ORONO, Maine — Jacob Gallon admitted that he was “really nervous” about his high school hockey future.
Gallon was going to be a freshman at Orono High School, where the longstanding hockey program was in serious jeopardy. The Red Riots were returning only four players, and he was one of just two incoming freshmen.
Orono had won two Eastern Maine Class B championships and played in five Eastern Maine title games in its history. But a high school team can’t survive with six players.
Rather than shut down the program, Orono High School athletic director Mike Archer contacted the administration at Old Town High School — his school’s biggest rival — to see if it would be willing to form a cooperative team with them.
Old Town was to return 13 players that season, but the Coyotes had gone 0-18 the previous winter. Orono went 8-9-1 and made the playoffs in its final season.
“One of the good things about hockey is, unlike any other sport, you can look at your future all way down to the fourth grade to see how many kids are playing [and eventually going to attend your high school],” said Archer. “[Orono High] had no other choice. It was all or nothing for us. So we reached out to Old Town’s administration. Old Town’s numbers were strong, but they were coming off a season in which they struggled.”
“We weren’t as competitive as we wanted to be,” said Old Town High School athletic director Brett Hoogterp.
The athletic directors drew up a comprehensive plan detailing how a co-op would be run, and the respective school boards approved it. The schools share expenses 50-50.
“We both realized nothing but good could come out of it. This allowed us to guarantee hockey would stay a viable option for the Old Town-Orono region forever,” said Archer. “We’re thankful to the superintendents and the school boards.”
The Old Town-Orono Black Bears took their lumps in their first season (2014-15), going 2-16.
But the Black Bears have made considerable progress. They had a 6-10-1 record last season, and this winter, they are undefeated and chasing defending state Class B champ Waterville in the Heal Points standings.
Old Town-Orono (8-0-1) has a 28-player roster, which has enabled the Black Bears to field a junior varsity team.
“I was hoping that we would merge, and I’m so glad we did,” said a grinning Gallon in recalling his anxiety of four years ago.
“It has been awesome,” added the left winger, who pointed out that he grew up playing with the Old Town players in youth hockey. “We’ve been getting better and better over the years.”
“I’ve played with most of these kids since we were 4 or 5 years old,” said senior defenseman Austin Sheehan, who is from Old Town. “The merger has really worked out well.”
“The chemistry is great. Even though we are from two different schools, we hang out with each other all the time,” said senior left wing Tyler Wheeler, who is from Old Town but played at John Bapst of Bangor before transferring to Old Town for this season with younger brother Josh Wheeler.
The players often get together to have meals.
“Old Town and Orono have always had a rivalry, but I think [this cooperation] has brought the cities together a little bit,” said senior center Nick Boutin, who is from Old Town.
Archer said there also has been a nice cooperative effort between the two boosters clubs and the parents as well as the respective administrations.
Denis Collins, who has coached the program since its inception, said his players are inseparable and that he has been blessed with a strong senior class.
“When we started four years ago, they were the freshmen,” said Collins. “Now they’re the leaders, and they’re a class act. They’re very mature.”
Collins said one of the most pleasing aspects has been the way the seniors embraced the nine-member freshman class that will serve as the foundation for the future.
“The freshmen are really good,” said Boutin. “They play as hard as they can, and they do their best, and that’s all you can ask for.”
Collins said the Junior Black Bears youth program has been beneficial in the players’ development.
“Somebody is doing a good job with those kids,” said Collins, who added there is a group of over 20 seventh-graders from Old Town and Orono in the Junior Black Bears program.
The swift-skating Black Bears have been impressive.
They have outscored their opponents 65-12. The only blemish on their record is a 3-3 tie with Brewer in the second game of the season.
“They’re a tough team. They have a lot of speed,” said Tony Marino, the coach of the Houlton-Hodgdon-Southern Aroostook-Katahdin cooperative team.
Old Town-Orono assistant coach Chris Thurlow pointed out that after posting a win in Presque Isle and getting home at 10 p.m., the players pleaded with them to practice the next morning at 5 a.m.
“What kind of kids do that?” asked Thurlow, who spent 11 seasons as an assistant at Orono under Greg Hirsch before joining Collins four years ago.
“Denis is a good fit, and he and Chris work well together,” said Archer.
The players thought they were going to be good this season.
“We all put in the work in the offseason. We play travel hockey in the summer,” said Sheehan. “And we work hard in practice. We deserve the record we have.”
The Black Bears are unselfish with the puck, and their speed generates turnovers that lead to scoring opportunities. They don’t give their opponents much time and space with the puck.
“They’re definitely a good team,” said Brewer coach Lance Ingerson. “They’re fast, and they pass the puck well.”
Thurlow said this is one of the best teams he has coached including his stint at Orono.
Junior center Jacob Dubay leads the Black Bears in scoring with 16 goals and 16 assists. Gallon has 10 goals and 13 assists, and Tyler Wheeler has five goals and 16 assists. Sheehan has produced 9 & 11 from the blue line with junior right wing Ben Allan-Rahill (6 & 7), Boutin (5 & 8) and freshman forward Tyler McCannell (5 & 5) also reaching double figures.
The other regulars along the blue line are sophomore Olivia King, Josh Wheeler, junior Austin Soucy and sophomore Cameron Tower.
Freshmen forwards Sam Henderson and Nate Young also have received ice time as has freshman defenseman Dylan Street.
Sophomores Kohle Parker (0.75 goals-against average, .927 save percentage) and Brendan Gasaway (1.00 .941) share the goaltending.
The Black Bears face 8-3 Hampden Academy at 5 p.m. Friday in Brewer before hosting undefeated Waterville at 6:15 p.m. Monday at Alfond Arena in Orono.