NORWALK – When rival powerhouses Darien and New Canaan get together in field hockey, observers can usually feel confident that one play, one mistake, one bounce of the ball will ultimately make the difference in the game.
Like, oh, for example, a penalty stroke.
Such was the case in tonight’s FCIAC semifinal at Brien McMahon, where Darien survived a wild second half and emerged with a 3-2 victory after two penalty stroke goals by Raina Johns.
“It was a crazy game, especially the second half,” Darien coach Mo Minicus said after the Blue Wave advanced to the championship game.
Darien (15-1), the No. 1 seed and two-time defending FCIAC champion, will face No. 2 Staples (15-1) at Jack Casagrande Field at 7 p.m. in Thursday’s final. Staples, which lost to Darien in last year’s league final, ended Ridgefield’s hopes of reaching its first final with a 3-1 victory in tonight’s second semifinal.
Darien 3, New Canaan 2
An even first half ended in a 1-all tie before things got really interesting in a second half that saw 10 corners, 10 shots on goal and a disallowed goal by the Rams.
“It was a crazy game,” Minicus repeated. “Both teams had moments of brilliance and mistakes.”
Darien had leads of 1-0, on Johns’ first-half penalty stroke goal, and then 2-1 in the second half, but New Canaan poured it on down the stretch and tied it with 6:38 remaining on a goal by Emily Gelchie.
However, just as it appeared as though the teams were headed to overtime, the Blue Wave got the break it needed and took advantage.
There was a mad scramble in front of New Canaan goalie Megan Lydon before the whistle blew with 2:04 remaining. A second penalty stroke was to be awarded to the Blue Wave after it appeared that the ball struck the foot of a Rams player – aside from Lydon – in the goal crease. That late in a tie game, it goes down as a huge call.
“I never say anything about the referees,” New Canaan coach Mary Clare Snediker said. “But it certainly was a big call by the refs.”
Now Minicus had a difficult call: Who takes the shot? It really wasn’t a difficult call at all, though, and it didn’t take long for Minicus to tell Johns to go out and do it again.
“We practice penalty strokes almost daily,” Minicus said. “And I decided to stick with Raina again on the second one. She’s money, money, money.”
Johns, just as she had done with her first chance, beat Lydon to the goalie’s right on the seven-yard shot.
“It is one of my strong suits,” Johns said of penalty strokes. “So I stuck with what I did the first time. But there was more pressure on me on the second one. I was so nervous.”
New Canaan (13-3), the No. 4 seed, had seven corners in the second half and the last one came with three seconds remaining. But it was unable to cash in.
“I’m proud because we left it all on the field,” Snediker said. “It was two great teams. We were able to control time of possession in the second half but we had trouble finding the back of the net.”
Darien was able to avenge its only loss, a 3-2 setback to the Rams back on Oct. 18.
“We were well over that loss,” Minicus said, “but they beat us so this was a revenge game.”
Darien was able to jump in front on Johns’ penalty stroke with 16:27 remaining in the first half. The Rams managed to get even just 2:14 before halftime. A scramble in front of Darien goalie Monisha Akula (seven saves) left a loose ball rolling right in front of the net, where New Canaan’s Carolyn Baran easily tapped it in for the equalizer.
The Rams then carried the momentum into the second half but were continually rebuffed by Akula.
“If you give up a goal you have to move on,” Akula said. “Then in the second half New Canaan really was putting the pressure on but as a goalie we’re taught to handle pressure.”
With just under 10 minutes remaining, Molly McGuckin knocked in a rebound, giving Darien a 2-1 lead. But three minutes later, the Rams got even when Gelchie scored from five yards out on a penalty corner.
Finally, with 2:03 left to play, the scramble in front of the New Canaan goal led to another penalty stroke call and Johns replicated her earlier effort to give the Blue Wave a lead it would not lose.
Staples 3, Ridgefield 1
The third-seeded Tigers have never been to an FCIAC final and were hoping after a terrific regular season (12-1-0-2) that the streak would end. But Staples, which just got by the Tigers 2-1 in overtime back on Sept. 16, just had too much. That, however, could not damper the mood on the Ridgefield sideline.
“Losing in the semifinals was not our ultimate goal but Staples is a great team,” Ridgefield coach Jessica Smith said. “This is the first time we got to the final four; it’s the most successful team in Ridgefield history, so I’m proud of them.”
Staples dominated early and with 13:01 left to play in the opening half the Wreckers took the lead. Laine Ambrose lined up a shot from 10 yards out and beat Ridgefield goalie Lisa van Gompel (10 saves). Considering Staples had given up a league-low six goals in 15 regular season games, the one-goal lead loomed large.
“We kept possession so they couldn’t keep getting into the circle,” Staples coach Ian Tapsall said. “You let them get in there and stuff happens. It was another very good game for our defense.”
The Staples back line of Grace Cooper, Maisie Dembski, Erica Fanning and Isabella Deveney was as strong as usual. But unlike the first meeting, when Ridgefield scored in the final minute to tie, the offense also had a big game.
Less than four minutes after taking the 1-0 lead, Ridgefield’s hill to climb got increasingly higher when Kyle Kirby scored for Staples on a penalty corner. And the Wreckers broke it open and took a 3-0 lead nine minutes into the second half when Deveney swatted in a rebound.
The Tigers had at least one happy moment, when Aerin Krys tapped a loose ball past Staples goalie Roxanne Augeri (one save) with 8:26 remaining.
The Wreckers now get a chance to avenge their only loss, a 3-1 defeat to Darien on Sept. 18 . . . not to mention the loss they suffered against the Blue Wave in last year’s final.
“The first time we played this year was different because we had three girls injured,” Tapsall said. “It will be great to get Darien again but this time it will be a different game.”