NORWALK — Don’t bother asking Kyle Kirby about her strategy with penalty strokes.
Does she go through the same routine? “Maybe.”
Does she aim for the same spot? “Maybe.”
Strokes are obviously the special sauce and Kirby is the chef.
Kirby, the offensive leader for the Staples field hockey team, practiced her strokes a day earlier in preparation for tonight’s Class L semifinal game against Darien and missed twice, prompting her coach, Ian Tapsall, to continue the regimen.
So when the Wreckers were awarded a stroke 80 seconds into overtime with the score tied at 1-1 and the chance to extend the season on the line, all Kirby had to control was her nerves.
“There definitely is, especially in sudden death,” Kirby said when asked if she felt greater pressure. “You make it you go home a winner and if you don’t you keep playing.”
The Wreckers went home with the chance to play for a second straight state title after Kirby approached the ball like a golfer with a putter and calmly lifted a shot high into the left side of the cage for a dramatic 2-1 victory over Darien, the latest chapter in what has become one of the FCIAC’s best sports rivalries.
We’ve had our fair share of those in FCIACs and states,” said Kirby, who scored both goals for the second-seeded Wreckers (21-1). “It was nice to have our chance for a stroke instead of having it against us like it usually is.”
Staples will play the No. 1 seed, unbeaten Cheshire, on Saturday for the title.
“I really wanted to win it obviously,” Kirby said. “We had a lot of chances in the second half to put it in but we didn’t. We definitely poured out hearts out to get the ball in the circle and we just kept pounding and pounding and that’s definitely a big part of our style of play. Basically just keep going until we can’t anymore.”
This was the teams’ third meeting of the season. The Wreckers won the season-opener, with the Blue Wave taking round two 12 days ago for the FCIAC championship. All three games were decided by one goal, as was the Wreckers’ 1-0 victory in last year’s state final.
Tapsall said the skill quality brings out the best on both sides.
“Everybody on both teams is college level,” Tapsall said. “It’s a little more sophisticated play, which is more college-like play, which we try and coach. And these girls are good at doing it. When we play each other you see the best that these girls have to offer.”
It was a disappointing ending for the Blue Wave, seeded sixth, who finished the season 18-3-1.
“We had the ball down here and they just had a really quick transition, moved the ball big and hard and they just caught us defensively,” Darien coach Mo Minicus said. “It’s tough to end on a stroke.”
Staples dominated the first 20 minutes. Kirby scored off a scramble in front of the cage 7:21 in for the lead.
“They started really hard and put us on our heels and it was just until we could settle down and step up,” Minicus said. “Unfortunately they scored a goal during that time.”
Tapsall said the Wreckers failed to fully capitalize on their chances.
“I thought we had a lot of opportunities to put maybe another couple in but we couldn’t do it,” Tapsall said. “That would have sealed it.”
The Blue Wave dominated time of possession in the second half and tied the game on a spectacularly executed goal with 17:31 remaining. Molly Hellman, on a break with an advantage in numbers, put a perfect pass in front from the right side. Katie Elders was free and finished the play to make the score 1-1.
The deadlock remained until Kirby was given control of the outcome.
“Kyle is always the one to take it,” Tapsall said. “The problem the girls have is if they second guess themselves which side to put it, that’s when they have problems. I know she is going to put it exactly the same place with exactly the same pace every time and she should score.”
So what is Kirby’s secret?
“She is not going to tell you what she does but if you can put it as close to the post on the ground no goalie is going to get there,” Tapsall said. “And if you can put speed on it no goalie is going to stretch that far. She did what she had to do.”
Minicus said her message to the Blue Wave afterward was all positive.
“They have so much to be proud of,” Minicus said. “They’ve come so far since the first time we played them to today’s game and coming from behind and scoring in the manner that they did. I thought we had great opportunities in the second half, we just didn’t connect. We certainly didn’t execute the corners and in a game like this you have to execute the corners.”