NORWALK — Three times in the last five years Kristin Woods and her New Canaan girls lacrosse players have left Brien McMahon High School in a state of emotional disrepair. Late leads lost and heartbreaking goals allowed cost the Rams the chance to defeat rival Darien at this venue for the FCIAC championship.
Throw in regular-season defeats and six years’ worth of frustration has mounted, though because Woods is seldom caught without a smile, it has all been internalized.
“I figured at some point it had to end,” Woods said.
Those words came tonight, 10 minutes after some point, when the Rams followed a recent template of seeing the Blue Wave mount a furious comeback from a large deficit, but this time held firm, answered a tying goal and made the bigger plays down the stretch — playing a man down — for a 12-11 win over the Blue Wave in the Class L semifinals.
As the New Canaan players moved the ball from double-teams and ran out the final seconds, a rousing celebration finally took place at the middle of the McMahon field, ending a drought that dated back to June 4, 2012, when the Rams defeated Darien 9-6 in the Class M quarterfinals. They went on to win the title.
“This is a real special group,” Woods said. “The seniors have really come along strong and everyone else has followed suit. I’m so proud of this group. It’s been a long time coming and we’re just so happy. We still have one more game left. I don’t want them to forget that. But this is a big one for us.”
In an evening of dramatics, Ridgefield won the opening semifinal over Cheshire in overtime, 14-13, on Caroline Curnal’s goal. That came after the Tigers’ Alyssa Gagnon tied the game with 4.9 seconds left in regulation.
New Canaan, which moved back up to Class L this year, last won the title in 2010, though it has won four Class M championships in the interim. It will face the Tigers, making their first appearance in the final, on Saturday at Jonathan Law High School, time to be determined.
“Better than I’ve ever imagined,” Karlie Bucci, one of just seven New Canaan seniors, said when asked the perfunctory postgame question of how it felt to finally walk off the field against the Blue Wave, which had won five straight state titles and 107 successive games against in-state opponents, victorious. “I’ve imagined this for years and it is 10 times better than I could have imagined.”
New Canaan’s move up in class allowed it a second chance at the top-seeded Blue Wave (19-3) after suffering an FCIAC semifinal loss to Wilton.
The Rams have regrouped and had a great state playoff run, with payback also coming against the Warriors in the quarterfinals.
“It’s a perfect time to peak,” Bucci said. “I think in the past we peaked too early in the season.”
New Canaan, the No. 5 seed, dominated time of possession and the scoreboard in the first half tonight. Braeden Dial scored four times to help stake the Rams to a 7-3 halftime lead.
The Rams still held an 11-7 advantage on Bucci’s second goal with 15:46 remaining, but the Blue Wave responded with four unanswered goals, tying the game at 11-11 on a deflection off Nicole Humphrey’s stick with 3:52 left.
That might have cracked the foundations in past years but stiffened the Rams’ resolve on this night. McKenna Harden, a freshman, put them back on top 57 seconds later and, after a pair of exchanges and a key steal by Caroline Schuh, the Rams were able to drain the remaining time off the clock.
“McKenna got a great goal,” Woods said. “We really stuck to our man-up defense and they caused a lot of bad shots, and Caroline Schuh at the end of the game she had a great check, came up with that ground ball and that minute was a long minute but we got there.”
Bucci said there is always optimism when Darien is the opponent but the Rams’ recent play had given it a different element.
“We felt confident, our coaches really prepared us and gave us a good gameplan and we stuck to it the entire game,” Bucci said. “All we were thinking, all I was telling the girls was play a full 50 minutes, play with all the intensity you have and leave it all on the field because this could be our last game. Luckily it’s not.”
Ashley Humphrey scored three goals for Darien, while Nicole Humphrey and Christine Fiore scored twice each.
“A whole team effort today,” Woods said. “Every single one of these kids. Not only the starters but the kids on the bench. It’s been a long season of real hard work, dedication to something that we wanted and to get to the state championship. Now we’ve got to get the job done. Back to work tomorrow, which we’re very excited about, and go from there.”
It took a seismic outcome to take away from an opener in which the sixth-seeded Tigers (14-5) provided late heroics in a game in which neither team led by more than two goals, though not in the final 17 draining minutes.
Like their opponents on Saturday, the Tigers have made a big push over the past week and had to avenge a loss against a strong conference power — Greenwich — to reach the semifinals.
Curnal, always the focus of opposing defenses, had been held scoreless until tying the game at 12-12 with 1:32 remaining. Annie Acquavita put Cheshire back in front with 29 seconds left, but Gagnon converted a nifty feed from Maeve Tobin to force overtime.
After Ridgefield goaltender Lexi Held made a save on a free position, Curnal extended her storied career to the max.
“We told her to take the right shot,” Ridgefield coach Cece Berger said. “I said think about the ones you missed all year and the ones that you scored on and you’re going to nail this and it’s going to be fine and she did. She’s a good senior leader and that’s the reason she’s so good. Lexi had that big save. She stepped on a ball in warmups and turned her ankle. We were worried about her but she tends to come up with big saves when we need them and that was probably the biggest one all year.”
Caitlin Slaminko led Ridgefield, scoring its first four goals of the game. Briody added three goals and three assists.
“It’s beautiful. We’re having fun with each other,” Berger said. “They don’t quit as everyone can see. They want it, they don’t want their season to end and they’re just an amazing bunch of girls, from the ones that I don’t get in to the starters who are out on the field running their hearts out. I can’t say enough good things about them.”