By Dan Guttenplan
---- — Newburyport hockey coach Paul Yameen has seen the competitiveness of the Cape Ann League decline in recent years, and he’s not about to let his program decline with it.
The man who coached the Clippers to a Division 2 championship in 2009 has a grand plan, and it includes moving his program to Division 1, renovating his home rink’s locker rooms, and eventually competing for a Super 8 berth.
Triton coach Drew Wile, who has never been known to set the bar low for his program, has joined forces with Yameen. He is also looking to take his Division 2 program to Division 1, and his program is sharing the fundraising responsibilities for the Graf Rink’s locker room renovation.
It doesn’t appear that the move to Division 1 will happen for either team next season. Newburyport athletic director John Daileanes and Triton athletic director Donna Andersen proposed the move to other Cape Ann League athletic directors at the last league meeting. The CAL athletic directors voted against the proposal, keeping Newburyport and Triton in the ever-shrinking league for another year.
The CAL has taken some significant hits in recent seasons. Two years ago, Wilmington left for the Middlesex League after dominating the CAL for much of the 21st century. After last season, North Andover left for the Merrimack Valley Conference, leaving the CAL with seven schools heading into this season.
Masconomet has also made no secret of the fact that it would like to move to the Northeastern Conference next season, threatening to leave the CAL with six teams, one more than the minimum requirement for an MIAA-sanctioned league.
On the plus side, Saugus was recently accepted into the CAL for next season, and Winthrop may follow. Until those moves are finalized, CAL athletic directors will block Newburyport and Triton’s proposal to move to independent status as Division 1 programs.
Yameen believes the CAL is moving more toward being a league for teams that play Division 2 and Division 3 schedules.
“I see the way the league is going, and it’s not what we want,” Yameen said. “If you look at some of the teams in the league, they’re scheduling four or five Division 3 teams. We want to play up, and continue to play up.”
Newburyport has had success against Division 1 and Division 2 teams over the last four seasons. The Clippers won the Division 2 title in 2009, and returned to the final game in 2010. Yet, they have failed to advance out of the first round of the Division 2 tournament each of the last two years. They have, however, posted a better-than-.500 record against Division 1 schools like Malden Catholic, Central Catholic and St. Mary’s over the last four seasons.
Yameen secured two opportunities for his team to play Division 1 teams over Christmas break, carrying on his tradition of finding the stiffest competition during his team’s non-league schedule. The Clippers will play in the Cape Cod Freeze-Out Tournament Dec. 26 and 27. The other three teams in the tournament will be Division 1 foes Barnstable, Braintree and Springfield Cathedral.
“I think these games are always good for us,” Yameen said. “A lot of Division 1 teams are hesitant to schedule us if they have aspirations of making the Super 8. It would hurt them tremendously to lose to a Division 2 team.”
The Super 8 is an exclusive tournament for the top eight Division 1 programs. Strength of schedule is weighed heavily in the consideration of the top eight teams. Wile, who led his team to a CAL title last winter, was unable to find a Division 1 holiday tournament for his team. The Vikings will play in one of the more competitive Division 2 tournaments on the North Shore — the Cape Ann Savings Bank Tournament, with Gloucester, Beverly and Marblehead.
“Our program has made leaps and bounds in the last two years,” Wile said. “I go all the way down to the Mite program. My son’s at that level. We sat at the Garden at the Super 8 last year, and my son asked if he’ll ever have a chance to play in the Super 8 with me as his coach. My kids will never have that shot in Division 2 hockey. If we can go to the Division 1 level, we can offer that chance.”
Wile has assured coaches around the CAL that he will continue to schedule one game with each team if his squad moves to Division 1 in order to maintain geographical rivalries. Both Yameen and Wile plan to ease into a Division 1 schedule, rather than immediately stack the schedule with powerhouses like Malden Catholic, Catholic Memorial, BC High and St. John’s Prep.
Yameen and Wile also believe a move to Division 1 would prevent local players from going to private schools or junior hockey to get more exposure.
“Newburyport is a hockey community,” Yameen said. “There’s no question in my mind we would compete at the Division 1 level.”
“I respect the Cape Ann League,” Wile said. “This is about doing what’s best for our program and school. We’d be the only two public schools on the North Shore with Division 1 hockey. There would be no reason for anyone to leave town to play somewhere else.”
Both coaches are also continuing to push the locker room renovation project, which has been estimated at $170,000. The funding will come solely from fundraising efforts and personal and corporate donations.
The proposed plan will result in two 20- by 40-foot locker rooms separated by a shower. Parents and friends of Newburyport and Triton hockey players have volunteered to perform the labor. Yameen says the fundraising has gained significant momentum in recent weeks.
“We’re making enormous strides,” Yameen said. “It’s going to be an attraction for the kids. We have a lot of people getting involved, and it’s going to happen. We’ll have great facilities and play the best competition in the state. Why wouldn’t you stay?”
Wile believes, of all North Shore programs, only Reading, Medford, Woburn and Burlington have locker rooms solely reserved for the high school teams.
“That’s obviously a big part of the push for Division 1,” Wile said. “We’ll offer something not a lot of programs can offer. We’ll have something special.”