By Dave Ruden
STAMFORD — There was a 20-second sequence Wednesday afternoon that gave one of the best examples of why it is going to take a Herculean effort to keep the St. Joseph girls soccer team from the FCIAC title.
The Cadets possessed the ball on their own side of the field, and sophomore Leah Lewis was seemingly bottled up by pressure from host Westhill.
Instead of turning the ball over, the Cadets used four quick passes, all on the ground playing to feet, to open up space and go on the attack.
And no defense wants to face the league’s most explosive offense.
St. Joseph’s display of ball movement was not highlight-reel material in what would become a 4-1 win, but it was subtle evidence of the skill level coach Jack Nogueira has at his disposal.
When Nogueira was asked what could stop his team’s run to postseason titles, and he responded injuries, he was being truthful, not glib.
“It’s a very talented group, as you can see,” Nogueira said. “We’ve got five or six people who can go at you offensively, and then in the back we’re solid. If one of the top four or five kids get hurt and then are out for the season, then we’ll worry.”
With a 13-0-1 record, the Cadets are making a Secretariat-like run to the regular-season title. What was impressive about Wednesday’s win is the Vikings, at 9-4 somewhat of a surprise in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season, didn’t play poorly. They took a 1-0 lead in the 14th minute when Rachel Benz delivered a ball in the box, and freshman sensation Chelsea Domond was able to head it by St. Joseph goalkeeper Molly Meehan as she came off of her line.
If the Vikings, who have two of the state’s best players in forward Jess Laszlo and defender Heidi Druehl, had been able to play with the lead for a sustained period, maybe their upset hopes would have been more than fleeting.
But Lewis set up the equalizer in the 21st minute, crossing a ball that Julia Marino one-touched into the goal, and scored what proved to be the game-winner in the 22nd minute with a shot into the left corner.
“We started out kind of weak and had to raise our level,” Lewis said. “When they scored we had to step it up. On the first play I went around and crossed it, and Julia happened to be there.”
Sabrina Toole, one of what will likely be five Division I players on the St. Joseph roster — she said she will be attending either Notre Dame or Fordham next year — said the early deficit proved a motivator.
“It woke up our defense that we had to step it up and play better,” Toole said. “Our forwards really picked it up, and once they did it picked us up.”
The Cadets have two of the best finishers in senior Sami Grasso and sophomore Jenna Bike, whose well-placed shot after a long run in the 46th minute made the score 3-1. Lindsey Savko soon added the final goal.
“I think probably the six best players in the FCIAC were on the field today,” Westhill coach Dave Flower said. “To stop them I think a team is going to have to be able to frustrate them.”
Nogueira’s sideline demeanor has been another measuring stick. Usually a very vocal presence, the need to yell is much more infrequent.
“This is pretty laid back for me,” he said. “Basically all year we’ve been taking a backseat and letting them work.”
Toole said the Cadets have an intangible that has made them more formidable.
“It is not only the talent but the way we work together,” she said. “Everyone is good; there’s no weak point on the field. This is the closest we’ve ever been. You can see it on the field and it’s the same off the field.”
Few would dispute the Cadets have the FCIAC’s best personnel, but that doesn’t guarantee any trophies. Wilton played them to a 2-2 tie. But they have outscored opponents by a 59-8 margin.
Take St. Joseph out of the picture and you would have an unpredictable league tournament, with Darien, Westhill, Danbury, Fairfield Warde, Ridgefield, Staples, Trumbull and Wilton — which would have been seeds 2 through 8 at the start of the day — incredibly balanced.
Maybe someone will pull an upset. If so, it will not be because the Cadets are playing on cruise control.
“We work hard against every team so I’m not exactly sure,” Toole said about what it would take to derail St. Joseph’s hopes. “We raise our level to every team.”