Is it possible for a team to reach a third straight state final and consider it the completion of a transitional phase? That would appear to be the case with the Ridgefield girls soccer program. Emphasis on program over team, as we will get to in a moment.
Eight FCIAC schools will compete for state titles on Saturday. A strong case can be made that the Tigers’ path has been the most intriguing, though you would get valid arguments in Greenwich and St. Joseph, two schools looking to bring home volleyball championships.
Even Ridgefield’s opponent in the Class LL final, Staples, will stake a claim. The Wreckers have not made it this far in 22 years, which is a pretty good story. Back in early September, they would have been the safer bet to be playing on the final day of the season than the Tigers, who had played in the two previous championships (and, people forget, advanced to the semifinals in 2014).
In some respects, Ridgefield’s story has been well documented. The players are probably sick of a central theme. They might wonder if their nickname really is the Tigers and not Graduated Seven Senior Starters.
Or perhaps that has been a motivator, for there is no greater push than trying to exceed others’ expectations. Some felt the Tigers may have arrived a year sooner than expected when they lost in the final to Glastonbury two seasons ago. Last fall that run followed the script, except the part where they were again denied by the Tomahawks.
Those who termed this a rebuilding year in Ridgefield did not take a careful look at the personnel. Still, being labeled more a sleeper than a contender seemed a reasonable assessment.
No team goes into a season with low hopes — if so, why show up? — but if you hooked the players to a polygraph, the guess is they felt it was less rather than more likely a third straight trip to the state final was in their future.
That might have changed just past the midway point of the season, when the Tigers were 8-0-2 and had quality wins over St. Joseph, Darien and Wilton.
Their two-year reign as FCIAC champions would be ended by Staples in the semifinals, but they regrouped in the Class LL Tournament with a pair of one-goal wins following a first-round bye, and last night in the Final Four finally bested Glastonbury on penalty kicks after they played to a scoreless standoff through overtime.
“It was a great game last night,” Ridgefield coach Iain Golding said. “Both teams worked really hard. It would have been nice not going to overtime and penalties but that’s the way the game went and we’re lucky we came out on the good side of the penalty competition. It is very nervy and hard to win.”
Defense has been the Tigers’ trademark during this run. The spotlight is often focused on center backs Kathryn Barlow — a four-year starter during this glorious run — and Claire Middlebrook, a junior who also earned a spot in the lineup as a freshman. They were voted to the All-FCIAC team and are as good a defensive duo as there is in the state.
But the Tigers are not still playing because of the efforts of two. Anna Landler and Carolyn Donovan have been solid outside on the defense, and Lauren Castle has developed into a top goalkeeper, who helped get the team into a shootout last night.
“In soccer if you don’t concede you don’t lose,” Golding said. “When you get to knockout contests and you don’t score the game is going to go to penalties. Last night we defended very well; Lauren had a few very good saves that kept us in the game. We had some good chances to score and didn’t take them. It was a good team performance.”
Caitlin Slaminko and Faith Arnold have been two of the leaders on offense, and the play at midfield has been steady. While finishing is not as big a strength as the past two years, the relentless effort and grit have remained constants.
“There are a lot of players on the team that do a lot of hard work that maybe don’t get the acclaim of some of the others, and maybe in the previous years it has been the same thing,” Golding said. “Obviously some of the players get more of the highlights than the others do but it takes 11 players on the field who work as hard as they can to get the results.”
Much credit also goes to Golding, promoted last year after serving as an assistant for a season to Alex Harrison, who had known many of the players dating back to their youth days. Harrison is a type A personality where Golding is reserved, which is not a fault, just a difference. Golding is now 2 for 2 getting to the state final.
“There are a lot of players on the team that do a lot of hard work that maybe don’t get the acclaim of some of the others, and maybe in the previous years it has been the same thing. Obviously some of the players get more of the highlights than the others do but it takes 11 players on the field who work as hard as they can to get the results.”
— Iain Golding
“One of the things with the way the program works, with the previous coach and then me taking over, it’s about building a program and building success,” Golding said. “So even though we graduated a lot of starters and a lot of seniors, we were hoping the right pieces were in place to continue the momentum of the previous years.”
That gets us back to our original point: this program has been positioned for the long haul. Just five seniors will be leaving, and quality depth this season has been provided by underclassmen. Golding is in a good position.
Now comes Staples and a run at that elusive state title. The Wreckers have been playing well. Their lone loss in the past 10 matches was to St. Joseph in the FCIAC final.
One of the interesting storylines Saturday is Golding coaching against Barry Beattie. The two share a house — neither is headed to a hotel for the rest of the week, though the guess is they will not be watching game film together.
“Staples has had a hard run playing all the FCIAC teams to get to the final,” Golding said. “We’ve had a hard run against teams out of conference that we don’t know about much. Two different paths but obviously Staples is a very good team and beat us twice already. It would be nice to get one win out of the three games.”
This season has been a success by any measure, though the Tigers have moved past the point of being satisfied by just reaching the final.
“It obviously feels good,” Golding said. “It’s kind of odd as well because this is where we were hoping to be. I’m really proud of the girls and how they’ve worked to take it this far.”