Boys Soccer

Set Pieces: Plenty Of Room At The Top In Boys’ Race; Defense Rules For Ridgefield Girls

Darien's Pablo Martinez, with the ball, and Danbury's Ricardo Rodriguez are helping to lead their teams in a balanced league. (Photo: Ellie Kravetz)

Darien’s Pablo Martinez, with the ball, and Danbury’s Ricardo Rodriguez (9) are helping to lead their teams in a balanced league. (Photo: Ellie Kravetz)

After a win over Darien last week, Danbury coach Antony Howard had an astute observation about FCIAC boys soccer.

“The postseason’s tough,” Howard said. “In this league we beat each other up for 16 games and then you go into the postseason. Anyone can beat anyone. You can beat one team 3-0 one week and lose to them 5-0 the next. It is a very competitive league.”

Howard was responding to a question about the Hatters’ mindset coming off a year when they finished with the best record in the regular season but were knocked off in the semifinal round of the conference playoffs.

Howard’s comments were interesting because he wasn’t with Danbury last season. He wasn’t even in the FCIAC. Howard moved to Danbury from New Milford, after Sean Colley stepped down to take an administrative school position.

Then again, even a cursory familiarity with the league could make any novice seem like an expert, and this year is no different. There are the haves: three schools unbeaten and another with one loss. There are the have-nots: five teams with one win or fewer. Then there is a middle class of eight schools capable of playing with anyone on a given day.

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Consider a team like Staples, the program with the greatest overall tradition in the FCIAC. At 2-2-3, the Wreckers sit tied for ninth place with nine points. Staples had the better chances in a 1-0 loss to Stamford 10 days ago that looked like an upset. Now, the Black Knights, on no one’s radar during the preseason, are fourth at 4-1-2.

On Monday the Wreckers played their third scoreless draw of the season. But the tie was with Greenwich, the preseason favorite, which was 7-0.

Fairfield Ludlowe, the two-time defending champion, and Darien, last year’s runner-up, are respectively 3-3 and 3-3-1.

In what will end up being one of the most entertaining games of the year, Fairfield Warde and Trumbull last week played to a 3-3 tie. Two days later the Mustangs played Westhill, which was coming off a loss to winless McMahon, and were dominated, 3-0.

“For us to grow we need to learn from our mistakes,” Warde coach Justin Ottavio said after the Trumbull match.

Danbury, now 7-0, is the last team without a loss or a tie. The only other team without a defeat is the Eagles, who are 5-0-2. One of the draws came against Staples in a game that was stopped early in the second half because of a rain and lightning storm.

Trumbull has not qualified for the FCIAC Tournament since 2011, when it won the title.

“This is the best team since, we are playing well, playing within ourselves, we defend well,” Eagles coach Sebe Gangemi said. “I think we’ll get better and better as we go along. It’s a tough league.”

Winning balls in the air is just one of Ridgefield sweeper Molly Nethercott's many talents. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Winning balls in the air is just one of Ridgefield sweeper Molly Nethercott’s many talents. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Trumbull’s best player, center midfielder Thang Dao, is hoping to finally play in a conference playoff game.

“Each game we’re just learning more and more and I think this team has the potential to go far,” Dao said.

Right now that same sentiment is shared by players on a number of teams.

Defense Rules For Ridgefield Girls

Kathryn Barlow, one of the leaders on the back row for the Ridgefield girls team, said soccer is among many games where defenders get overshadowed.

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“In general, in a majority of sports defense is overlooked because stats are built on goals scored,” Barlow said. “There are no stats for defenders. That’s what makes it hard for defenders to get noticed.”

Think about the Tigers, the defending league champions and state runners-up, and the players that initially come to find are probably forwards Katie Jasminski and Alex Damron, center midfielder Alyssa Bonanno and goalkeeper Julia Middlebrook. There are unsung players like attacking midfielder Natalie Brassinga, who had the game-winning score in both of the Tigers’ games last week.

But for two years the team’s back row has performed at a very high level to little acclaim.

“You score to win games and defend to win championships,” said Molly Nethercott, the middle back who could be the most underrated player in the entire FCIAC. “Without defense we wouldn’t be able to win games. It is our job to keep a clean sheet. It shows how good our defense is and we don’t really get the credit for it.”

Heading into Wednesday night’s game with McMahon, the Tigers had allowed just one goal, last week against Staples.

“When we let that goal in I got really upset,” said Nethercott, who admits to being a perfectionist. “It was different. I thought we could go a lot longer without conceding a goal.”

Last year the Tigers yielded just 15 in 22 games despite starting a sophomore (Barlow) and freshman (Claire Middlebrook) for the first time. They joined Nethercott and Grace Franklin.

Junior Kathryn Barlow is in her second year as a defensive starter for Ridgefield.

Junior Kathryn Barlow is in her second year as a defensive starter for Ridgefield.

“I think there definitely was pressure because we came from such a strong defending team, which is what people think of Ridgefield,” said Barlow, who pointed out one of the best players in school history, back Liane Keegans, now starts for UConn. “It was pretty nervewracking for Claire and me to step into big positions, but now we know more what we need to do and we’re a lot more ready for it.”

Anna Landler has stepped in this season for Franklin and thus far the unit has been even stingier.

“Last year we had a successful season and it has helped us be more confident about this season,” said Nethercott, who has given a verbal commitment to play at Syracuse next year.

Ridgefield, which is No. 2 in the state, still has most of its toughest matches ahead, including fellow top-10 teams St. Joseph, Darien and Westhill.

Barlow said while it would be nice if the spotlight occasionally fell on the team’s defense, it is not very high on the priority scale.

“We want shutouts,” Barlow said. “We don’t want any goals scored against us. It doesn’t bother me as much but it would be nice to get more noticed.”

That sentiment was echoed by Nethercott.

“I just go out there to win and play hard to win,” she said. “I don’t do it for people to notice me.”

Around The League

Football corners the market on attention almost every autumn Saturday, but this weekend will be different. Though both the Darien and New Canaan football teams are playing, neither game has great appeal. The timing is good: Greenwich travels to Trumbull in one of the most highly anticipated boys soccer games of the season … The Westhill girls were a sleeper last month, with four potential All-FCIAC players on the squad but question marks around them. Right now the Vikings are 6-0-1 and coming off an impressive 5-3 win over Fairfield Warde. … The Darien girls team’s schedule is backloaded — its six toughest games are in succession starting next Tuesday against Fairfield Warde — but so far the Blue Wave at 4-0-2 have been the biggest surprise. They had five straight shutouts heading into Tuesday’s game with Stamford. … Another team riding a five-shutout streak is St. Joseph, which has one draw in an otherwise perfect six-game start. All-American Jenna Bike graduated a year ago, but with the Cadets the faces change but the results stay the same.