Guilford has the talent and coaching savvy of Kitty Palmer to help challenge for the Southern Connecticut Conference tournament title and a young Branford team is also tough, led by veteran coach Cathy McGuirk.
But Hand and defending champion Cheshire have emerged as the teams to beat.
Hand, ranked No. 6 in this week’s coaches top 10 poll, is 2-0 against Branford and No. 10 Guilford in the regular season. No. 4 Cheshire is 2-0 against Branford and 1-0 against Guilford (Rams and Indians meet again Wednesday in Guilford, 7 p.m.). Hand and Cheshire split their games with the Tigers winning 4-1 on Sept. 17 and the Rams winning 4-3 on Oct. 8.
The Rams (13-2) and Tigers both have exciting, high-scoring forwards and midfielders and stifling defenders. But both coaches agree success in the SCC tournament will likely come down to the play of the goalies – Cheshire’s Maddy Levy and Hand’s Mel Rennie.
Levy has eight shutouts and has allowed more than one goal in a game only four times.
“Maddy Levy’s play in the SCC tournament and beyond is going to be critical to our team’s success,” Cheshire coach Eileen Dunham said. “If Maddy can use her athleticism, communication skills and good instincts, our team can and should fair well in the playoffs. Maddy’s strength is her quick reflexes.
“I believe Hand is the strongest team in the SCC. They have a ton of experience on all of their lines and have an excellent goalkeeper. They are very athletic and fast. But any team can make a splash. Guilford and Branford have strong histories in the league and well-versed coaches as well. Amity and Hamden are a threat this year, too.”
The Rams are led on the field by midfielders Michelle Federico (last season’s Register Area MVP) and Danielle Bellantonio and forwards Emma Farrel and Olivia Larson.
Rennie has eight shutouts for the Tigers and has allowed more than 1 goal in a game once – the recent loss to Cheshire.
Top players include forwards Brenna Hobin and Hannah Leckey (coach’s daughter), midfielder Erin Mammele and defenders Mackenzie Hilton, Brooke Barrry and Annah Curcio.
“Although Mel doesn’t have to go it alone because there is a very good defense in front of her, it will be crucial that she is focused and as dominant as she can be for us to ultimately be successful,” Hand coach Sue Leckey said. “There are really good teams out there and they are going to shoot, shoot hard and often. We can score, but our chances are exponentially improved if Mel can keep the ball out of the net like she did against Darien, Guilford, Staples, Granby and against Cheshire earlier in the season.
“Mel is a very good athlete and has used her competitiveness to become a very good goalie. If she believes that and stays vocal and invested then, we will have exactly what we need in goal. Mel is a competitor. I’m counting on her hatred for losing to get us to the championship. She definitely has the goods.”
Leckey also added, “We are going to take it one game at a time. In my opinion, Cheshire is obviously the SCC tournament favorite, as they have been the past two seasons. But Guilford has played very well and seems to know how to give themselves a chance to beat us every time we play. Branford can always muster a state-championship effort. All those teams have a great goalie and some very good players, not to mention their feistiness and their great coaches.”
Lauralton Hall has been dominant in the regular season and since 2011 the team hasn’t suffered a regular-season loss with an impressive 38-0-6-1 record. The Crusaders are 13-0-1 this season, led by six captains – Maureen Connolly, Beth Lamonte, Micaela Murphy, Jackie Brewster, Tori Stapelton and Kara Duggan.
“I attribute our success to offseason play and the tradition established by past teams,” said first-year coach Kati Cavanagh. “In order to be competitive you have to play year round. I also can’t say enough about Theresa Napolitano, the previous coach, and the foundation she has created. I’m just trying my best to continue the amazing success she’s had with the team on and off the field.
“Our team’s greatest strength this season is that we all love each other and we have fun. We are still searching for the perfect combination of players in the right positions in the right formation. Our team is doing a great job defensively, allowing only five goals in 13 games.”
Connolly leads the team in scoring with 13 goals and Brewster has six goals.
“In the postseason, we will take it one game at a time making sure not to overlook anyone,” Cavanagh said. “Any team in the South-West Conference can beat another on any given day. All I can say is we are hoping and preparing to go the distance.”
The SWC tournament begins Friday and Saturday with quarterfinals at the home of the higher seeds (seeds, matchups, game times to be determined).