HALLOWELL — Hockey is more than a simple vocation, and Gardiner senior Evelyn Hinkley doesn’t mince words when it comes to the offseason.

“I get serious withdrawals, so this is way better,” the center said Tuesday evening in a hallway at the Camden National Bank Ice Vault, where the Winslow/Gardiner Black Tigers held their first practice of the new season.

One year after embarking on the journey as a first-time cooperative girls hockey program between the two schools, expectations have changed. Winslow/Gardiner not only qualified for the playoffs last season, but the Black Tigers hosted a quarterfinal-round game four years after Winslow — as a standalone program — last made a postseason appearance.

Gardiner has never fielded its own girls hockey program.

“I definitely want to make it to playoffs (again), especially our senior year,” Hinkley said. “I would really love to make it. I think we took a lot of people by surprise last year.”

New head coach Alan Veilleux, who was a volunteer assistant last season for Winslow/Gardiner, admits that expectations are certainly different than they were a year ago.

“I think the girls are very excited,” Veilleux said. “We have a solid base coming back, and our expectations are pretty high.”

At this time last year, two weeks before other winter sports (including boys hockey teams) are allowed to begin organized practices, Winslow senior Bailey Robbins remembered that it was more than a bit awkward both in the locker room and on the ice when Winslow/Gardiner first began preseason skating.

“The thing about last year was how fast we clicked,” said Robbins, a defenseman. “It did not take long at all. It was kind of like two groups (at first), but now it’s just all of us together.”

Helping accelerate the team’s blossoming chemistry is a group that returns largely intact. Only three seniors graduated from last year’s group, and Hinkley is one of the many back after leading the team in scoring last winter.

As with any co-op, chemistry is one of the most important factors facing a team. Where other varsity teams in other sports feature student-athletes who go to school together and likely play other sports together 10 months out of the year, the co-op experience brings two distinct groups together as one.

Already the bond is evident with Winslow/Gardiner, never more so than when Hinkley and Robbins, from different schools, are found finishing each other’s sentences.

“I think it’s a little different,” Robbins said of playing for a co-op. “It’s still different friends that you play hockey with, where other high school teams are more like…”

“…we don’t see each other every day in school, so it’s more special,” Hinkley finishes for her.

Veilleux hopes that early camaraderie, forged last season, carries an advantage this winter.

“I think the girls know each other now, which is going to make it a lot easier to become a team,” he said. “It’s just now about working to our strengths and building on what we had last year.”

There is also the advantage of the Maine Principals’ Association scheduling, which has the girls hockey season begin (and end) earlier than other winter sports seasons. The schedule offers two weeks where the girls teams are not competing with the boys teams for ice time.

Last November, the Black Tigers used that early jump to begin building the foundation that carried them to the playoffs.

The stark difference a year makes has not been lost on the players.

“It’s pretty different now, compared to the beginning of the year (last season),” Hinkley said. “The first couple of practices were a little awkward, but by the end of the year we were pretty tight. So, it’s just like jumping back into it now.”

And that gives Hinkley — and the rest of the Black Tigers — a reprieve from their hockey withdrawals.

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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