Players from Mattanawcook Academy in Lincoln (right) and Bucksport High School get geared up prior to a 2015 game in Bucksport. Mattanawcook this fall will accept players from Lee Academy and Penobscot Valley High School of Howland to form a cooperative team.

The trend toward more and more cooperative high school sports teams will continue this fall with the addition of at least one multischool football program. Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln will host players from neighboring Penobscot Valley High School of Howland and Lee Academy on its team.

The collaboration began with informal conversations between athletic administrators Bill McCarthy of Mattanawcook Academy and Gerald Hutchinson of Penobscot Valley. PVHS does not sponsor football, although one of its most famous alumni is Matthew Mulligan, who took up the sport in college and went on to play tight end for eight seasons in the National Football League.

“Billy and I have been talking for a couple of years and Billy said, ‘We ought to try this, we ought to try this,’” Hutchinson said.

A survey of Penobscot Valley students earlier this year indicated that approximately five students were interested in playing football, so the process moved forward. Lee Academy soon joined the effort.

“Last year we had two kids that came to us as eighth-graders and mentioned that they’d be interested in football,” Lee Academy athletic administrator Randy Harris said. “I called Billy and MA and Howland already were in motion with it.”

Mattanawcook Academy has become a mini hub for providing cooperative sports outlets for youngsters from other northern Penobscot County communities whose own high schools are too small to field their own teams in particular activities.

In recent years Mattanawcook has welcomed wrestlers from Lee Academy, cross-country runners from Schenck High School of East Millinocket, and track and field athletes from Penobscot Valley.

“We’ve provided some opportunities for those schools around us and their kids who have interest in some of these sports,” McCarthy said, “and it helps our programs because sometimes there have been numbers issues with track and cross-country.”

The idea to offer student-athletes from Penobscot Valley and Lee the chance to join Mattanawcook’s football program beginning this fall was sparked by a Maine Principals’ Association rule change two years ago that changed the enrollment formula for cooperative teams.

Instead of the previous formula of adding the total enrollments of all schools that are part of a cooperative entry for classification purposes, now only the host school’s full enrollment is used. For other participating schools, only a percentage of the total enrollment is counted based on each school’s percentage of players on the cooperative team.

That has made it much more likely that a newly formed cooperative team would not have to move up a class if it included players from another school — Mattanawcook, for example, will remain in Class D North.

“Let’s be realistic,” McCarthy said. “In football we didn’t really need any more kids, but we have kids that are coming up through the youth program and dabbling around a little in middle school with it, and when (the MPA) started using the formula where it didn’t impact your enrollment as much with the upper classes it was like, ‘Why not give those same kids a chance to play at the high school level?’

“It’s really opened up a lot of opportunities for us in Northern Maine, I think anybody would tell you that, especially in Class C and Class D.”

Steady growth

The number of cooperative teams statewide bears out McCarthy’s sentiment.

In addition to individual athletes who practice and travel with teams from other schools but accumulate points for their own schools — itself a growing practice — some 86 cooperative teams have been established in 24 different varsity sports.

Ice hockey is most prominent in the use of cooperative teams, with 12 of 16 girls teams and 14 of 36 boys squads set to represent multiple schools in the 2018-19 season.

Football players from smaller schools around the state also are taking advantage. Counting the newly formed Mattanawcook-Lee-Penobscot Valley combo, nine of the 20 teams in Class D this fall will be cooperative entries, along with a 10th co-op team from Class A (Oxford Hills/Buckfield).

“We have seen an increase in cooperative teams in all of our activities,” said Mike Burnham, MPA assistant executive director. “Two years ago when we did the revision to the cooperative team policy and just took the percentage of enrollment, it opened up a lot of those opportunities because the impact of enrollment on classification is now a lot less.”

Burnham expects the trend toward more cooperative teams to continue as the state’s high school-age enrollment continues to decline, and as the concept gains more acceptance and popularity as a form of athletic teamwork among neighboring schools.

“Over time the stigma about being a cooperative team has lessened,” he said, citing as examples the first cooperative teams to win state championships, the 2018 Old Town-Orono boys and Gray-New Gloucester-Greely girls ice hockey teams. “People are much more willing to add another school because there are so many cooperative teams now.

Broadening the fan base

Hutchinson had one primary question when approached about the possibility of students from Penobscot Valley playing football at Mattanawcook Academy.

“The thing I was concerned about when Billy first brought it up was hurting one of my sports programs with us being a small school,” he said. “Except I wasn’t worried about hurting soccer because both our boys and girls programs will have close to 30 kids. They’re both strong.”

Hutchinson has found the reality of this cooperative arrangement to be quite the opposite of his worst fears. Instead of drawing student-athletes away from other sports, the chance to play football has brought out primarily youngsters who have never played an interscholastic sport.

Only one of the Howlers’ potential football players this fall has played any other high school sport at all.

Student-athletes from different schools aren’t the only ones bonding through cooperative sports opportunities, so are their towns.

“It’s been a feel-good thing for the entire community really,” McCarthy said. “A lot of people from out of town have appreciated the opportunity for their kids to participate.”

And that may mean a few more fans in the stands when Mattanawcook hosts its version of Friday Night Lights this fall.

“I told my wife, ‘Maybe we’ll have to go to a football game,’” Hutchinson said. “I’ve only been once when I was in high school.”

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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...