Teaming for the same goal: Stamford-Westhill-Staples co-op sees steady progress in first season
The jerseys look like they belong to race car drivers, though the various stitched material are not sponsors. There is one school name diagonally across the front, another over the left shoulder. One sleeve has the logo of a Viking, the other a Black Knight.
"Everybody is just kind of blending together right now," said Eli Williams, the coach of ... who exactly? Call it the Stamford-Westhill-Staples co-op girls hockey team, a blend of players from the three schools, which usually goes by Stamford on your scorecard and lacks a nickname, at least until they figure out what you get when your cross a Black Knight, Viking and Wrecker.
"We all wanted to make it work, and it is working. It is like everyone is all from one school," he said.
The Stamford girls hockey team is one of the FCIAC's more unique blends. Because neither Stamford nor Westhill had enough players to fill one team, that have played together as a co-op. Staples, which was a co-op last season with Trumbull, decided to part ways.
"I think the Staples girls were looking for a home and they called our athletic director," said Williams, referring to Stamford's Jim Moriarty. "I said `Why not?' "
With the addition of the eight players from Staples, Stamford has become more competitive. Following Wednesday night's 9-2 loss to Ridgefield, the Stamford team is 2-6, with one more win than last year. The record is somewhat misleading; scores are much closer from a year ago.
Without outstanding goaltending from Casey Bang, a Staples student, Ridgefield easily could have scored several more goals.
"It's crazy," said Sam Jaykus, a defenseman and one of the team's four co-captains. "The Westhill and Stamford girls know each other pretty well. Then Staples came, and it was pretty exciting. We love having them on the team."
Williams admittedly was part coach, part social director at the start of the season.
"The Staples girls didn't know anyone, but it did not take long before they started to open up," Williams said. "We had some pasta parties. The bus rides were almost the best thing. I had a rule that everyone had to sit with someone from a different school. They started talking together and that really helped."
Linsey Furman, a junior at Staples, agreed the transition went seamlessly.
"It's not that much different from last year," Furman said. "We didn't know each other and it took a little while to warm up to each other. Now it is a lot easier. It has been really good."
Perhaps the biggest obstacles have been logistical. Because of distance, it is sometimes hard scheduling practices when everyone can attend. And depending on the location of road games, bus rides from Stamford may make a detour to Westport to pick up the players from Staples.
"It is a little bit harder to manage, but we like it," Jaykus said. "We have more good players now, which helps us out a lot. We are a lot better than last year."
To make their new teammates feel at home, Stamford took its uniforms, with the name of the home city across the front, and had a patch with Staples spelled out added on the shoulder.
Williams said with 28 players, there is now the kind of depth that puts Stamford on a par with other schools, with the opportunity to play some unofficial junior varsity games that will help player development.
"The coaching style is a little bit different," Furman said. "It's a little bit more laid back. A little bit more about having fun."
Stamford has a budding star in sophomore Cassie Miolene, its leading scorer, and Bang has had a great year. Williams attributed team unity to his captains: Jaykus and Ciara Killian, who attend Stamford; Jess Blasnik, who goes to Westhill, and Staples' Jess Lepisto.
Williams said Jaykus, who was one of the top players on the Stamford field hockey team and has an outsized personality, is one of the people who has held the pieces together.
"She's our go-to girl," Williams said. "When times get tough the girls look to her for guidance. She's a born leader. If she sees someone sitting by herself or down, she will go up to them and say something like, `I used to struggle like that.' She was born with that gift."
Said Jaykus, "It has all been very exciting. We are the underdog and then we come out and surprise people. It's a fun experience."
No one knows what the future holds beyond this year, though Williams said he would be happy to maintain the status quo as a means to an end.
"The Staples girls needed a place to play, and I am trying to turn this into a stellar program," he said. "I want to see this thing flourish. I want to put Stamford hockey on the map."
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