RIDGEFIELD — Greenwich coach Steve Lapham said his team tends to win ugly, a reference to its penchant for relying on the back row more than demonstrative hits at net.
But the Cardinals’ defense is anything but unsightly, and on Wednesday it proved the perfect foil to Ridgefield’s strong attack in a battle between unbeaten teams.
Greenwich dug up everything thrown its way, got strong front-row play from Morgan Rafferty and frustrated the Tigers into unforced errors. The result was a convincing 25-14, 25-16, 25-22 victory that left the Cardinals one of the two remaining FCIAC teams without a loss at 7-0.
“We keep the ball in play,” Lapham said. “We played well. “It was one of our better matches. It is always tough coming up here.”
Rafferty finished with 15 kills and 5 digs. Setter Nicole Wood added 26 assists and 3 digs, while Micaela Lew had 5 digs.
“If you are swinging at Micaela and Nadia back there, if you hit it there they’re digging it up,” said Lapham, referring to Nadia Sotgiu, who also had a strong all-around match. “They’re a nice team, we got them off balance, we got them out of system with our serving. Our passing I thought was really strong. It has been all year.”
The night proved a perfect example of a strong hitting team growing frustrated as balls that usually stay down are thrown back at it. In Elizabeth Middlebrook and Caroline Curnal, the Tigers have one of if not the best 1-2 combination on attack in the league. And Ridgefield got a strong effort from Alicia Hill, especially in the third set, when it was most competitive.
But as the frustration mounted, so did the hitting errors for Ridgefield. There were 15, to go along with 30 passing mistakes.
“We were tripping over our feet,” Ridgefield coach Lidania Cibere said. “Greenwich came in here ready to play us and they beat us. We made a lot of errors. The third set we played a little better.”
The Cardinals rely on their execution, and they allowed Ridgefield to go on few long scoring runs in the match, minimizing momentum swings.
Rafferty said it is all by design.
“That’s our key to success,” Rafferty said. “We don’t have a block. We had maybe one block tonight. We really rely on our defense and that messes with players’ heads. They usually get kills every point and all of a sudden we’re digging it up. It works really well. We came out with a lot of energy, we knew they were going to be a tough team to beat, one of the tougher teams in the FCIAC. I thought we executed really well.”
The first two sets followed a common trend: play was close early on before Greenwich used long service runs to take a big lead. In the first game it was provided by Lew, in the second it was Rafferty and Wood.
Lapham said that was part of the gameplan, along with neutralizing Middlebrook.
“We tried to make them work on serve receive so she wasn’t getting free run on her swings,” Lapham said. “When she did swing we did have the double up there but we’re not a big blocking team, we rarely get a block. We were lucky to get a few touches early on and she hit a few out.”
The third set went the way most expected the match to play out, with neither team leading by more than four points and the Tigers effective running their offense. Hill stepped up both on the attack and blocking.
Cebere said sometimes the instinct is to play almost exclusively to Middlebrook and Curnal because they are so reliable.
“I don’t know why we didn’t set our middles the first two sets,” Cebere said. “A lot of people are going to focus on our outsides, but our outsides are going to have off nights. Out middles aren’t bad, we have to give them the ball.”
The Tigers have too much talent to be written off, and a good indicator of their resolve will come Friday when they play McMahon, the other remaining team in the league without a loss.
“We have to distribute the ball more because everyone is going to sit on our outsides,” Cebere said. “Our outsides are solid. It’s a good lesson going forward. I’d rather lose to them now.”
Lapham said he is proud of the way his team has worked to accentuate its strengths and not try to match opponents hit for hit.
“Sometimes it’s a tough philosophy to buy into,” Lapham said. “Hit smart, don’t go crazy, stick with it and they did that tonight so it’s a good win for us. In different ways we’re well ahead in our game and in some others we still have some work to do. Our energy level has to stay at this level all the time. We can’t wait for the big game or the big point. We know that’s what we have to work on. As far as the defense and passing, we are doing really well. I’m happy with that.”