RIDGEFIELD — St. Joseph coach Jack Nogueira admitted prior to tonight’s game with Ridgefield that he — like many — were slightly surprised by his opponent’s unbeaten record.
Eighty minutes later he had a visual why the Tigers, despite two straight conference titles, are arguably the surprise story in the FCIAC thus far.
Ridgefield finished two set pieces minutes apart in the second half, marked well and perhaps most importantly hustled itself to a 2-0 victory over the Cadets in a rematch of the last two league finals.
It was Ridgefield’s 24th straight victory at Tiger Hollow. The team is now 9-0-2.
“This is just a game that we really wanted to win,” said Tigers center back Claire Middlebrook, who was on the creating and finishing end of both goals. “We wanted to protect our home. We gave it all we had and we got a result.”
In the sense that many consider the Cadets to have the best personnel in the league, the outcome was a bit unexpected. Factor in that the Tigers have few peers when it comes to work rate, and maybe not so much.
“Today was a full team effort,” Ridgefield coach Iain Golding said. “Everybody pitched in to defend, everyone helped to attack. We won our fair share of 50-50 balls. We were winning first balls, second balls. It was a good team game.”
Ridgefield has defeated St. Joseph in the last two finals, but the seniors had not won any of the teams’ regular season meetings.
After a fairly even first half in which the Tigers had a little more possession time, they were able to connect.
Middlebrook delivered a ball in front of the goal and Emma Langis headed it home in the 51st minute for a 1-0 lead. In the 53rd minute, Faith Arnold was the playmaker and Middlebrook was able to steer the ball just inside the right post.
“I just played the ball across and Emma had an unbelievable finish,” Middlebrook said. “On the second one I just kind of went with my body and got it into the goal too. I think the whole game, our set pieces, we were getting looks. I think that we were able to get the ball behind them. It was just a matter of finishing.”
When asked if converting on balls into the box was a particular team strength, Golding said, “I wouldn’t call it a weakness. We created some good chances today. We were unlucky not to score in the first half but the girls kept fighting and we got the two goals in the second half.”
The quick scores allowed the Tigers to play to their strength and take a defensive posture the rest of the way. St. Joseph center midfielder Jessica Mazo and freshman forward Maddie Fried, who have given verbal commitments, respectively, to UConn and Villanova, got few touches.
“For a while I think we had the majority of the possession and that wasn’t anything I was expecting,” Middlebrook said. “Those 50-50 balls I think were the turning point of the game.”
Nogueira said afterward he was impressed with the Tigers’ grit. He was also disappointed by what he considered a second straight subpar effort. The Cadets were 9-0 before tying town rival Trumbull on Saturday.
“We weren’t really working hard enough to win,” Nogueira said. “Ridgefield beat us to every single ball. They won every ball in the air. Every pass that they made, which wasn’t to feet, but it was a game plan and it served them well. We don’t play hard enough to win. We don’t play hard enough to win championships. Certainly these last two games we were very soft as a team.”
Nogueira said despite his program’s resume, the younger players need a reminder that putting on the uniform is no guarantee of success.
“Two games straight. Not determined. Not competing to play,” Nogueira said. “What the girls have to realize is this year we’re not good enough to just play 50 percent and win games. They haven’t figured that out yet. We had a soft schedule in the beginning where we were 9-0. I don’t want to talk bad about any teams. Certainly the next six teams we play should be better quality. So we have our hands full. Certainly we have to play harder. If we don’t play harder it’s going to be a very disappointing end of the season.”
Ridgefield was considered more sleeper than favorite coming into this year after losing all but four starters. Its status after a month has changed dramatically.
“I think our whole season our team knew we were capable but we didn’t know if we could execute as well,” Middlebrook said. “St Joe’s is always there in the end and I think we proved we can be there at the end too. People have to start taking us very seriously.”