August 22, 2012

Greatest rivalries: Yarmouth (Maine) vs. NYA

Natalie Salmon of Yarmouth High School battles Eliza Gendron of North Yarmouth Academy in a 2011 game between the two fierce Maine high school rivals. (photo: Jason Veilleux)

Imagine walking to your biggest rivalry game.

Not walking off the bus and puffing up, but walking the whole way from your school to theirs, getting more fired up with each step.

For the girls lacrosse teams at Yarmouth High School and North Yarmouth Academy in Maine, it’s all about getting inside the other’s head.

Separated by a mile, the two schools might be willing to provide a bus, but the girls don’t want it.

“We would go through a path behind our school and it cuts through passing Route 1, and the whole team walks with our uniforms on and with our sticks and bags and water,” said Rebecca Bell, a 2011 Yarmouth graduate. “We were serious. There was not much conversation or goofing off. There was a lot of that in our rivalry, trying to intimidate the other team, like trying to look really serious when we arrived.”

Much like the famed Duke-North Carolina rivalry, the schools’ close proximity fuels the fire. Players compete for the same select clubs outside of school, share the same friends and, in some cases, could even be neighbors.

Familiarity breeds ferocity.

“Bragging rights are huge,” said Michael Hoffer, editor of The Forecaster in Maine, who has covered Maine lacrosse since 2001. “You’ll see a kid go to Yarmouth one year, NYA for two and then back to Yarmouth for one. These kids get to know each other well. It’s like a sibling-rivalry thing.”

It’s not only players that switch allegiances. Julia Littlefield, the former head coach at Yarmouth — who actually started the program — ended her coaching career at North Yarmouth Academy.

Littlefield, now Julia Sterling, started the team at Yarmouth because her niece and step-daughter wanted to switch from softball to lacrosse and needed an adult to spearhead a program. She left in 2003 to coach lacrosse at the Yarmouth middle school, but that didn’t last long.

“There was a field hockey and lacrosse job at NYA. I went to the (athletic director) and told him I could never do lacrosse. A couple years later, the AD came to me and said we had an opening for lacrosse and that I was the first person he wanted to offer it to. I said, ‘I could never,’” Sterling said. “But I had accomplished what I wanted to at Yarmouth. I saw this huge opportunity and this huge challenge (at NYA).”

Under Sterling, Yarmouth won the 2002 Maine state championship. From 1998 to 2002, the Clippers went 60-14. Even after Sterling left, the team still had success under former assistant Dorothy Holt, winning the Class B state championship in 2006 and ’07, going 29-1 over those two years and going 5-0 against North Yarmouth including victories over the Panthers in the regional finals both seasons.

“Each team knows each other so well that we really play to the best of our abilities,” Holt said. “Year after year, we have had to beat them in the regional final to get to the state final so we know at the end of the season our record is what counts, but beating them is how we get to the final.”

Things got interesting when Sterling joined North Yarmouth. From 2008 to 2010 — Sterling’s first three seasons coaching at NYA — the Panthers posted wins in the regional finals over the Clippers. In 2010, the team went on to its first-ever state championship.

“People told me Yarmouth was intimidated by me and I just giggled,” Sterling said. “I wasn’t filling any shoes and I just took the bull by the horns and just said, ‘I’m going to beat Yarmouth’ because it was such a big rivalry. … (Yarmouth) really wanted to kill my team.”

Hoffer feels that Sterling’s change of sides is what really ratcheted up the intensity of the rivalry, and Holt can explain why Sterling believed the Clippers had such a strong desire to win those matchups against her.

“Our girls had a tough time because Julia is an icon for Yarmouth lacrosse,” she said. “Julia and I are great friends, and that was tough coaching against her as well as being our biggest rival.”

Although Sterling has moved on from North Yarmouth Academy and both teams had down years in 2012 — Yarmouth finished 7-7 and lost in the state semifinals, while NYA was 1-11 and failed to qualify for the postseason— the rivalry still looms large because of the in-town bragging rights.

“Come playoff time, it’s not uncommon to get really big crowds. It’s tough to tell how many exactly — there’s no record taken — but maybe upwards of 1,000 people? Fans ring the fields on both sides. It’s hard to park,” Hoffer said. “From my perspective, I always put a star next to those regular-season games; if they do play in the regional finals, there could be other games that day but that’s a can’t-miss for me.”

Bell, who now plays at Williams College and is teammates and good friends with former NYA player Lily Wellenbach, remembers the large crowds and the impact they had on the rivalry.

“Coming in as a freshman, I was always told (NYA was) our biggest rival and it’s not something you can understand until you’ve been on the field,” Bell said. “Everyone comes to the Yarmouth-NYA games because it’s so convenient.”

Sterling added that the proximity of the rivalry combined with its quality of play not only made the rivalry special but shed a new light on lacrosse and girls’ athletics in the area.

“People showed up in the stands from everywhere because it was always down to the wire,” she said. “It was anybody’s game. For female players and coaches to get fans like that was really crazy and really exciting.”

Holt says all the coaches and players involved regard each other with a lot of respect. Those relationships, she says, are important in continuing to grow the sport in the community even without Sterling in the picture.

“I do stay close with the coaches at NYA,” Holt said. “It is a small community and I really feel that it is important that we work together and create a fun and competitive environment for all the players.”

New England’s 10 best rivalries

Lacrosse is a hard-fought, competitive game, but some contests have more meaning than others, and New England is home to some fierce, bitter rivalries. Throughout 2012, New England Lacrosse Journal is counting down — and retelling the stories of — the 10 Greatest Rivalries in New England, featuring one matchup per issue:

10 — Vermont boys lacrosse powerhouses Essex Junction and Champlain Valley Union

9 — Neighboring Rhode Island top dogs LaSalle Academy and Bishop Hendricken

8 — New England club lacrosse powers: most notably Laxachusetts and Top Gun

7 – Perennial Connecticut contenders Darien and Wilton both in boys and girls lacrosse

6 – America East women’s rivals Boston University and the University of New Hampshire

5 — Bitter prep-school boys lacrosse adversaries Deerfield Academy and Salisbury School

4 — Storied, historic competitors turned NESCAC enemies in Amherst and Williams

3 — Yarmouth High School and North Yarmouth Academy, so close that the girls teams walk to their opponents’ field on game day

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of New England Lacrosse Journal.

Twitter: @PShore15