WESTPORT — During the past four years of what has developed into one of the FCIAC’s best rivalries in any sport, the Staples girls soccer team holds a one-goal advantage over Ridgefield in seven games. The Wreckers would gladly trade that for a different outcome in either of their state final meetings in 2017-18, a pair of one-goal wins by the Tigers.
The last four meetings, culminating in today’s brilliant 2-2 draw at Wakeman Field, have all ended in ties, a testament to the look-in-a-mirror evenness in talent both sides have possessed.
While you could make an argument — a weaker one by game’s end, as it turned out — that today’s meeting had lesser significance because it was played during this abbreviated season, you could make a counter that, though there was less at stake, the other six trailed this one in terms of pure excitement and plot twists.
“Definitely the craziest game we played against Staples,” said Faith Arnold, the Tigers’ senior All-State forward, though she found herself in a quite different position on the contest’s final outcome-swinging play. “It was wild.”
Ridgefield had a seemingly safe 2-0 lead until the Wreckers scored twice in the final three minutes to wrap up the top playoff seed as the Central Region champion. The equalizer came on a penalty kick by Sophie Mulhern with 12 seconds left.
It would have appeared to anyone arriving at this point that Staples (6-0-2) had taken the match, though both teams deservedly earned a point.
“You know what it is like when we play,” Staples coach Barry Beattie said. “I love it. I love the competition.”
The game played out as if scripted by Agatha Christie, with so many different protagonists to the outcome. Each deserves to be spotlighted.
Riley Dembo. While you could make the case for a number of candidates for player of the match, the Staples goalkeeper gets the nod here. Quite simply without Dembo, the Wreckers would not have been in a position to rally. She made several jaw-dropping saves, a pair sure to keep Arnold up at night.
“I put everything I had on the field for this team,” Dembo said. “This team means everything to me.”
Dembo as a freshman at tryouts was hoping to play outside back, but Beattie needed a keeper for his sub-varsity program.
“I said I don’t know how well you will do but you’ll play every minute,” Beattie recalled. “Riley said I’ll do it. Since then she dedicated herself to be a better goalkeeper and you look at her now and you would never know she just started three years ago.”
There were so many spectacular stops, but the biggest came when Arnold got behind the defense in the 38th minute with Ridgefield already up 1-0.
“She killed it today,” Arnold said of Dembo. “I was so disappointed in the breakaway. I thought it was going in.”
Added Beattie, “As that ball went through — it was a great through ball — I said bet your house Faith is going to score. I actually said to my assistants, and I’ll say it here in nicer terms, we’re done. We’re done if we’re 2-nil down this early in the game. Riley made a great save.”
Kelly Chittenden. The Ridgefield keeper was just about her counterpart’s equal, though Dembo’s saves had a higher degree of difficulty. Chittenden did a masterful job keeping Staples off the board for so long. Her best save might have been a stop on Presley Sutter following a great lead-in pass by Gaby Gonzalez.
“Praise the other keeper, she played amazing,” Dembo said. “She’s such a good keeper.”
Take Chittenden and Dembo away and replace them with average players and this would have been a 6-6 game.
Sadly, Chittenden had to leave the game at the very end after getting struck in the jaw. Which leads us to…
Arnold. She is so dangerous that just the attention she draws wreaks havoc, which helped set up the second of two goals scored by teammate Julia Bragg.
When Chittenden departed, and with the Tigers’ backup keeper in quarantine, Arnold went into goal to try to preserve the lead. To her credit, she guessed right and got a hand on Mulhern’s goal but it was impossible to stop.
“Kelly in goal was unbelievable. Unbelievable,” Beattie said. “I don’t know if it would have made a difference if she was in goal there but Faith got close to it.”
Mulhern. Earlier in the season Beattie had no one selected for the Wreckers’ first penalty kick in three years and freshman Eve Chudowsky stepped up and took it. After Mulhern scored the deciding goal in a recent shootout at practice, Beattie was unhesitant today with 12 seconds left.
“As soon as we got the penalty I said go ahead Sophie, step up,” Beattie said. “The ref blew the whistle four times, it was delayed, it was delayed and she still sticks it in the same spot.”
Gonzalez. The Wreckers’ terrific center back played a strong game, and it was her header off a corner kick in the 77th minute that started the comeback.
Bragg. She had the misfortune of scoring the first instead of the final two goals of the match. But she placed a perfect shot from the left side high into the far corner of the goal in the 15th minute, then followed an initial save by Dembo to score on a rebound in the 55th minute.
Because of quarantine Ridgefield had not played in 12 days prior to a win Tuesday against Danbury. That was the only outing in 19 days going back to a 0-0 tie with Staples.
“We were a few minutes away from taking the win so it feels like a loss but I’m proud of the girls and the way that they played today,” said Barry O’Reilly, the Tigers’ interim coach. “Staples is always a tough opponent. They worked out at home and maintained fitness and they are trying to make the most of the second chance we have this season.”
No one will be disappointed if these two teams meet once more next week to end the season.
“These two teams know each other very well and it’s always a close and competitive game and it comes down to one or two chances,” O’Reilly said.