NORWALK — There were a number of differences for the New Canaan boys lacrosse team’s FCIAC semifinal game with Ridgefield on Tuesday than from the previous meeting a week earlier.
The attack was refashioned, several new defenders stepped into more prominent roles and, most importantly, there was a lead heading into the fourth quarter.
What remained the same and has been a constant for the Rams was goaltender Drew Morris. With the Rams holding an 8-6 advantage at the start of the final period, Morris came up with four sensational saves that altered the momentum, strategy and most importantly the outcome from that first game.
New Canaan’s 10-7 win earned it a trip to the championship for the first time since 2013 and one more game with Darien, in Thursday’s final.
The top-seeded Blue Wave advanced with a 14-4 win over Staples in Tuesday’s second game.
After being consistently rejected by Morris, the Tigers (14-4) drew to within 8-7 on Schuyler Blair’s third goal, with 7:20 left. But Kyle Smith quickly responded and James Franzis closed out the scoring.
“I love playing goalie, I love playing in these big moments,” Morris said. “I was getting a lot of shots and I was getting good touches, and even the ones that missed the net I was getting pretty close to them.”
The New Canaan defense, after falling behind, 4-1, allowed just three goals over the final 35:28.
“I let a couple of soft ones in early and I just started playing better as the game went on,” Morris said. “Our defense settled in and after those first four goals was rock solid the rest of the game.”
Ridgefield, the No. 2 seed, has a history of trying to build leads and then protect them late, which happened in the 7-3 win over the Rams last week. New Canaan this time was able to dictate tempo.
“We had a game plan. We had to be up in the fourth quarter. Coach Colsey is smart,” said New Canaan coach Chip Buzzeo, referring to his counterpart at Ridgefield, Roy Colsey. “If they have a lead in the fourth quarter you can’t win. They stall it, they know how to stall really well. We needed a lead going into the fourth and we had one so we felt pretty confident.”
O’Connell, Jack Hoelzer, Clayton Burt and Kyle Smith finished with two goals apiece for New Canaan (15-3), the No. 3 seed. Smith had eight saves.
Buzzeo said he felt his team had become a little stale and predictable, and with the streaming of games and more highlight packages available easier to scout.
“We changed up our offense,” Buzzeo said. “I have to give credit to the guys. It is not easy to basically create a whole new offense in one week. We changed a lot. Essentially we’re a different team. I told the guys we had to take a page out of Rocky 3 and become a different fighter. I think we have become a different fighter. The way we clear the ball, the way we play defense, the way we play offense. I’m really proud of the way we played.”
With defender Mike Cognetta out with a hamstring injury sustained in practice the previous day, Buzzeo got strong performances out of Franzis and Anthony Marciano.
And, of course, Morris.
“Drew has been like that all year,” Buzzeo said. “I also salute James Franzis and Anthony Marciano. They haven’t played a lot. Drew Morris, he’s the best goalie I’ve seen in high school.”
Ridgefield took a 3-0 lead in the first quarter and dominated possession time, holding New Canaan scoreless until Hoelzer scored with 1:17 left.
Ryan O’Connell keyed the comeback with two goals and an assist in a span of 2:20 in the second quarter. A 5-4 halftime lead soon swelled to 8-5.
“I think we were a little antsy,” Morris said. “Big game, moment and I didn’t think it would bother us because we’ve been here before. It was and it was all right. We didn’t die. We were able to come back and were great coming back.”
In the nightcap, after Darien’s Jack Kniffin opened the scoring with the first of his five goals, Tanner Wood and Evan Zinn scored 47 seconds apart to give the fourth-seeded Wreckers (16-2) their only lead.
From there Darien (18-0) erupted, scoring four straight goals over the last 4 1/2 minutes of the quarter, building up an 8-3 halftime lead and rolling within a win of its third straight league title and toward what would be the third undefeated season in program history.
“I think we almost might have been too hyped at the beginning of the game,” Kniffin said. “We were a little antsy. We didn’t take our time with the ball and really focus. They are a fantastic team and they stuck their shots at the beginning. I think it comes down to ground balls, hard work and rides. We pride ourselves on being the first one to the ball.”
Kevin Lindley finished with three goals and an assist for the Blue Wave, while Liam Rischmann and Colin Minicus scored two goals apiece.
“We came right back and do what we usually do, create havoc, create turnovers, those are the hard-work plays that create a lot of extra possessions,” Darien coach Jeff Brameier said. “I think that was the difference.”
Zinn scored twice for Staples, which was playing in the semifinals for the first time. It was a testament to both the Blue Wave’s drive, skill level and execution that it was able to defeat another nationally ranked team with relative ease.
“There is so much speed on the field they all just want to run and gun, sometimes to a fault,” Brameier said. “There’s nobody playing with flat feet. That’s a good thing.”
In the antiquated state system, Darien and New Canaan are in different classes. Thursday’s final will be their last meeting of the season.
“They’re going to be gunning for us and we will be ready for them,” Kniffin said. “It should be a great game.”