The New Canaan Rams already had a great girls ice hockey program when a flood of talented young players began reaching the high school last year.
They’ve helped take the Rams to an elite level.
New Canaan heads into the postseason with many impressive numbers. The Rams are 17-1-2 and have earned the No. 1 seeds for both the FCIAC and state tournaments. They’ve scored an even 100 goals while allowing just 14 and are outshooting opponents by an average margin of approximately 40-10.
The performance and consistency has had head coach Rich Bulan looking back through the years for a similar team.
“We’ve only had this kind of depth once before — in 2007 when we had three lines, four solid defensemen and a great goaltender with Nikki [Bongaerts],” Bulan, who has led New Canaan since 2001, said. “Those older teams aren’t going to like hearing me say this, but I don’t think I’ve been this deep and this talented before. That combination is just outstanding.”
For senior co-captains Jess Eccleston, Katelyn Sparks and Kara Fahey, the resounding success is a far cry from when they first joined the team. Eccleston and Sparks, both defensemen, were on the squad as freshmen, while Fahey, a goalie, joined as a sophomore.
Those teams were good, qualifying for the FCIAC and state tournaments each year, but they never got over the hump to reach the finals or win a title.
Now, these seniors are ready to make a run at both championships.
“It means so much more as a senior,” Sparks said. “Being the No. 1 seed, it’s literally right there for us. If we show up every single day as we’ve been doing recently, it’s there for us. It would be heartbreaking for our season to end too early, but we’re all very confident, so I think we’ll be fine.”
“We feel really good,” Eccleston said. “All of our lines are working really well together; they’re comfortable passing with each other. In the past few games, it was nice to play against teams like East Catholic and Amity just to make sure that we’re up to speed and playing at a high level going into the playoffs. It’s going to be fun.”
The relative youth of the team has been a boon for the Rams, despite the fact that those rising stars don’t have as much experience at the varsity level. Many of the players have played for travel and elite teams, putting them in tune with competing on a big stage.
The older players — the Rams have just six seniors and three juniors on a roster of 26 — have made sure the freshmen are part of the family.
“Our team is very young in a good way,” Fahey said. “We all have so much energy, we have great chemistry, and we all get along on and off the ice. It works out in games because everybody is all-in and tries their best all the time.”
“We had eight come in last year and seven [sophomores] are still playing, and then we had 10 [freshmen] that we kept this year and seven are in the lineup,” Bulan said. “We’ve had 14 come in at that age the past two years and they all perform with such maturity. They don’t fold, they’re not intimidated and they don’t back down, and with that talent level, it’s a great combination.”
New Canaan has been using three forward lines regularly — sometimes as many as four — with five defensemen in the rotation. The Rams also have a pair of strong goalies in sophomore Blythe Novick and Fahey.
“Honestly, having depth like this has been the big difference,” Bulan said.
The Rams are older on the defensive side of the ice. Eccleston is a four-year starter and an All-State player, with Sparks and junior Sophie Potter having seen major minutes for the past few seasons. Sophomores McKenna Harden and Sadie Frame made an impact last year and have continued to excel this season.
On offense, the young players are in starring roles.
The first line features sophomore Anika Curri with freshmen Angelica Megdanis and Kaleigh Harden, with junior Quincy Connell, sophomore Courtney O’Connell and freshman Grace Crowell on the second line. An all-freshman third line includes Jade Lowe, Maddie Kloud and Caitlin Tully.
The young roster has made the captains’ jobs more important in the playoffs.
“As seniors, we’ve got to set a good example and stay calm and keep teaching the younger people that this is a big game, but at the same time, we have to treat it like any other game,” Eccleston said. “We’ve been doing well this entire season, so we just have to keep that going.”
The Rams faced Fairfield in the FCIAC semis yesterday, and had handled the co-op team in two prior meetings — 7-0 and 4-0. Fairfield was 10-8-1 during the regular season and has a solid team, led by Sydney Falterer, an outstanding goaltender.
“Fairfield is very good, with a very good goaltender too, and we have to come ready to play,” Bulan said. “I think we’re in a good spot. If we go out and play our game, we’ll be right there, and we’ll give it everything we’ve got.”
“We don’t want to overlook them,” Fahey said. “Our goal is to take it one game at a time and just calm down for every game. For Fairfield, we just have to take that as a good game and we can’t look past anyone. We have to go like we’re playing Darien.”
Last year, the Rams beat rival Darien in overtime in the FCIAC semifinals, but were unable to get past the Greenwich Cardinals, who repeated as league champs with a 2-1 win over New Canaan in the final.
New Canaan was then eliminated by Darien in the state semifinals, but the postseason experience gained last year is a plus for the Rams this season.
“It has taken a lot of the nerves off of us,” Sparks said. “Last year, going in [to the FCIAC final] against Greenwich, we were nervous and we had girls who had never been in that championship setting before. This year, we’re very confident and I’ve felt very relaxed. It’s much less stressful.”
“I hope we play Darien [in the final] because it’s always a really fun and competitive game,” Eccleston said. “But we’re a completely different team this year. We have a lot of talented players and a lot of depth this year, so it’s a different situation. We’re optimistic and confident.”