WESTPORT — Riding a 12-game winning streak in which it has outscored opponents by a 69-1 margin, it would be difficult to find too many teams in the state hotter than the Staples field hockey team.
“We’ve been working really hard since this past summer and getting in this groove is great because we have a large target on our backs at this point,” said Hannah Paprotna, one of the team’s captains. “Everyone wants to beat us. It brings us more motivation. We’re doing really well right now and we’re trying to keep it up.”
Riding three straight state titles, the Wreckers have become of the state’s elite programs. Despite injuries to their two best players, and with a unique combination of seniors and underclassmen, they will be in the hunt for their first FCIAC title since 2011, along with keeping their Class L streak alive.
How the Wreckers have dealt with the injuries to Kyle Kirby and Laine Ambrose has shaped their season. Kirby, a senior, has missed six games because of various injuries. She finished with 30 goals and 20 assists last season.
Ambrose, a junior, missed the first month after breaking her right arm during a team preseason trip to Bermuda. During a 5-0 win over New Canaan on Monday, Ambrose suffered three broken fingers on her left hand. Her immediate status will be determined tomorrow.
Staples had to compensate early and learn how to win without both players.
“Laine and Kyle, them missing was crazy, but we definitely stepped up to the occasion,” Paprotna said. “A lot of other players filled in and we did a great job without them.”
Kirby and Ambrose made a team that got used to winning without them that much more formidable.
Ian Tapsall, the Wreckers’ coach, was forced to alter his strategy without the pair in the team’s only loss, 3-1 to Darien in the second game.
“Kyle and Laine, I think any high school team in the country won’t have two players like that,” Tapsall said. “So it does create a big gap that you have to make up for. What I did against Darien was to try and change the system to try and compensate for a couple of players I knew were hurt but it didn’t really work too well. But when those two came back it just changed everything for us.”
Ambrose said being sidelined was more painful than the injury to her arm.
“It was pretty hard because obviously I wanted to play,” Ambrose said. “I love the sport. It was still exciting to see my teammates have success. But against Darien, with the loss, it was really hard standing on the sideline knowing that if my arm was fine I could make a difference.”
Ambrose has scored 10 goals, second on the team to Julia DiConza, who has 13. Five players have scored at least seven goals, making Staples more difficult to defend.
With a complete roster, the Wreckers are able to do what they like best.
“The way we play hockey, you try to get as many penalty corners as you can,” Tapsall said. “What happens in high school hockey is teams play with a packed defense. And it gets very difficult. You might have eight players from their team just hanging out on defense. You have 13 players in the middle so we have to find ways to get corners.”
“We just had to take it down a notch and play the Staples way, which means we did a lot of give and goes,” said Paprotna. “Our secret weapon is our corners so we would keep pounding the circles with insane intensity.”
Roxie Augeri has excelled for Staples in goal, a position she never played before this year. The defense features seniors Erica Fanning, Grace Cooper, Maisie Dembski and junior Izzy Deveney. The Wreckers have allowed just five goals.
This is the time of year when Tapsall wants all his resources. A 5-1 win over regional power Longmeadow (MA) was followed by the decisive victory over the Rams, who were 10-1 at the time.
Staples closes the regular season against Wilton tomorrow and Norwalk on Tuesday. The Bears, Darien and Staples are currently tied for the best record in the conference.
“We knew we had the hardest games at the end of the season, besides the first two,” Tapsall said. “We got Laine back, we got Kyle back. You can practice your set plays and get used to each other. It works out in the end. It’s more suitable to have those games at the end.”
Ambrose said she likes how the Wreckers are positioned for the postseason.
“We just had a big win against New Canaan after they beat Darien last Friday so it gave us a lot of confidence, but we still want to take everything a game at a time,” Ambrose said. “We have two big games coming up. Once we see how we do against those teams it will be a good indicator.”
Tapsall said the key to winning titles the next few weeks will depend as much on what his players don’t do as what they do.
“I think we just have to keep doing what we’re doing,” Tapsall said. “With a 5-nil win over New Canaan and a 5-1 win over Longmeadow, where we played I think two of our best games of the season, it shows what we can do. I always tell the girls the level of play is such that any of the top four teams can win. The way you are going to lose is making mistakes. It can easily be a 1-0 or 2-1 game and if you make a mistake it’s tough.”