RIDGEFIELD — Phil Bergen, the veteran coach of the Ridgefield High School boys soccer team, has coached females just once in his career, for consecutive years. His U12 team in 2010 advanced all the way to the State Cup final.
“It was probably the best two years I’ve ever had coaching,” Bergen recalled. “They were all very coachable, very attentive. You could tell they were going to do damage but you never know how much.”
The answer came a year ago, when seven members of that team were starters for Ridgefield, which won the FCIAC championship and then made a run to the state final.
Many of the skills and qualities that go into a successful team were apparent to Bergen five years earlier.
“They were intense, take no prisoners,” Bergen said. “They listened, which boys don’t always do. You could treat them tough and they would accept it.”
Now, with nine starters back and nearly double the number of seniors on the roster, the Tigers will set out to accomplish what has proved a difficult task in the sport: winning a second straight league title. St. Joseph and Greenwich did it, but that was due to a tie and a co-championship in 2012. Trumbull and Wilton did the same 11 years ago. The last team to go back-to-back outright is Wilton in 2003-04.
“I think we are a little more cautious in what we are doing, taking it day by day and not rushing things,” said Alyssa Bonanno, one of the Tigers’ leaders. “Everyone’s excited and it is all about doing all the things we did last year for preparation.”
The quest will not come easily. While Ridgefield would seem an overwhelming favorite, the conference should be top heavy, with St. Joseph, Fairfield Warde and Staples just several of the schools looking to play the role the Tigers filled a year ago. A major change comes up top: the Tigers’ coach, Alex Harrison, left to take over at Western Connecticut. He will be succeeded by his assistant of one year, Iain Golding.
Golding has the luxury of a team that could be more talented than last year and the burden of the same expectations his players will face.
“Right now it’s a case of making sure the team is in the right place,” Golding said. “So obviously we have to make sure we are able to reach the level we reached last year. And that the players perform the best they can. Obviously it is a very tough league, there are a lot of good teams out there, so for us we are basically going to take it one game at a time and if we perform as well as we can we will have a good season. Any head coach job there has to be pressure. If there is no pressure you are superhuman. I think having so many returners on the squad is a very good situation.”
Through the first few days of practice, the mood of the team can best be described as optimistic but grounded. The lingering memory for the players seems to be the effort that went into postseason success and not the completed project.
“It’s a new season and it was great but what we did, nobody cares,” goalkeeper Julia Middlebrook, the MVP of the FCIAC final, said. “We need to do the same hard work we put into a year ago.”
The Tigers allowed just 12 goals in their 16 regular season games, with seven coming in their lone two losses, to Staples and St. Joseph. With a near-flawless performance, Ridgefield defeated the favored Cadets in the league final, 2-0, behind goals by Katie Jasminski and Grace Franklin.
“To me team chemistry makes a season and early on in the season I realized we had that,” Middlebrook said. “I wouldn’t say I was surprised. We had a little luck on our run but it was well deserved.”
Perhaps the team’s true spirit — one it hopes carries into this year — shined brightest in the loss that ended a 13-game winning streak, a 5-3 decision to Glastonbury, riding a 40-game win streak, in the Class LL final. The Tomahawks jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first 18 minutes before Natalie Brassinga countered for the Tigers. They were behind 4-1 until Molly Nethercott and Franklin each scored and made it a one-goal game in the 75th minute. Glastonbury’s goal 12 seconds after Franklin’s ended the comeback bid.
“I think we went into the season hesitant and we kind of surprised ourselves, and once we went on the run we were able to push that further to be successful,” said Damron, whose 8 goals were third on the team, behind Jasminski (22) and Bonanno (10).
Damron said she did not think the coaching change would have an adverse effect on a seasoned team.
“It was definitely a curveball for us, we didn’t see it coming,” she said. “When (Harrison) sat us down and said he had something to tell us, we thought it was going to be choosing captains because it was going to be such a hard choice, but when he told us he was leaving it was definitely a surprise. Since Iain was our assistant last year it was an easy transition. The girls are comfortable with him. We are still getting used to him being our head coach but it was our best option.”
Added Bonanno, “I feel like having the veterans around, even with the transition in coaches, keeps us together. Even though they have very similar philosophies, having been coached by Coach Alex, with the veterans, we can apply that to Iain’s new philosophies and give us more options.”
Bergen saw something in a unique youth team years ago. With the nucleus about to play together for a final time, the Tigers want the journey to end on a high note.
“Since we have so many returners we know what has to be done from last year,” Damron said. “All of us are comfortable with that level of play at this point. We just have to go into every game knowing it’s going to be a battle, just like it was last year. If we do that and don’t get complacent we will be OK.”