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  • Photo courtesy of Br. Ralph Lebel

    Bishop Guertin's Meghan Turner fights off defenders in front of the net.
  • Photo by Jodie Andruskevich^^BG's #6 Meghan Turner, center, is hugged by her teammates after she scored a goal in Tuesday night's semi-final game against Oyster River H.S. at the Evererr Arena in Concord.
Wednesday, March 21, 2012

NHIAA girls hockey survival depends on expansion

When is a sport stuck in neutral? Here’s when:

Just over four years ago, the sport of high school girls ice hockey in the state of New Hampshire had achieved a major accomplishment. It had finally garnered enough teams to be recognized as a varsity sport by the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association, and its finalists began playing for a state title at Manchester’s Verizon Wireless Arena, just like the boys teams.

But here we are five seasons later, and the same teams are enjoying success and no new teams have been added. Hanover has won four of the five titles, and at the other end of the spectrum, Souhegan has yet to win a legitimate game (it garnered one win by forfeit).

If one program folds, the sport will no longer be recognized. Clearly, there’s been a halt in progress.

“I don’t know why that’s the case in New Hampshire,” said Bishop Guertin coach Myia Yates, whose team has made the finals, semifinals and quarterfinals in each of the last three seasons. “Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, they’re all thriving. I’m disappointed with the quantity in New Hampshire.”

There may be help on the way. Bishop Brady and Trinity are said to be forming a co-op team and that would be a 10th team. There’s also talk that Pinkerton Academy of Derry and rival Londonderry are close to launching individual programs, as well.

“It’s growing,” Guertin athletic director Tony Johnson said. “I think the state of it is in pretty good shape. But the one thing is right now until those others come on board we can’t afford to lose a team. We lose a team, we lose the league.”

Johnson clearly believes the lack of progress over the last four years is tied into the economy, and he’s probably right.

Ice time is expensive, and so are other program costs that may or may not be passed on down to the participants, depending on the schools.

But the other concern may be the quality of play. With Hanover dominating, will the other schools ever catch up? Yates, whose Cardinals appeared to be right on par with the Marauders a couple of years ago, says they will.

“It’s going to be a different league,” Yates said. “The last couple of years, there were strong seniors at the top schools, last year’s class and this year’s class. Graduating those two classes should make the league more competitive.”

For example, Hanover will be losing program mainstays such as forwards Tessa Hill, Madison Hill and Maddie Dewhirst, as well as, defenseman Lauren Hoh. Concord, which beat Guertin in the quarters, graduates six.

But the Cardinals should be a much improved team in 2012-13.

They’ll miss graduating mainstays such as Danielle Lange, Jess Lemos, Mikaila Petrillo and Lauren Dupont, but freshman Brianna Birmingham was a huge sparkplug as a freshman with 14 points.

This year’s team had a combined 14 freshmen and sophomores, so you get the picture. Plus, highly touted goaltender Sabrina Dobbins was only a sophomore.

But Guertin’s been haunted by Meghan Turner’s departure two years ago. She was a promising sophomore forward the year the Cards reached the finals before leaving BG for prep school. Prep schools and select teams could be more viable options for talented performers because of a perceived lack of competition in girls hockey.

That lack of competition has resided at Souhegan ever since the sport went full NHIAA varsity four years ago, as the Sabers have struggled mightily. First year athletic director Ken Bigley, however, likes what he’s seen this season and feels that the sport will grow at his school and that will help the rest of the state.

“From what I had seen at the beginning of the year and then the end of the year, our team made great strides,” he said. “They competed with teams that in the past they hadn’t been able to compete with.”

Bigley credited the work of his coach, Kelly Warecki, with helping to secure better ice time at a closer venue, Cyclones Arena in Hudson, as opposed to heading to Groton, Mass. That, in Bigley’s mind, had the players fresher and more able to compete.

“It takes a dedicated, over-the-top type coach,” Bigley said. “The kids showed better, crisper skating. Coach Warecki has changed the mentality of a club team to that of a varsity program.”

The hope is a few other schools are in the process of doing the same thing.