Staples’ fast pace leads to wins
WESTPORT — The program was on solid ground. There were winning seasons and state tournament appearances, but it seemed that’s where the Staples girls’ field hockey team drew the line. Win eight, nine or 10 games, lose in the first or second round of the Class L tournament and call the season a success.
And for a decade, from 2005 through 2014, the Wreckers were apparently content with that routine. There were seven winning seasons and 10 straight CIAC appearances but the team never got past the second round.
Until Ian Tapsall arrived, that is.
Tapsall brought a simple philosophy with him when he took over as Staples’ head coach in 2015: Out with the old and in with the new.
The game of field hockey was changing, and Tapsall — who is a current member of Team USA and was a member of the 2014 U.S. men’s masters national team that competed in the World Cup Tournament in Rotterdam, Netherlands — brought those changes to the Wreckers program. More passing, more speed, more attacking.
The results have been impressive, to say the least.
Now, in his fourth season at Staples, the Wreckers are going for a third straight Class L championship. In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year (the team lost 12 seniors, including seven starters from last season), the team now stands 18-1 after losing for the first time after 18 straight wins — a 2-1 decision to Darien in the FCIAC championship Thursday — and heads into the Class L tournament as the No. 1-ranked team in the state and No. 22 in the www.maxfieldhockey.com National Top 25 poll.
“This has been so exciting,” junior defender Grace Cooper said. “Every day I just love coming out here to play. This has been so much fun.”
“Our standards coming into the season were obviously, we wanted to win, but we knew that it could be a rebuilding year, but the way the team has played has been tremendous,” added senior defender Ellie Fair. “They’ve blown me out of the water.”
Overall, under Tapsall, the Wreckers are an eye-popping 60-8-4-1 in his three-plus seasons, but since 2016, Staples is an incredible 50-2-3-0. This season, the team has outscored its opponents 103-6.
“We’re blessed with really quick runners and I don’t mind playing on the counterattack because that opens up the field,” Tapsall said. “Field hockey has no offsides, so you can stretch the field as high as you want; that’s part of the new hockey.”
Ah, the new field hockey.
Tapsall instituted a new, more offensive-minded philosophy that brings more passing and more speed to the program. All you have to do is look at the won-loss record these past couple of years to know it works.
“I’ve been playing his system for four years now, so I’ve adjusted to it. It definitely takes some getting used to from the former style of play that we had been playing,” Fair said. “There’s a diamond in the middle and that opens up space in the middle, but you’re left with fewer defenders in the back, which could be risky for some teams but for us, it works. He puts the fastest players on the front line, we throw (the ball) into space and he lets us go.”
One who has really benefited from the faster style of play has been Kyle Kirby, a junior forward who has scored 25 goals and added 19 assists to lead the Staples offense.
“I love that we play a really fast-paced game and we make sure to spread out the field which is something a lot of teams don’t do or don’t do it as well as we do,” Kirby said. “We also like to play around the back, which creates a lot of space, and look for offensive space to pass the ball to, especially getting the ball up the field. We have a lot of fast forwards and midfielders.”
With the team coming off a second consecutive Class L crown, 2018 didn’t quite bring the expectations of the past two state championship campaigns, especially after losing a dozen seniors.
“After last year, losing 12 seniors … seven that started, I think that I was a little bit nervous on how things were going to play out,” Fair said. “But the younger girls have stepped up tremendously and adjusted to the system that (Tapsall) has in place. You would never know that we have two freshmen and eight sophomores on the team.”
Added Cooper: “We lost so many seniors last year, we all thought that this was going to be a transition year, but everyone has really stepped up and worked hard to get this new system down. The new additions to the team, like we have a couple of really fast freshmen that came up and they’re helping us get the ball up the field really quickly. I think also on defense, just getting the ball out and moving it up, that’s always something we’re working on.”
Tapsall’s defense is led by Cooper, with Isabella Deveney, Hannah Paprotna, Maisie Dembski and Erica Fanning anchoring the back line, protecting starting keeper Bridget Mulloy.
“In terms of leadership qualities on the team, there’s none better than Ellie, none,” Tapsall said. “She’s the link between offense and defense and the way she leads by example is great. Kyle is still a young player and her stats prove how good a player she is. She’s an incredible engine for our team.”
It didn’t take the Wreckers long to realize that 2018 was going to be a reloading year, not a rebuilding year. After a 2-1 win over FCIAC rival Darien in the season opener, the players knew they had a pretty darn good squad on their hands.
“When we beat Darien in our first game (a 2-1 win at Darien),” Cooper said, “after that, we were all like, ‘We can do this,’ and we’ve just been improving and getting better since.”
Said Kirby: “After we beat them (Darien), that was the indication that opened everyone’s eyes that we had a lot more potential than we might have thought and we’ve just continued that from Game 1 all the way until now.”
Along with the new system, Tapsall also brought a ‘positivity’ to the program. “I practice that (positivity),” he said. “If you’re negative, I don’t want you on the team.”
“Every game, every practice he brings a certain level of intensity and it just makes us want to do better,” Fair said. “He has certain standards for all of his players. He expects us to succeed and that motivates us to do better each practice and each game.”