Over the last 21 years, no girls volleyball program has been more synonymous with Connecticut championships than the Darien Blue Wave. Sixteen state titles and 19 conference crowns will tend to have that effect.
Thus, when the Wave failed to appear in a single title game last fall, during an eventual 19-4 campaign, their absence resonated statewide as nothing short of a shock.
So what will be the key to a program rebound in 2014?
The same one-word formula that's cooked up all the hardware for Darien these last two-plus decades: together.
Practice, play and improve as one.
"I think always sticking together is our No. 1 priority, and our closeness on the court is definitely a huge part of success," Wave captain Celia Martzolf said. "As long as we push each other, especially in practice, it will help us reach all of our goals."
Martzolf is one of four selected team leaders for this year's Wave, which lost only one senior to graduation and intends to win both a conference and state title. Claire Naughton, Keli Reyes and Izzy Taylor have also been named captains, though they insist other upperclassmen regularly help guide the program sans the captain title. According to Naughton, it's this sort of support that most embodies the team's culture of family and eventually always leads to great on-court success.
"It's more than just volleyball. We make sure we know how things are going in everybody's lives and ... the big goal on our team is for everyone to be doing their best in every aspect of their lives. We already have great chemistry as a team, and we're already meshing really well on the court.
"Ultimately, what's going to lead to any success we might have this year is just having trust in our teammates, having trust in our program and understanding that if we do every day what we're supposed to, we'll get the results that we want."
Head coach Laurie LaRusso returns to the sidelines for her 33rd year at Darien, a career built on great players, culture and preparation. Film study and scouting reports are staples of the Wave's in-season work, which will begin by breaking down Brien McMahon for the team's season opener on Wednesday, Sept. 10. One month later, Darien will face its most difficult stretch of the season Oct. 14-15, when the team travels to battle 2013 FCIAC finalists Greenwich and Staples.
If the Wave is to come away with consecutive wins and later a trophy or two, it will need contributions from outside of the captain group. Fortunately for Darien, juniors Kiera Quinn and Anna Barsanti reportedly made great on-court strides over the summer, while senior Emily Milukas has continued to work at a high level. Sami Huff, who started as a freshman last season, also returns hoping to make improvements on her impressive high school debut.
However, Huff is not alone that pursuit, nor is any Wave girls volleyball player. For just as vital as the program's culture of family remains, so is its dedication to constant individual improvement.
"We're really firm believers in you can always get better. You never really reach your physical capacity, so you can always improve," Naughton said. "And I think that's the great thing about our program that we're always striving to improve."
Through the years, Darien has claimed championship after championship, repeaedly reaching the highest peak of any competitive season. And in turn, the Wave has left no possibility of improving upon its final result the following year.
Now, coming off a campaign in which it fell short of the ultimate goal, there is room in the record books for Darien to get better. And that spells bad news for every other Connecticut girls volleyball program, which will all fall in the same way if the Blue Wave can realize its title hopes in 2014.