FCIAC championship week brought more surprises than usual. Yes, the Darien field hockey team made its annual trip to the winner’s circle, but it was the only top seed to take home a trophy.
It would be inaccurate to call the Fairfield Ludlowe boys soccer team’s run to a second straight title an upset. Yes, the Falcons were the fourth seeds, but there was so little separating the league’s top teams to call their result stunning.
The biggest surprises came from teams that had the talent but unseated favorites. The New Canaan girls swimming team had an outstanding season but were not among the ones getting the most pre-meet attention. The Fairfield Ludlowe volleyball team was the No. 2 seed, though it was playing unbeaten Darien, which had never before lost in the final. The Blue Wave were without Izzy Taylor, the league’s best player, but that should not detract from the Falcons’ accomplishment.
In many respects, the most compelling story, and the one that will provide the most interest going forward, is the Ridgefield girls soccer team, a surprise winner over St. Joseph for the girls soccer championship. With a team comprised mostly of non-seniors, this postseason was supposed to be the appetizer for next fall.
Someone forgot to tell the Ridgefield players.
“We set our goals at the beginning of the season and we knew what we had to do and just needed to execute it on the field,” said Morgan Hartmayer, a senior co-captain, very matter-of-factly. “We talked before the game about what each individual player needed to do to reach our full potential. We knew how good we could play if we played together as a team. We’re still so happy. We still have smiles on our faces.”
If Darien and New Canaan meet in the FCIAC football final, the loser will go down with the St. Joseph girls as the best team not to win a league championship. The Cadets have four Division I players, led by Jenna Bike, who sustained a thigh injury in the first five minutes against Ridgefield and only on occasion could show bursts of speed. But it would be a disservice to the Tigers, who marked with stifling intensity, to make a hampered Bike the reason for their win.
“It was tough because they have so much talent all over the field,” Ridgefield coach Alex Harrison said of the Cadets. “We had to match their front three. If we didn’t do that they were going to beat us. We had someone ready to back up if a player got beat. The key to victory was the kids’ desire to win the game.”
After opening the season with a draw and a loss, the Tigers have lost just once since — to the Cadets, who, ironically, were playing without Bike.
The Tigers have an incredibly skilled junior class, and their players were anything but intimidated by either the atmosphere or the opponent. Rather they were loose and poised.
“Me and Sarah made sure everyone knew what they were doing,” said Hartmayer, referring to Sarah Battipaglia, the other co-captain. “Once we stepped on the field we had to make sure we treated it like just another game.”
The Tigers will be a really interesting team to follow the rest of the way. There are many league champions that have gone down quickly in the state tournament, finding themselves both satisfied and having difficulty regaining an edge. Teams much more senior than Ridgefield. Will the same maturity that served up the conference title continue?
Then there is the dynamic of the draw. Ridgefield received a first-round bye and must face Ludlowe in the second round on Wednesday. The teams played to a scoreless tie on opening day. Next up could be Fairfield Warde, which would have met the Tigers in the FCIAC semifinals had it not lost in the quarterfinal on penalty kicks. Most coaches understandably hate facing league opponents in the state playoffs because, well, it takes away the feeling of a state playoff. Will that have any effect on Ridgefield?
“We made it to the semifinals last year,” Hartmayer reminded. “It was great to win the FCIAC championship, but we have to put it behind us and focus on states and reach our full potential.”
It will be fun to see how the rest of the Tigers’ season plays out.