For well over two decades now, once winter has morphed into spring, Darien has been known as Lacrosse Town, USA, or some similar derivation. Children are given toy sticks not long after losing baby teeth, the youth programs are a model for success and both the boys and girls high school teams from this small tony town are no longer just state, but now regional and national powers as well.
But as Chris Manfredonia, the high school’s athletic director, recently noted, Lacrosse Town is too limited in scope.
“We have a variety of strong programs from the youth to high school levels,” Manfredonia said. “It’s Sports Town, USA.
It is hard to argue, and as Manfredonia may soon realize, he has become spoiled quickly. He took over his position just a year and a half ago, in time to see the school experience its two best spring seasons ever. With a population of just over 20,000 people and a school enrollment this past year of 1,357, 33rd in the state, the school’s sports teams experienced across-the-board success that is nothing short of startling.
Of course the lacrosse teams led the way, with both league and state titles. The girls tennis team won a state title and the boys volleyball team is the FCIAC champion. The baseball team won the regular-season championship and the softball team was semifinalists in both conference and state tournaments. Two other teams were state runners-up. Look at the regular-season standings and a Darien team is atop the standings or very close in almost every sport.
If you want to find a losing team, you must exit town borders.
On Tuesday night, Darien was awarded the FCIAC Cup, which weighs not just wins and losses, but participatory rates and academic accomplishment.
“The town is just a top sports town,” said Manfredonia, who held the same position at Fairfield Warde for seven and one-half years prior to his arrival at Darien. “They are committed in general supporting athletes from the youth level on up.”
In discussions during the spring with athletes, coaches and administrators, as well as for this story, the same picture was painted.
“You follow the other sports, it starts from the bottom up,” said Mike Scott, who just finished his seventh season as baseball coach, discussing how he built a winning program under the eclipse of the boys lacrosse team. “We strengthened our feeder programs at Little League and Babe Ruth and put them in more competitive environments. We’ve seen that trickle up to the high school a little bit.”
The core of this year’s senior class won a district championship as 8th-graders.
Scott said he had to take a real-world view in developing a roadmap for consistent winning while knowing that he would be in a battle with lacrosse for some of the school’s best male athletes.
“The mentality in Darien is a lot of these kids grew up with a lacrosse stick in one hand and a baseball bat in the other, and at some point you have to make a decision,” Scott said. “We develop a relationship with them and when the time comes to make the decisions you hope they will want to stick with baseball.”
Nick DeMaio, the softball coach, took a similar outlook in how to maximize what he knew in advance would be limited personnel.
“It’s a combination of things,” DeMaio said. “I get involved with the youth programs and the camps and that helps me identify players and help them turn up the intensity at an early age. It is what made lacrosse successful. You have to challenge younger players. I kind of know what is coming up from the younger age groups and if you make sure you get three or four quality players in every class you will be OK.”
Darien graduated Erika Osherow, its star pitcher and hitter, and Kelly Vodola, a vastly underrated second baseman. But shed no tears for the Blue Wave: their junior varsity lost just one game this past year.”
“They were blowing people out,” DeMaio said. “I think they could have beat some varsity teams.”
At some point affluence always comes into the discussion, both in terms of putting together strong golf and tennis programs and having the means to build a sports empire. But that is also both too simplistic and an injustice to the amount of work put in by so many people at so many levels. There are other communities, both locally and across the country, where income level and wins don’t sit on the same plane. And Darien plays in an extremely competitive league.
But the money does not hurt and is well spent. The youth programs are exemplary and few schools have the facilities to match Darien’s.
The Darien Athletic Foundation is a power of support in its own right, a 501(c)3 public charitable organization that relies both on private donations and fundraising. Its mission statement on the DAF website: “To celebrate and support all youth and high school athletics of Darien.” A quick drive around campus is a testament to the foundation’s work. The baseball team got off to a hot start in April, and having a turf field to practice on while other teams were indoors during one of the wettest preseasons in recent memory certainly did not hurt.
But take all these varied ingredients and Scott pointed to a key mindset that keeps them intertwined.
“I think people underestimate the type of athlete in Darien and there is this perception that Darien is a soft town and things are handed to the kids, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Scott said. “The kids come from special families, the parents expect a lot of the kids and the kids are ready. They expect to be good but know they have to be good and go out and earn it. It starts from what happens at home.”
Manfredonia said between 70 to 75 percent of the students play at least one sport. He has yet to see an instance of coaches battling over an athlete.
Why would they have to? In Sports Town, USA, there seem to be more than enough to share the wealth.