FAIRFIELD – When the whistle blew and the referee awarded Ridgefield a free kick about 40 yards from the New Canaan goal with just over 10 minutes remaining in the second half tonight, the feeling was that the chances of the Tigers winning their third FCIAC championship in four years increased dramatically.
“Set pieces are one of our strengths,” Ridgefield coach Iain Golding said.
“We have been very successful on free kicks this year,” added senior Claire Middlebrook.
Sure enough, a few moments later, Grace Michalowski knocked in a rebound off Middlebrook’s free kick and the scoreless tie was broken. Ten minutes after that the Tigers were celebrating their 1-0 victory at Fairfield Warde High School.
“Last year was extremely disappointing,” Golding said of the Tigers’ ouster in the semifinals. “So the girls are really pumped up right now.”
Adding to the elation was the fact that Ridgefield (16-2-1), the No. 3 seed in the FCIAC playoffs, beat St. Joseph in the semifinal and then New Canaan, the teams responsible for its two defeats this season, coming two days apart last month.
New Canaan beat Ridgefield, 1-0, on Oct. 13.
“We knew we had to come back from those losses,” Michalowski said. “It feels really good being on the other end now.”
The postgame celebration slightly bested the one after Michalowski’s goal. With the Tigers having allowed just one goal in their last six games, and that was an own-goal in their semifinal win over St. Joseph Tuesday, the fourth-seeded Rams (13-5-1) knew they were in trouble.
“We battled extremely hard but in the finals like this it always comes down to a fine margin and they made the great play,” New Canaan coach Rich Hickson said.
The loss ended a great underdog run by the Rams, who missed the playoffs last year and were making their first appearance in the final since 2009.
“The girls realize what they achieved,” Hickson said. “There were only two teams playing in the final and we were one of them. It’s a huge accomplishment.”
“We were underdogs, but we made a name for ourselves getting here,” Rams senior Kendall Patten added.
A co-championship was looking quite possible for New Canaan until the whistle blew and the Tigers were given the free kick. No surprise that Middlebrook was picked to take the boot from just inside the 30-yard line. And considering the success the Tigers have had this season in similar situations, it was no surprise that they were able to finish.
“I was able to place it into the general goal area and Grace was there on the back end of it to put it in,” Middlebrook said.
Middlebrook’s boot was deflected in front and rolled to Michalowski, who was stationed just to the left of the goal. Her kick popped over New Canaan goalkeeper Jordan Paterson and rolled into the right corner of the goal.
“I saw (Middlebrook’s) kick coming in and I wanted to get on the end of it,” Michalowski said. “It came to me and I blasted it as hard as I could.”
The rebound got past Paterson, who had another strong game after shutting out Wilton and Darien in the first two rounds. Paterson finished with six saves.
Ridgefield goalkeeper Lauren Castle, meanwhile, was very busy in the first half and finished with seven saves. Patten had two good chances in the opening half and Dillyn Patten, her freshman sister, also was denied.
“We dominated the first half,” Kendall Patten said. “The opportunities showcased themselves but we couldn’t take advantage.”
The Rams thought they had scored with 19 minutes remaining in the second half on the rebound of a shot off the crossbar of the football goalpost, which is about two feet above the soccer crossbar.
Middlebrook and Michalowski then teamed up for the game-winner nine minutes later.
“They were tough ones,” Golding said of the regular-season losses to St. Joseph and New Canaan, “but we learned from them.”
“After losing in the semifinals last year,” Middlebrook added, “we were ready to get it back, and we did it. This is huge.”