FAIRFIELD — Meredith Clifford sat in the stands at West Haven High School last November, where she watched the Ridgefield girls soccer team win its first state championship.
Clifford said she remembers Claire Middlebrook’s two goals for the Tigers. And she knew, 10 months later, there was a good chance she was going to be sharing the field with Middlebrook and the other returning players.
“I was excited knowing I was coming on to this successful team and hoping for a great season,” Clifford said.
Freshmen have been thrust into important roles during what has been a stellar run for the Tigers. Faith Arnold filled that part last year and so far Clifford is making a similar significant contribution. Tonight she scored her second and third goals to help propel Ridgefield to a 2-0 road win at Fairfield Ludlowe.
Asked if she expected to be a starter, Clifford gave a sincere answer: “I knew I had a chance if I really tried.”
Many of the qualities that led the Tigers to consecutive league championships and three straight state final appearances have been evident this season. Strong defense: the Tigers have yet to allow a goal in a 5-0 start. Depth: Ridgefield coach Iain Golding has liberally gone to his bench, knowing he can rest starters without suffering a decline in play. Senior leadership: Middlebrook is the latest in a long line of steadfast captains.
Chemistry: this has been the Tigers’ most underrated element, yet it was so vital a year ago in overcoming considerable graduation losses. Players young and old have formed a considerable bond.
Those were all enough tonight to overcome what Golding thought was not Ridgefield’s best performance of the season.
“We haven’t conceded so obviously there were some positives even though we had those moments,” Golding said. “We had some bad spells when we let a good Ludlowe team control the ball and for us we just need to go better.”
The Falcons (3-2-1) are off to a good start and played Ridgefield equally for the first 20 minutes. The Tigers have flourished on set pieces and took a 1-0 lead in the 22nd minute when Clifford went to the air for a finish on Caitlin Slaminko’s corner kick.
“Caitlin just had a nice cross right to me, I got open from my player and just headed it back,” Clifford said.
Clifford struck again in the 63rd minute on a redirected roller. Clifford from about 30 yards struck it perfectly, just above the reach of Ludlowe goalkeeper Maddie Herron.
“Unfortunately we sat back, we gave her space, it was a miscommunication and the ball bobbled out to her,” Ludlowe coach Peter Nikac said. “That far out you want to be able to get a touch on the ball, you want to be able to knock it over the post. It was just a step too far out and it got over her head. It was a great shot on her part and I think it took the wind out of our sails.”
Nikac came away most impressed with the Tigers’ unyielding back line. Their biggest loss was All-State center back Kathryn Barlow, but Carolyn Donovan, a junior, has moved inside and played well. Middlebrook ranks with the state’s best players and Lauren Castle has added confidence in her second season as the starting goalkeeper.
“Their defense is very structured,” Nikac said. “Their defense is very good and disciplined. They have speed and you can see they have the size, and you can see every ball in the air they can have a good challenge for it. That’s a positive on their part.”
Slaminko is tireless on the ball and difficult to contain, while the Tigers are solid at every position. Tasha Riek, who also got time as a freshman last year, played well tonight.
One thing about Golding: the number of quality minutes you can contribute supersedes the number of years you have been on the team.
“The girls, if they show they are ready to compete and play at this level, we give them the chance,” Golding said. “Obviously we’ve created an environment that’s competitive.”
Tonight it was Clifford’s turn.
“The one thing last year, we walk the players in and if we think they are good enough and able enough we put them in,” Golding said. “Tonight (Clifford) stepped up big and scored two great goals.”