WATERVILLE — Cole Smith steps toward the offensive blue line, chips a loose puck up the wall and plays it ahead to one of his teammates in the corner. As the play continues, the defenseman stops, hunches over and rests his stick across his knees, surveying the play still developing around him.

It’s still only the first period of game at Alfond Rink, but Smith is already thinking ahead.

“I definitely try to find some rest when I can,” Smith said. “It’s finding opportunities, whether it’s talking to the referee a little bit about a call or on a face-off trying to get a deeper breath or playing more conservative so I can try and manage it.”

For the Messalonskee hockey team, this is every player in every game. With only 11 rostered players, including 10 skaters and one goaltender, each game, each practice and each week are lessons in management. The Eagles have the smallest roster in the state this winter, and its effects are many.

Eagles coach Kevin Castner found out in the fall that a number of players weren’t returning to a program that just three years ago celebrated its second consecutive Class B state championship. During his first meeting with the team prior to the season, he let them know that wins and losses were no longer going to be the focal point of the winter.

“We can’t really focus on what-ifs,” Castner said. “We set simple goals every game, and we’re just looking to come out and compete every game. If we come out like we’ve given it all and played really good hockey as far as what we can present on the ice, then we’re happy.”

Six players who were underclassmen on last year’s team did not return to the team. Some decided they no longer wanted to play hockey, some committed to a full season of non-scholastic hockey.

The Eagles typically field two full forward lines and employ three defensemen who rotate through as games progress. A 10th skater on the team, Noah Milne, is a senior who did not play hockey last year.

Junior Eli Michaud is the team’s lone goaltender.

Games aren’t the only challenge for Messalonskee, which typically competes against rosters 50-100 percent larger than its own. Practices need to be modified to account for fewer players. Full team scrimmages aren’t possible for more than a minute or two at a time at most.

“You’ve got to redraw your entire coaching plan when you have low numbers. You have to come up with ways to put kids in certain scenarios. It’s really tough, because you can’t do five-on-five drill. You’ve got to rethink what you’re trying to accomplish,” Castner said. “We’re breaking the games down into small areas and working on small-area drills, small-area pressure, defensive zone movement and things like that,”

Winning games might not be the priority, but players like Smith refuse to accept defeat as the only available option. The Eagles (2-7-0) have two wins, both over Lawrence/Skowhegan/MCI, this season.

“It’s really more or less trying to figure out that this is what we signed up for, and do we want to go out and play 45 minutes and try and win games, or do we just want to go out and be able to say, ‘Yay. We’re saving the program,'” said Smith, a senior captain. “We’ve really tried to take steps in trying to win some games. We’ve worked on conditioning so maybe we can try and win some games.”

Smith also captained the Messalonskee soccer team, a team which missed out on the playoffs after a late-season push, and sees similarities this season.

“We see ourselves on the outside looking in, but if we can get a win over a team worth big Heal points, who knows what can happen,” Smith said.

Eric Caccamo is a physician and hockey dad. His son, Salvatore, is a sophomore winger for the Eagles.

Caccamo doesn’t see any immediate health risks for players who are called on to play more minutes and take more shifts than they would on a full team, but he does believe that players need to be in shape.

“Conditioning is the biggest thing,” Caccamo said. “Sometimes kids come into the season maybe not exactly where they need to be (physically). Obviously, there are more shifts and more work on those muscles, but a big part of it is that kids are young and they can handle it. That’s my thoughts.

“I have no concerns.”

Castner couldn’t agree more about the conditioning part. He said his top priority all season has been on making sure players are in shape to skate 30-40 minutes in a 45-minute game.

“First and foremost it’s conditioning, more so now because we just don’t have the numbers so we have to have legs under us come the third period,” Castner said.

In several cases, Castner has asked his players to play positions they are unaccustomed to this season. Smith and Sean Roderigue, for example, are playing defense for the first time in their career. Caccamo is a forward, despite being a defenseman on other teams he’s played for.

“To me, I’m happy, because (Sal) gets to play more,” Eric Caccamo said. “In other situations, he might not be playing as often. It’s good for me, but other parents might have different thoughts about that.”

“I’m just trying to enjoy my senior season regardless of what the scores are,” Smith said. “I’m trying work hard every (day) and enjoy all of it. Wins are just a big plus.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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