NORWALK — St. Joseph girls soccer coach Jack Nogueira looked down to the opposing sideline and called out to Alex Harrison, his counterpart at Ridgefield. Nogueira congratulated Harrison, gave him a hug and returned to his bench.
It was a classy show of sportsmanship made noteworthy in that there was still over a minute left when the act took place. Truth be told, it could have happened much earlier. Setting a how-to template for future underdogs on how to upset an undefeated team, the Tigers played a near-perfect game Wednesday night and came away with a 2-0 win over the top-seeded Cadets to win their seventh FCIAC title, their first since 2009 and first outright since back in 1993.
“Give them credit. I thought they did a wonderful job defending us,” said Nogueira, whose team had scored 91 goals in its first 18 games and been held below three just twice. “They were just more aggressive. They won every ball, made every tackle, they stuck to the gameplan. All credit to them. They were the better team than us.”
Prior to the game, while watching warmups, Nogueira mentioned to Harrison how loose the Ridgefield players looked. Then the Tigers (14-2-3), whose lone loss in the last 16 matches was a 3-0 decision to St. Joseph, went out and played not only like a team that felt it was playing with house money, but one confident in its own ability.
“We knew what we had to do, we knew what we had to get done,” said Grace Franklin, who scored the second goal and led a stifling defensive effort.
Before going on, lets not make this Villanova taking down Georgetown. The Tigers may not have any superstars the likes of St. Joseph’s Jenna Bike (then again, who does?), but they are an extremely skilled side that plays hard and smart.
“When they know their job and know their roles and they are pretty clued in what to do, it’s simple,” Harrison said. “They are just waiting for the first whistle so they can come out and execute. And talk about executing. They were fantastic.”
Harrison by no means intended his words to be interpreted this way, but allow me to offer my own spin: if you are well coached, give good players a good game plan and they carry it out, you will get the desired result.
A brief interlude on Harrison, now in his third season at the school: he is one of the best hires made by Ridgefield athletic director Carl Charles. Harrison is a solid tactician who relates well to his players. And he is an eminently likable person, which makes him easy to root for.
Franklin said the defensive strategy was to contain Bike, Lindsay Savko and freshman Jessica Mazo, which is easier said than done. The Cadets controlled possession in the first 10 minutes, but Bike, one of the best players in league history, sustained a hit to the thigh and was hobbled the rest of the way.
Ridgefield’s first attack, in the 11th minute, resulted in a goal, as Natalie Brassinga played a ball in to Katie Jasminski, who was unmarked. Jasminski, who scored twice in the semifinal win over Darien, finished with a quick shot for a 1-0 lead.
The Tigers quickly proved that wasn’t a fluke goal, as Franklin, Morgan Hartmayer, Kathryn Barlow and Claire Middlebrook, a freshman who was often assigned to Bike, were superb in front of goalkeeper Julia Middlebrook, the game’s most valuable player.
Ridgefield got its second goal in the 50th minute, off of Alex Damron’s corner kick. The ball eventually caromed out to Franklin, who steered it back into the goal.
“Alex served a great ball in, it was kind of fumbling around and it basically came right to me and I put it in the back of the net,” Franklin said.
The Cadets played in a daze of frustration the rest of the way, rushing rather than orchestrating attacks. The Ridgefield defense had a lot to do with it.
“A team like St. Joseph is always going to cause us issues, but defending is part of the game,” Harrison said. “It takes a lot of concentration and staying focused, and they did for 80 minutes. I’m very proud of them.”
Don’t be surprised if both teams find their way back to the final a year from now. The Cadets lose Bike, Marissa Grasso and Leah Lewis but are well stocked. Ridgefield had few seniors on the field.
“This is just a great feeling,” Franklin said. “We just knew we had to come out and play, and the rest is history.”