FAIRFIELD — The Fairfield Warde girls soccer team conceded a goal last Wednesday. It happened in a 1-1 draw with Greenwich, and the only people who may have been surprised by the box score were haters of the sport who decry the lack of scoring.
Or people who have been following the Mustangs all season.
It marked the first time in eight games that an opponent found the back of Warde’s net, an incredible accomplishment given the level of competition in the league, particularly this year.
“We really want to play out of the back,” said Jenn Maldonado, the outstanding junior forward who leads the team with six goals. “We had a really strong defense last year. This year we came back with a strong defense again. We’ve kind of adjusted to what we lost.”
When the conversation turns to girls soccer, it usually begins with schools like St. Joseph, Wilton, Greenwich and, going back a few years, Trumbull.
The Mustangs (7-0-1) are usually not in the discussion, even though they have qualified for the FCIAC Tournament in each of coach Tom Cunningham’s first seven years, a streak that will almost certainly continue this fall.
“The program is trying to stay stable,” Cunningham said. “Usually we have been in the top four. This year we feel confident we can be one of those top four teams.”
Privately, the Mustangs’ aim is higher. It is a belief made out of confidence, not cockiness.
“You have to stay humble,” Maldonado said. “We know we haven’t played some of the top teams. We have to prove we can play with the top teams.”
Thus the conundrum trying to assess the Mustangs at the midpoint of the regular season. They were the last of the unbeaten and untied teams before playing Greenwich. The Cadets, the two-time defending champions and preseason favorites, are the only other team without a loss.
The skeptics who say Warde has yet to post a take-note win haven’t been paying attention. There is a season-opening victory over Westhill, which after an 0-2 start has run off eight straight wins. New Canaan and Darien count as quality decisions.
But it is true, the Mustangs’ second-half schedule, starting Tuesday at Staples, will be telling. Ridgefield, St. Joseph and Wilton await in a four-game stretch near the end of the season.
“We want to take the blueprint and keep doing what we’re doing,” Cunningham said. “Playing well on defense. This year our offense has been great. It is not just one player.”
The Warde players have a realistic sense of the word on the street. No one is taking them lightly or calling them overrated, but there is a wait-and-see approach before loading up on Mustang stock.
“We have gone through the easier half of our season,” said Anna Glovin, a skilled center midfielder with a keen outlook for a sophomore. “We’ve had a few tough games. I think right now we’re a team everyone is aware of. I think at the beginning of the season people weren’t taking us seriously and now we are being targeted.”
There are just three starters back from a team that went 10-6-3 and was eliminated in the first round of the league tournament and second round of the state playoffs. But many of the returning players had varsity experience.
“It has been a great team effort and everyone has played well together,” Cunningham said. “It has been ‘Who’s up next?’ Twenty-two players who all can step in and play a role in any given game.”
The defense, despite graduating three backs, has been a revelation. It has matured quickly, helped by the presence of senior Virginie Larouche, normally a midfielder.
Asked the secret to the Mustangs’ success, Glovin said, “Depth in the back. We’ve had some great defenders step up, like Virginie. We can have anyone step into any position and it wouldn’t make a difference. That’s been really key for us this year.”
Warde, which won the state title in 2007, reached the conference final three years ago, losing to Greenwich. A consolidated Fairfield High School won the town’s only league championship in the sport, a memorable draw with New Canaan in the 2002 final.
Atop Cunningham’s wish list is a little more potency on offense. Maldonado, one of the league’s top finishers, is seldom without company on the field.
“Against the higher tier teams we want to figure out a way to score more goals,” Cunningham said. “We don’t want to go into every game feeling we have to put up a shutout for a win.”
So far that formula has worked. But bigger tests await and the Mustangs are excited for the challenge.
“I think we still have to prove ourselves and make a name for ourselves,” Maldonado said. “I’m looking forward to playing the teams we have the next couple of weeks.”