Four schools have filled every spot in the FCIAC girls lacrosse final since the tournament was started in 1993, with the exception of two years ago, when Ridgefield lost to Darien.
The Blue Wave, New Canaan, Wilton and Greenwich have been members of their exclusive club. While the sport has grown more popular in the other towns and cities with FCIAC schools, none have been able to close the chasm.
Two schools with amazing similarities have shown signs this spring of taking upward steps they hope will be sustainable. Staples just concluded its best regular season, with a 14-2 record. It will be the No. 3 seed in the conference playoffs, which begin tomorrow.
Fairfield Ludlowe, at 12-4, also produced its best record, one game ahead of last season. It is the sixth seed and perhaps fittingly will play a quarterfinal game at Staples on Friday.
The two programs are amazingly similar. They are both led by new coaches who share the same philosophy and have two top scoring threats up front. Each had an important regular season win they hope will prove to be a stepping stone to achieving long-term hopes. Not surprisingly, when they played on Saturday, the schools were tied until the last 22 seconds, when the Wreckers scored for an 11-10 win.
“That was tough,” Ludlowe coach Kimberly Sheehan said. “It felt like anything could have happened. It was back and forth the whole game.”
Both Sheehan, who is finishing her first season with the Falcons, and the Wreckers’ Nicole Gerosa, who is completing her second year, are taking cerebral approaches to building their teams.
“The girls have really great team chemistry and have been focusing on how to learn to play with each other,” Gerosa said. “Feeding off of each other and creating more opportunities. That’s been the goal, trying to break that top four in the FCIAC. We’ve been just below them and we want to break that core four of Darien, New Canaan, Wilton, Greenwich.”
While the Wreckers have not had the personnel to compete with the teams they hope to emulate, Gerosa said they are just learning to have the proper mental approach.
“One change has been the confidence and to believe they can play at that level,” Gerosa said. “I think a lot of teams, including Staples in the past, have been afraid of some of those bigger-named teams and didn’t believe they could play up to that level.”
Sheehan pretty much echoed that sentiment.
“I think we have come together as a team and gotten to understand each other’s roles and each other’s strengths and how to play together,” Sheehan said. “And we’ve also been focusing on building our mental game a lot this season. We have matured and grown throughout the year.”
Each team has had an integral victory in the last month that provided tangible evidence of growth. For Staples, already with a win over Greenwich, it came against Ridgefield, which reached the state final a year ago.
“Ridgefield was huge for us and a big confidence builder, especially because this year we don’t play Darien or New Canaan,” said Kyle Kirby, the Wreckers’ top scorer. “A lot of teams may have overlooked us. Having a win over a team like Ridgefield shows that we can compete with the higher level teams.”
For the Falcons, it was their first victory over Wilton.
“That was huge, and I think we started to believe in ourselves,” Sheehan said. “I think in the past they were entering games intimidated because of history with teams and how well other teams were doing. We’ve gotten to the point where we are focusing on ourselves and our game and having fun, and we were able to do that with Wilton. The energy throughout the game was amazing. Even when they were scoring goals to get closer we didn’t let that get to us mentally.”
Kirby and Shira Parower have been the focal point for the Wreckers’ opponents. Kirby has 51 goals, 40 assists and 110 draw controls. Parower has 44 goals and 28 assists.
“Kyle and Shira have been amazing on offense,” Gerosa said. “Not only creating opportunities for each other but getting our entire motion offense moving and creating opportunities for the other players to have more balanced scoring.”
The Wreckers’ third weapon is Elle Fair, who has 42 goals and 28 assists and provides great leadership.
Ludlowe is led by Callie Cirilli and Paloma Meehan. Cirilli has 43 goals and eight assists. Meehan has 33 goals and 16 assists.
“Everyone on the team has been stepping up and learning about the roles that we need them to fill,” Sheehan said. “Paloma is very athletic and works well in unsettled situations in getting us in a position where we can create something. Callie is good at slowing things down and reading situations and setting people up. And she has an amazing shot as well.”
The players agree that positive results have created a better atmosphere.
“A big difference I see is that rather than just wanting to win we have started to believe that we will win,” Cirilli said. “This new mindset has brought on a confidence, which has led to focused practices filled with hard work and fun. Also, I think that we’re all starting to trust each other to get the job done, which is a key aspect to a successful team.”
The winner of Friday’s game, barring an upset, will get the chance to play New Canaan in the semifinals. While it will take time for both Staples and Ludlowe to reach the top mantel and stay there, they share greater hope than ever before.
“Building off our success from this season, which isn’t over yet, we can continue to compete with the higher ranked teams in the FCIAC and become one of those teams,” Kirby said.