WESTPORT — The Staples girls soccer team had to wait until the final day of the regular season to avenge last year’s loss to St. Joseph in the FCIAC championship.
There was a far greater benefit however from the Wreckers’ 1-0 win this afternoon. It earned them the top seed in the FCIAC Tournament, which begins Thursday.
In what could easily be a preview of next week’s title game, Katie Ialeggio finished a perfect feed from Ashley Wright in the 56th minute for the decisive play.
“Definitely we wanted to come back from last year because it was a rough game for us,” said Ialeggio, who added that there was also the need to rebound from Friday’s 2-1 win over New Canaan, which required two late goals to accomplish. “The last game we didn’t play as well as we should have and that’s why we really brought the intensity this time. It was everyone together.”
Staples completed the season unbeaten with a 13-0-3 mark to finish one point ahead of the Cadets (13-1-2). The Wreckers will also get to avoid a possible semifinal meeting with Ridgefield, which will be the third seed and is also viewed as a title contender. The semifinals instead could bring a second meeting in 10 days with New Canaan, which also defeated the Tigers.
Both goaltenders — the Wreckers’ Zoe Barnett and the Cadets’ Grace Hickey — made critical stops that influenced the outcome.
“Two great saves by the goalkeeper,” St. Joseph coach Jack Nogueira said of Barnett. “That was it. I didn’t think it was a great game. I don’t think either team played very, very well because of the grass conditions. Give them credit. They scored a goal, we didn’t. They won the game. So we’ve got to get ready for the playoffs now.”
Staples finished with five games against teams that either qualified for the playoffs or were in contention for a spot and went 4-0-1.
Today was a perfect postseason tuneup for each side.
“This is a carbon copy of what the championship could be,” Staples coach Barry Beattie said. “They’re always good so if you want the warmup game for the playoffs, what’s better? The New Canaan game was a good game. For us to do this is really good. The FCIAC is eight good teams and it’s anybody’s. If we keep playing like that I think they will be a little bit nervous playing us.”
The Wreckers were without key midfielder Autumn Smith, who suffered an ankle injury against New Canaan. It is uncertain when she will return.
Each team had a good chance in the first half. Ialeggio got behind the defense in the 5th minute but Hickey made a great save. In the 16th minute, the Cadets’ Maddie Fried, one of the most dangerous players in the state on set pieces, put a long shot off the crossbar.
The game remained deadlocked into the second half. Jessica Mazo, the Cadets’ spectacular midfielder, drove a bullet in the 54th minute but Barnett punched it away.
Staples got possession and that ended up with Ialeggio, with the help of Wright, breaking the tie.
“It was a really nice through ball,” Ialeggio said. “It was an easy shot.”
Added Beattie, “That was a nice finish. The whole game I was telling Ashley when we have the ball you have to be higher and the one time she got higher the defender got sucked up on her pass and Katie slipped through. The finish was quality.”
Staples came close to extending the lead, but Hickey punched a shot by Sasha Hamer off the crossbar and then pounced to deny Ialeggio on the rebound.
Barnett, a senior who had to wait behind All-State keeper Anna Sivinski until she graduated, allowed just five goals during the regular season.
“Zoe has come up big a few times this year,” Beattie said. “She had some gloves to fill but she’s been first class all season. She’s been waiting for this opportunity.”
The loss hardly diminished the high regard Nogueira has for his players and the belief that they can win both league and state titles for the second straight year.
“I’m confident with my team,” Nogueira said. “I like where we are right now. I think we are in a good place. So we’ll see what the playoffs bring.”
Ialeggio said today’s result further cemented the high hopes the Wreckers will carry into the postseason.
“It definitely gives us a boost in confidence going into FCIACs and states because we’re going to have to play tough teams like St. Joseph and Ridgefield, so it will help when we have to play them again,” Ialeggio said. “I think we’re definitely ready. Playing all these tough teams, they all have different qualities and just together we’ve shown we can play against anyone.”