Even though the Fairfield Ludlowe/Warde co-op boys ice hockey team has improved during the 21st century, certain words have not been used to describe the program.

Among those words: Loaded and deep.

It appears Fairfield could turn a huge corner after going 5-14-1 in the first year of the Mark Pettorini era.

If you entered the Wonderland of Ice on Monday afternoon, the sheer number of skaters made one think Division I powerhouse Fairfield Prep, Fairfield's rink mates at the Bridgeport facility, was holding a practice.

But that was indeed Pettorini, his assistants, and 40 skaters on the ice. That includes 12 sophomores, 11 who decided to play in the Bantam leagues as freshmen.

"Some years we only get four or five sophomores that want to play," Pettorini said. "In the past nine years that we've been there, starting with (former head coach) Adolph Brink, we kind of built up a tradition here. The guys are realizing it's not a joke anymore, that it's a legit program. So it keeps guys from deferring to a Prep or a Notre Dame and staying at Ludlowe or Warde."

But the numbers run into a bit of a logistical nightmare, one that Pettorini has figured out.

Because Fairfield runs as a co-op team, it also means there is a no-cut policy. The program is going to have a squad of 20 that dresses for games, and the entire roster will come together twice a week for developmental practices.

Should certain practice-only players excel during the week, they will have a chance to suit up with the top-20.

Chris Santello, one of Fairfield's co-captains, likes this idea, especially since he thinks the sophomore class is filled with talent.

"Last year we had a lot of sophomores who went back to their bantam teams and didn't play with us as freshmen," Santello said. "So we're loaded with sophomores, and we have a few freshmen who can play."

Fellow co-captain Brooks Brown agrees that the numbers are a testament to what the program has done this decade.

"With what we've been building here, we're hopefully gaining some notice around town," Brown said. "Everybody's more positive and there's a good atmosphere around the team. Everyone is feeling pretty good about the (upcoming) year."

Pettorini said one big difference between this year and last is he'll be able to trust three lines on game night. Last season, he could get by with two, and in a pinch rely on his third line.

Brown and Santello join sophomore Tom Crispin, who saw ice time with the varsity as a freshman, on the first line. Chris Stern, a senior, will anchor the second line, and be joined by a pair of sophomores. The third line will include two juniors.

Pettorini says the team will also be deep on defense, where four juniors return.

And the same depth is in the net. Though sophomore Robert Ficcara returns as the starting goalie, he will be pressured by a pair of sophomores.

After a year removed from the postseason, Pettorini says this team learned from its mistakes last season and should be in the mix for the CIAC Division II title. Pettorini considers it to be a wide-open race this year.

"I warned them last year not to wait until the end of the season to get their wins, and we lost some tight ones by one goal," Pettorini said. "They looked in the mirror and realize they need to get eight wins (to qualify) then worry about the playoffs, not worry about the playoffs first."