RIDGEFIELD — The seven-senior-starters-graduated angle can now be retired, replaced by the real and as yet unanswerable question of whether the Ridgefield girls soccer team can win a third straight FCIAC title.
How many out there expected that storyline in early October?
“I wasn’t completely sure coming into the year,” said Tigers captain and four-year starter Kathryn Barlow, very frankly. “All of us were a little bit worried. Everybody knew we were losing that many starters and needed roles to be filled. But as soon as summer conditioning started I saw the potential and talent that all the girls had, and they are all doing such a great job.”
Barlow spoke minutes after a 2-0 win over Wilton ran the Tigers’ record to 8-0-2, heading into Monday’s game against St. Joseph, a replay of the last two conference finals.
Today’s game in some ways was evidence why Ridgefield remains unbeaten. The Tigers at points were outplayed and not crisp, but the defense, anchored by Claire Middlebrook and Barlow in the middle, remained unyielding. Goalkeeper Lauren Castle came off her line in the 65th minute and made a sprawling save on the Warriors’ Paisley Eagan to maintain the cushion.
“A lot of us couldn’t win the 50-50s but we still grinded out the result, which is what we needed,” Barlow said.
The Tigers’ first goal came in the 22nd minute. Barlow cleared a ball up to Faith Arnold, who connected with Caitlin Slaminko. She freed herself for a shot and score.
The goal of the day — and a candidate for seasonal honors as well — was a brilliant long shot in the 57th minute by Arnold, from the left side into the far right corner. Arnold extended her arms like airplane wings afterward, her version of a signature to a work of art.
It should be noted that Slaminko is a sophomore and Arnold a freshman.
“We didn’t have many shots on goal, but we finished the opportunities we had and that’s why we came out with the win,” Slaminko said. “We’ve been working on that throughout the season. We started off slow with finishing and we had an issue, but we have been working hard on that.”
Wilton’s best chance, besides Eagan’s, was a bullet in the 14th minute from Sophia Sudano that sailed just over the crossbar.
It is the kind of miss that happens when you are in the midst of a stretch of five losses in six games — against upper echelon teams — as the Warriors are. They dipped to 4-5, looking to gain traction after being riddled by injuries early in the year.
“It’s frustrating, but it’s soccer,” Wilton coach Renato Topali said. “Sometimes it is very unjust. They had a few chances, they put them away and we didn’t. That’s the game. I think we made some silly mistakes too. We move on and we learn from it.”
The rest of the FCIAC should hope that the Warriors don’t regain their stride, because there is a lot of skill on the field and they would be a dangerous low seed in the playoffs.
Those who watched the Tigers’ younger players come up through the youth programs are unsurprised by their immediate contributions. One of them is Topali.
“They play very simple soccer,” he said. “They play the ball over the top and look to counterattack, and we let them play that a couple of times. But they made the most out of their chances. So credit to them.”
Today’s game was also proof that Ridgefield can pull out victory against a quality side even when not at the top of its game.
“We’ve done well defensively, but it wasn’t a great game for us,” Ridgefield coach Iain Golding said. I didn’t think we played very well. Obviously when you have a good game defensively and you don’t concede many opportunities for the other team to get behind your defense and score, than you’re always going to get into the game. Lucky for us we took our chances when we got them.”
Middlebrook, a three-year starter and one of the league’s premier players, said she is not surprised by the Tigers’ status heading into Monday’s game.
“I’ve always had faith in our team,” Middlebrook said. “I always thought that we would work hard and that’s an aspect that will keep us in all games. We are keeping zeroes on the board. If we get a goal we can sit back, we’re not scoring as many goals as we had, but keeping that zero, we are winning games 1-0, 2-0.”
With a win earlier in the week, the Tigers are 2-0 in a difficult four-game stretch that ends next week with Staples. The Cadets, considered by most to have the best personnel in the league, will be another measuring stick for the Tigers, who some thought at this point would not be in need of measuring sticks. That was just a challenge to the younger players who have stepped up.
Said Slaminko, “Everyone doubted us and I think we’ve shown everyone we are still a team to be reckoned with.”