DARIEN — When the members of the Darien High School boys soccer team looked down at the other end of the sideline Friday afternoon, they saw not only an opponent to defeat but a program to emulate.
Do a search for Staples and past champions on the CIAC website and there is a list of 18 final appearances, the first in 1962 and the most recent in 2010, with nine outright and three shared titles.
We’re trying to build something,” said Blue Wave coach Jon Bradley, in his fourth season after making the jump from girls soccer. “What they have.”
The road to “what they have” is miles long, but Darien took the only step in its reach Friday with an impressive 2-0 win in the Class LL quarterfinals. The Blue Wave will be going to the Final Four in the sport for the first time.
“It’s amazing,” said Hunter Kooyman, the junior who provided the insurance goal, if insurance is an appropriate term when playing the Wreckers this fall. “We knew from the beginning of the season we’d go far.”
Despite the loss of top scorer Kai Bjornstad to a serious knee injury in the second-round win over Shelton, the Blue Wave (14-3-2) went hard to the ball, took advantage of one defensive lapse by the Wreckers and had none of their own.
Darien, most silently, is on a serious run. It ended the regular season going 9-0-2 before losing to Norwalk on penalty kicks in the first round of the FCIAC Tournament. With the fifth seed in the conference playoffs and 11th in Class L, the temptation is to apply the label middle-of-the-pack good team.
The Blue Wave’s play speaks otherwise. They may not be spectacular — well, except for that important category of work rate — but there are no weaknesses.
“The kids have bought into this,” Bradley said. “They work hard and are disciplined.”
Before going on giving the Blue Wave their due, lets give Staples (12-7-2), a dangerous 19th seed with a record weighed down by injury, a proper burial.
After all, the Wreckers, playing on coach Dan Woog’s words, gave us I’ve-Never-Seen-Anything-Like-This-Before and, in Wednesday’s unexpected and better reviewed sequel, “I’ve-Never-Seen-Anything-Like-This-Before II.
Rare words from someone associated with the program for over four decades, but after overcoming a 3-0 first-half deficit against Ridgefield for a 4-3 win at the start of the season, the Wreckers offered an even better reprisal in the second round of the state playoffs, scoring three times in the final 17 minutes to take down third-seeded West Haven, 4-3.
On Friday the Wreckers just lost to a team of fairly comparable ability that played better.
“We went down fighting,” Woog said. “We gave it our best shot, as we have all year. I could not be prouder of our guys. Darien certainly is a very tough team. They are well coached and play hard and they took it to us for pretty decent portions of the game.”
The first half on Friday was scoreless after Wreckers goalkeeper Noah Schwaeber, on the one good opportunity, came off his line to stop Kooyman, who had broken through unmarked.
In the 43rd minute, after Staples failed to clear the ball, Henrik Stockinger lifted a shot over both Schwaeber and a defender for what proved to be the winning goal.
Kooyman made it 2-0 in the 68th minute with a brilliantly placed left-footed volley.
“I saw a space to shoot and I looked up and I shot it perfectly into the top corner,” Kooyman said.
The Wreckers’ best chance the rest of the way ended with Patrick Beusse putting a shot right at Darien goalkeeper Liam Rischmann.
Now the Blue Wave are entering uncharted territory with a trip to the semifinals. Darien has one of the state’s exemplary athletic programs, not only competitive in most sports but championship contenders in many.
“The reason we win is because we are a team and we play like a team,” Kooyman said.
If the Blue Wave can do it two more times next week, they will also take another step toward being a team — long term — like the team they took down Friday.