BRANFORD — There was a banner, a cake and flowers waiting for Cathy McGuirk in hopes of celebrating her 500th victory Tuesday night. They were brought by the Branford field hockey parents to a CIAC tournament game, somewhat optimistically, considering the Hornets were playing a team that had beaten them twice by a combined total of eight goals.
"We were hoping for some luck," her assistant of 14 years, Robin McColl Axtell, said. "We were hoping it would happen."
The celebration was put on hold after 14th-seeded Branford lost 2-0 to third-seeded Hand in the first round of the Class M tournament.
And McGuirk, the state's winningest public school field hockey coach with a 499-109-63-9 record, is stuck until next September one short of 500.
Axtell, who has known McGuirk since she played on her first team in 1977, took it upon herself to deliver a cake to the McGuirks' house Thursday morning. It was chocolate-frosted and it read simply on top: 499.
"Robin said, 'I think 499 is so awesome,'" Cathy said. "'No sense waiting for 500.'"
Cathy, 68, and her husband John, 70, have been married for 45 years. They've coached the Branford field hockey team together — Cathy as head coach, John as assistant — for the last 34. Cathy's first year with the team was 1977. It was the last time — until this year, when the team finished 9-10 — that the Hornets had a losing record.
That year, they won four games. Cathy got her first victory when the opposing coach decided not to put her team back on the field because it was raining so hard. Branford was leading 1-0 at the time. Axtell was a freshman on that team.
But since then, the Hornets have won. McGuirk won her 100th game in 1986 and the program's second state title. She won her 300th game in 2000, her 400th in 2006. Branford has won 10 state championships, the last in 2005.
So when Branford started this season, McGuirk needed 10 wins for 500 but this team, despite having 13 seniors, was in a bit of a rebuilding mode.
Not that either McGuirk cares about the milestone. Cathy didn't say anything about it to her players. A newspaper reporter asked about it one day and that's how the captains found out.
"We had no idea it was going to be a big year," senior goalkeeper Jessie Severino said.
So the captains brought it up to McGuirk, telling her they wanted to win for her.
"She said, 'I don't want it to be added pressure on you,'" said Severino, a captain. "She told us to just play for ourselves."
They did, stumbling at times, losing maybe a game or two they felt they shouldn't have, but then beating a team they lost to earlier (Amity in the SCC tournament).
"Our kids this year worked really hard," Cathy said. "They always finished hard. It's hard to get that ball in the net, especially when you go against a team with a really strong defense. It's the way it was this year."
Six of the losses, John pointed out, were to the third- and sixth-ranked teams in the state coaches poll — Cheshire and Hand.
"The other part of it is, we haven't been able to score for a couple years," he said.
"We are not scoring like we used to," Cathy said.
And not as many players have been coming out for field hockey in recent years.
"It used to be an automatic 22 [freshmen]," John said. "The last two years, we've had eight kids come out. And it's not just field hockey. The athletes are spread around more."
After the 2-0 loss to Hand — something of a moral victory, considering the Hornets had lost to Hand 4-0 twice during the season — the players took the bus back to Branford High. They all went into the school and into the health room. Cathy talked. They listened. They cried a little. Nobody wanted to leave.
"They were so sad it was over," Cathy said. "I have 13 seniors. They were disappointed they lost the game. They didn't get to finish out the way they wanted but also, they weren't going to be with each other anymore. It was a very emotional scene. It was kind of neat.
"We talked for a while. I said, 'Well, you guys can go.' Nobody got up."
At one point, John turned his wife around so her back faced the players.
"The back of her jacket said, 'Tradition never graduates,'" John said. "And I said, 'You guys are still part of this and you always will be.'"
And there were more tears.
"You want to be that class that's part of the celebration for 500," Severino said. "But she told us we're still part of it. Even though it couldn't happen with our class, we're still part of it."