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The Fairfield Warde High School dance team has incrementally improved for each of the last three years.

But it'll have a hard time topping this year.

The Mustangs capped their most successful campaign with second-place finishes at both the CIAC Dance State Championships and New England Regional Championships in Lawrence, Mass.

The team placed fourth at states in 2010, third in 2011 before finishing second in the hip-hop division behind No. 1 Branford, this year. The squad was the only team from Connecticut to compete in regionals.

"It was all I could have asked for," senior Sara Zuckerman said.

Team head coach Jennifer Kealey has nurtured and fostered Warde's program since its inception in 2006; the same year the CIAC officially began sanctioning dance as a varsity sport.

The Mustangs placed second in the state in its second year, 2007, but did not qualify for regionals. The sport and team has made impressive strides since.

"There were only eight teams in the state then," Kealey said. "The girls just wanted to participate in an after-school activity, they didn't have the dedication they have now."

That dedication comes out in the extreme schedule Warde keeps. The club practices four times per week from August through March, meaning girls who want to dance are unable to participate in other varsity sports for the fall and winter seasons.

But that does not faze much of the squad.

"It's demanding," Zuckerman said. "You have to be committed, but I've always loved dance and it's definitely what I wanted to do."

Kealey also has that dance passion and has turned it into a career as an instructor in Fairfield. She worked at Gotta Dance studio until 2011 when she moved to the Gymnastics and Cheer Academy at SportsPlex.

Ironically, Kealey discovered her coaching style from the absentee instructing she and her teammates received

while a student at

Bridgeport Central High School.

"This is a tough age group and girls have a lot going on in their lives," she said. "It's important to have one-on-one's and group sessions with the girls. I stress that

because I never had that in high school."

Warde appreciates its coach's ability to relate on and off the floor. But that does not mean she's easy on her team.

"She knows what we're going through and relates," junior Darcie Mann said. "She pushes us hard because she has faith in us and knows we can achieve our goals."

Besides Kealey's expert instruction, the team's distinctively strong

camaraderie is what attracts many to it.

"There are no cliques, no fighting," Kealey said. "They're like a family."

And like every family, the team needs a maternal figure.

"She's like our mother," Mann said. "We call her our Auntie Jen."

The squad's enhanced visibility at football and basketball games and its success in meet season has also inspired the school community to show support.

"A lot of people didn't know we existed before," sophomore Nicole Levine said. "We're starting to get more recognition and support from the school."

Zuckerman -- who moved from Las Vegas in 2010 -- found a home and perhaps a future with the dance team.

"I love the team," she said. "It's heightened

my talent and love of

dance and I'm going

to try to pursue it in

college."

Warde loses just two seniors, Zuckerman and captain Alicia Palmieri, but Kealey admits those departures are still key losses.

"We could not have gone where we did this year without Palmieri," she said. "She took us to another level."

But 11 members return and have high hopes the Mustangs' will incrementally improve one more year.

"We want to keep growing," sophomore Alyssa Pierne said. "Hopefully we can get even better."

ppickens@bcnnew.com; twitter.com/pickensfcsports