WESTPORT — When Christine Taylor was a freshman at Staples, a three-sport athlete, she played on an above-average field hockey team unable to play competitively with Darien and Wilton, the FCIAC’s two measuring sticks.
In part because of that, Taylor said, “I was always lacrosse, lacrosse, lacrosse.”
Then Ian Tapsall took over as the Wreckers’ field hockey coach, and installed a system and roadmap for success. A sport less publicized and confusing to most, Tapsall contended, could be brought on a par with lacrosse and soccer.
Taylor and her teammates bought in and Staples last year had the best season in team history, advancing to the FCIAC final for the first time in five years and earning a share of its first state title. And now Taylor, in what she admitted was unthinkable just two years ago, just gave a verbal commitment to play both field hockey and lacrosse at Trinity College. It was the result of a superior athlete and new philosophy forming the perfect marriage.
“Freshman year lacrosse was on my radar and that’s all I wanted to play,” Taylor recalled. “Field hockey was my second sport, to stay in shape. When (Tapsall) came he kind of boosted my interest and now they are on the same level for me.”
Tapsall, who continues to play the sport and hopes to earn a spot on the U.S. men’s masters team for the world championships in Barcelona next year, arrived at Staples with a plan to bridge the gap between the league powers.
“The difference between field hockey and soccer is essentially we have no offsides,” Tapsall said. “And we have unlimited substitutions. It went from a sport where endurance and sprinting were very important, but I think more so now the sprinting aspect is key because you can keep your players on as long as they perform between 90 and 100 percent of efficiency, and then you can replace them and give them a rest and bring them back again.”
So Tapsall stressed conditioning, with a fitness program that revolved around sprints between five and 75 yards. No opponent was going to be in better shape at the end of games. He inherited a talented group of girls that closely resembled the starting lineup of the school’s girls lacrosse team.
“The town has always had good athletes, it was just a question of getting them to play with the ball on the ground as opposed to the ball in the air with lacrosse,” Tapsall said. “They all have hand-eye coordination. Get them in field hockey mode.”
It was a strategy custom-fit for Taylor. In Tapsall’s diamond-shaped midfield, Taylor was ideal for the center back spot.
“Christine in particular is so incredibly fit,” Tapsall said. “She’s an absolute workhorse. She’s responsible for a lot of defense and a lot of attack, and she’s an ideal player for that. Constant movement, constant pressure, constant involvement in the game and she took to that like a duck to water. That’s why I think she likes the game so much.”
Taylor said many of the same elements that earned her acclaim and provided enjoyment in lacrosse now transferred over to field hockey.
“I think he made it more of a team aspect and a team sport than it used to be,” Taylor said. “Freshman year as my dad used to say we played hit and hope. Hit the ball down the field and everyone would chase after it. Ian came in and made it more understandable for me. He made it a team sport, where it was enjoyable and playing as a unit.”
Taylor was so respected by her teammates that they selected her a captain last season as a junior.
“Ian said you got votes but if you don’t put in time I will take it away, which is totally understandable,” Taylor said. “That made me say, OK, I am captain, I need to be a role model for the girls. I didn’t know what the seniors were going to think so it made me want to show up for more, do everything in the offseason, be part of club. That helped my skills even more.”
Staples went 12-0-2 during the regular season, outscoring opponents by a stunning 75-2 margin. The ties came against Wilton and Staples, teams that defeated the Wreckers during Taylor’s freshman year by a combined 11-1 margin. Taylor called a 2-1 win over the Blue Wave in the FCIAC semifinals a seminal moment, but it was followed by a 1-0 loss to the Warriors on a penalty stroke in double overtime.
“We had to get through Darien first and I think that was better even than the finals,” Taylor said. “I had never beaten them in basketball, lacrosse, field hockey. It was just a great feeling and to make it to the FCIAC finals was surreal, but to lose on a stroke was sort of a dagger to the heart.”
Staples avenged that defeat in the second round of the Class L quarterfinals, setting the stage for a scoreless draw with Darien in the final.
“The end of the game I looked up at the scoreboard and said to myself this is kind of OK,” Taylor said. “Thinking back at it now I should have been more excited at the end of the game. We were celebrating so much more than the other team you wouldn’t have known we were co-champions, but I think that is because that was the first one in history for us. We had never gotten that far.”
Taylor’s athletic schedule is a blur, with field hockey and lacrosse often overlapping, especially in the offseason. She manages the occasional conflicts by honoring her first commitment.
Taylor was recruited by a number of Division I programs, but instead opted for Trinity because, like field hockey, it provided the perfect fit, as well as the chance to continue both sports.
“I just didn’t think I was the type of person to go D1,” Taylor said. “Not physically and athletically, but just commitment-wise. I think I want to go abroad. That’s a big thing for me. I want my education to come first and academics to come first because I am not going to do anything after college with athletics. That was a big thing for me to decide.”
Taylor has been helping to oversee informal field hockey captains’ practices since early last month. The Wreckers graduated just two seniors, but one of their top players, Kyle Kirby, suffered a torn ACL and MCL last month and will miss the season.
“Losing Kyle is a big thing,” Taylor said. “I think we have a target on our back this year because last year everyone was like, Staples, we don’t even know who that team is. We weren’t as competitive. Now everyone has a target out for us because of what we did last year. That’s going to be a little hard. Last season is in the past, nothing is guaranteed. I really want to go out my senior year, get to the championships and win another medal going out. I think that would be the dream.”