Girls hockey: Wilton confident about the future

For the players and coaches on the Wilton/Norwalk girls ice hockey team, it was for perhaps the most successful season a 3-16 team could hope to expect.

More importantly, the is a strong sense that a solid foundation has been built that will translate into more wins next season.

“There are many ways to judge a successful season. Wins is just one way,” commented first-year head coach Pete Maxfield. “This was probably my favorite season I’ve had coaching, at any level, in any place.”

This year’s record was about the same as the previous season (3-16-1), with two FCIAC wins instead of one. But the Warriors played tough against some strong opponents, and came on strong in the final weeks of play with their best performances of the season.

And with nine key players returning, and most of them dedicated to playing in the off-season, the team will be looking to make some noise next season.

“It was a very good year and I really hope we can keep the momentum going,” said Maxfield. “We definitely turned a corner at the end of the season. Exciting times, for sure.”

“It took a little time to get going and have the team work together. We started winning some games and started to see improvement,” commented senior captain Elizabeth Craven, who said a late-season payback win over Trumbull gave the Warriors a dose of confidence.

“We realized as a team we could win some games and as a team we could really do it. I think the hard work started to pay off,” she said. “I think the team is only going to get better.”

“That’s when we realized we were actually better than we thought we were,” said senior captain Amanda Craven of the Trumbull win.

Up to that point, the team’s season highlight — other than a win over Lauralton Hall — had been a 3-2 loss at Greenwich that saw the Warriors rally twice to tie the game. The Cardinals pulled out the win on a late goal.

Wilton went into the Trumbull game on Jan. 30 with a 1-13 record that included a 4-0 loss earlier in the season to Trumbull.

In their most dramatic finish of the season, the Warriors rallied from a 1-0 deficit with three goals in the final nine minutes for a 3-1 win — the first by Izzy Thelen and the next two in the final 1:15, both by Shannon McEveney.

According to Maxfield, the team’s real turnaround had begun the game before, when the Warriors played a great first period against New Canaan and trailed the powerful Rams by only 1-0. New Canaan went on to a 9-0 win, but the first period gave Wilton a lot of confidence.

“You could almost see they had confidence (against Trumbull) because of how they played in that New Canaan game,” he said after those games. “They’re really starting to come around to the system we play, and they’ve got great attitudes.”

The following Saturday, Wilton got another payback win, with a 4-1 victory over a Fairfield team they had lost to earlier in the season.

That would be the team’s last win of the season, although it put up a tremendous fight in the season finale against Hall/Conard. The Warriors held Hall/Conard, one of the state’s elite programs, to a scoreless tie after one period, and were down only 1-0 after two periods, before losing 4-0.

“They’ve been pretty consistent all year with their effort,” Maxfield said after the final game. “It’s been a really great group. Everybody’s supported each other really well, and it goes all the way up to the parents as well.”

The sense of companionship was evident in the Fairfield win — a game in which Fairfield was missing many players because of a county dance for juniors.

“We have juniors on the team that are going to the dance tonight,” Maxfield noted after the game. “They said they would rather be here with the seniors and be a little bit late to the dance, and I think that’s really indicative of this team. They’re really, really together, and it’s great thing to see.”

The bonding didn’t end after the final game. The team still had ice time reserved at SoNo Ice House in Norwalk, and Maxfield decided to use it.

“We had two optional practices after the season, both at 5:45 in the morning. At the first one we had 20 of 24 girls, and the second we had 22 of 24,” he said. “It was very good to see that. They had a great time this year.”

“No one wanted it to end,” said Elizabeth Craven. ”It was by far the best season of my high school career. It was so fun. I realized how important it is to have fun and not put so much emphasis on wins.”

“The girls were a great group and really supportive of each other,” said Amanda Craven. “Whatever the team needed, every girl stepped up and delivered, whatever it was.”

Amanda, like her sister, said it was one of the best seasons of her career at WHS.

Looking ahead, the Warriors do have some big holes to fill.

The biggest loss is senior captain Brooke Jonsson — a two-time first-team all-FCIAC goaltender who also earned first-team all-state honor this season. Jonsson’s heroics between the pipes allowed Wilton to stay in many games where they were badly out-shot.

For the season, Jonsson averaged 40 saves per game, making 754 saves in 844 minutes. She averaged about one shot on goal per minute, and finished with an impressive .904 save percentage.

In the team’s loss to Darien in early January, Jonsson made an amazing 87 saves in 43 minutes of play.

“Losing Brooke is a really tough piece to replace,” said Maxfield, who was encouraged by the development of backup goalie Izzy Najah, a sophomore who had never played before this season.

“It was great we were able to get Izzy to come in. She’s a fantastic athlete. She’s very tall and can cover a lot of the net. She did a fantastic job in the JV games. She made some great saves, just reaction saves,” he said.

The other key losses are the Craven sisters, who anchored the first line and were both honorable mention all-FCIAC. Amanda Craven finished with three goals and one assist, and Elizabeth had two goals and three assists. Maxfield said they were leaders on and off the ice. “They give you everything, every shift. To replace them will be tough,” he said. “We have some good young skaters coming up and hopefully they’ll be able to come through.”

The team’s other seniors were Lia Tavarez, Olivia Phelan, Elizabeth Walsh and Jessica Walsh.

Despite losing Jonsson, Wilton should be solid on defense next season, returning its top five defenders in juniors Izzy Thelen, Lily Blackwell, Ali Purvis and Lilly McDowell, and sophomore Caroline Wilson.

“We should be pretty solid on defense,” he said.

The Warriors allowed 4.53 goals per game this past season, a drop of 1.3 goals over the previous season.

Thelen, a junior captain and one of the team’s most dangerous skaters, had two goals and four assists and was named honorable mention all-FCIAC.

Purvis (one goal, one assist) started on the forward line this season, then was moved back to defense after injuries to defenders Lily Walsh and Thelen. She did so well there that Maxfield decided to keep her back on defense.

Blackwell (one goal, one assist) is a two-year starter on defense, while McDowell and Wilson both stepped into starting roles this season, and had one assist each.

Despite losing the Cravens, the Warriors will return a lot of firepower in the all-sophomore line of Molly Thomas, Shannon McEveney and Anna Bean that accounted for 10 of the team’s 20 goals this season.

“They really clicked well together. Molly and Anna are very fast skaters and Shannon’s got really great hands, and when she gets around the net she’s very dangerous,” said Maxfield. “That’s going to be a very strong line for us.”

McEveney led the team with five goals, plus an assist, while Thomas had three goals and six assists, and Bean, in her first year on the team, had two goals and a team-high eight assists. Thomas and Bean both were named honorable mention all-FCIAC.

Junior Ali Danvers and sophomore Lauren Chiappetta (one goal), who split time on the first line, will also be back, and Maxfield expects both to step up big next season.

Maxfield is looking to see a significant improvement in goal-scoring next season.

“I was hoping for a little more scoring than last year,” he said of the 20 goals in 19 games. “That’s something we’ll work on in the off-season.”

The team expects at least six new players next season, he said. That, along with improvement from players who saw little ice time this year, would help fill out the forward lines.

“We should be able to put out two forward lines next year. I think there are some players already working really hard in the off-season. We might be able to put three lines out there,” he said, noting that 19 players are playing together in a spring hockey lead.

“That’s really a positive sign for the program,” he said.

Jonsson said the past season could be the start of a bright future for Wilton hockey and coach Maxfield.

"It was a really great season. It was just a fun season. He's looking to the future and building the program," she said.

Notes: Captains for next year’s team are Thelen and Thomas, with Purvis and Bean named alternate captains.