WESTPORT — Staples coach Ian Tapsall stood on the unchristened turf at his field hockey complex seven weeks ago and assessed the six teams in his region, which included four that could have been ranked at the time in the top six of an FCIAC preseason poll.
Tapsall explained how the consolation in this abbreviated season was to get put in such a difficult pod, though there was one team in particular that gave him the most concern. Tapsall would not reveal the opponent, though to the sport’s insiders it was readily apparent.
This afternoon his fear was borne out.
Ridgefield, on the cusp of making the jump from contender to champion a year ago, broke through today, taking a two-goal lead and fending off a final penalty corner as time expired to come away with a 2-1 victory and the Central Region title.
“The past few years we’ve been fighting to be one of those top contenders, to be in that top tier of the FCIAC, amongst Staples, Darien and Wilton,” said Jessica Smith, whose arrival as the Tigers’ coach in 2018 coincided with the program’s ascension. “But we didn’t want to just be amongst them, we wanted to be on top of them. That was our goal this year, to prove that we could be the very top team. I think we proved that today, that we can be.”
The Tigers finished 7-1-0-1 this season. They lost twice by a goal to Staples, once in overtime. They were a combined 0-5 against the Wreckers and Darien a year ago, with all but a state semifinal loss to the Blue Wave by fewer than two goals.
“We’ve been dreaming about this for so long and our program has come so far in just the last few years,” said Olivia DeStefano, one of the two senior defenders who played a prominent role in the outcome. “We’ve been working really hard and we’re happy to reach this, this year.”
For a team that is flourishing behind an improved youth program, perhaps the need for contributions from both veterans and newcomers was best evidenced on the score sheet. The Tigers’ goals were scored by sisters Riley Peters, a senior, and Mackenzie Peters, a freshman.
Mackenzie Peters’ goal with four minutes left in the first quarter was her third straight in the postseason; she scored twice in a 2-1 semifinal win over Wilton.
“I think the Ridgefield program has been working for it for so long,” she said. This team is like a whole family. Teamwork came in handy and the forwards worked really well together. I was in the right spot.”
Riley Peters’ goal came with 2:33 remaining and seemed to put the outcome in hand, but Staples (8-1), which will still be a four-time defending state champion next fall, kept its hopes for an undefeated season alive on a late goal by Emma Nahon.
Staples, which dominated the second half, had one last chance in extra time but the Ridgefield defense made a final stand, setting up a furious celebration.
“We weren’t finishing,” Tapsall said. “I don’t know how many opportunities from six feet in we can’t complete. It has been a problem of ours all season. We’ve worked on it and worked on it. I think it’s just a matter of composure. The girls can make it a lot easier for themselves in the circle if they take a little breath and slow down there. They can do it. They panicked.
“We played a great second half. We kept plugging away. It ended up with us just having to tap the ball in the net. We couldn’t do it so we didn’t deserve to win.”
DeStefano and Maddie Wilson, who roamed the goal front like a football safety in a formation Smith devised for the game, were outstanding.
“We have been working on getting in front of our girls and staying close and communicating, and this game we tried something new, where we had one of our defenders guarding space right in the circle because we know they like to take shots from the stroke,” DeStafano said.
And then there was goaltender Lisa van Gompel, who completed an outstanding season with another tour de force performance.
“I think our defense is really strong,” van Gompel said. “I know they have my back and I have their backs.”
van Gompel made saves in all manners, including two spectacular efforts in the final quarter, when the Tigers were just trying to hang on.
“Lisa is incredible,” Smith said. “The reflexes she has. So often you see the ball flying and think it is going to get in the back of the net and she bats it away. Her stick saves are incredible.”
Smith said today’s outcome was the culmination of a season that, for a variety of reasons, will never be forgotten.
“We knew two hours a day we had field hockey, we had each other and we’d come together and that was the highlight of our day,” Smith said. “We talked over the weekend how this season meant a lot more than others because of the state of what is happening in the world. That extra bond helped bring us to this point.”
And to another point, as Tapsall was quick to point out as he put a bookend to his preseason thoughts.
“I think I would rank them after this result No. 1 in the FCIAC right now,” Tapsall said. “They’ve done very well and all they’ve done when we’ve played is improved. I don’t know where we would be or Darien would be or New Canaan. I fancy that this team would beat anybody in the FCIAC right now.”