Golfers have their routine to size up drives. Kickers go through a pattern prior to field goal attempts.
And Ridgefield’s Claire Middlebrook takes a moment before her approach on set pieces.
“I put the ball down and then I just take a glance and see where my teammates are, where the goalie is and then I really just concentrate on hitting the ball correctly, just so I can try and get it in the area of the goal so someone can get in on it, or it can go in or a deflection goes in,” Middlebrook said. “I just try to have good service into the box.”
Middlebrook’s penchant for placing the ball at her intended destination is uncanny. She scored twice on direct kicks in the first half of Monday’s Class LL semifinal win over Simsbury and it took a great save to deny her a hat trick before the break. The first of Middlebrook’s two goals in last year’s 2-1 state final win over Staples came on a magnificent shot from 35 yards out.
And if the Tigers are awarded a free kick anywhere within Middlebrook’s range during Saturday’s championship rematch, there will be a palpable feeling of anticipation on the Ridgefield sideline and unease on the Wreckers’ bench.
“I just try to hit them and try to get the best opportunity for my team,” Middlebrook said. “I really concentrate on taking the kick because I know they’re some of the best opportunities that we have in the game. If I can deliver for my team that just makes it so much better.”
Ridgefield will be playing in its fourth straight state final and the one constant on the field has been Middlebrook, who was inserted into the middle of the backfield as a freshman and has owned the position even since. If Middlebrook has gained greater acclaim for her goals, it has come largely from the casual fan that takes greater notice of offensive rather than defensive play.
“For me she is the best defender in the state,” Ridgefield coach Iain Golding said. “Obviously I am slightly biased. But for her to start on our team for four years as a central defender and for us to be so successful, that shows what type of person she is and obviously the level she can play at.”
The Tigers won FCIAC titles but lost in the state final to Glastonbury during her first two seasons on teams that were heavy with veterans. Last year, despite considerable graduation losses, the Tigers rebounded from a semifinal defeat in the conference playoffs to topple Glastonbury prior to the win over Staples in the state tournament.
Now Ridgefield has a chance to win FCIAC and CIAC titles in the same season and Middlebrook will join a very small group of high school athletes to play in four straight state finals.
“That’s just a testament to everyone who has been in the program,” Middlebrook said. “Not just currently but before my time. I think we will keep up this streak after and it just shows how hard everyone has worked all these years to get the program where it is. It’s just an amazing feeling every season has gone as long as it can. It was never cut short for me.”
The Tigers have flourished again because of contributions from a number of freshmen and sophomores who have stepped into important roles. Middlebrook said it is the continuation of an established cycle.
“When we had such a strong senior class and so many veterans it was hard for those young players to get playing time,” Middlebrook said. “Even though they are good players they just didn’t see the field. After those veterans graduated they took on bigger roles and were eager to play. Incoming girls were inspired by the success the program was having and just wanted to take part in it. It comes back to that team environment. We’re happy to incorporate anyone at any age that helps us and get them into a role to be successful.”
Golding was an assistant to Alex Harrison during Middlebrook’s freshman season and took over the following year when Harrison left to coach at Western Connecticut. Golding has carried on the overriding philosophy.
“They helped elevate the program from where it was to what it became, and we’ve just continued that success and built on the success they had and took it one step further,” Golding said.
Middlebrook’s ability on set pieces puts her in the spotlight, but it is her work on defense, often marking the opponent’s most dangerous scorer, that has yielded the greatest dividends.
“I love defending, I love the position I play,” Middlebrook said. “I think our defensive unit on my team is amazing. We really work well together.”
Ridgefield (20-2-1) had shutouts in its first 11 games, ending with a scoreless tie with Staples. After losing two games in a row the Tigers have come back with 10 straight wins, allowing just one goal. They have blanked four straight opponents during the state tournament.
“Throughout the whole season we’ve focused on that zero and that can be attributed to everyone on the field, and Lauren Castle, who is an amazing goalie,” Middlebrook said. “I just love that chance to go one on one. I like when a player is coming at me and to get the ball back, start the offense up and get a chance to score. It really starts with the defense.”
Middlebrook is the last of four sisters who have excelled in athletics at Ridgefield. She will play next season at Brown, making this weekend somewhat bittersweet.
“It’s a good moment and a bad moment,” Golding said. “For us to be in the final, but it is going to be sad to see her leave. At the same time to finish in the final is a fitting tribute to her.”
Added Middlebrook, “I thought about Saturday’s game being the last time I put on my jersey and it’s definitely weird because I feel like I’m still a freshman. I’m excited about Saturday. I just love this program and the team and I’m very thankful I have been in such a successful program.”