TRUMBULL — For St. Joseph girls soccer coach Jack Nogueira, it was easy to block out the hype for today’s game with Ridgefield. Nogueira’s players, on the other hand, may have had some additional motivation besides the current implications.
The Tigers had won three of the previous four meetings, including a 2-0 decision a year ago that followed consecutive victories in the FCIAC championship game.
The Cadets checked all the boxes in a hard-fought 2-1 decision, with the winning goal coming off a scramble in front of the net not long after the Tigers had forged a tie.
“The media likes to build it up as the biggest one,” Nogueira said. “To me, I’m more worried about us continuing to play better and playing our best soccer when the playoffs come. That’s when it matters. Certainly it’s a good win against a very, very good team for us.”
The storyline until 48 hours earlier looked like it would be a battle between teams with identical unbeaten records for first place in the standings. The narrative got changed on Saturday when the Tigers (10-2-1), who had not allowed a goal all year, suffered a 1-0 loss at New Canaan.
Still, with two weeks left in the regular season there was much at stake as teams look to secure first-round home games and perhaps set up a more favorable path to the final.
Jessica Mazo, the center midfielder who sets the tone for the Cadets (12-0-1), said the previous outings against Ridgefield were on the minds of her teammates.
“It’s always one you have to get up for,” Mazo said. “You know they are going to be a tough team, a tough challenge. We’ve always gone back and forth. From the start we wanted to come out with energy and put pressure and control the game, and we did that. In the second half we started a little slow but found our rhythm at the end.”
St. Joseph has not lost at home in four years, and after controlling play in the first half, in large part because of good defensive pressure from its forwards, finally converted in the 29th minute off Caroline Sheehan’s corner kick. Hailey Vechiarelli steered a shot home from in front.
Ridgefield, which had mounted few sustained attacks before the break, was the more assertive side at the start of the second half, and finally was rewarded in the 48th minute. Moments after Caitlin Slaminko had a shot go off the crossbar, she was true with a second opportunity to tie the game at 1-1.
The play was started off a set piece by Claire Middlebrook and was assisted by Grace Michalowski.
“The first half I was completely disappointed,” Ridgefield coach Iain Golding said. “We let them dictate the game, dictate the tempo and for the first 20 minutes of the second half I thought we were really good. We kept possession well, created some nice opportunities. I was happy with that. And then it went up and down after that like a rollercoaster.”
Middlebrook and the Cadets’ Maddie Fried are arguably the league’s two most dangerous players on free kicks, and it was a delivery by Fried in the 58th minute that led to Mary Lundergren’s game-winner off a scramble in front.
“They really came out hard at the beginning of the second half, they were more aggressive, they had more of the play, they were winning balls, they were playing better, they scored a goal on us, which is how they typically score goals, on set pieces or corner kicks,” Nogueira said. “It was the one time we didn’t mark up well. I thought how we came back, we could have certainly folded and we came back hard trying to win the game. I was very proud of that.”
Golding thought his goalkeeper, Lauren Castle, might have been interfered with on the play.
“For the goal, for me the goalkeeper was fouled,” Golding said. “Obviously she went to catch the ball, there was contact and she dropped it. It would have been nice to get protection. But obviously you can see how dangerous they are on set pieces. They scored on a corner kick and a direct kick. It’s obviously something we’ll be working on.”
The playoff race has taken a bit of a turn in the last three days, when it appeared St. Joseph, Ridgefield and Staples were involved in a three-team race. New Canaan routed Trumbull today 6-0 and by tiebreaker moved ahead of the Tigers into third place.
St. Joseph hosts the Rams on Wednesday and faces Staples, which has not lost a game but has three ties, on the final day of the regular season.
“It was a good matchup, a good physical battle,” Golding said. “Obviously I’m disappointed we lost in the end but obviously we need to take the game and use it for motivation to move forward. The girls are seeing how tough the games can be. It’s tough competition every game. You can’t sleep on anybody, you can’t take it easy on anybody.”
Mazo said the Cadets have been spurred following a 1-1 draw with Fairfield Warde in the fourth game.
“We were able to figure out from the beginning of the season we have to come out every game to play or we are not going to get the result we wanted,” Mazo said. “It was a wakeup call and I’m glad we got it from the beginning.”