Darien Final Obstacle In Staples Field Hockey Team’s Quest For Unbeaten League Season

Kyle Kirby is the Wreckers’ top scoring threat, with 24 goals and 19 assists. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Back in the era when the game was played on grass and players wore kilt skirts, the Staples field hockey team was a perennial power, led by Ginny Parker. The Wreckers’ sparkling new field is named after their former coach.

Fast forward to today, when the sport is a faster moving game on turf, uniforms are contemporary, the game can be played year-round and the Wreckers are back to being a state power. Under Ian Tapsall, now in his fourth season, the team is a two-time defending CIAC champion. The lone void is an FCIAC title.

Staples reached the final two years ago, but it has won the league tournament just once — in 2011 — since 1994.

The Wreckers will meet a familiar rival, Darien, in tomorrow’s FCIAC final. They are 18-0, have outscored opponents by a 103-5 margin and trailed just twice all season.

Asked not knowing what lies ahead if this is his best team, Tapsall said, “That’s a really tough question. I have faster athletes at forward than I’ve ever had. I have a solid defense that I don’t think is any better than it has been in past seasons. I just think there might be a little better mix and a little better knowledge of the game because every kid on the team now has experienced club hockey, where before we had lacrosse girls on the team who only played hockey during the high school season.”

Darien, under Mo Minicus, has been the standard-bearer in the league, with seven titles in the last 10 years. The two favorites at the beginning of the season, they met back on opening day, with the Wreckers getting a hard-fought 2-1 win.

In that sense, it feels almost like an anticipated first meeting more than a rematch, especially because of the changes that come with team growth.

“From the previous three seasons we’ve been able to find out roughly what they’re like by playing them toward the end of the season,” Tapsall said. “The difference is we haven’t played each other since the first game. Tactics have changed, formations have changed, fitness levels are up, skills are up. It’s going to be a completely different game from the beginning of the season but one I relish because I just love playing against Darien. Mo is a great coach. It’s a good test of how far we’ve come to play against Darien. It’s a good indicator.”

The Wreckers have flourished despite having just three seniors on their roster. Two of them are goaltenders. The third is captain Elle Fair, who Tapsall considers the glue of the team because she fills a number of roles.

“I think you have to look at it as influence on the team and maturity and the person who checks all those boxes is Elle Fair,” Tapsall said. “She’s an outstanding captain. She’s inspirational, she encourages, she’s positive. She plays defensive midfield and is responsible for defense and a lot of creation up front.”

Kyle Kirby leads the team with 24 goals and 19 assists, proficiency that makes her one of the league’s most acclaimed players. Julia DiConza, a sophomore, is next with 13 goals, while Laine Ambrose, another 10th-grader, has nine goals and 14 assists. Grace Cooper is one of the defensive leaders.

Tapsall said the Wreckers are a different team from the one that defeated Darien.

“We push fitness toward the playoffs more than we do at the beginning of the season,” Tapsall said. “A lot of gym work during the week. What makes it more interesting is you can change systems on the fly. You know what the girls are capable of from watching them during the season, so if you have to change a formation or press you know what your kids are capable of because they’ve had time to practice. It becomes more tactical as well and that’s really the stuff I like because it brings your coaching to the fore and you can see if you can adapt the game to what’s being thrown at you.”

Tapsall said if the Wreckers are to succeed tomorrow, it will require a great performance against an opponent accustomed to winning big games.

“It’s Darien,” Tapsall said. “Playing against Mo and the girls, a lot of whom I already know, it’s always a great matchup and always a skillful and tactful game.”

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