Girls hockey: Warriors have the numbers and experience to make playoff push

Despite only three wins in 2015-16, the Wilton High girls hockey team went into the offseason feeling pretty good about the future.

The Warriors had ended the season with their best performances of the year, including payback wins over Trumbull and Fairfield, and with the bulk of the team expected back could dream about bigger and better things in 2016-17.

The process of turning those dreams into reality will begin on Saturday night, as Wilton opens the season against Notre Dame of Fairfield at 7:40 at The Rinks at Veterans Park in Norwalk.

Wilton returns 10 players who were regular contributors last season, and it will upgrade its lineup with a mix of new players and returning players looking to gain more ice time. Most of the returning players put in a lot of work in the offseason.

“We’re going to catch some teams by surprise. We have more depth than we did last year,” said second-year head coach Peter Maxfield. “I think we have a strong lineup. We have seven to eight very strong forwards. We have a lot of defensemen, probably seven that I can work with.”

The team, which also features players from the two Norwalk high schools, lost seven players to graduation, but has added eight new players, which was more than Maxfield expected. That bumped the roster up to 26 players.

Twenty of the players are from Wilton High, with five coming from Brien McMahon High School and one from Norwalk High School.

As was the case last season, the team is a close-knit bunch that stresses team above all else, he said.

“The feeling is the same as last year. They’re very excited and upbeat. The girls are really pulling for each other,” he said. “I really preach that they’re one team. Don’t get hung up if you don’t play every shift or suit up every game.”

Graduation took only three key players from last year’s 3-16 team — top-line forwards Elizabeth and Amanda Craven, and goalie Brooke Jonsson — but they are big losses in terms of production and leadership.

The Cravens combined for five goals last year — accounting for a fourth of the team’s scoring. Both were honorable mention all-FCIAC.

Replacing Jonsson, a four-year starter in goal, will be the team’s biggest challenge. She was a two-time first-team all-FCIAC pick, and last season became Wilton’s first-ever first-team all-state player. Jonsson averaged 40 saves per game and kept Wilton in most games with her incredible play between the pipes. She ended the season with a .904 save percentage.


Taking over the goaltending duties is junior Izzy Najah, last year’s backup goalie. Despite never having played the position before last season, Najah showed natural ability in goal during action last season.

After working hard in the offseason, she appears ready to step into Jonsson’s huge shoes. At last week’s preseason jamboree against Ridgefield, Trumbull and Fairfield, Najah was spectacular, said Maxfield.

“She’s very athletic. She’s very tall and covers a lot of the net,” he said. “She’s gotten more confident. She wants the puck and wants to make every save.”

Fortunately, she will play behind an experienced and deep group of defensemen — which is probably the team’s greatest strength.

Seniors Izzy Thelen, Lily Blackwell, Ali Purvis and Lily McDowell are all returning starters on the backline, and junior Caroline Wilson also played regular shifts on defense.

Thelen, a returning captain and one of the team’s best skaters and puck handlers, had two goals and four assists and was named honorable mention all-FCIAC. Purvis (one goal, one assist) moved back to defense last season after injuries sidelined two starters and performed so well that Maxfield has kept her on defense ever since.

Blackwell, a Brien McMahon player, is already a two-year starter on defense. Last year she had one goal and one assist, while McDowell and Wilson both stepped into full-time roles last season.

The defensive line got even stronger during the offseason with the addition of senior Caroline Ferro, who opted not to play last season. Junior Lauren Chiappetta, who saw time on the first line last year, will move back to defense this season.

Kimberly Castano, a sophomore, is another forward being moved back to defense, as Maxfield needs to groom some more defensemen for next season.

“We have to see if our defense is as strong as last year. Losing Brooke in net is hard to replace. We’re going to have to rely on Izzy Najah. I definitely have faith in her and in the team to do that,” said Maxfield.

On the forward lines, Wilton will be deeper than it was last season, despite losing the Craven sisters.

Last year’s talented all-sophomore line of Molly Thomas, Shannon McEveney and Anna Bean is back, after scoring 10 of the team’s 20 goals this season, and should be every more potent now they’re all juniors.

McEveney and Thomas are both in their third year as starters. Last season, McEveney (the lone Norwalk player on the team) led the team with five goals, while Thomas had three goals and six assists. Bean, a Brien McMahon player, had two goals and a team-high eight assists. Thomas and Bean both were named honorable mention all-FCIAC.

Junior Ali Danvers, who saw time on the first line last season, is also returning — giving the team four starters back on the top two forward lines.

Kelly Meyer, a senior who played her first season of hockey last year, will be in the mix, too, after raising her game during the off-season.

Lauren Gardner, a junior, is another returning forward who saw limited action last season but will be looking for more ice time.

Three new players will make up what should be a solid forward line — sophomore Alyssa Laychak (Brien McMahon) and freshmen Meghan Lane and Caitlyn Hocker (Brien McMahon).

“They have all played travel hockey and have quite a bit of experience,” said Maxfield, noting that Hocker and Lane each netted two goals at last week’s jamboree — accounting for more than half of the team’s goals.

Three other returning forwards who will be looked upon for more contributions this season are junior Caleigh McMorris and sophomores Grace Bracken and Gianna Filipponi.

Maxfield said he plans to use Thelen on the forward line at times, as well.

Freshman forward Grace DeCesare from Brien McMahon is a strong skater who is also expected to see ice time every game.

Rounding out the team’s forward contingent are two new juniors, Caitlin Kuczo and Kelsey Locher, and two freshmen, Kayla Cohen and Bre DeCola.

Cohen has also stepped up to be the team’s backup goalie, at least temporarily, and could see time at both positions.

Captains for this year’s team are Thelen and Thomas, with Purvis and Bean serving as alternate captains.

Maxfield said the Warriors should improve on last year’s output, when they tallied only 20 goals in 19 games.

“I think we’ll definitely be improved. Last year we ran just two lines most of the time and I think they just started running out of gas,” he said. “With the deeper forward lines we’re going to have fresher legs at the end of the game and at the end of the season, and be able to put the puck in the net.”

Maxfield said an improved Greenwich team will join Darien and New Canaan at the top of the list of FCIAC contenders. The Warriors should be among a group of teams fighting for the final FCIAC playoff spot, along with Fairfield, Stamford, Trumbull and Ridgefield.

“I think the fourth spot in the FIAC is going to be a bit of a dogfight,” he said. “It’s not out of reach as to the possibility of getting to FCIACs, or at least contending for it.”
—  J.B. Cozens