Published August 22. 2013 4:00AM
New London - Her family traveled I-95 North almost every day when she was a young girl, to her grandmother's house in Stonington.
Becca Napolitano's grandmother, the late Barbara Grills, was ill part of the time, but always carved out an hour or two to sit at the table and color with her granddaughters, saying she was cultivating their fine motor skills.
What Napolitano - the daughter of Stonington High School graduate and recently retired Lauralton Hall high school softball coach Theresa (Grills) Napolitano - got out of those moments together with her family was a sense she belonged in southeastern Connecticut.
When it came time to pick a college, she couldn't help thinking about those days and the possible dinners with her aunt, Allison, who lives in the area. A 2011 graduate of Lauralton Hall in Milford, where she played field hockey and softball on her mom's resoundingly successful teams, Napolitano has been starting in goal for the Connecticut College field hockey team since she arrived on campus.
"The area, my mom's from here, my aunt lives eight minutes away," Napolitano, a junior from Hamden, said this week, ticking off some of the reasons she became interested in Conn. "Driving up here, there was a sense of community, a sense of something I wanted to be a part of. We went out to dinner with my aunt last night.
"The proximity to my family, the stone walls. When I'm older, I told my mom I want to move to North Stonington or that area. I love it so much."
Napolitano then influenced her younger sister Jess, the valedictorian of the Lauralton Hall Class of 2013, to join her in playing field hockey at Conn. Also, Theresa retired after 28 years of coaching and six state championships - one in field hockey and five in softball - so that she can see the girls play.
The season begins with tryouts on Sunday and double-sessions on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before classes begin Thursday. The Camels, who play in the highly competitive NESCAC, featuring last year's Division III national champion in Tufts, begin play at Babson on Sept. 7.
Conn was 7-8 overall last year with a 1-0 loss to Tufts in overtime, a game in which Napolitano made 23 saves in 84 minutes, 57 seconds. She finished the season with 107 saves and a goals against average of 3.08.
"It was nerve-wracking," Napolitano said of starting as a freshman in the 2011 season. "I didn't know the expectations going into each game. Our first NESCAC game was Colby and the first shot, the ball went by me for a goal and I didn't move a muscle. I thought Debbie (Lavigne, head coach) was going to cut me then and there."
"She's a student of the game," said Lavigne, who called Napolitano an "easy choice" to start as a freshman. "She plays as much as she can; she plays in tournaments. She coaches during the summer. She absorbs everything. She's an outgoing kid. ... (As a freshman), she had strong leadership qualities. She had confidence. She's a very vocal person and so athletic."
Napolitano is majoring in Latin and physics at Conn, where she arrived well before the start of practice to take training as a house fellow. She will be in charge of an entire dorm of 100 residents on campus, she said.
A softball player growing up, she became interested in field hockey as a freshman in high school. Her mom began the program at Lauralton, but Napolitano had other intentions for the fall of her freshman year: the school musical (despite not being a very good singer, she said with a laugh).
She gave field hockey a try and soon fell in love with a sport that promotes a sense of teamwork, perhaps that lull of family, that you don't get when you strike out and have to walk back to the dugout on your own.
"There's a more prevalent team atmosphere," she said. "If you mess up, there's always someone behind you."
Always, Napolitano has related her sports experiences to family. Her mom's softball teams at Amity Regional of Woodbridge won four state championships in five years from 2001-05 and Theresa later won a softball title at Lauralton Hall in 2008.
"I remember being down on DeLuca Field (in Stratford, home of the state softball finals), all the bug bites I had. I remember being on the shoulders of the girls after we won," Napolitano said. "I couldn't imagine not being on a team."
Theresa Napolitano, meanwhile, graduated from Stonington in 1982, a field hockey goalie herself, as well as a basketball and softball player for two of the coaches she went on to emulate, Paulla Solar (basketball) and Beth Quesnel (softball). She later played volleyball and softball at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven. She teaches physics and forensics at Lauralton. Her husband Tony, a former industrial arts teacher and now a real estate appraiser, also taught and coached his daughters when they were little, cooking burgers for them on the grill while their mom ran practices.
"They got the biggest kick out of Stonington," Theresa Napolitano said of her children. "You never know what resonates with you when you're a kid.
"We used to drive that ride every day (Theresa's mom died in 1999). It was like their security blanket, 'love and faith,' that's what my mom used to say. They learned that it doesn't matter how much money you spend, it matters the special time you spend; I attribute that to my mother."
Now, Theresa will be back on the road to New London. She got a new car for all the rides she'll take.
"We feel bad that she did it," Becca Napolitano said of her mom's stepping down from coaching. "That was a self-sacrificing thing for her to do. I think she's going to be bored. ... But she was just here four days ago and I'm always asking her, 'You're coming back, right?' We're all just really close."