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Bears not content to just be there

STONINGTON — After the Stonington High field hockey team returned home from losing the 2012 Class S state final in Wethersfield, Bears’ coach Jenna Tucchio scheduled a player-parent reception to celebrate the state title run and plan for the future.

“We had a nice gathering, but the theme of the get-together, even with last year’s seniors, was that this isn’t over,” Tucchio said. “We made a mission right after the final buzzer sounded last year (in the 2-0 loss to Haddam-Killingworth) that we were going to get back to the state final. We’ve counted the days from last year’s final to Saturday.”

Mission accomplished? Not exactly. More like unfinished business.

Unlike a year ago when Stonington felt pride in reaching the Class S state finals for the first time since 1991, this year’s Bears, armed with eight starting seniors and last year’s final experience, are not simply happy to be there.

The third-seeded Bears (17-2) feel the time is right to post the program’s second state title when they play the ninth-seed Granby Bears (14-5) at 10 a.m. at Wethersfield High.

“There are two main reasons this year’s feeling is different heading into the finals,” Tucchio said. “One is experience. Last year, we probably felt a little anxiety the deeper we advanced since everything was so new to us. We are a much more confident team now. Granby, though, is very tough defensively. You have to be good to get this far.”

Stonington also exudes confidence after playing most of their 19 games on turf fields this year after the installation of a $1.2 million turf surface at Palmer Field.

“We play with a higher skill level and at a quicker tempo this year, compared to last year when we were adjusting to the turf surface in the semifinals and finals,” Stonington senior Elizabeth Morrison said.

“Even though we had a good team with four amazing seniors last year, we might have been a little intimidated going into the final, only playing our third game all season on turf and looking at all the people in the stands. There’s no apprehension going in this year.”

Morrison chose to go by her given name of Elizabeth rather than being referred to by her nickname of Libby this season.

“I guess you can call me the artist formally known as Libby,” she said. “Actually, I was hoping to achieve some team and individual honors as a senior and wanted my given name noted.”

The program’s all-time leader in goals and assists, Morrison, no matter what you call her, is productive, leading the Bears with 24 goals and seven assists this year.

Junior forward Molly Crowley scored 21 goals. Junior Casey Williams has 12.

The Bears were shut out in their two losses — 1-0 by Killingly on Oct. 9 and 3-0 by Avon on Oct. 19.

Stonington’s defense has posted 12 shutouts in 19 games while allowing 10 goals.

Seniors Meg O’Lari, Emily Cassata, Samantha Shroyer, Tia LaFrance-Boyce, Annie Knizeski and junior Margot Calmar lead the defense. Knizeski plays in net.

Stonington ousted defending champ H-K, 2-1, with a second-half comeback in the quarterfinals Nov. 7 in a game many Bears viewed as a major hurdle. The Bears then dominated No. 2 Thomaston, 4-0, in the semifinals.

Granby played Northwest Catholic to a scoreless tie in regulation and two overtimes Wednesday in its semifinal before winning in penalty strokes, 3-2.

The Class S final is home to Granby: winners of 13 titles in 18 appearances including three in a row (2009-11).

Granby rolled over competition (20-0 in 2010 and 19-1 in 2011) with All-American players during the three-peat, but coach Sandy Wickman Mason took a different route to the final this year.

Granby finished fourth of seven teams in the strong North Central Connecticut Conference this season.

Sophomore goalkeeper Hanna Crose leads a team that has 10 shutouts. Granby, like Stonington, plays home games on turf.

Granby did split two games with Avon, the NCCC’s second-place team.

“Avon was our fourth game in a week and we played on grass, which was weird and nerve-wracking to us after practicing and playing on turf all year,” O’Lari said. “We put that game behind us.”

The past year has flown by for the Bears, who couldn’t wait for another chance to accomplish last year’s unfinished business.

“The year has gone by ridiculously quickly,” Stonington senior defender Emily Cassata said. “It’s been our ultimate goal to get back and we have so much confidence.”

It’s a special time for Tucchio, who if she wins would tie program-leader Janis Ingham for career wins with 125.

Ingham, who brought the program into state prominence, coached the Bears to the 1985 Class M final, 1987 Class M title and 1991 M final in her 13 seasons.

“She was my phys ed teacher at Pawcatuck Middle School and was my coach at Stonington,” Tucchio said. “She introduced me to field hockey and I fell in love with it. It would be an honor to be in the same company as her.”

As career victory leader and state champ.

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