REGION -- With so much focus on how much money running a high school athletics program costs, a lot of local schools are opting to go the cooperative program route. Schools simply cannot support some sports on their own -- so they seek out help from neighboring communities to make playing a reality for their students.

At North Middlesex Regional, newly hired athletic director James Bunnell learned that girls who wanted to play ice hockey were forced out of the district because North Middlesex didn't offer the sport.

Not anymore. North Middlesex has formed a cooperative agreement with Leominster and Groton-Dunstable. Cooperative teams provide programs with dwindling rosters the opportunity to keep the sport up-and-running.

"It was really perfect timing for North Middlesex where Leominster was starting their own co-op," Bunnell said. "I called (athletic director) Chris Young at Leominster and asked if he could give me financial figures as to what it might be. In a public school setting, you can't just say, alright, we have a girls hockey team now."

The North Middlesex school committee approved Bunnell's and boys hockey head coach Mike McCarthy's proposal for a girls hockey team.

At Groton-Dunstable, the Crusaders are the beneficiaries of sparse numbers in both Leominster's wrestling and girls hockey teams.

"The interest for wrestling has always been on our end since I arrived here," McCaffrey said. "In October at one of our AD (athletic director) meetings, Chris Young over at Leominster mentioned that Leominster was looking to supplement their program with a co-op. Obviously, I raised my hand and off we went."

All of the registrations and user fees are submitted to Leominster High School for both wrestling and girls hockey. Groton-Dunstable is sending roughly four to five kids to Leominster for wrestling. All athletes are responsible to provide their own transportation to and from practice.

"Our students essentially become student athletes at Leominster High School," McCaffrey said. "They register and adhere to all of the rules for athletes at Leominster High School. We are kind of loaning our students to Leominster to help round out their roster."

It is hard for both Bunnell and McCaffrey to gauge what the interest will be from their school's students in the first week of practice.

"It's an opportunity," McCaffrey continued. "Whether or not the kids are taking advantage of it is hard for me to decipher, today. We want to provide each kid the opportunity to participate in the sport that they want to participate in. Our eyes and ears are always open to opportunities if they are within reason."

Bunnell took to a grassroots campaign to gain interest in forming a girls hockey cooperative with Leominster by posting signs around the school. He found that four to five girls wanted to play and that was enough for the Leominter-Groton-Dunstable-North Middlesex girls hockey team to take shape.

The North Middlesex athletic director said, "I want to see girls playing especially in a sport like girls ice hockey, which is a sport that North Middlesex has never offered before. The fact that we are going to have four, potentially five girls playing on a team ... anytime you can add a sport that someone wants to play at the high school level, I am all for doing that. If the opportunity arises for creating a co-op, it is very hard for me to say no."

Groton-Dunstable is currently a member of a long-storied cooperative with Tyngsboro in boys and girls swimming. Bromfield is in a cooperative for its football team with Maynard; its hockey team with Littleton; and with Acton-Boxborough in rowing.

With budgets being slashed at schools all across the state, cooperative teams are here to stay. Ayer Shirley is also a member of a cooperative hockey agreement with Lunenburg. The jersey features both schools' colors and logos.

"They are still students at North Middlesex," Bunnell said of his district's student-athletes. "They fortunately have the opportunity to come together with four other schools and play the sport that they love."