FAIRFIELD — Youth and experience helped carry the St. Joseph girls soccer team tonight to its first FCIAC title in four years, though the outcome was not affirmed until after the final buzzer in a frantic finish that will long be remembered for the scope of the emotional swing.
Maddie Fried, the Cadets’ sensational freshman, scored in the 39th minute on a brilliant strike that held up after senior goalkeeper Veronica O’Rourke made a spectacular save at the final buzzer for a thrilling and hard-fought 1-0 win over Staples at Fairfield Ludlowe High School.
“Today we were so good, so on top of things,” St. Joseph coach Jack Nogueira said. “We just stuck to our game plan to a tee. I’m always yelling and today I’m just sitting back and watching them play. It was so different. And I had a calm feeling coming up to this game. They just played well. I thought we were the better team today, no question about it. We could have scored one or two more. I’m just happy. Happy for the kids. On paper it’s not our strongest team. That usually doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
The second-seeded Cadets (14-1-4) lost to Ridgefield in the last two finals, and their lone loss this season came on the road to the Tigers. They faced another stern test tonight, but passed it in what was a highly entertaining game even though it lacked many scoring chances until the final 15 minutes.
“We battled. We knew it was going to be a 1-0 game,” Nogueira said. “We knew it was going to be a tough game. Staples is a very, very good team. We came back and proved a little something this year I think to everybody. Although we lose players, although we graduate a lot of good players who go to Division I places, we’re still here, we still compete and we still battle.”
The game provided two indelible moments. The first was the wind-aided score by Fried, who has already given a verbal commitment to Villanova. Wreckers goalkeeper Anna Sivinski, who played a terrific match, had no chance as the ball sailed over her outstretched attempt at a save.
“They scored a great goal, it was worthy of winning any final so you have to give Maddie credit,” Staples coach Barry Beattie said. “She’s a freshman and she’s a really, really good one at that.”
Then came the frenzied and dramatic finish. Staples was awarded a corner kick as time was about to expire. Because the ball rolled well past the end line, the clock was stopped and set at five seconds. The Wreckers’ Julia Lombardo executed a perfect delivery. O’Rourke, with Staples’ Arianna Gerig in her path, punched the ball over the crossbar and into the football crossbar behind the goal.
The ball came back onto the field and ended up in the net. The Staples players celebrated wildly, thinking they had equalized, while the Cadets watched with puzzled looks. After a brief discussion the proper call was made and the St. Joseph players went joyfully running to the center of the field.
“I’m not quite sure what happened, but I think (the official) blew the whistle and he thought it was a goal,” O’Rourke said. “I thought the game was over when he blew the whistle. I knew I had punched it over. I tried to follow the ball as best as possible. I just kept my eye on the ball the entire time.”
Nogueira said he took satisfaction that his veteran keeper got to make the decisive play.
“She has had some rough moments this year but we forget all about those because in a big game, in a big situation she came up big for us tonight,” Nogueira said.
The game was a fitting final between two unrelenting sides, the score not indicative of the pace and quality of play.
Sivinski kept her team within a goal with a great save on the Cadets’ Andriana Cabral from point-blank range in the 67th minute.
“She’s in my opinion the top keeper in the FCIAC and one of the top keepers in the state,” Beattie said. “She proves every single game why she’s that.”
The top-seeded Wreckers (14-3-1) also had some late quality chances. They almost scored off a scramble following a ball into the box by Olivia Ronca, and Ashley Wright, who scored the winning goal in the semifinals against Ridgefield, had a shot hit the crossbar.
“They worked hard,” Beattie said. “I just think with the wind at our back we could have had a little bit more quality in the second half. Unfortunately we lose 1-nil and we look like we’re the worst team there, but if you don’t score you don’t win. Our girls are upset but I feel they should be proud of themselves because if anything that will just fuel a fire for states.”
For the St. Joseph seniors, and Jessica Mazo, their star junior midfielder, there was finally an elusive league championship trophy as they now prepare to make a run at a third straight state title.
“It feels amazing,” O’Rourke said. “The past two years being in the finals and finally coming out with a win. It feels great.”