Five falls ago, Erin Gildea took over the New Canaan field hockey program and began to guide her Rams back to the FCIAC's upper echelon, where she left the team upon graduating as a player.

Under her direction, New Canaan has accomplished a great many of its goals with one painful exception: beating rival Darien.

"I think you always have Darien looming large because it's the one team we haven't been able to beat," Gildea said. "And everyone knows that to win a title you have to go through them. I think that we've been right there in the mix as one of the top three teams consistently for the last five years, and I think we're all really ready to take that next step, get back to the final and win a championship."

Last time we saw them, the Rams were bringing the Blue Wave to the brink in the FCIAC tournament semifinals, where they eventually fell 3-1. Since then, both squads have lost a number of key seniors, leading New Canaan to take a heightened inward focus on improving each day during the preseason. However, there are two dates on the 2014 schedule it cannot help but look ahead to: games with Darien on Sept. 24 and conference runner-up Wilton on Sept. 10.

Per Gildea, those contests will serve as a good barometer for how far her young team has progressed and determination for where it ought to focus on moving forward.

"With a new team there's always going to be growing pains," she said. "We open with Wilton and they're always one of the best teams in the state every year, so it's a huge test early. The key is just that (the players) give each other a chance early to get to know each other, get some experience and then, obviously, we'll see what the girls have to offer. And we'll take it from there."

One area of added focus is between the pipes, as former goalie Emma Ball has gone on to play at Fairfield University. In her stead will be one of two youngsters, who hope to fill the most critical position on the field as well as Ball did. Meanwhile, captains Elizabeth Miller, Isabel Taben and Mackenzie Lewis are doing everything they can to alleviate the pressure on them and any other new starters by developing an culture of equality.

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"I feel like everyone's really close on our team," Taben said. "You probably can't tell who's a sophomore, who's a freshman or who's a junior. There's no seniority on our team. Everyone's equal and everyone has a say."

Of course, New Canaan's three senior captains will have the largest say in how the season unfolds with their play and leadership. Behind them, junior Catherine Granito aims to continue sparking the Rams' offense, which will otherwise consist of new faces around her. Additionally, Brianne Ball returns to anchor the defense, another unit that could endure some growing pains due to its collective inexperience.

Nevertheless, New Canaan glows these days with preseason hope, which stems from the potential of the more than 90 girls who showed up at tryouts

"I think we'll be strong," Gildea said. "I think we can compete with anyone. We have some amazing athletes, and it's a really nice group of girls that are willing to work hard. Every year that I've been coaching we've been in contention. We just haven't been able to get over that hurdle of beating Darien. It's the one thing left to kind of check off the list."

But after only a couple of weeks, these Rams will know exactly what they need to do to make that check come late October.