WEST HAVEN — The third time is the charm. Or are charms.
It wasn’t going to rain on the parade.
And how about a new, less-trite cliche to summarize what is now a historical season for Ridgefield’s girls soccer team: sides that lose seven starters can indeed win state championships.
The Tigers, after coming away empty the last two seasons, finally seized their elusive first CIAC title today with a 2-1 win over Staples, following two goals by Claire Middlebrook and a determined effort by a team allotted more modest expectations by outsiders two months ago because of the changes in personnel.
“I just think it is because we are so close,” said Kathryn Barlow, a four-year starter, when asked to account for the Tigers toppling that final hurdle. “We spent so much time with each other. We literally love each other so much. There were a lot of big roles to fill, and that’s not easy to do. There were a lot of nerves before the game. I think everyone settled down after the first ball was played and we did what we had to do.”
The seventh-seeded Tigers (16-3-3) made good this state tournament on their “third wins.” They succeeded in their third trip to the final, by defeating Staples in their third meeting, after losing during the regular season and FCIAC semifinals. That came after defeating Glastonbury, their conquerors in the previous two title games, in Wednesday’s Final Four.
“It feels amazing after losing the last two years and not winning FCIACs,” Middlebrook, a three-year starter, said. “We wanted this and we deserved this. I think we accomplished a lot this season. No one was expecting anything and we went a step further this year so I am really proud of everyone on this team.”
Neither side played conservatively but there were few good scoring chances until the game opened up a bit in the second half. Staples goalkeeper Anna Sivinski made several outstanding saves, but she had no chance on a brilliant set piece by Middlebrook in the 48th minute. From 35 yards out on the left side, she delivered a shot under that traveled under the crossbar and into the right side of the net for a 1-0 lead.
It is a play Middlebrook works on often in training sessions and has been called on to take going back to youth leagues, both because of her power and accuracy.
“I’ve been practicing them and I just knew that we had to take advantage of our set pieces today because we weren’t getting much offensively and that’s our strength, so I just took advantage of the chance I got,” Middlebrook said. “I would say a lot of it is concentration. There’s a little luck involved. As long as you get the ball with power towards the net it usually works out. All my teammates are skilled so if I didn’t finish it they would have.”
Middlebrook finished from right in front of the goal in the 59th minute, with Caitlin Slaminko doing the creating on a corner kick. Middlebrook was alone and made perfect contact in the air for a 2-0 lead.
“It was a great service from Caitlin,” Middlebrook said. “The keeper came out and I had a wide open net and just headed it in.”
That was the goal that most irked Staples coach Barry Beattie.
“I think both teams battled hard,” Beattie said. “I don’t think there was too much difference in the teams necessarily but when you’re looking for quality, Middlebrook gave it to them and she put it in the top corner. She consistently strikes the ball well and it went right under that little stanchion in the goal top. “The second is on us. I told the girls the only way Ridgefield will score on us is set pieces and they got two of them. That’s where I have to look at our mistakes there. The first goal, credit where credit is due. These are the small things.”
Ridgefield coach Iain Golding stressed to his players the importance of maximizing set pieces, especially in light of the most recent meeting against the Wreckers.
“We try to make sure when we get the opportunities we can take advantage of them,” Golding said. “Staples is very good at limiting those chances. In the FCIAC semifinal I don’t think we had one corner.”
As it started to rain, Staples (17-5-1), the fourth seed, pressed play with time winding down and had several near-misses before Arianna Gerig found an opening and scored in the 75th minute.
“All credit to Staples,” Golding said. “They put numbers forward and they scored to make it interesting the last five or six minutes. They kept pushing and pushing and obviously they are an excellent team.”
Barlow was outstanding with Middlebrook in the middle of the defense, repeatedly clearing attacks. And another senior captain, Erika Linke, arguably offered the best performance of her career.
“I actually thought the captain, number 20, she was the best player on the field today,” said Beattie, referring to Linke. “She won everything. She didn’t miss a header, didn’t miss a tackle and she was continuously breaking up the game. She had a very unsung hero’s game. She was excellent. And Barlow was top drawer.”
Barlow got to fill a void after being part of the Tigers’ conference championship teams the previous two years.
“This is probably the best feeling in the whole world,” she said. “This is going to be the day I am going to remember in high school as my favorite memory. We really wanted it. I think that we believed in ourselves. This team has a chemistry. We’re just so close with each other.”
That bond, the players agreed, helped compensate for all the departed talent from the past two seasons.
Asked if there was a discernible change from a year ago, Golding instead noted a likeness.
“Truthfully I couldn’t put my finger on what was different,” he said. “I think both teams are very similar. The players we had this year tried and played the way we did last year. I think having the experience of the last two finals, that’s what saw us through. More comfortable and a little bit more relaxed.”
While his players ran off the field with tears of joy, Golding managed to remain stoic.
Barely, he assured.
“Right now I’m just trying to hold down because if I don’t I’ll probably burst into tears,” Golding said. “Being Scottish we’re very hard in terms of showing our emotions. I’m ecstatic obviously. I’ll show my emotions once we’re done.”
Staples, which had a great season that saw it reach two finals, is well-stocked for the future with young talent. Autumn Smith and Reese Sutter are pieces you build around.
Similarly, the Tigers will return a strong nucleus that should see prognostications different next preseason from what greeted them two months ago.
That is future talk. Today is about the Tigers’ present, and this year’s epitaph might have been best delivered by Beattie as he left the field.
“Ridgefield had to come here two years in a row and suffer the pain that we just suffered,” Beattie said. “And they come back when everyone questioned their strength at the beginning of the year. Everybody talked about the kids they lost, and now you have to say that’s the best team of the last three years. Because they grind, they work hard, they’re a good team and they won a state championship. And they deserved to be state champions. They’ve never really been out of a game all season. I give them a lot of credit.”