NEW CANAAN — Few victories could be more satisfying than the one New Canaan had over Darien in the Class L girls lacrosse semifinals last spring.
The Rams, who had an 11-7 lead evaporate late in the second half, nevertheless pulled out the 12-11 win to top their rivals. Four days later, New Canaan rolled over the Ridgefield Tigers, 19-7, to claim its sixth state championship in nine seasons.
In the aftermath of that championship run, the Rams are now faced with a new reality: They’re no longer the hunters, they’re the hunted.
“The one thing that this group has from last year’s senior class is believing in themselves and believing that they can do it,” head coach Kristin Woods said. “This year, the target’s going to be on our back, so they have to go into every game, no matter who it is, and be ready to play.”
Judging from the depth and talent on the roster, that should not be a problem.
The Rams return 20 players who were on the varsity roster when the team went 17-5 last spring and many of those saw significant playing time. That includes four senior standouts — goalie Caroline O’Dea, defenders Caroline Schuh and Katelyn Sparks, and attack Campbell Connors — who have taken over as team co-captains.
New Canaan graduated four all-Americans, including Connecticut Player of the Year Braeden Dial (Denison), Julia Ozimek (UConn), Karlie Bucci (Vanderbilt) and Leigh Charlton.
They’ll be difficult to replace, but Woods said the four co-captains, who bring a wealth of experience to the field, are up to the task.
O’Dea has been a varsity goalie since her freshman year, and has improved every season. Having her back in the net gives New Canaan a leg up on the competition.
“Caroline O’Dea has been a staple back there for four years now and the experience and improvement I’ve seen from her over the past four years has been remarkable,” Woods said. “She has done an exceptional job ever since freshman year and she’s worked hard day-in and day-out year-round to get better and better.”
In front of O’Dea on defense will be Schuh, an All-State first team selection last spring, and Katelyn Sparks. Both are multi-sport captains. They led the Rams’ girls soccer team to a runner-up finish in the FCIAC during the fall, and Sparks captained the girls ice hockey team to a 22-1-2 record and FCIAC and state championships this winter.
“Caroline Schuh is always positive, energetic and she really controls the defense back there with Katelyn,” Woods said. “Katelyn has three seasons of captainship under her belt and Caroline has two, so the two of them are such strong vocal leaders for us.”
Connors is one of the top returning weapons on offense, and will be a big plus for an attack which is talented but relatively young.
“Campbell Connors leads by example and controls the attacking end,” Woods said. “She’ll be strong for us on offense.”
The Rams boast an experienced defense, with six players having seen significant varsity time last year.
In addition to Schuh and Sparks, the Rams return seniors Nora Belodeau and Catherine Bopp, and juniors Natalie Lopez and Elizabeth DeMarino, along with sophomore Shea Hobbs, who will again back up O’Dea as the goalie.
Joining the defense are sophomore Courtney O’Connell and senior Brielle Connelly.
“We bring back quite a few defenders and that’s definitely one of our strengths,” Woods said. “Offensively, we’re going to be young, but the young kids have speed and a lot of athleticism. It’ll be interesting to see how they do.”
Leading the midfielders is junior Jane Charlton, another All-State First Team selection who has verbally committed to Duke.
Senior Kendall Patten also returns at midfield and she also offers leadership skills after being a co-captain with the soccer team. She signed a National Letter of Intent to play soccer at Cornell in the fall.
Sophomore McKenna Harden, who scored the game-winning goal against Darien in last year’s Class L semis, is also back at midfield alongside junior Quincy Connell and sophomore Emma Schuh. Freshman Kaleigh Harden joins the team as a middie.
On attack, the Rams will have Connors and senior Lauren Bisceglia as the top weapons. Both signed National Letters of Intent in November — Connors to Butler and Bisceglia to Colgate.
New Canaan also returns seniors Cece Cronin and Eliza Cuoco, and juniors Olivia Bognon and Kearney McKiernan, with freshmen Dillyn Patten and Hollis Mulry new to the team.
Woods and her coaching staff had a tremendous challenge during the preseason, as 85 players came out for the squad. It made the evaluations a bit more involved.
“The evaluation process lasted a little longer than I expected because there were such tough decisions and we had so many kids, so I extended it a day,” Woods said. “So I haven’t worked with our full team yet (as of last Friday), so I’m excited to see what they can do.”
New Canaan’s schedule is filled with tough opponents. The Rams will play at Yorktown in the second game of the season on April 6, and host John Jay (April 10), Westhampton Beach (April 12), and Longmeadow, Mass. (April 20) early. They’ll also play at Cold Spring Harbor (April 27) and host Bronxville (May 7).
Then there’s the league rivalry games against Wilton (April 30), Darien (May 5), and Greenwich (May 11), with New Canaan getting all three on the Dunning Field turf this year.
“Our out-of-league games are very strong,” Woods said. “We have a huge out-of-conference schedule and that’ll be a true test for all of us. I’m really excited to see what we can do.”
“The whole senior class were such great leaders and driven kids. They definitely will be missed, but I think the current seniors are ready to fill their shoes and take on the next challenge.”
— New Canaan head coach Kristin Woods