WILTON — After an early knockout and a 15-round slugfest, Staples and St. Joseph emerged from tonight’s FCIAC girls soccer semifinals to advance to the championship game.
The paths they took were, to say the least, disparate.
In one of the most complete, precise and relentless performances in recent tournament memory, Staples scored three goals in a four-minute span midway through the first half and rolled to an exclamation-point making 6-0 win over New Canaan in the opener.
Four of the goals were struck high into the net from about 25 yards out. The fact the Wreckers enjoyed this type of success against a highly skilled opponent — The Rams were the runners-up a year ago and the fourth seed this season — made it all the more impressive.
“If we play at that level I don’t think it matters who we play in the final,” Staples coach Barry Beattie said. “That was top quality against a top team. We played New Canaan before and they gave us a lot of trouble. Credit to them, they never stopped working for their coach. That’s the best my team has played in seven years. That was unreal. Every goal was high quality. The passing, the movement, the ability to beat players one v one. That was top draw. I’ll take that any day of the week honestly.”
Standing between the Wreckers (16-0-2) and their first conference championship since 2014, as was the case two years ago, are the Cadets. In a physical and intensely played match between two unbeaten teams determined to maintain that status, St. Joseph came away with a 2-1 overtime win over Ridgefield, the defending champion.
While it seemed like penalty kicks would be needed after there was no distance between the teams following 172 minutes of play this season, instead it was a single penalty kick, converted by the Cadets’ Maddie Fried, after a late foul that proved decisive.
“Two pretty equal teams obviously leaving everything they have on the field,” said St. Joseph coach Jack Nogueira. “I’m proud of my girls. A lot of people didn’t believe that we were good enough to be at this point, with Ridgefield deservingly and Staples deservingly. I hope they can talk about us a little bit now.”
The Wreckers, the top seed for the third straight year, have come away with one league and two state final appearances but no titles. That has been more than a motivator for the players, particularly a large senior class.
“It’s absolutely surreal that we came out in a semifinal and played that well,” said Mia Gonzalez, the Wreckers’ outstanding center back. “And they’re a really, really good team. It was great. The entire team worked really, really hard on the field. It was just a great game by everyone.”
Staples controlled play early but there was no foreshadowing of the long-kick barrage that would ensue.
Marlo Von der Ahe got it going in the 20th minute, striking from the right side into the far corner of the goal. Three minutes later it was Gonzalez’s chance, off a set up from her sister Gaby. Almost immediately after the restart Autumn Smith made good on a high arching shot.
“We’ve definitely been working a lot in practice on shooting from distance,” Gonzalez said. “I feel like this game we took those chances where we hadn’t in other games and it really showed on the field.”
Katie Ialeggio, a dangerous finisher who has missed five games with a pulled hamstring — the injury was sustained scoring for the Wreckers in a 1-1 draw with St. Joseph — added two goals, sandwiched around the second goal from Smith, who banged in a shot off a set corner play from a seemingly impossible angle.
The last time we played New Canaan we probably should have scored more goals,” Beattie said. “What happened was the game was 1-0 right to the death. And they never go away. They never shy away from a battle. My message to the players was you know they’re not going to go away so you have to put them away. And tonight I think they did more than put them away.”
It is hard to believe the FCIAC has ever before had a Final Four featuring three unbeaten teams, making for a highly anticipated second game between the last two champions.
For most of the game it was a battle between the keepers, with the Tigers’ Kelly Chittenden tested a little bit more and making several remarkable saves, and the Cadets’ Grace Hickey turning in some acrobatic stops.
Ridgefield (14-1-3) broke the tie in the 64th minute. Eva McKinley put a set piece right in the middle of a scrum in front of the goal. It went off the head of the Cadets’ Maddie Fried and then was put into the goal by one of her teammates.
But the Tigers had little time to ride the momentum. Annie Stook answered two minutes later, and the teams battled on.
Faith Arnold almost gave the Tigers a storybook ending in the 77th minute, a rocket of a shot that caromed off the crossbar.
Mary Lundregan continued to be the catalyst for the Cadets (15-0-3), but it was Fried, this time with an uncontested chance at Chittenden, who produced the clincher.
“Our best player was Mary,” Nogueira said. “She was amazing. Up and down the pitch, taking people on and then in a critical situation Maddie doing what she does. She scores goals. This is about these 22 girls sacrificing and doing what they had to do to get back to a point, a championship game, that a lot of these girls come to our school to do. That’s what we’re about, that’s what our program is about. We make no bones about it. We’re here to win championships and we’re here to compete.”
The Cadets no doubt will do that again on Thursday, with a Staples team led by a number of starters who will be playing in their final conference game blocking their path.
“We really want to win the whole thing,” Gonzalez said. “That’s what we’re here to do.”