WETHERSFIELD – It seemed a bit of an odd strategy for a state field hockey championship game, but the more you looked at the numbers, and considered one potential underlying benefit, the more it made sense.
“We intentionally did not play offense in the first half,” Cheshire coach Eileen Wildermann said of her team’s tactic against Staples in today’s Class L final.
No offense from a team that had won 22 of its 23 games and was the top seed in the Class L field? What now? But then consider these stats: Staples, an offensive juggernaut, had averaged nearly five goals per game while Cheshire had given up four goals the entire season.
Cheshire’s defensive approach worked in a scoreless first half so the Rams stuck with it. But midway through the second half, Staples’ Kyle Kirby scored, and 18 minutes later the Wreckers had a 2-0 victory and their third consecutive state championship.
“I was a little surprised at first but I understood why Cheshire did it,” Staples coach Ian Tapsall said. “And give them credit, it worked . . . for a while.”
Not surprisingly, Staples (23-1), the No. 2 seed, completely dominated the opening 30 minutes with 10 penalty corners, but went into halftime knotted in a scoreless duel . . . and feeling quite discouraged, the added benefit Cheshire (22-2) was seeking.
“We played a defensive game on purpose,” Wildermann said. “We wanted to frustrate them and we could see it was frustrating them, so we continued to do it in the second half.”
“Yes, not scoring in the first half was frustrating,” added Kirby, who also scored the second goal for the Wreckers. “We had so many chances, but we knew that eventually things would go our way.”
And that was the flaw in the Cheshire strategy. Staples had scored in every game and was held to just one goal four times all season. So, the Rams learned that you can only keep the Wreckers down for so long.
“They kept frustrating us but we kept our foot on the gas,” Tapsall said. “We knew we’d eventually get it.”
The Wreckers’ only defeat this season was to Darien in the FCIAC championship game, a loss they avenged in the Class L semifinals. They weren’t about to have this season end without getting any hardware. So when Kirby took the pass from Hannah Paprotna off the 12th of what would be 16 penalty corners in the game (compared to three by Cheshire, all in the final 12 minutes), the state crown was within their grasp.
Kirby waited to shoot and then fired a 10-yarder past Cheshire goalie Alexis Hemstock (14 saves) for what was the deciding goal.
“When I first got the ball I wanted to slip it in but then I waited and thought I might as well go around (the defender) and then shoot,” Kirby said.
“(Kirby) is so strong and quick and has great lateral movement,” Tapsall added. “Her move brought the defender out and out of her way.”
Down a goal, the Rams now had to come out of their defensive shell, but were never able to get a single shot on Staples goalie Bridget Mulloy. Whatever hopes they may have had of sending this game into overtime ended when Kirby scored her second goal, again off a penalty corner pass from Paprotna with 12:58 remaining.
The Staples postgame celebration that had been delayed after the disappointing FCIAC final could now get under way.
“It’s great,” Tapsall said. “But what I like most is that it impresses people about how strong the FCIAC is. You play an FCIAC team, it’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
“It’s an awesome feeling,” added Kirby, who was on the team for all three state title runs, but missed the final her sophomore year with a torn ACL. “It was nice to beat Darien in the semifinals after they gave us our only loss. But this is even better.”
Cheshire, meanwhile, had no regrets, even if the strategy didn’t work.
“We have a very good defense and that’s why we did it,” Wildermann said. “I’m proud of the way we played against a very, very good team.”
NOTES: Staples, which beat Darien in last year’s Class L final, was co-champs in 2016 with Darien after a scoreless tie in the final. … Cheshire has now been in the Class L final four times since 2012 (’12, ’13, ’15, ’18) and lost each time, but did win the L championship in 2011. … While one team today was an offensive powerhouse and the other relied on a strong defense, the two teams did have one thing in common: both saw their perfect seasons end in their league playoff final. While Staples lost to Darien, Cheshire was beaten by Guilford in the SCC final.