WATERBURY — There could not be a more pleasing sight on the soccer field for Ridgefield girls coach Iain Golding than seeing senior Claire Middlebrook getting ready to take a free kick.
They don’t call her the “Queen of the Set Piece” for nothing.
Middlebrook had two free kick opportunities in the game’s first 20 minutes after Simsbury fouls tonight at Municipal Stadium and, to no one’s surprise, went 2-for-2. That was all the Tigers would really need in their 3-0 Class LL semifinal victory that sealed a fourth consecutive trip to the state final for the defending champions.
“For Claire’s free kicks to be on point like that is just awesome,” Golding said. “It takes a lot of practice. She has come up with some very big goals for us on set pieces like that.”
The win pushed seventh seed Ridgefield (20-2-1) into Saturday’s Class LL final, where the Tigers will meet No. 5 Staples (17-2-3), which defeated No. 1 Glastonbury, 1-0, at a site and time to be determined. Ridgefield beat Staples in last year’s LL final after being the runner-up the two previous years.
Middlebrook tonight first dropped a perfectly placed kick from the right side, some 45 yards out, just above Simsbury goalkeeper Leigh Paradis’s hands and just under the crossbar in the 16th minute. Then, less than four minutes later, Middlebrook’s boot from the left from 35 yards landed in front of Paradis and rolled into the left corner for a 2-0 lead.
“I hit them all the same,” Middlebrook said. “Today they just so happened to go my way.”
Actually Middlebrook nearly had three goals off free kicks in the first half. But Paradis (13 saves) just got a hand on the ball and deflected it over the goal as the horn sounded ending the first half.
“FCIAC teams are very good at executing set plays,” Simsbury coach Steve Jarvis said after his 19th-seeded Trojans finished 12-7-1. “We knew (Middlebrook) was good at it and we prepared as best we could. But she hit a perfect ball. Those kicks were undefendable.”
Middlebrook scoring on free kicks is nothing new. A good number of Ridgefield’s 74 goals this season have come via her set pieces. And don’t forget last year’s Class LL final when the Tigers beat Staples 2-1. Both goals were on Middlebrook free kicks.
The 2-0 halftime lead was probably more than needed for the Tigers to secure a berth in Saturday’s Class LL final. Ridgefield came into the game having given up just four goals all season, and allowed two in one game just once.
“We wanted to come out and get goals early and we did that,” Middlebrook said. “Then, once we get up 1-0 or 2-0, we focus on the zero.”
The Tigers’ defense and goalie Lauren Castle (two saves) picked up their 20th shutout of the season in 23 games.
“We had an unbelievable ride,” Jarvis said of Simsbury’s three road wins against higher seeds in the tournament. “But Ridgefield just took it to us and we couldn’t catch our breath.”
Ridgefield made it 3-0 in the 46th minute on a beautiful header by Caitlin Slaminko in front of the goal. And less than six minutes later, after Ridgefield’s Faith Arnold was pulled down in the penalty box, Middlebrook was picked to take the PK.
However, her bid for a hat trick went wide right. It was the first real shocker of the night.
“I was very surprised she missed that,” Golding said. “Normally she makes that 98 times out of 100.”
Now comes the rematch of last season’s final. Ridgefield and Staples met once this season on Oct. 9 and the game ended in a scoreless tie.
“I’m excited to be going back (to the finals), that’s four in four years,” Middlebrook said. “It should be a great game because Staples will want revenge for last year.”
“Staples is a very talented team so I’m happy for them,” Golding added. “I don’t know if our familiarity with them will help us. It could go either way. Looking forward to it.”
NOTES: Simsbury reached the semifinals by knocking off three higher seeds on the road: No. 14 Hall, No. 3 Southington and No. 11 Wilton, all by 1-0 scores. Wilton was the only common opponent this season as Ridgefield also prevailed 1-0. … The Tigers beat No. 26 Manchester, 4-0, No. 10 South Windsor, 4-0, and No. 18 Darien, 1-0, to reach the semis.