North this fall under its cooperative arrangement with Stearns. The combined enrollment of the two schools is 417, more than the 399-student maximum for Class C soccer.