Defend, Score Off Set Piece: Ridgefield Defeats Staples For Class LL Championship

Staples’ Marlo Von der Ahe approaches Ridgefield goalkeeper Lauren Castle as she makes a save. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

WEST HAVEN — Defend, capitalize on set pieces, win.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

It is limiting to define the success of the Ridgefield girls soccer program by just a couple of qualities, but when those qualities are executed with such precision and finality, they become, well, defining.

The Tigers, in their fourth straight appearance, won their second consecutive Class LL title today with an exhausting 1-0 win over Staples in a rematch of last year’s final. The goal, in the 33rd minute, came when Faith Arnold’s corner kick, like a magnetic attraction, found Megan Klosowki’s head in front of the goal.

Then it was the defense that took over, forced to protect its net quite literally until the final second. And if not for the superb play of goalkeeper Lauren Castle, the outcome might have been different.

Ridgefield’s Mackenzie Robson heads the ball away from Staples’ Mia Gonzalez. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Asked if she had saved her best game for the final one of her career, Castle responded, “I wouldn’t say my best but in a championship game you just want to give everything you have so you can come out with the result, so I just tried my best.”

Castle had several acrobatic saves on the ledger, including a pair in the last 90 seconds. But it was her denial of the Wreckers’ Gaby Gonzalez right before the final horn that was the talk of the postgame conversation.

“I think Lauren Castle getting MVP tells the story of the game,” Staples coach Barry Beattie said. “It tells one story in that she’s a quality goalkeeper and it tells the other story that she was busy in the game. Credit to her. Even right at the death there, five seconds to go, she makes an unbelievable save.”

Ridgefield’s Caitlin Slaminko settles a ball. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Ridgefield coach Iain Golding was even more laudatory.

“The save at the end was one of the best saves I’ve seen,” Golding said. “Not just at this level but all of women’s soccer. It was a championship-winning save and that’s exactly what it was. Tremendous.”

Reduced to numbers, the Tigers’ continuation of their current run is enlightening. It is the first season that has ended with both league and state titles. In going 20-2-1, they allowed just four goals and only one in the postseason, a 2-1 FCIAC semifinal victory over St. Joseph. They conceded two goals in a game just once.

Staples’ Ava Simunovic and Ridgefield’s Tasha Riek position themselves to possess a ball. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

“It’s unbelievable,” said Golding, who after one year as an assistant was elevated to head coach in 2016. “It’s a testament to the girls, the program and not just the players now but the ones before to take the program where it is.”

Ridgefield took the lead when the 5-4 Klosowski was able to finish Arnold’s kick in the middle of traffic.

“I just saw the ball come in and I was just tracking it down,” Klosowski said. “Usually at my size I don’t usually get on the end of them but I just went for it and I was lucky. I was just in the right spot at the right time. We definitely practice it enough. I’ve done that before but it was just such an exciting feeling afterwards.”

Staples’ Catherine Sprouls wins a ball in the air. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Exciting enough that Claire Middlebrook, the center back who played her final game after starting all four seasons, said the Tigers were afforded a rare moment of levity.

“She had a great finish,” Middlebrook said. “It was so funny, she finished and she started crying and everyone asked what’s wrong. She says “I just did that,” and everyone was so happy for her. She deserves it. She’s a great player and she’s worked really hard.”

Castle’s first great save came in the 42nd minute, when she punched a set-piece rocket by the Wreckers’ Reese Sutter over the crossbar.

The Wreckers’ Autumn Smith moves the ball upfield. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

The Tigers had their chances to widen the lead. Freshman Julia Bragg beat a defender off the dribble but was stopped by Staples goalkeeper Zoe Barnett. In the 71st minute, Caitlin Slaminko had a perfect feed to Arnold, but she poked the ball wide.

That would have made the final moments more tranquil as the Wreckers (17-2-3), whose only other loss was to Darien in the opening round of the FCIAC tournament, went all out, bringing players up and peppering Castle.

“In those moments you just have to rely on your training and know you can do the right thing and just hope it works out for the best,” Castle said.

The game fittingly ended with the Tigers clearing the ball out of their own zone one final time. The Staples players fell to the ground with equal measure of exhaustion and frustration.

Ridgefield’s Faith Arnold and Staples’ Ava Simunovic try to gain control of a 50-50 ball. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

“We always go down fighting,” Beattie said. “This is the joy of coaching these kids. They never stop.”

The Tigers graduate several starters but will return a strong nucleus that will no doubt be proficient in defending and scoring on set pieces.

“It’s definitely one of our main ways that we score and we practice it so often,” Klosowski said. “And it’s free opportunities, that’s how we look at it.”

And if past is prologue, there will be an incoming class with a couple of players possessing the same attributes, with a few ready to make instant contributions.

“Those have always been strengths for our team and I think they will always continue to be strengths for our team going into the future,” Castle said. “It really helps us get a championship in tough games like this.”

Ridgefield’s Lauren Castle, Claire Middlebrook and Amelia Hynes hold up the Class LL championship plaque). Photo: Mark Conrad)

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