In Katie Campbell's eight-year tenure as head coach of the New Canaan girls varsity volleyball team, last year's 16-6 record was her best season yet.

With their new-found dominance, New Canaan volleyball has sent the message loud and clear throughout the FCIAC: They are a contender.

"We ended last season in a very strong way," Campbell said. "We have a bunch girls coming back from varsity, plus some wonderful new additions, so we're thinking that this year is going to be fantastic."

Optimism abounds on a team that made it to the second round of the state tournament last year as well as to the semifinals in the FCIACs.

"We took everyone by surprise by our growth from last season, so we're going to continue with that," senior captain Isabelle Herde said.

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"We're really excited," fellow captain Emma Stracke said. "We have new blood, we have a whole bunch of new people moving up on the team and we also have a lot of the same players that we're really familiar with, so it's a positive new dynamic."

The team will feel the loss of last year's departing seniors, especially Kellen Tensen, who received FCIAC first team honors and Andrea Mullraney, who was awarded FCIAC second team honors.

"We're going to miss Kellen who really drove the girls forward not only with her setting but with her intensity for the game," Campbell said. "We had Andrea in the middle, who was pretty much our key hitter and our lead cheerer. Certainly her energy and her hitting and her passing as well will be missed."

Still, the team feels rejuvenated with their new players. "We have a very deep bench right now," Campbell said. "We've had two girls move into the district join our varsity team, and we have some girls that were on JV last year, so the team is very well rounded."

"I've told all the girls, they're fighting for their position every single day because multiple players have multiple skills, and we're going to put the best six out there every single match," Campbell said.

While New Canaan likes its chances this year, there remains a dragon that all serious volleyball teams must slay: Darien. The Blue Wave has won the FCIAC crown 18 of the past 20 years and went undefeated last year before finally falling in the state semifinals.

Captain Annie Connover is undaunted by the matchup with the Wave.

"Darien has always been a rival for us; they're a powerhouse, and it's always been a dream to take them," Connover said. "We will just try to play the best we can. I think we always bring a strong game against them because we're so into the game."

"Darien is not just like any other volleyball game," Stracke said. "We're town rivals so we're representing our town."

Campbell said that Greenwich is another team the Rams look forward to facing. Last year's two meetings with the Cardinals were both grueling five-game matches in which New Canaan came out on top.

Conover admitted that every match will be a challenge.

"We're expecting the unexpected, I guess," Conover said. "For any team, we're just going to bring our best game. "

"Last year, the girls bonded into a strong team," Campbell said. "This year, they're welcoming and showing signs of wonderful team bonding, and they want to work hard. Every single practice has been intense, and if we keep up this trend we can go pretty far."

New Canaan's season begins Sept. 12 at 4 p.m. when the Rams travel to Staples to take on the Wreckers.