Field hockey: Veteran group powers Wilton

Last season, a young, inexperienced Wilton High field hockey team grew up in hurry, making it to the Class M state championship game for the fourth year in a row.

A 2-1 loss to Daniel Hand in the state finals ended their three-year state reign, but the Warriors gained some hard-earned lessons that should pay dividends the season.

Wilton returns 15 varsity players, and seven starters, from last year’s 17-4-1 team, which earned the top seed for both the FCIAC and state playoffs — only the second time the Warriors have done so.

The key, as always, is how well the team works together, and how much effort it puts into each and every practice and game, said Head Coach Deirdre Hynes.

“They realize the importance of (team chemistry). It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take some time,” said Hynes, who begins her 16th season as coach. “Regardless of how much skill and talent you have, you have to play as a team.”

Wilton opens the season on Tuesday at Fairfield Warde.

The team lost only four players to graduation, but there is a big void as forward Meg Cunningham (first-team all-FCIAC) and center midfielders Kristin Godin and Delaney Baxendale (both all-FCIAC East Team) were at the middle of a lot of what the Warriors did offensively. Those three accounted for more than half of the team’s goals.

“It’s not a matter of replacing those goals. It’s a matter of the forwards coming together to find the right combinations and work together on corners,” said Hynes. “It’s not going to be one individual that replaces those numbers.”

Wilton returns a lot of talent and depth on the attack and midfield lines. The top returning scorers are junior forwards Delaney Chase and Bridget Ward (all-FCIAC honorable mention), who were part of an army of forwards last season that also featured returning seniors Katherine Campbell, Maddie Duffy and Olivia Deluca, returning juniors Gwen Hall, Susie Clasby and Caroline Ferro, and sophomore Emma Rosen.

The key returning starter in the midfield is senior captain Jillian Mahon, a highly skilled player  who was among team leaders in goals and assists. Mahon, who is committed to play Division I field hockey at Michigan State, was all-FCIAC honorable mention last season.

Clasby, Hall and Rosen are also possibilities in the midfield. Hynes said players will be called upon to play several positions, as needed. The midfield remains a work in progress, she said.

“We’re hoping to find the right combination. Some people will have to step up and play multiple positions, whether it’s 60 minutes or part of the game,” she said.

Despite the graduation of starting back Carolina Taverna, Wilton should be extremely strong on the defensive end with two standouts in goalie Amanda Hendry (the team’s other senior captain) and junior center back Meredith Rappaport. They were part of a Wilton defense that held opponents to 11 goals in 22 games.

Hendry, the MSG Varsity Connecticut Player of the Year last season, is one of the top goalies in the country, playing for the U-17 national team. She is committed to play for North Carolina, one of the elite programs in the country.

“Defensively, she had stepped up. Having her leadership in the back is tremendous,” said Hynes.

Rappaport had an outstanding season last fall at center back, anchoring the defense, and was one of the team’s three first-team all-FCIAC players, and three first-team all-state players, along with Cunningham and Hendry.

The Warriors also return starting back Jess Hendry, a very skilled sophomore coming off a superb freshman season.

Junior Katie Leffel, who saw significant minutes last year, is also back on defense, as is sophomore Madeleine Pagliaro. Ferro is also an option on the defensive end.

The Warriors have only two new field players in sophomores Sophia Kaplan and Molly Thomas, who will both play midfield and defense. Erynn Fray, a junior, is the team’s backup goalie.

After compiling a record of 79-9-1-1 over the last four years, including four trips to the state finals, the Warriors have the ingredients to continue that success this fall. For that to happen, Hynes said, the team will need to focus on playing together and working hard.

“It’s a tradition to get deep into the post-season, but it just doesn’t happen overnight. You have to take it game by game,” she said. “There’s no shortcuts to get there. It takes a lot of hard work. I think they do understand that.”