WINSLOW — Thursday was team picture day for the Winslow girls ice hockey team at Sukee Arena, and it didn’t take much for the photographer to get everyone to smile.

A little over two weeks ago, no one knew if there would even be a team, let alone the traditional team picture day.

As it turns out, the 2014-15 team photo is going to be one of the most crowded in program history. Twenty-one girls put on the Winslow sweater Thursday. For a program that in recent years has barely had more than a dozen skaters on the ice at any given practice, it was an encouraging sign for its short-term strength and long-term survival.

Winslow nearly didn’t have a girls hockey program this year. Last spring, as six seniors — nearly half the 2013-14 team — prepared to graduate, the Winslow school board openly questioned funding the team after last year’s 13-member team scuffled through a 2-16 season. On Oct. 27, after discussions with athletic director Jason Briggs and coach Steve Downing, the board voted 5-1 to fund the team.

“The credit for that goes to the girls and the parents. They did not want to see the sport go away,” Downing said. “Their daughters have committed a lot to hockey.”

Among those leading the charge to keep the team were a trio of juniors, including Hillary Libby, Paige Veilleux and Miranda Gagne, who have been with the program the last three years.

Determined to keep Winslow girls ice hockey alive, they recruited any girl they thought might be interested in playing hockey. If they heard someone was considering giving up basketball or trying a winter sport for the first time, they encouraged them to show up for summer hockey.

“Some people changed their mind multiple times,” Veilleux said. “In the spring, we had, like, 30 girls who said they wanted to play, then by the time we really needed the numbers there was, like, 10.”

“Some people had second thoughts about playing because they haven’t played before,” said Gagne, a forward/defenseman.

Downing and the returning players, who also include junior Aliese Pecoy, welcomed those who showed up for summer hockey and taught them fundamental skills.

“Their leadership started this summer when we heard the program may not be there,” Downing said of the returning players. “They got girls out for summer hockey. They worked hard during their fall sports to make sure the hockey program had players.”

“All of a sudden, all of these girls wanted to play and we’re having a hard time finding enough jerseys because there are so many,” said Veilleux, a forward/defenseman,

Community members have helped out by donating gear for new players.

Some players came to the first practice not knowing how to hold their stick, but the veterans were ready for the challenge of helping them learn.

“It’s a lot of fun because some people don’t know the sport at all,” said Libby, a defenseman. “They’ve never watched it or anything, so they’re learning it all now. It’s like a clean slate.”

It helps that the veterans have been through this before. Last year’s team also had a number of hockey neophytes.

“Even though there are a lot more girls who haven’t skated or done anything, I feel like we’re moving a lot faster because everyone has the ambition and they want to do it,” Veilleux said.

The Black Raiders made their preseason debut last Saturday at a play date in Auburn and held their own against some of the stronger teams in the state. Many of the newcomers are good athletes who have excelled in other sports.

“We’ve got some young skaters and we’ve got some skaters that have to learn the game,” said Downing, in his third season leading the Black Raiders. “We also have some players that will help us and will help the other girls. It’s a matter of learning.”

“We’re making it fun as well as learning. And sports should be fun,” he added. “It’s nice when you come off the practice ice and they’re all smiling.”

The veterans know they are likely in for another season with more losses than wins. But they are still focused on the program’s long-term health and believe the Black Raiders could compete for a playoff spot before they graduate.

“It’s going to be a building year,” Veilleux said. “This year is definitely going to be where we get our foundation and we improve. We have only one senior, so next year, we’ll only lose one person, and everyone will have the skills and we’ll just get better and better.”

“Now it’s up to us to keep that momentum going, teach the girls how to play the game and keep the numbers there so that, years down the road, the young girls that are playing now in fourth, fifth, sixth grade know that there’s something they can aspire to when they get to high school,” Downing said.

Randy Whitehouse —621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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