There may be no better words for a high school sports team to hear entering a new season than “defending state champions.”
Well, maybe there are five words that are better:
“Three-time defending state champions.”
The 2018-19 Darien High girls hockey team experienced that as the Blue Wave officially opens defense of its reigning Connecticut state championships Wednesday night against Hamden at the Darien Ice Rink.
“Yea, it is a good feeling,” head coach Jamie Tropsa said the day before the long-awaited season opener. “We had a real nice team last season, putting it all together at the end.”
Here’s the flip side, however. Several key players graduated from the 18-4-1 team that defeated the Suffield co-op squad 5-2 in the state final on March 11. That group included all four captains, one of them Kiki Tropsa, the coach’s daughter, a four-year varsity player on defense who earned first-team all-state and All-FCIAC honors.
Sally Cassidy, another captain and defensive standout, was second-team all-conference, while forwards Corinne Bevill and Elise Maro were the other two senior leaders.
“When you lose a class like we did, it definitely hurts,” Tropsa, who’s beginning his sixth season as head coach, said. “It takes time to replace a group like that, if you do at all.
“But we do have a strong senior and junior class returning this year with a lot of talent. At the same time, we have only two seniors returning. When you don’t have strong senior leadership, it’s hard.”
The good news is one of those seniors is captain and forward Shea van den Broek, who was also named All-State and first-team All-FCIAC after scoring 19 goals and assisting on 24 more for a total of 43 points.
“We’re definitely looking for a big year out of Shea and she’s got it in her,” the Darien coach said. “She’s one of the best players in Connecticut and a real leader.”
The other returning senior is fellow forward Abbie Lia, an assistant captain, who Tropsa calls “a great teammate and great leader.”
Meanwhile, the other three captains with van den Broek are all juniors: Colleen Cassidy and Kit Arrix at forward, and Cate Droogan on defense. Droogan had six goals and eight assists for 14 points, while Arrix found the back of the net five times and added five assists.
“I’m very confident with our team leadership this season,” Tropsa noted. “Our three junior captains and one senior will take charge and I’m very confident with that.
“Those four captains are the right kids for this team,” he added. “They’re the right kids to replace what we had last year. They have what it takes.”
Another key junior is goalie Hallie Kreppein, who’s coming off an outstanding sophomore season, culminated by being named the Most Outstanding Player of the state tournament after allowing just three goals in three games. All told, Kreppein yielded only 1.22 goals a game while compiling a glossy .913 save percentage.
“Hallie comes in this season coming off a really great season,” Tropsa said. “She gets better every year and we’re looking for big things from her again this season.”
Two more juniors who should play key roles are forwards Caitlin Chan and Grace Carlo. Chan recorded eight goals and five assists last season.
“Caitlin Chan has developed into a really outstanding offensive player,” Tropsa noted. “I look for her to have another good season.”
Tropsa is also counting on a talented sophomore group, led by Kate Bellissimo (20 goals, 10 assists), Nelle Kniffin (10 goals, 10 assists), Lucie Edwards (six goals, two assists), and defensive standout Catherine Martin (two goals, seven assists).
“She was one of our leaders on defense as a freshman,” Tropsa said of Martin. “She and Cate Droogan will lead the charge on defense this season.”
Jane Keleghan, Kelly Raymond, Olivia Toscano and Casey Warble are four more 10th graders being counted on to step up.
Tropsa is also excited about a large freshmen class, including Sarah Hearns and Ceci Stein, who he says “will be impact players” on defense.
And although DHS lost a lot through graduation, four of the five goals in the state final were scored by returning players Chan, Bellissimo, Edwards and van den Broek while Toscano recorded an assist and Kreppein made 20 saves in goal.
A brand-new season begins Wednesday night and there’s nothing the Blue Wave would love to hear next year at this time more than the words “defending state champions” once again.
“We hope to,” Tropsa concluded. “This time of year we just want to get better every game and be there at the end. We definitely have all the pieces. Now we have to figure out how to put it all together.”