WATERVILLE — An end of an era has arrived for Waterville hockey and with it come questions about the future makeup of the program.
Nine seniors led the defending Class B state champs to a 19-1-0 record this season, and the group will look to win a second straight state title Saturday at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston, where it will face York at 1 p.m.
“It’s something that we’ve all wanted,” said Waterville senior Justin Wentworth, whose 44 goals have accounted for nearly a third of the team’s production this season. “We’ve been together since we were freshmen, and we always said that when we get to our senior year we’ve got to win a state championship. That’s what really keeps us going.”
But what will keep the program going after this season?
With 17 players listed on the roster, the departure of nine seniors will have a palpable effect beyond simple production, raising the possibility of entering into a co-operative arrangement next season.
Dennis Martin, in his 14th season as Waterville head coach, acknowledged some uncertainty with the program — a traditional power dating to their first state championship in 1927.
“I want to stay just ‘Waterville,'” Martin said. “But we’re looking into things, I know that. Yes, it could be a possibility, but we don’t know what the numbers are going to be.”
Martin added that he would need at least 12 players to realistically field a team next season.
Heidi Bernier, athletic director at Waterville, said the school has not yet discussed how the program will look next season.
“We haven’t had the time to sit and have those conversations yet,” she said.
While it’s still too soon to know whether Waterville would be part of a co-op next season — those conversations will likely take place before the end of the academic calendar — the possibility puts the state championship-contending Panthers in a strange position. Every state champion in Class A and Class B since 2005 — 13 schools in all — remains a standalone hockey program today.
Of the 38 programs fielding varsity hockey this season, 13 are part of a cooperative effort. Only three of those co-ops, however, are in Class B.
“High school hockey in the state of Maine is hurting,” said Norm Gagne, who coached Waterville from 1986-2004 and was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame this winter. “I think the economy has hurt it, the lack of ice hurts it, the expense of the sport has really put a damper on it.”
With such a strong hockey tradition in Waterville, Gagne still can’t believe that Waterville’s enrollment of under 550 students is less than half the 1,200 it was when he began coaching at Waterville.
“When Waterville went to (Class B), it was a shock to me,” said Gagne, who coaches Scarborough after stops at Gardiner and Lewiston. “With all the tradition there at the school and having been a Class A school all those years, it’s so sad for that area. You’re seeing some of the tradition wash away.”
The current Purple Panthers are aware of the challenges that face the program. While they’ve continued to focus on winning games, they’ve also tried to mold the younger members of the team.
“We have (talked about it),” Wentworth said. “We want to see the program keep continuing to go on. But at the same time, it’s not something we are focused on. We just want to be great role models for the younger kids coming in and show them what a successful program we have here.”
The on-ice results are certainly a great starting point for any young players.
The Purple Panthers are 40-2-1 over the last two seasons, having scored nearly 300 goals without losing to a Class B team over the stretch. The team’s only losses have come at the hands of reigning Class A state champion Lewiston, the prohibitive favorite again this year.
“They’re great kids — their work ethic, their determination, how they are as people,” Martin said of his seniors, who have ushered in the team’s Class B era with a flourish. “They’re great people. It’s going to be tough, because obviously they’re very special to me, special to us as coaches. They’re just a special group.”
On Saturday, they have a chance to become the 22nd state champion in Waterville history and the first to win consecutive titles since the school captured three straight Class A titles from 1979-1981.
“For these guys, that was their goal at the beginning of the year,” Martin said. “But as we always say, we worry about it one game at a time. You set your goals for that (championship), but you don’t think about it until you get to that point. You set your goals and you’re thinking about it all the time, but if you think about it too much, it doesn’t come true.”
An era comes to an end this weekend as seniors Jackson Aldrich, Michael Bolduc, Matt Jolicoeur, Nathan Pinnette, Andrew Roderigue, and Justin Wentworth, among others, will play their final high school game.
Martin remains focused on sending them out as champions.
“I haven’t really thought much about all the other stuff,” Martin said. “I’m just worrying about what is obviously a pretty big game on Saturday.”
Travis Barrett — 621-5621