Not a whole lot separated the cross-town rival Fairfield public high school girls' basketball teams in 2013-14. A mere four points was the cumulative difference in a pair of head-to-head meetings they split. Both went 15-5 in the regular season. And the similarities -- in terms of the makeup of the Fairfield Warde and Fairfield Ludlowe teams -- were evident in many ways as well.
Sure, one lineup had eight seniors who dressed, and the other only three, but the characteristics of the 12th-grade student-athletes at both schools are something coaches Dave Danko, of Warde, and Sarah Huntington, of Ludlowe, believe carried their teams to winning seasons.
"I don't recall in my 24 years, 20 as head coach, having a class this big and this committed -- committed to the program," Danko said. "Because of this, we were successful with the record and building the future of the younger kids."
Danko speaks of his eight seniors. All of them -- Carley Strachan, Michelle Treglia, Kenzie Burns, Kaitlin McKenna, Charlotte Choinski, Gabby Howard, Tiara Fountain and Mary Kate McTague -- have been in the program since they were freshmen in 2010-11.
"A lot of teams don't have that. It's an honor and a pleasure to me that they made a commitment and stayed all four years," Danko said. "That's outstanding."
Danko's senior class worked together to help the Mustangs win their first state tournament game since the 2009 campaign and to qualify for their first FCIAC tourney in as long. The season included a nice bounce-back effort against Trumbull in the first round of the state playoffs. Warde, which had fallen 67-40 to the Eagles late in the season -- leaving Trumbull's gymnasium bruised and battered -- managed to eek out a victory over its conference rivals in the LL state tourney on March 3 before falling to third-seeded Mercy on March 6.
Meanwhile, across town, Huntington's team included seniors Julia vonEhr, Sara Grabowski, and Pauline Blatt. A fourth senior, Jane Hooper -- who has been sidelined by a concussion for two seasons -- stuck around to help the coaches of the freshman team.
"We've created a really close-knit family. We've been there for each other," Huntington said. "That's more important to me than Xs and Os."
The Falcons, this winter, maintained their winning ways even during her approximate two-week departure because of a medical issue. They won 13 of their first 14 games. The Ludlowe coach points to the leadership of her seniors and that overall team bond as reasons for the continued success.
Huntington is a firm believer that the closeness of her squad -- on and off the court -- was a key contributor, along with dedication and a strong work ethic, to it improving throughout each of her four years at the helm.
"When you have that, you can kind of transcend your ability," said Huntington, whose team won just five games in her first season in 2010-11, and has improved every winter and reached the state and conference playoffs this year, falling in the opening round of each.
"I'm going to miss these girls. They're like my sisters," said Blatt, a captain, whose real life sister, Charlotte, will be a senior next year.
"We're definitely going to miss them a lot," said Ludlowe junior Caroline Pangallo, one of the team's top scorers and best all-around players.
Both teams received strong efforts from several players, including first- or second-year varsity team members, a product of how the upperclassmen dictate the tempo in practice.
"As the year went on we got key contributions from many of the kids. That's a testament to the older kids in practice. We're pushing each other," Danko said.
McKenna averaged close to 14 points per game, and sophomore Sarah Cotto, freshman Iliana Krasniqi, sophomore Lejla Markovic, Burns and Fountain all scored in the neighborhood of 7-10 per night. McKenna is an All-FCIAC and likely All-State honoree, said Danko, adding that Fountain earned third team all-conference accolades, and Markovic and Krasniqi both received All-FCIAC honorable mention.
"They all had roles and they all had different things that they gave," said Danko, adding that those contributions go beyond scoring and rebounding -- and include setting the tone, defending opponents' top scorers and committing to the team's defensive strategies, including mixing zone and man-to-man coverages.
"The building blocks are there for Fairfield Warde to make another run," Danko said.
The foundation seems to be set for a strong future and potential for multiple runs given that there was only one junior, Jacqui Lanese, on this year's team.
Huntington and Pangallo also believe a solid base has been established for the Falcons. "We work really hard every game. We always pick each other up," Pangallo said.
Andy Hutchison is a freelance reporter