Defenseman Swanson has helped Fairfield to surprise success

BRIDGEPORT — He has had three years with Sam Swanson, but Fairfield boys hockey coach Carl Larouche wouldn’t have minded one more at the start.

Larouche was coaching in the Wonderland Wizards organization while Swanson rose up through the age groups. Swanson’s freshman year at Fairfield Warde, Larouche wanted him to play for the co-op high school team.

“But he was captain of his bantam team, and he made the decision to stay at the bantam level,” Larouche said. “He could have played for us as a freshman, but he decided to stay with his friends at the bantam level, so you can see how loyal he is to his teammates.”

As a sophomore, then, Swanson stepped right into the lineup well? Larouche smiles. “Yeah, no problem.”

The players and coaches knew they could surprise people in this strange pandemic year, but they’ve surprised themselves a bit, too.

The Mustangs are ranked third in the GameTimeCT poll, their highest ever, behind only Fairfield Prep and Notre Dame-West Haven. They’ll be a top-two seed in the FCIAC playoffs. Friday’s 4-0 loss to Greenwich dropped them to 8-2-1, and a rematch with the Cardinals finishes the short regular season on Saturday at the Wonderland of Ice.

“Swanny’s a great leader,” said Rhys Davies, one of the Mustangs’ other captains. “He pushes everyone to do our best on and off the ice. His leadership has really helped us.”

Fairfield boasts a deep lineup and has Swanson running the top of the umbrella for the full two minutes on their power play. He has an exceptional shot, Larouche said, both a wrist shot and a slap shot, and his vision lets him make plays.

“He’s not very vocal; he’s very quiet, but the thing that he does is provide really a good role model for everybody else on the ice, even off the ice as well,” Larouche said.

“For us, he’s probably one of the top defensemen in the state, but he’s very humble about it. He doesn’t really know how good he is.”

Added assistant coach Mark Mongillo: “They don’t make many like him.”

Swanson is a strong student, planning to study business and looking to do it at the likes of Bentley, Villanova or Bucknell. He also helps out at Wonderland with the Southern Connecticut Storm, a special hockey program for children and young adults with developmental disabilities.

“I really enjoy it,” Swanson said. “I started out because I have a cousin with special needs, and I always love helping her out. Combining that with my love for hockey has been a perfect match for me.

“It makes me appreciative of what I have. I want to help them out wherever possible.”

Swanson said he got on skates when he was 5 or 6 because it looked like fun. Just a few years later, he and his squirts team won a state championship.

“A lot of guys on this team were on that team. We were only 9 or 10 years old, but it was the first special hockey experience we had together,” Swanson said. “It was something for a lot of us that we really wanted to continue.”

The Mustangs had some respectable records since moving up to Division I in 2016 after winning the CIAC Division II title for the second time in four years, but they’d had few if any signature wins against top teams.

This year, in their third game, they beat Ridgefield 5-3. They fell three goals behind New Canaan in their fifth game on Feb. 27, but that’s the night that kept coming up this week, asking players for the moment they thought they might have something here. Fairfield took its first lead at 5-4 on a Swanson goal.

“I feel we proved a lot of people wrong that game, kind of made a statement for ourselves,” said Swanson, whose younger brother Charlie also scored a goal in that game.

Davies and co-captain Brendan Carney scored in the last six minutes for a 7-5 win.

“Coming into the harder games like Ridgefield the first time, New Canaan, and skating with them, it showed all of us we can play with all these teams that last year we couldn’t,” said co-captain Finn Hoey, who had a hat trick in the comeback.

They’ve swept two games with New Canaan, split with Ridgefield and gone 1-0-1 against Darien.

“We knew we were going to be strong,” Swanson said, “but I think this season has exceeded all expectations.”

mfornabaio@ctpost.com; @fornabaioctp