Merged lax teams grow Mt. Abe-VUHS unity

BRISTOL/VERGENNES — At halftime of a hard-fought boys’ basketball game at Vergennes Union High School this winter between the Commodores and visiting rival Mount Abraham, a half-dozen students from each of the opposing fan sections got up and gathered behind the east basket.
No, it wasn’t some sort of confrontation. They smiled, high-fived and quickly got down to a serious and seriously loud game of bottle flip.
That’s the way things are these days between schools that used to be bitter rivals. For example, about 15 years ago a Mount Abe student set off a stink bomb in the hallway outside the VUHS gym during a hoop game, and one former Eagle athlete with daughters on Mount Abe varsity teams recently acknowledged back in his day an occasional fight might break out.
VUHS Athletic Director Peter Maneen has seen the change in his roughly dozen years on the job.
“It went from two schools, who when I first came in here genuinely didn’t seem to like each other or care for each other, to two schools who still have that close, intense rivalry, while you’re out there playing. But it’s a friendly rivalry now,” Maneen said. “They all know each other. They all support each other.”
No doubt the change has come because the schools’ student bodies are now increasingly intertwined through sports and, undoubtedly, social media.
Some of the students from both sides under that basket wore American Legion baseball caps; the Legion coach is a Mount Abe grad and New Haven resident who has increased participation in that program from Bristol-area teens.
For several years the two high schools have fielded a cooperative football program that plays its home games at Mount Abraham. The latest football coach hails from Addison and had two sons and VUHS students who starred on the team.
Mount Abe track athletes now go to VUHS in the winter and practice with the Commodore varsity indoor track team, although the Vermont Principals’ Association won’t allow the Eagles to score points for VUHS or even run relays with their Vergennes-area friends.
And this spring the ties are growing even closer: The boys’ and girls’ lacrosse programs at both schools are merging and becoming, like the football team, cooperative teams with the VPA stamp of approval.
For the girls’ program it also marks a step up to varsity in Division II after a half-dozen years as a club. Mount Abe senior Ashley Turner has been making the 20-mile round trip to VUHS since she was an 8th-grader, and said she and the other 16 members of the team are excited to move from a haphazard six-game schedule to a full 13-game slate.
“We’ve been trying for years and years to get it to be a varsity team. Normally you only have to be a club for two years, and then you’re varsity. But five years is a long time, and we’ve been waiting,” said Turner, a team captain. “And there are a couple of girls on the team who have been playing since the beginning, and we’re just so happy and excited we finally made it.”
Turner, also a two-year starter for and a captain of the Eagle varsity field hockey team, added it hasn’t been any different blending with teammates from two schools.
“At the beginning with any team it’s a little hard to get to know everybody. But there’s usually like one day when there’s a big turning point where everybody has a great time together, and then we’re all friends for the rest of the season,” she said. “I’ve definitely made some really close Vergennes friends, and I love seeing them.”
It actually took a little luck — as well as the six Mount Abe students to provide enough numbers to field a team — for Turner and the rest of the Commodores to be able to play varsity this spring. Vermont high school sports schedules work on two-year cycles, and the plan was for the VUHS program to join the Division II league next year, when the schedule will be redone.
Then perennial D-II power Chelsea announced it lacked numbers to go it alone this season and would form a cooperative team with Randolph. Maneen and Mount AD Devin Wendel sensed a chance to move up the timetable.
“It opened up a team to come into the league,” Wendel said. “We were talking about it, and said, ‘Man, if Chelsea’s out, and everybody’s looking to pick up two games, why don’t we co-op and create a varsity team and slip right into a varsity schedule?’”
Their plan worked, and Maneen said he is happy for the athletes.
“We’ve got some kids who have put a lot of time into it that past few years to bring the club up, both from Mount Abe and Vergennes. And it’s been a really good experience for those kids being together, and now they get to take that next step and compete as varsity players,” he said. “A number of them have been here for several years and now they can see it from start to finish.”
While it made sense for girls’ lacrosse to operate under the Commodore banner, the opposite proved to be the case for boys’ lacrosse. VUHS graduated a big class of seniors a year ago from a team that finished third in the newly created Division III, edging Mount Abe late in the season to drop the Eagles into fourth.
But coupled with the graduation losses and the decision of other athletes not to return, the team was left with only five students signing up. Meanwhile, Mount Abe had a reasonable, but not ideal, turnout of a little more than 20 — certainly not enough for a JV program or for full-field scrimmaging.
A program merger again made sense. Wendel said a roster that ended up at 28 players allows younger athletes to be brought along more slowly and safely rather than being tossed into the mix against older, more experienced players, as well as providing depth and talent for the Eagle varsity — which former VUHS Coach Ed Cook was hired to lead.
“Mount Abraham probably could have supported a varsity boys’ lacrosse schedule with out co-opping with Vergennes,” Wendel said. “But what this allows us to do is not only have a better and more competitive practice scenario, but it also allows us to keep a much healthier spring season for the boys.”
The agreement between the schools for a co-op boys’ team will stand for two years and then be revisited. Plans call for a feeder program to serve both schools’ boys’ lacrosse programs to be established, using the field space created at VUHS by dropping the varsity team.
“The whole goal of this to allow all of the kids in both programs to continue to play, with the idea that eventually the Vergennes program will resume as a varsity sport at that school,” Wendel said.
The procedure could take time, with the natural progression of a club team that would advance to the JV level and then to varsity, as was the case when the sport first became established at VUHS.
In the meantime, both ADs believe the program mergers are working out for both schools, while the students are the real winners.
“It’s kind of a nice thing for the two communities to be able to come together and give kids opportunities to play sports they enjoy,” Maneen said. 

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