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'Fitch/Ledyard' is more than a name to this group of field hockey players

Groton — The Fitch/Ledyard high school field hockey team is proving that the "Fitch/Ledyard" partnership is far more than a business relationship.

Informed earlier in the year that the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference — the state's governing body for high school sports — was not renewing a request for the schools to remain as a cooperative program, Fitch's coaches and players were given an ultimatum as the host school:

Sever ties with the six Ledyard players that have become a part of their inner circle since the co-op began in 2014, including senior co-captain and midfielder Deniz Kayhan, or become ineligible to compete in the state tournament should the team qualify.

"We have this group chat and we told them," senior Pilarose Bailon, a student at Fitch, said of the Falcons' decision to choose their Ledyard teammates over an opportunity to qualify for the state tournament. "They said, 'Thank you so much for keeping us.' We said, 'Duh. Why wouldn't we?'"

"It was probably my proudest moment," coach Diane Kolnaski said of a meeting of her players, in which the sentiment was generally unanimous in favor of continuing to include the Ledyard girls. "You coach to hopefully have an impact. You coach to teach kids to believe in themselves, to believe in each other. If the results at the end of the season show that we should have made it (the state tournament), then more power to us. This means more than anything they could have done."

Ledyard athletic director Jim Buonocore said the co-op was not renewed because the number of returning players in the program would have exceeded the cutoff by two players. With one already suffering a season-ending knee injury, the margin is even narrower at one.

Buonocore said he went through an appeal process, attending a meeting at the CIAC offices in Cheshire. He argued that the program was still in its infancy — it became a varsity program in 2011 and only joined the Eastern Connecticut Conference ranks in 2012 — and trying to build.

It was then the CIAC offered the alternative. Keep the Ledyard players until they graduate and forfeit eligibility for the tournament for that same length of time. That took the decision out of Buonocore's hands and put it into Fitch athletic director Marc Romano's. He ran it by Kolnaski and the two organized a meeting of players.

Kolnaski said she didn't need to say a word that day.

"When coach brought it up it wasn't an option," said Fitch captain and goalie Erin Ritter. "We're just going to play to be the best for ourselves and each other, not to try to get this external validation. It was just an obvious choice for us."

"It would have stunk for us," senior captain Molly Dunn said. "We have been with (the Ledyard players) the whole time. It would be really difficult without them. We're all friends on and off the field. We end every practice all together. We're all really close."

Buonocore, Ledyard's former football coach, said one of the ironic things about the partnership is that Fitch and Ledyard are Thanksgiving Day football opponents and rivals in every other sport.

"They take great pride in it. At the end of the day I'll be standing out front and see our six girls with a Fitch uniform and you start to cringe a little bit," Buonocore said with a laugh. "We're glad to be able to give them this opportunity.

"That (decision by Fitch) is powerful ... and it was made by 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids. It's an absolute selfless act. It speaks volumes about the character of the Fitch athletes and about coach Kolnaski and it also says a lot about the girls from Ledyard, that our girls could have such a positive impact. It's more than the essence of wins and losses, it's the essence of being a person."

Fitch, which last qualified for the state tournament in 2011, was 4-8-3 last year, missing qualifying by one game. The Falcons will still be eligible to compete in the ECC tournament should they qualify and players can earn all-league recognition.

Kayhan has started for Fitch since she was a freshman. She said if unable to play for the Falcons, she would have tried to recruit enough players at Ledyard for a club. She has been playing the sport since she was in middle school at Williams.

"I was just very happy and very thankful," Kayhan said. "I wanted to be a part of the team. It definitely builds character. It helps you improve yourself. You want to get better. It teaches you how to communicate, how to get better."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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