WETHERSFIELD — If winning not one, but two outright state championships the last two years wasn’t quite enough to change the narrative, then perhaps for the Staples field hockey team the third time was a charm.
Staples won its third consecutive outright Class L state title — four in a row with 2016’s co-championship — today with a convincing 4-2 victory over Darien. That’s the same Darien team that won nine state crowns in 10 years, ending with the shared title with Staples in 2016, before the Wreckers took over. Can we call it a changing of the guard?
“Is this a dynasty?” Staples coach Ian Tapsall said after the third-seeded Wreckers (21-1-1) got the better of the Blue Wave again. Staples beat Darien in the 2017 Class L final and eliminated the Blue Wave in last year’s semifinals. “No, not a dynasty; not yet. But we’re getting close.”
Ava Ekholdt, Kyle Kirby, Erica Fanning and Ella Bloomingdale accounted for the goals in the high-scoring affair to cap the Wreckers’ great four-year run. Darien, making its 10th trip to the final in 13 years, scored the game’s first goal before Staples took over, outshooting Darien in the game, 13-4.
“Ian has done a great job having taken Staples to this level so quickly,” Darien coach Mo Minicus said after her fourth-seeded Blue Wave finished 20-2-1. “They’re right up there with us now.”
The two teams played to a scoreless draw in the FCIAC championship game earlier this month, and Darien beat Staples, 3-1, back on Sept. 18. But in the really big one, as they had the previous two years, the Wreckers proved to be the better team.
“It’s safe to say we’re the No. 1 program in the state now,” claimed Kirby, one of the Wreckers’ three captains.
To the victor goes the spoils, especially one with four consecutive state championships and counting. But the way the game started out, it appeared that the Blue Wave would not give up the throne easily. Molly Hellman gave Darien a 1-0 lead in the 12th minute. Considering that Darien allowed just 12 goals in 22 previous games, and Staples had scored just one goal in two previous meetings between the two teams, that one goal loomed large.
“When we’re up we play like we’re down, 1-0, so we weren’t nervous,” Staples back Grace Cooper said.
“Down 1-0, we were not fazed at all,” Kirby added.
The Blue Wave also weren’t fooled by the early lead.
“It was exciting to get on board first,” Hellman said. “But Staples is such a great rivalry, it doesn’t matter who scores first.”
Sure enough, Staples ignored the early deficit and dominated the next 13-minute stretch to take the lead.
“Their first goal did light a fire under us,” Tapsall said. “I told the girls that the ball will eventually bounce our way if we keep plugging away.”
Five minutes after falling behind, the Wreckers got even when Ekholdt knocked a rebound past Darien goalie Monisha Akula (nine saves).
Staples took a 2-1 lead seven minutes after that when Kirby deftly tipped a shot by Laine Ambrose into the Darien goal. But the Blue Wave got even less than two minutes later when Hellman scored off a perfect pass from Lindsey Olson, beating Staples goalie Roxanne Augeri (two saves).
“I’m proud of our fight,” Minicus said. “We scored first and then they tied it and went ahead but we got even. These are two equally matched teams but Staples had a little more fire than we did today.”
Just 66 seconds after Hellman had tied the score, Fanning put the Wreckers ahead, 3-2, scoring in the midst of a scramble in front of the Darien goal.
Even with the lead Staples continued to press in the second half and went ahead 4-2 when Bloomingdale knocked in a loose ball from close in with 18 minutes remaining.
“We kept the pressure on even when we were winning,” Kirby said. “We used our speed . . . kept pressuring, pressuring.”
And it continued for the final 18 minutes, leaving Darien with few chances. And when the final horn sounded, the celebration — and the debate? — began. Do the two teams share the same plateau or is Staples the new king of the hill?
“There can be no dynasty,” Tapsall said, “quite like the one Darien put up.”
NOTES: The FCIAC dominated the Class L field, having eight teams in the 21-team tournament. The league finished 13-7 overal with all seven defeats coming against other FCIAC teams. Newtown, the No. 1 seed, was eliminated by No. 9 seed Norwalk in the quarterfinals while No. 2 Hall was knocked out by No. 15 seed Greenwich in the first round. … Staples outscored New Milford, New Canaan and Norwalk 14-3 in reaching the Class L final while Darien defeated 2018 runner-up Cheshire, Amity and Ridgefield by a combined 15-1 margin to earn a spot in the final. … The Wreckers entered today outscoring their opponents 100-10 while the Blue Wave’s scoring differential was 93-12.