There is a different feeling permeating the Darien field hockey program this season, one the Blue Wave haven't experienced in five years.
For the first time since 2007, Darien is not defending a state title. Its four-year reign as Class M champions ended last year with a dramatic 3-2 overtime loss to Wilton in the semifinals. The Blue Wave had their 82-game winning and 93-game unbeaten streak snapped by Staples, 1-0, in the FCIAC semifinals.
"The pressure is off, the streak is over," said coach Mo Minicus, who is entering her 13th season at Darien. "We're not defending any championship titles. I think the girls can breathe a sigh of relief and just play, play and have fun and do what they can do."
Darien graduated six seniors, including four starters, but the cupboard is hardly bare as the Blue Wave return eight seniors from a team that still finished 19-2 and went undefeated in the regular season. Darien will get an early test as it opens the season on Wednesday at archrival New Canaan.
Darien lost 13 seniors, including 10 starters, from its last state championship team in 2010 and still plowed through the regular season last year without a loss.
"(Losing in the state semifinals) was disappointing but I think we're moving on," said senior Kat Huber, an all-FCIAC first team pick last year who will serve as one of the Blue Wave's captains along with classmate Lexi Perticone. "I think it makes us even more motivated to get back on the horse and try our hardest this year to get it back."
While Huber, a midfielder, and Perticone, a forward, are setting a tone, according to Minicus, Maggie Wells will help out in midfield. Cameron Lattimer, another senior, is moving to the backfield.
Sam Wright is a speedy senior returning at forward and fellow senior forward Paxton Voigt and senior defenders Lydia Ruhlin and Mara Donoghue will provide depth for what is another typically deep Darien team.
Voigt (knee) and Ruhlin (mononucleosis) are battling injuries and sicknesses but are expected to return before too long.
"Our key this year is our depth," Minicus said. "We have a lot of talent across the board all the way through our non-starters. It's really exciting because when I can make changes, the level doesn't drop. I think that's probably going to be the key to our season, fresh legs, good depth and being able to work people through the system."
Darien will have a chance to avenge the loss to Wilton on Sept. 19, its third contest of the year. It doesn't play Staples until the final game of the regular season on Oct. 23. Darien's out-of-state games are at Mamaroneck (N.Y.) on Sept. 22 and home for Lakeland/Panas (N.Y.) on Oct. 20.
"Obviously, last year was not our best ending," Perticone said. "This year, we're really looking forward to the season. We would love to have an undefeated season and we're hoping to win both FCIACs and states and we just want to get the tradition back together."
Junior Danika Hornick, who made the all-FCIAC East squad last year, returns in goal for the Blue Wave.
Junior Hollis Perticone, Lexi's younger sister, is another scoring threat in midfield while juniors Kelsey Bumgardner, Sloane Bessey and Mollie Riegel are all expected to receive significant playing time as well.
Since the Blue Wave didn't win their final game last year, Lexi Perticone suggested they actually could go into this season as an underdog -- something the rest of the FCIAC is going to have a hard time believing.
"We did lose last year," she said. "Maybe not the underdog, but we're definitely not coming in as the high rise, Darien undefeated for four years, so we have a whole new slate and we're ready to go. The pressure's on but it's also off because we have everything to look forward to and nothing to lose."
Minicus is excited about opening against New Canaan, which is always a big deal, no matter the sport.
"I think it's awesome," she said. "It's fun to start off with a great test."