Commentary: Strength Of FCIAC Girls Soccer On Display During State Tournament

Nelle Kniffin (left) has been a leader of the Darien defense, while Faith Arnold has sparked the Ridgefield offense. (Photo: Gretchen McMahon)

If there has been a theme for the FCIAC through the first week of state tournament play, it has been Ladies Nights, particularly in two sports.

The semifinals start tonight, with the Norwalk boys soccer team playing top-seeded Naugatuck for a trip to the Class LL final. The Bears have been one of the best playoff stories, in part because of their dramatic quarterfinal win over Ridgefield, with Michael Hidalgo scoring as time expired in the second overtime to stun Ridgefield.

In volleyball, Greenwich and St. Joseph are carrying the league banners, respectively, in Class LL and M. There is little surprise in that the league has produced the champion in the largest division five of the past seven years. The past two seasons, both finalists have come from the FCIAC.

Most impressive has been what is taking place in field hockey and girls soccer. The league has filled three of the four semifinal spots in the largest division, guaranteeing that it will have a finalist in each sport. Meanwhile, there is a representative — New Canaan in field hockey, St. Joseph in girls soccer — in one of the smaller classes.

The league’s dominance in field hockey is hardly surprising. It has had a title winner in Class L 11 of the 13 years, with a rare void coming in 2010-11, and in Class M 10 of the past 11 seasons. Field hockey is one of the sports the FCIAC has dominated on a statewide level.

The best story has come in girls soccer, where we could also have an all-FCIAC final in Class LL, with Darien and Staples meeting in one semifinal on Wednesday, while Ridgefield faces Glastonbury in the other.

Staples’ Erin Lynch wins a ball in the air. (Photo: Gregory Vasil)

St. Joseph is positioned for a run at what would be its third state title and fourth in five years. We will put the Cadets aside for the argument here. Their accomplishments should not be taken for granted, but they have become one of those givens we can count on every November.

What has happened with the other three schools is truly impressive from a historical standpoint. Other than St. Joseph, which played in Class LL in 2013, the FCIAC has not had a champion in that division since 2009, when Westhill produced a dramatic victory over Glastonbury on a late goal by Penny Cote despite being outplayed. That was the end of a three-year run for the conference; Trumbull won the previous two titles.

An FCIAC school has been a runner-up five times since, and that could be the case again this year if Glastonbury wins a fourth straight title.

But in many respects the runs by Staples, Darien and Ridgefield since the FCIAC final have stood out due to a number of factors.

Darien is probably the biggest surprise of the trio, though the Tigers, despite their recent success, were not given a chance in the preseason to still be playing in the final week of the season.

One common theme has been defense. The teams have combined to play seven games — Ridgefield and Staples had first-round byes — and allowed a total of four goals. The Tigers and Blue Wave were the respective fourth and fifth seeds in the FCIAC Tournament, yet they are seventh and eighth in Class LL. That is because they each lost twice during the regular season. Ironically, the Wreckers, fourth seeded in the state playoffs, had more losses than the four schools behind them but were the top seed in the league tournament because they had more wins and fewer ties.

The top five league seeds all finished within a point of each other, revelatory of the balance at the top of the league. And quality of play.

Darien had never reached the Final Four before this year. Female sports have been dominated by field hockey and volleyball in past autumns, but the soccer team has been solid and is now peaking. It took a beautiful finish by the Tigers’ Caitlin Slaminko late in the first round of the conference playoffs to eliminate Darien.

The Blue Wave were unyielding heading into the state tournament. Christine Fiore is one of the state’s top goalkeepers and Emily DeNunzio the anchor of a rigorous defense. Katie Ramsey has continued to play well in the state playoffs, with goals in all three wins.

The best story has come in girls soccer, where we could also have an all-FCIAC final in Class LL, with Darien and Staples meeting in one semifinal on Wednesday, while Ridgefield faces Glastonbury in the other.

The changes with the Tigers’ lineup have been well-chronicled — probably too much for them at this point. Seven starters graduated, but the defense has been a constant, with first team All-FCIAC players Kathryn Barlow and Claire Middlebrook as anchors, and Anna Landler and Carolyn Donovan too often overlooked. But they have received strong play from the rest of the lineup, and Slaminko and Faith Arnold, a sophomore and freshman, respectively, have scored big goals. Ridgefield reached the semifinals with a 1-0 win over Enfield on a perfectly placed corner kick by Arnold.

Coaches in all sports hate playing conference opponents in the state tournament, and the Tigers have had an ideal experience. They will be playing a school outside the FCIAC for the third straight time, though Glastonbury has been on the opposite side of the field for Ridgefield as often as most league schools. This will be the third straight meeting in the playoffs; the first two were championship wins by the Tomahawks. The Tigers will not be lacking for motivation on Wednesday night.

The Wreckers have been consistent, allowing eight goals during the regular season. Most of their wins have been by shutout. They have solid players all over, with Anna Sivinski in goal and Ashley Wright, Autumn Smith and Reese Sutter helping to control the middle of the field.

One of the Wreckers’ losses was to Darien, 1-0. Their season was ended two of the past three years by Glastonbury, so they have been on the cusp. And their road to the semifinals has been a grind. The Wreckers dominated but had trouble finishing in a 1-0 second-round win over Ludlowe and needed to go to penalty kicks in the quarterfinals against Trumbull.

One FCIAC girls soccer team will be playing for a state title this weekend. The way this year has played out, few will be surprised if it ends up being a pair.

 

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