By Dave Ruden
TRUMBULL — The St. Joseph High School girls soccer team has accomplished the impossible: turning its excitable boy of a coach, Jack Nogueira, into Mr. Mellow.
Usually a loud presence on the sideline, Nogueira has found himself sitting on a folding chair, legs crossed, shouting words of encouragement, as he did Tuesday afternoon.
The Cadets, against a strong Darien side that did not play poorly, conceded an early goal before exploding for five in a row and an impressive 5-1 win in a possible preview of the FCIAC championship game.
The Cadets (14-0-1), who have secured the top seed for the FCIAC Tournament, have given their coach little to get upset about.
“At the beginning of the season I was yelling like a lunatic, and it didn’t help them play any better,” Nogueira said. “I talked to the captains and decided to do this and it has worked ever since.”
One of them, Sami Grasso, accounted for two of the Cadets’ goals. She laughed about her coach’s sudden change in demeanor.
“He said he’s a changed man,” Grasso said with a smile. “He said he’s trying to be more calm, and he’s done a good job with that. I don’t know what has made him this way.”
Grasso need only get Tuesday’s game film and watch the final 70 minutes to answer her question.
The Blue Wave (10-3-2), who were 8-0-2 in their previous 10 games and are in a battle with five other teams for seeds 2 through 7 in the playoffs, struck in the opening minute when Kelly Karczewski delivered a ball that Katherine Cronin converted for a quick lead.
Early deficits have been about the only problem the Cadets have been forced to confront.
“Sometimes it takes us a while to get started, but once we do it keeps going and everyone picks it up and feeds off of one another,” Grasso said. “Usually once the other team scores, we want to score more. Once we score one goal we just keep going. The fact that they scored early on us, we need to fix that because once that happens in FCIACs and states, it could hurt us.”
Nogueira concurred with his top scorer’s analysis.
“Against a very good team, or a team as good as us or even better than us, which we will face, we’ve got to do a better job defending and keeping the game tight,” Nogueira said.
The Cadets equalized in the 8th minute on a nifty goal by Jenna Bike, and scored the go-ahead goal in the 17th minute when Bike was taken down in the box playing a ball from Grasso. Sabrina Toole was true with her penalty kick.
Darien had chances to score as it was effective getting players free on the attack, but St. Joseph goalkeeper Molly Meehan made two great saves to preserve the lead. Defender Adrienne Williams added a brilliant play, clearing a ball off the goal line to prevent a goal.
Grasso upped the advantage to 3-1 right before halftime with the day’s prettiest goal. She took a pass from Toole 20 yards out, faked left and turned the other way, unleashing a bullet that went high into the left side of the net.
“I wasn’t trying to do that earlier,” Grasso said. “I kept shooting from far out because I was just feeling it today. Usually I try to dribble in and beat everyone before I score. I turned and saw it was open and just took a shot.”
Leah Lewis played both creator and finisher on the Cadets’ second-half goals, setting up Grasso with a nice through ball and then heading in a pass from Julia Marino off a corner kick.
Darien concludes the regular season at home on Thursday against Greenwich. It was a somewhat stunning outcome for the Blue Wave, who had allowed just three goals during the previous 10 games.
The score was not indicative of the play, more on each team’s success ratio capitalizing on opportunities.
“I think in the first half they were a little surprised with the way we came out,” Darien coach Leigh Parsons said. “I don’t know if they expected us to be doing what we were doing. The girls, to their credit, created a lot of chances in the first half. (St. Joseph) is a great side, but there are things we can do better.”
The Blue Wave will be a major player in the postseason, but it is going to take a Herculean effort to derail the Cadets.
“We’re playing very, very well offensively,” Nogueira said. “It’s the best we’ve been playing. We’re connecting on our passes. We are very dangerous with three or four of our girls going forward. Right now we’re clicking on all cylinders.”
It is enough to make a demonstrative coach downright tranquil.
ST. JOSEPH 5, DARIEN 1
Darien 1 0—1
St. Joseph 3 2—5
D—Katherine Cronin (Kelly Karczewski) 1st; SJ—Jenna Bike (Marissa Grasso) 8th; SJ—Sabrina Toole 17th; SJ—Sami Grasso (Toole) 40th; SJ—S. Grasso (Leah Lewis) 58th; SJ—Lewis (Julia Marino) 59th.
Goalie saves: D—Kellyn Berrigan 2; Kate Fiore 6; SJ—Molly Meehan 4.
Records: Darien 10-3-2; St. Joseph 14-0-1.