Jeff Brameier is entering his 36th season as the head coach of the Darien boys lacrosse program, and during that time the Blue Wave has set a high bar for excellence both on and off the field.

Maintaining such a high level of play isn’t easy, but Darien always features talented players who are ready to step up to the challenge and this season is no different.

“It’s always a good mix of kids who return, who played a lot, and there’s also kids who have been waiting their turn and now they’ve got their opportunity to play,” Brameier said. “It wasn’t that they weren’t good, they were just playing behind some very talented kids.

“They came into the season prepared and ready to work hard. There’s good senior leadership and they’re just looking for their chance to make their mark.”

For the first time in five years, the Blue Wave enters a season in which they are not defending state champions.

With a slow-paced, possession-oriented game plan, the Ridgefield Tigers built a six-goal lead and then held off a furious rally to beat Darien 9-8 for the 2018 Class L title. The loss ended the Wave’s 76-game win streak as well as a run of four straight state championships, as they finished 22-1 after two straight unbeaten seasons.

This year’s team would like nothing better than to return the state championship to Darien.

“Every year’s a new year and a lot of the kids who suffered that loss have graduated, but we still have a lot of kids coming back,” Brameier sad. “You hate to lose your last game of the year, but there’s only one state champion. We’ve been fortunate to end our season in a pile multiple times. It’s a new year and I think they’re ready.”

The Wave graduated a few key players, including attacks Logan McGovern (Bryant College) and Brian Minicus (Colgate), goalie Sean Collins (Colgate) and defenseman Andrew Darby (Michigan), among others.

In their stead, Darien returns a strong group of veterans, led by the three senior captains: Bruce Ferguson, Tommy Hellman, and Hudson Pokorny. All have committed to Div. I college programs — Ferguson will play at Colgate, Hellman at Air Force and Pokorny at Washington & Lee.

Ferguson is a returning starter as a short stick defensive midfielder, and he was also a captain in football during the fall.

“He brings that leadership and he’s had great success,” Brameier said. “He’s a do-everything type of kid. He’s willing to do the dirty work, he’s not at a glory position, but he’ll play hard-nosed.”

Hellman was on the field a lot last year as part of the second midfield line and will be key again this season.

“He’ll probably move into the first mid line this year and he’s very capable of playing two ways,” Brameier said. “He’s a kid that’s committed to go play at Air Force, and Bruce has committed to Colgate and they’re D1 athletes who nobody really knows about because they didn’t have huge impacts last year. They were role players last year and they’re ready for bigger roles this year.”

Pokorny is a returning starter who was an offensive weapon last spring while playing on the Wave’s first line of attack.

“Hudson Pokorny is another two-sport athlete — he was a captain in hockey and now he’s a captain in lacrosse,” Brameier said. “He started at attack last year with Minicus and McGovern, and he’s our leading returning scorer. I think Hudson is ready to have a breakout year as a senior leader, who can take more of the ownership of the attack.”

The Wave will get decidedly younger in goalie, as sophomore Andy Demopoulos takes over for Collins. A backup as a freshman, Demopoulos had playing time in several of the Wave’s blowout wins.

“Andy Demopoulos won that backup role behind the senior last year and did get minutes as a freshman,” Brameier said.

“He’s a very solid technical goalie and he’s a big body in there. I think he’s going to be the real deal.”

Demopoulos will have a few veteran defensive long poles to work with in seniors Tyler Strub and Pierce Hoyda, and junior Sam Cragin.

“Tyler Strub, a returning starter, has committed to UMass and he’s probably our top lockdown kid,” Brameier said. “We also have Sam Cragin, a junior, and he was our fourth pole last year so he saw a lot of time. He’s gotten bigger, faster and stronger. Then we have a senior, Pierce Hoyda, who’s a two-sport athlete and ran on the indoor 4x400 state championship relay team. He’s the kind of kid who’s been biding his time and now he’s ready step into a starting role.”

Senior Connor Olson, who has committed to Denison, is a returning starter as a long-stick midfielder, and will be joined by senior Blake Cellar. Juniors Peter Graham and Sam Wilson are also in the hunt for playing time.

The Wave is deepest at midfield, led by Hellman, Ferguson, and junior Jackson Peters, who played with the first line last year and has committed to Navy.

“He’s fast, he’s athletic and he can shoot,” Brameier said of Peters. “He’s definitely going to be a go-to guy for us.”

Junior Colin Ruppenstein is another player to watch at middie.

“He’s a beast out there,” Brameier said. “He’s a 6-foot-2, 200-pound lefty middie who runs well and shoots well with both hands. We’re excited about him.”

Senior Ryan Darby returns at midfield, with seniors Jack Bogdan and Cooper Hancock, junior Carter Flanagan, and sophomores Jamison Moore and Connor O’Malley also in the mix.

Hancock, who missed last season with an injury, was the Wave’s football quarterback in the fall and could emerge as a midfield weapon in lacrosse.

“He used to be an attackman and has worked his way back into the mix as a middie,” Brameier said. “I think the confidence he gained from being the starting quarterback has shown on the field. He’s definitely going to earn some valuable minutes on the field.”

Darien’s attack also looks strong, led by Pokorny, senior Henri Pfeifle, who saw time as a middie and attackman last year, and junior Michael Minicus, the third Minicus brother to play in the program.

“We’re fortunate to have another Minicus with junior Michael Minicus, who was our leading scorer on the JV team as a sophomore,” Brameier said. “He just brings a lot of electricity and the kind of toughness we were fortunate to have with Colin and Brian.”

Also on attack are sophomore Holt Matheis and senior Charlie Walsh.

The Wave lost faceoff specialist Tanner Strub to graduation and will look to senior Matt Freeman and junior Noah Dewbrey to take over in that role.

Darien’s non-conference schedule is again loaded, with a home game against Yorktown, N.Y (March 30) and road games against Manhasset (April 13), Seton Hall Prep (April 27), St. Anthony’s (April 28) and Brunswick (May 15).

The games against Seton Hall Prep and St. Anthony’s are part of the Inaugural GEICO High School Lacrosse Showcase at St. Anthony’s, and will be featured on ESPN3 and ESPNU.

“It’s exciting and we’re glad to have the opportunity to play in those games,” Brameier said. “We probably have the toughest schedule of any team in the state this year. We start with Yorktown, which is an annual rivalry game. And we’ll play New Canaan and Brunswick at the end of the regular season and those games will have a playoff flavor. We’ve got a good, tough schedule and we’ll be tested.”

QUOTABLE

“We believe that we’re still going to be very balanced and get a lot from different people. There’s a lot more talent than people think. My job is to figure out the right combination to make it work.” — Darien head coach Jeff Brameier