DANBURY—As a teacher at West Haven for more than 25 years, Larry Vieira knows how to challenge kids to attempt to draw out the best in them.
So, when his New Fairfield-Immaculate co-op hockey team had the chance to jump into the fray that is Division I, both he and his players jumped at the proposition.
Wins have followed the program throughout Vieira’s six seasons, a trend that hasn’t stopped just yet. Through four games in the co-op’s first ever season at the top level, Wednesday’s 3-1 win over Bolton-Coventry-Rockville pushed NFI’s record to 3-0-1 in 2017-18.
The CIAC recommended the co-op jump up after its success in recent seasons. NFI — which went 17-5-2 last season and had its season end in the Division II semifinals — could have remained there in search of its first state title, but opted to challenge the top programs in the state.
“It’s a credit to the coaching staff, the administration at both schools and the players,” Vieira said. “We felt we were up for the challenge; We’ve had had success at Division III and Division II. We have a veteran team coming back, so let’s push the envelope.”
A deep group has helped this transition, particularly up front. Seniors Alex Hallahan and Jameson Brown are two of the team’s top forwards, but juniors Sam Mitchell, Tim Manning, Aaron Dibble and Zack Conboy are equally as explosive.
“We’ve been getting a lot of pressure down low in the offensive zone,” said co-coach Anthony Barletta. “We’ve had about 90 shots on goal the last two games; I don’t know if we’re getting the right shots we’d like, but we’re sustaining pressure pretty well.”
The team’s defensive core is inexperienced yet full of potential. Senior captain Matt Carlucci leads the group that features a handful of players with limited varsity experience.
Eyes were opened across the state when NFI slammed West Haven 9-2 Dec. 23. NFI is now ranked No. 9 in the GameTimeCT/New Haven Register state poll. Immaculate won the Division II title in 2007; the co-op has yet to reach a final since combining in 2009.
“We’re thrilled we’re in D-I and the No. 9-ranked team in the state,” Vieira said. “We have a chance to compete against the best kids. If they go to Immaculate or New Fairfield, they’re going to play the highest level of high school hockey in the state. We want to attract those student athletes to the schools.”
Division I status means a Division I schedule filled with calendar circlers. One of those games comes next Wednesday when No. 1 Fairfield Prep makes a very rare visit to the Danbury Ice Arena. Also competing in Division I of the SCC/SWC, NFI will quickly find out how it stacks up against the best.
“They’ve marked this game down like every D-I game,” Vieira said. “When you play the best, it’s a motivating factor. It’s not the end of the world either way; at least we’ll see where were’ at.”
NFI is filled with plenty of pedigree, too. Hallahan was part of the Southern CT Stars U18 team that competed at a national tournament over the summer. Brothers Tim and Danny Manning represent the Stars at the U16 level.
In goal, Scott Dobos replaces graduated senior Shane Conciatore, one the top goalies in the state who posted a 1.6 goals against average en route to an All-State selection last season. Bloodlines run deep for Dobos, who’s older brothers Ryan and Taylor each tended the goal with the program.
“Scott has been here for two years; he’s a (former) high-end bantam and midget goalie who has played at a high level,” Vieira said. “We don’t want him to be Shane, we want him to be his own entitiy.”