DARIEN — When Jess Ware emerged from the visitor’s locker room at the Darien Ice Rink Wednesday night, the first person the freshman goaltender for Greenwich’s girls hockey team saw was her coach, Alex Lerchen. Ware soon broke out into tears.
Moments earlier, the Cardinals saw the chance at their first win against New Canaan since 2008 slip away. The Rams, FCIAC girls hockey old money, scored twice in the third period, the second goal by Liz McCarthy with 49 seconds remaining in regulation, to rally from a two-goal deficit for a 2-2 tie.
Ware — wrongfully — put the change in fortune on her slender shoulders.
“I’m a little upset that I let in that last goal,” Ware said. “I don’t mind letting in goals but not the kind I felt I could have saved.”
The game was a microcosm for the changing landscape in girls hockey. For the last seven years it has been dominated by two teams; Darien and New Canaan have combined to win every title, making it seem like an extension of football, where the two schools dominate.
Greenwich, now 5-1-3, has the best record in the conference and proved it has the talent to break the stranglehold. The Rams, at 2-2-1 but without a league loss, demonstrated that it would not be going away so easily.
“I know the girls are a little disappointed for sure,” Lerchen said of Wednesday’s outcome. “There is no shame in tying a team like that. We knew they were going to come out flying in the third. They’re a hard-working team. Lesson learned and we move on and we’ll see them again.”
Parity has found its way to the sport. The Fairfield Co-Op team is also in the mix, and upstate teams have caught up to Fairfield County.
“You used to look at your schedule and go win, win, win,” said Rich Bulan, who is in his 16th season as New Canaan’s coach. “There are very few games now when I go in there and know we’re going to win the game. This is what everyone who got involved in girls hockey has been waiting for. You have to be ready for every game.”
Greenwich has been a case study in how to develop into a contender, spurred by a combination of better players and bright coaching. When Lerchen took over three years ago, the program was struggling and went 5-13-1. Last season the Cardinals improved to 11-9. Now, the bar has been set at the top rung.
Thus Ware’s reaction to a draw that once would have provided unfettered joy.
“I definitely knew we were going to be a strong team,” Ware said. “The first couple of games surprised me a little bit just because we had some tough opponents. I am a bit surprised but when you look at this group and see how hard they work and how much they care I’m not surprised at all.”
Greenwich has just one senior on the roster. It is led by Jennie Piotrzkowski, a junior defenseman and captain who was named last year both to the All-FCIAC and All-State teams.
“I think she’s a really strong leader,” Ware said. “She really motivates the team to work hard, I really love that about her, and she gets us to take things seriously. She’s a very strong captain that everyone will look up to and listen to.”
Lerchen said the decision to put the “C” on Piotrzkowski’s jersey was an easy decision.
“Jennie leads the way on and off the ice for us,” Lerchen said. “She is one of the hardest workers if not the hardest worker. She can really bring a group together but it is really how she handles herself and goes about her business on a daily basis.”
Jen Kelly, who along with Grace Fahey scored against New Canaan, leads the Cardinals with 15 points. Riley Ellsworth and Sydney Orszulak, one of seven freshmen on the team, are next with 8 points.
Then there is Ware, who has lived up to the high expectations that greeted her arrival. She stopped 32 shots against New Canaan.
“I can’t even explain how much I love Jess,” Piotrzkowski said. “Her attitude is phenomenal. At times you are like thank god Jess is there.”
Ware said she has navigated playing a large role for a team that is looking to continue its ascension and now goes into games expecting rather than hoping to win.
“I really like the competition,” Ware said. “It is really amazing I can make the saves that are needed and the defense is always there for me. The older kids have been saying how much they’ve waited for this year and they want this so much. It is really pressure at some times but it is really exciting.”
The Rams are not without their own motivation. They have not been to the FCIAC final in three years after winning the title three straight times. Darien has dominated the league since.
New Canaan is led by junior Gianna Bruno and got a goal against Greenwich from Jessica Eccleston. Kara Fahey, a softball player who joined the hockey team, has been a revelation in goal.
Bulan said the strength of youth hockey in the area has helped the equalization in talent.
“All of a sudden you don’t need to teach the girls the basics,” Bulan said. “They know how to skate and handle the stick.”
Piotrzkowski said a lot has changed since she was a freshman that has altered the outlook for the Cardinals, both in the present and for the future.
“When we were freshmen it was much more frustrating,” Piotrzkowski said. “There’s a lot more excitement. Our team is so much closer this year. When people come to practice they are excited to be there and really happy, and with our competition we’ve been doing really well and that keeps the girls ready to go. A lot of it is hard work, honestly. Going from the bare bones. That’s when Alex came in. A lot of these girls have been playing hockey their whole lives, which we didn’t have then. A lot of girls were just starting out my freshman year and high school hockey was new to them. Now we have girls who have been playing hockey their whole lives and it is something they love to do.”