Groomed newcomers have known coach Bradley for years

It is not often such tremendous turnover brings with it a sense of familiarity for a head coach.

Jonathan Bradley lost 14 players to graduation from Darien's 2009 girls soccer team. However, Bradley, who has coached Darien for five years and heads the Darien Soccer Association, finally has a team of girls that he has helped groom nearly their entire careers.

"This is probably the most skilled group of players I've had since I've been here," Bradley said. "A lot of these kids went through the whole youth program."

Darien, 8-6-1 a year ago, is hoping its influx of young talent -- five freshmen -- will keep the Blue Wave under the radar.

"A lot of the kids have been playing for a long time at a high level," Bradley said. "Although we're young, I think we can surprise a few people."

Darien suffered a heartbreaking end to the 2009 season. After missing out on the FCIAC playoffs due to a head-to-head tiebreaker with Staples, the Blue Wave was bounced from the Class L state tournament in the first round with a 3-1 double-overtime loss to Fairfield Warde.

Senior captains Georgie Highton, Ellie Bullitt and Charlotte Phillips will be charged with providing the on-field leadership that will help groom Darien's young talent into successful high school players in one of the state's toughest conferences.

"They all started last year. We only have five returning seniors, so we're looking to them to give the leadership to the younger players," Bradley said.

On the field, Highton will help lead Darien's offense playing a forward spot. Phillips, the incumbent goal keeper, and Bullitt, a defender, will help anchor the Blue Wave's defense

The Blue Wave captains have been impressed with the level of talent displayed up and down the roster throughout the preseason.

"We have a lot of depth," Phillips said. "And that's going to get us far in FCIACs and states."

Darien's captains will be supported by a trio of juniors that have been on varsity since their freshmen year -- Alex Pear, Leslie Yuen and Marieke Bravo.

"I'm really looking for them to come in and carry the team this season," Bradley said.

Darien's depth will also be buoyed by a pair of transfers. Catie Dee, a junior who previously attended St. John's College High School in Washington, D.C., and sophomore Phoebe Wong, who transferred from New Canaan Country Day School, are both looking to make an impact on the squad.

Wong is a forward, while Dee can play either forward or on defense.

Two sophomores -- Kristy Gilbert and Vanessa Budd -- could see a lot of time in the midfield for the Blue Wave.

"They're just very strong, athletic, smart players," Bradley said.

Steering a team that features such a wealth of youth can sometimes come down to channeling players' emotions and exuberance onto the field.

"This year it could work for us," Bradley said. "Because we're so young, we're trying to encourage the kids to just express themselves on the field and use their ability to intimidate (their opponents)."

Bradley has no fear his younger players will be intimidated by the increased intensity of varsity soccer in the FCIAC. They have been groomed through the years for exactly this.

"Some of these girls have played in tournaments all over the country, so they're not going to be put in any situations on the field they can't handle," he said.

While freshmen are often taken aback by the speed of the game at the next level, it is Darien's most experienced players that have been impressed with the speed and tenacity of the neophytes.

"They're very fast and even though they're small, they're very aggressive," said Highton, who has committed to play soccer at Virginia Tech next fall.

Emily Stein, defense, Dillon Schoen, forward, and Julia Black, midfield, have stood out to their teammates. "You can't tell their freshmen," Bullitt said.

With so many new faces in the mix and being worked onto the field, Darien is most concerned with its on-field chemistry and ball movement.

"Definitely first touch and getting to know how each of us plays -- strengths, weaknesses, how to work together," said Highton when asked what needs to improve most."

Darien opened the season Wednesday at Westhill after press time. The Blue Wave's home opener is today against Greenwich, a team circled on Darien's calendar, at 3 p.m.

"A lot of us play with them in Premier and get coached by their coaches," Phillips said.

Bullitt then added, "We're friends, but not really on the field."

And the big game, against rival New Canaan, the defending Class M champion, comes on Oct. 15. The Blue Wave will play at home.