DARIEN — In just his third season at the helm for Darien, Mac Budd has seen more than his share of highs and lows.

The highs came from back-to-back state titles during the 2014-15 season as an assistant, and the 2015-16 season in his first year as the head of the program.

Last year saw the lows.

Yes, the Blue Wave weren’t as talented as they had been in previous years, but that’s bound to happen at the high school level. It was injuries, stumbling out of the gate and close losses late in the season that made for a frustrating year.

“I think last year you look at the season, and the record (8-11-1) doesn’t tell the story,” Budd said. “They were as hard a working team as I’ve coached. They gave some very good teams some very good games.”

Budd is optimistic about this season, but with caution. He’s seen what abundantly talented teams can do when they come together, but also what can happen when it seems every break is going against you.

“Interestingly, I’d say this year is probably somewhere in between,” Budd said. “I’m taking more of a wait-and-see attitude. I think the team has worked hard, which we demand, and they seem to be willing to put in the work that’s going to be necessary to succeed.”

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COACH: Mac Budd (third season)

2016-17 RECORD: 8-11-1, 6-4-1 FCIAC

PLAYER TO WATCH: Jr. CJ Hathaway, forward. Hathaway was a pleasant surprise a season ago that turned into the team’s leading scorer. With a year of experience under his belt and an entire offseason to finetune his skills, Hathaway should once again be the Wave’s top threat.

GAME TO WATCH: Dec. 23 vs. New Canaan. The two rivals, both with high aspirations, meet in just the third game of the year. Both teams have to face a gauntlet to start the season, and this matchup should provide an early boost to both teams emotionally, as well as a barometer for where each stands early on.

OUTLOOK: After winning state titles in 2015 and 16, Darien fell back to earth last year. A strong second half of the season and an experienced and talented returning group should have Darien back among the FCIAC powers.

Darien brings back key players like junior CJ Hathaway — the team’s leading scorer last year —forwards Will Johnston and Will Dickson as well as hard-nosed defenseman Hunter Hazelton.

As is typically the case for any high school team, the ability of those players to integrate with the younger inexperienced ones will be crucial to the team’s success.

“We have a lot of returning players, but we’re still very young.” Budd said. “So, I think a lot of it is going to depend on some of the seniors and older guys that are returning and are going to need to add to what they accomplished last season, and some of the younger guys and newcomers need to bring it to the next level as well.”

Off the ice, Dickson, a captain, cited the program’s family-like atmosphere as something he wants to bring to the team in terms of his leadership.

“I look at the captains last year and my brother, who was a captain two years ago, and they taught me a lot about bringing a team together,” Dickson said. “I’ve been on a lot of teams and none have felt like the high school hockey team, so I want the kids below me to feel that kind of experience I have.”

A commonality in Darien’s state title years was the play in net. First by Will Massie in 2014-15, then David Voigt in 15-16.

Budd believes he may have his next star goaltender in Henri Pfeifle, a junior who flashed serious ability and opened eyes in a limited role a season ago.

“We’ve been lucky over the years to have some great goalies and I think Henri has that potential,” Budd said. “Against Stamford and Fairfield Prep later in the season he showed that potential. He’s the starter, and we’re certainly thinking he has the chance to be another very strong goalie from Darien.”

Knowing what they have in the locker room and what it takes to reach the pinnacle, one thing Darien isn’t short of is confidence.

“We bring back a lot of experience so that’s huge for us, more than half the team has varsity experience,” Dickson said. “So this team expects nothing less than a state and FCIAC championship.”

aparelli@bcnnew.com @reportedbytheAP