WESTPORT — After defeating once-beaten Ridgefield 2-1 today, the four-time defending state champion Staples field hockey team is now 6-0 and has outscored opponents 34-1.
Leave it to Staples’ perfectionist coach, Ian Tapsall, however, to find something wrong.
“Our problem is finishing,” Tapsall said, referring to the Wreckers’ struggles at knocking the ball into the goal. “We are one of the best teams from our baseline to their 25-yard line, but the problem is putting the ball into the net.”
Actually, for at least the last two games, Tapsall has a point. For starters, the Wreckers began the season with 13-0 and 10-0 victories over a struggling Danbury team. But against Ridgefield on Monday, Staples was pushed into overtime before finally scoring for a 1-0 win. In that game, Ridgefield goaltender Lisa van Gompel stopped 25 of 26 shots on goal. Today, in the back half of this home-and-home series, van Gompel stopped 21 of the 23 shots she faced.
Get the picture?
The Wreckers could have easily had five or six goals by halftime today, and van Gompel was a main reason they only had two. But as outstanding as the senior goalie was for Ridgefield, it still should have been more than two. Much more, the way the Wreckers dominated the first 30 minutes.
“(van Gompel) is a great goalie,” Tapsall said. “She’s so tall, she’s going to save just about everything, but there are ways to beat her but we just couldn’t do it.”
“It’s been frustrating; at practice all we talked about is finishing,” Wreckers midfielder Jess Leon added. “We have the forwards to do it but the ball just hasn’t been going in.”
For much of the first half it seemed the Tigers (4-1-0-1) were playing two or three players short. That’s how dominating Staples was. At first it appeared Ridgefield coach Jessica Smith’s strategical adjustment from Monday was not working.
“We knew after Monday that we had to change our strategy,” said Smith, whose team is 4-0 against everybody else on its schedule. “We wanted to be more offensive today, to keep the same defensive mindset but work on our forward motion.”
On Monday, Staples outshot Ridgefield 26-0. So the Tigers’ emphasis on offense was understandable, but Staples didn’t let the Tigers control the ball much, at least in the first half. And barely five minutes into the opening quarter Julia DiConza tapped in a loose ball in front of van Gompel for a 1-0 lead.
Later in the quarter there was another culprit to blame for the Wreckers’ inability to finish: A shot off a corner by Izzy Deveney clanged off the post.
Then, later in the second quarter, the Wreckers were able to get a shot past the post and van Gompel for a 2-0 lead. Deveney again put a strong shot on goal off a corner but this time van Gompel had no chance as Francine Stevens got a stick on it and deflected it into the goal.
“Staples is the top, the best and we had a slow start today against them,” Smith said. “But we came out strong (after halftime) and won the second half.”
After getting outshot 18-0 in the first half, Staples’ advantage was just 5-3 in the second half. And what seemed like a certain Staples victory turned into a tense, one-goal game midway through the third quarter.
A long shot by Ridgefield rolled toward the Staples goal and Wreckers’ goalie Ella Williams (two saves) rushed out to stop the ball. But instead of swatting it away she tried to cover — or to to use an ice hockey term, freeze — the ball. Ridgefield was awarded a penalty stroke.
Aerin Krys took the shot and hit it into the right corner of the goal and suddenly it was a one-goal game. It was also the first goal allowed by the Wreckers in six games this season.
From there the “forward momentum” strategy Smith injected into the Tigers’ gameplan was working much better. But the Staples defense, led by Emma Nahon, Olivia Bernard, Deveney and Leon, who seemed to be all over the field, wouldn’t budge, and the Wreckers made it 2-for-2 against what is probably the second-best team in their Central Region.
Now the question looms: Will these teams meet again in the postseason tournament that begins on Nov. 5?
“We hope we get to play them again,” Leon said. “We’re both athletic teams, both have speed and skill. I hope we do. It will be fun.”