NORTH SMITHFIELD – Efforts are underway to change the Rhode Island Interscholastic League’s rules governing participation in co-op teams, following a winter season that some say lacked fair opportunity for some of North Smithfield’s young female athletes.
A petition started by one town parent in favor of the change currently has more than 2,097 signatures.
“These athletes are being denied the right to play high school sports due to antiquated and chauvinistic thinking,” notes the petition on Change.org. “While the RIIL recognizes that participation is steadily declining in girls’ hockey, they are refusing to make accommodations to allow student athletes the opportunity to play.”
The issue revolves around a rule governing how many schools can send players to a co-op team – the option typically used to accommodate athletes when a single district does not have enough players to make a full team on its own. Currently, RIIL rules limit the co-ops to just three sending schools.
But most of the girls’ hockey teams, including neighboring Burrillville/Ponaganset/Bay View and Mount Saint Charles Academy, have already reached the limit.
“There aren’t too many teams that exist in the league that aren’t already a co-op,” explained North Smithfield Athletic Director Matthew Tek.
It’s a problem, Tek noted, that’s become more of an issue as participation in athletics declines. North Smithfield High School, he noted, once had its own girls hockey program, and even won a state championship.
“We were pretty good,” he said.
But few female hockey players have come forward in recent years, particularly as other local youth hockey programs that once fed participation have shut down. North Smithfield did participate a girls hockey co-op with Smithfield in past years, but that was phased out, and the program disbanded, after the last of the young athletes moved on.
“We haven’t had girls’ hockey in quite awhile now, or even a girl participating in girls’ hockey,” Tek said.
That changed in 2022, when a freshman who grew up playing hockey asked to join a team, and several other girls expressed interest in trying the sport.
“She has three more years coming up in high school and she doesn’t want to waste them,” Tek said. “I called the league.”
“There was nowhere in this area to send my girls,” he said.
Tek was told that while the young athletes are not currently eligible to join any of the local girls teams, the new players could participate in Northmen boys’ hockey.
Parent William Shurick says the option is not a reasonable alternative to joining a girls’ team.
“These female student athletes are unfairly being given the choice to risk injury or be denied the opportunity to play,” he notes in the petition. “If the rule is amended or changed, more schools would be able to join co-ops thus giving more athletes the opportunity to play the sport they love.”
And Shurick notes that there are no restrictions on the number of co-op sending schools in the neighboring states of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Burrillville/Ponaganset/Bay View Head Coach Cortney Lacey said she is, “100 percent,” in favor of changing the rule in Rhode Island, “for many, many reasons.”
“Any time a girl has a chance to play sports, it teaches them so much more than just the game itself,” said Lacey, pointing to the opportunity for players to build confidence, and learn teamwork.
A lifelong hockey player herself, Lacey noted she’s uniquely qualified to understand how important it is that girls be allowed to participate. And she noted that the larger league is improved when there’s greater participation.
“You want competition,” Lacey said. “That’s what every coach should be thinking.”
“It’s doing what’s right for kids in Rhode Island,” she added.
Tek said that while it’s too late for the North Smithfield girls to play hockey this year, RIIL officials have been “very willing,” to discuss a potential rule change prior to the next season.
“As an athletic director, you understand their plight,” he said of the students. “You would love to at least be able to give kids a chance.”
Tek became a member of RIIL’s committee on hockey – a group that would make the recommendation for a change to the Principals’ Committee on Athletics. He notes the main issue now is that the problem was identified too late to help the athletes this year.
“We’re very aware of how important this is,” he said. “I think everyone is rowing in the same direction. I do believe there will be support for it.”
Tek noted that both neighboring co-ops – in Burrillville and Mount Saint Charles have indicated they’d have space to accommodate the female hockey players from North Smithfield.
“We could do it if there’s a rule change,” the athletic director explained.
For Lacey, while the delay may have been inevitable, need to change it going forward is clear.
“I believe they are going to actually listen and do the right thing,” Lacey said.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she added. “There’s really no reason not to let the girls play.”