There are two milestones that are a given: Fitch High School's field hockey team will join the Eastern Connecticut Conference this season and Waterford will play for the first time with the school's new artificial turf as its home field.
"It's so exciting to think that you're a new team in a conference," said Fitch coach Diane Kolnaski, whose team is in its second year as a varsity program after two years at the club level. "Your challenge is to play all of these teams, to learn from them, to learn what to improve on. You're being recognized as you're part of that group."
Another milestone among ECC teams is still a work in progress.
Stonington has won the conference championship 20 times in the last 21 seasons. With a forward line of Libby Morrison (Stonington single-season record 28 goals), Steph Stearns (10 goals, 7 assists) and Molly Crowley returning along with All-ECC and All-Area midfielder Chloe Slater, plus veterans Kiera Peterson and Amanda Roy on defense, can the Bears make it 21-for-22?
Stonington coach Jenna Tucchio said that a play day at Hand in Madison on Saturday, in which the Bears faced off against traditional powers Branford, Guilford and Hand, among others, was a good indication of where her team stands.
"You start off in the morning and make adjustments," Tucchio said. "I felt really good. There's been a lot of carryover, which is nice. (It) was a really good day for us; everything was really positive. Some days we come back from there and the kids say, 'Coach, what are we doing?' But they felt really good. We played (Haddam-Killingworth) at the end of the day. That could have made for a long bus ride home, but we had a great game."
The Bears have a new goalie in junior Annie Knizeski, who takes over for longtime starter Julie Royer.
They have also been practicing on the Stonington softball field while their own field got new sod, meaning the Bears did mainly drills that didn't involve shooting or penalty corners, getting them off to what Tucchio called a "slow start." In addition, there have been a few injuries in the midfield, leading the coach to break up the dynamic front line, moving Morrison and Crowley to the midfield on occasion.
Nevertheless, Tucchio likes what she's seen so far, and hopes the team (12-6) can pick up where it left off once things get rolling.
"We have a really potent offense that's all returning. The defense is working really hard because Julie graduated, working super hard," Tucchio said. "They've been nose-to-the-grindstone."
Fitch, meanwhile, finished 7-7-2 with a state tournament berth last year in just its first year of varsity competition. The Falcons lost leading scorer Joanie Haling (14 goals), center midfielder Liz Nolan and fullback Anna Hermann to graduation, three of their key players, but coach Diane Kolnaski said there are more strong athletes that can fill those roles.
Seniors Paige Vinson and Sarah Giblin will take care of the attack, while the coach calls junior Kendra Blomstedt "amazing" in the midfield. Junior Emma Nolan returns in goal.
"We've got girls in their third year now, some in their fourth year. They know what they're doing," Kolnaski said.
Returning for East Lyme is All-ECC and All-Area forward Caroline Regan, who finished with seven goals and six assists last year as the Vikings finished 10-6-1, while Waterford also finished 8-8-1 last year to earn a state tournament berth. The Lancers open the season with a home game Thursday on the turf against Old Saybrook.
Woodstock Academy will field a varsity team for the first time in 2012, but due to a scheduling conflict will not compete in the ECC until next season.