DANBURY—Denise Brough knows just how difficult the FCIAC is to navigate, with more than 10 years coaching the Danbury field hockey team.
Competing against towns full of athletes that play the sport from a very young age can make it a difficult gap to close, and it’s one the Hatters are trying to solve.
Pushing its way closer to year-round status and having freshmen with experience before high school, Danbury hopes its new crop of players can bridge the gap while continuing to improve with each game.
“We are getting better as a team, but this is a tough league to be in,” said Hatters coach Denise Brough. “Other towns are running year-round programs, we are making a move toward that direction but we’re not there yet. It’s a great program to be affiliated with; the players are so enthusiastic and motivated, they love playing the sport.”
The Hatters — who improved from one win two years ago to four last season — graduated the majority of their starting lineup and will be a lot younger on the field this time around. Danbury is captained by Nora Ahern (right outside), Hannah Tucci (defender), Jayme Alfonso (forward) and Grace Keefe (center midfielder). Brough has been coaching in the sport for about 30 years, the last 12 as the head coach with the Hatters.
“It’s a very young team with lots of athletes and it’s been a wonderful opportunity to turn them into field hockey players,” Brough said. “I’d like to see improvement with each game, I think that’s what any coach wants. Take a different facet of the game, work on it and see if you can be an improved team the next time around.”
Like many of her teammates, Tucci picked up the sport upon arriving at DHS. She’s become a three-year starter and is now one of the leaders of the squad.
“I like the sport itself, it gives a little strength to us,” Tucci said. “We’re able to a (get) little rough and have fun as a team. It’s a cool sport that a lot of people don’t understand. It’s fun.”
The Hatters dropped their season opener to Ridgefield on Tuesday, and will face all the top teams in the state — including Staples, Darien and New Canaan — in the coming weeks.
“Sometimes it’s not the score we want to see, but as long as we’re improving and look more like a team,” Tucci said. “Every game we become more of a team and (see) where we’re at. We put ourselves in a position to find more experience.”
Keefe is one of several club players who hope to try to turn Danbury’s fortunes around. The sophomore is a college prospect and in April was on Max Field Hockey’s players to watch list for the class of 2021.
“Grace makes everyone around her that much better,” Brough said. “She puts in so much time, she’s the first one at practice and the last one to leave. She has many positive attributes but the biggest one is that she’s willing to share the knowledge with her teammates, which is the key component to the success of any team.”
Keefe began the sport in fifth grade out of curiosity as her mom, Kathy, was an experienced coach. It wasn’t long before she took it seriously and caught on with HTC, a club with local teams throughout Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts.
“She’s come a long way in a quick period of time,” said Darren Smallhorn, who coaches Keefe at HTC. “She’s great; she really loved it, she was talented and picked it up right away. Her goal is to play Division I and we’re trying to figure out where that could happen. For her it’s about getting into the best academic school; she’s doing a great job.”
Keefe represented HTC at a national tournament over the summer, providing the midfielder — who plays defense with her club team — with an opportunity for even more exposure at the highest level.
“It was a great experience,” Keefe said. “We finished at the bottom and it was definitely difficult; but we pushed through it and had so much fun.”
The potential to improve over the next several years applies to both Keefe and her Hatters teammates.
“I’m trying to get myself out there as much as I can,” Keefe said. “I’m open to any school as long as it’s the right fit. Obviously, I want to improve my stick skills but helping my team is a big part of it; I want to create opportunities that will help them and me at the same time.”