STAMFORD — It’s not how you start the journey, it’s how you finish.

The Stamford-Westhill-Staples Co-op girls ice hockey team opened its season Wednesday night by falling 2-0 to the Avon-Southington-East Granby Nighthawks at Terry Conners rink.

Although arriving with 12 skaters and two goalies, the Nighthawks were excited to begin their first season as a high school varsity team after spending a number of seasons competing as a club squad.

Despite a choppy start, there were a number of positive signs for the SWS Co-op program, which has a pair of FCIAC playoff semifinal appearences on its resume.

The overall numbers are solid as SWS will be a factor in the present as well as fielding a junior varsity squad with an eye on building toward the future.

“We have quite a range of talent in our group,” SWS fourth-year coach John Fay said. “We have a core of girls who have competed on the club level for some time along with girls who are coming to ice hockey for the first time. We always have and always will welcome all comers to our program.”

The breakdown of players by school this season has 15 players from Staples, 10 players from Westhill, three players from Stamford High, one from Trinity Catholic and one from AITE in Stamford.

SWS has a core of five seniors who have seen the program’s competitive level rise throughout their careers.

Captains Stephanie Walsh and Erin McGroarty combine on the No. 1 defensive pairing. Walsh can also play forward. McGroarty, a force to be reckoned with in front of the net, returns after missing most of last season due to knee surgery.

“We’re glad Erin is back. Her confidence will grow as she gets more ice time. She played soccer in the fall so she didn’t skate as much in the off-season,” Fay said. “It takes time after major surgery. She will be better with her new knee.”

Senior captain Emily Gitlin centers SWS’ top forward line that includes speedy Westhill freshman Caroline Mezias and Staples junior Carolyn Gray.

Westhill junior Mary Leydon, who registered 18 saves in Wednesday’s loss, is the SWS’ No. 1 goalie.

Injuries hurt SWS (4-16, 3-11) last season. If its can stay healthy, SWS should build more depth than the two forward line, two defensive pair setup employed Wednesday night.

“We’re optimistic,” SWS’ Fay said. “As we go along and our younger people develop, we will be able to move our pieces around. Our flexibility needs to lead to more scoring.”

SWS was 0-for-3 on the powerplay Wednesday and also had issues breaking cleanly out of their zone.

Another key addition to the SWS program is assistant coach Sara Ugalde, who also works with the Connecticut Whale of the Women’s Professional Hockey League. Andrew Stallings and Ned Costanzo complete the SWS staff.

“Sara is a huge role model for the girls,” Fay said. “She has been a great player. And she has great experience and knowledge from the college level. She’s a great help.”

Stamford-Westhill-Staples will be challenged in the competitive FCIAC. But optimism will show on this season’s journey.

rdepreata

@stamfordadvocate.com

AVON CO-OP 2, SWS CO-OP 0

AVON 0 2 0—2

STAMFORD-WESTHILL-STAPLES 0 0 0—0

Records: Avon-Southington-East Granby 1-0; Stamford-Westhill-Staples 0-1. Goals: A—Abby Lamson, Sydney Rice. Assists: A—Rice, Caroline Nisbet, Mackenzie Carrera. Goalies: A—Logan Lada (17 saves); SWS—Mary Leydon (18 saves).