FAIRFIELD — Jack Nogueira used an accurate yet on the surface seemingly counterproductive strategy prior to a game his St. Joseph girls soccer team has had in the crosshairs for 11 months.
The Cadets have been unable to conceal their anticipation to face Fairfield Warde, the side that defeated them twice and ended their season a year ago. Sensing his team may have been overly pumped, Nogueira also reminded them that there would be bigger games ahead no matter the outcome.
The Cadets weren’t buying the safety-net theory, at least not until they were able to secure a hard-fought 1-0 road win Saturday morning that ultimately was a showcase for the excellence of both teams.
“A lot of people put a lot of stock into the game,” Nogueira said. “My girls were wired. A lot of people were talking about it. My thing is to try and settle them down. We’re going to have more important games this season than today. I thought we played well. I’ve got a funny feeling we’ll play them again.”
No one outside the six other schools that qualify for the FCIAC Tournament would mind. With the Cadets dropping down to Class L this season, it is quite possible the league could end up with two state champions.
St. Joseph improved to 13-0 and posted its eighth shutout. The deciding play was a goal on the left side by Marissa Grasso in the 47th minute. Moments earlier Jenna Bike and Lindsey Savko had worked a nifty play, with Warde goalkeeper Mollie Kerrigan coming off her line for the save. The Cadets did a good job of pressuring up front, and when Warde was unable to clear the zone, Grasso made good on her chance.
For the most part, the Mustangs (12-1-1) did a good job of neutralizing Bike, the national team player who had to rely on individual brilliance, and she showed a lot, to break free of close marking by Jenn Maldonado and the rest of the Warde defense.
“I know a bunch of girls on their team and they did a great job,” Bike said. “(Maldonado) did a great job today.”
Of all the hype surrounding the St. Joseph players, most notably the four who are already Division I college commits, it was one who has operated under the radar who ended up the game’s most valuable player. Sophomore keeper Veronica O’Rourke ensured that Grasso’s goal would hold up, twice turning away hard strikes by Warde’s Alexa Montani, in the 57th and 63rd minutes.
“I just watched the ball, stayed on my toes and I didn’t want any goals scored on me today,” O’Rourke said. “I just followed the ball.”
It had been a dramatic 48 hours for the Mustangs. Two nights earlier they avoided their second tie when Anna Glovin’s header off of a corner kick with 3.3 seconds left was the difference in a 2-1 victory over Fairfield Ludlowe.
“O’Rourke came up big late in the game,” Warde coach Tom Cunningham said. “We had some good chances. They are very lethal going forward with their forwards and midfield, but we had some good opportunities. Alexa took two quality shots.”
Warde hardly did anything to lessen the high expectations that followed sharing the FCIAC title and losing in the state final in double overtime a year ago. Goalkeeper Mollie Kerrigan came through with another strong outing, Maldonado anchored the defense and there was some good ball movement to create space and challenge the Cadets’ back line.
“I told them this is one of the top teams in the state and we played with them,” Cunningham said. “We played with them for 80 minutes. We had chances, they had chances. We are up there with them.”
No one would argue, which takes us back full circle to Nogueira’s message for the game.
“Right now we move on to the next game,” Bike said. “We were all hyped.”