Right around this time last year, the Blue Wave boys soccer team was basically an afterthought in the FCIAC. Having won only two games the previous season, Darien wasn't exactly a popular pick to contend for the FCIAC title.

But what a difference a year can make. Under new coach Jon Bradley, Darien experienced a remarkable turnaround season in 2011, posting an 11-2-3 regular season record, finishing third in the FCIAC and making it to quarterfinals of the class L state tournament.

But that isn't to say the members of this Blue Wave squad are about to rest on their laurels.

"We're definitely happy that we had a great season last year, but I think we've got to kind of leave that in the past," said Brennan Branca, team captain and attacking center-midfielder. "What we can take from that is knowing that we can get to where we need to go. People need to keep on having that kind of confidence. We really love playing with each other."

And while last year's turnaround was a feel good story for the Blue Wave, they're aware that the newfound success likely means that they won't be able to sneak up on any of their FCIAC counterparts in 2012.

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"The team's looking solid. There's a lot of chemistry. It's going to be hard, but I think we can do just as good, if not better than last year," said Ben Highton, team captain and forward. "I think it's going to be harder this season than coming off of a two-win season because we're expected to do well. Our attacking force is a strength, and our defense is pretty solid."

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Darien is reconfiguring its defense, as it lost nearly the entire unit (Elliott Helgans, Geoff Hubbard, Matt Collier, Eric Kanigan and Lewis Clarke) to graduation.

"The defense is going to be a work in progress because we've got to replace the whole defense. It's going to take us a little time to settle," Bradley said. "We won 14 games based on our defense, so for the next couple weeks we'll be working on that. There are a few different players trying to get into the starting lineup, and we'll see how it turns out."

The good news is that Darien returns a wealth of experience on offense, including Spencer McMullin, one of the team's biggest scoring threats in 2011.

Jack Fisher also returns for another season as the team's starting goalie.

"We've got a lot more technical players than we've had before, so we move the ball around pretty well," Bradley said. "They're a great bunch of kids, they get along really well and we have no attitudes and no egos. If we get everyone on the same page, then we should be okay."

Some of Darien's marquee matchups in 2012 include a season-opening visit from Westhill at 4 p.m. on Sept. 13, a trip to border rival New Canaan at 4 p.m. on Oct. 8, a home clash with Norwalk at 4 p.m. on Oct. 16 and a home matchup with Trumbull in the regular season finale at 4 p.m. on Oct. 24.

One of Darien's biggest wins in 2011 was a second-round 1-0 state tournament victory over New Canaan, which may only fan the flames of an already intense rivalry. The Rams and Blue Wave tied 1-1 in their regular season meeting on Oct. 10 at Darien High School.

In addition to the big win over New Canaan in the state tournament, Darien also picked up a first-round 3-0 win over North Haven. The Blue Wave were ousted from the tournament in the quarterfinals on the road against Bunnell, a 3-1 defeat.

"I can't wait for the home opener against Westhill and away at New Canaan," Highton said. "Those were two big games last year, and we're looking forward to those two games again."

"I'd probably say New Canaan away, Westhill at home and Norwalk is always a lot of fun to play. I have a few friends on that team, so it's fun," Branca said. "It's definitely a realistic goal to make states and FCIACs. As far as anything past that, we'll cross that bridge when we get there."

jchik@bcnnew.com