WESTPORT — Midway through the first half of today’s Class LL second round game, Staples coach Barry Beattie shouted out a succinct five-word question to his players: “Are we going to finish?”
It was a reasonable inquiry given the number of chances the Wreckers had, and it took a while before one, Ava Simunovic, gave her version of an affirmative response.
Simunovic’s header off a perfect delivery by Annie Amacker on a corner kick in the 66th minute lifted the fourth-seeded Wreckers to a 1-0 win over Fairfield Ludlowe in their first appearance since last Friday’s loss in the FCIAC championship.
Staples will host Trumbull in Saturday’s quarterfinals.
The finish came after the Wreckers (15-4-1) had repeated opportunities either miss their mark or get turned away by Ludlowe goalkeeper Natalie Kelchner, who was sensational in her final appearance.
“This was a really important game,” Simunovic said. “It was hard thinking are we going to go to PKs, are we not going to win. We had a lot of chances and none of them were working so we were all getting stressed out. It was getting frustrating but the most important thing was take a step back, take a deep breath and that’s what we did. Take our time and wait for the play to work out. Once you start getting frustrated you start forcing balls and then it’s not going to work.”
Staples has flourished this season because of contributions from both seniors and underclassmen, so the combination on the decisive play was fitting. Amacker is a senior and Simunovic one of several skilled sophomores.
Simunovic said she has recently been challenged with her targeting of balls into the box, both in a conference semifinal against Ridgefield and even 24 hours earlier during a training session.
“Annie is an amazing crosser,” Simunovic said. “The last game I had two headers that went right, went over the crossbar, so I was getting really close and in practice I’ve been practicing a lot. When I got in there I really wanted to score and had to get this in for the team. It came in and it was a perfect ball and I shifted my body a little and I headed it in. It was perfect, it came right to my head and I said I can’t ruin it.”
Staples coach Barry Beattie said he continued to reinforce his confidence in Simunovic’s ability on balls in the air as recently as yesterday.
“She’s been doing that for the last four or five games, getting on the end of corners but missing them,” Beattie said. “Putting them over or wide, hitting the crossbar. Yesterday in practice we were doing some set piece stuff and she was doing header after header and didn’t score any. We had a conversation and I said don’t get frustrated and keep attacking them the same way. You’ll get the rewards in the game. I’m glad for her.”
Staples pressed the attack from the outset; Kelchner’s best stop came just 25 seconds in, and she made three in the first minute.
“I always find with goalkeepers if you make a big save early in the game your confidence is sky high from there on,” Beattie said. “From there she was punching things, saving things and she’s an excellent goalkeeper. It made it more difficult for us. We had a couple of good opportunities.”
The Wreckers moved the ball well and did a good job creating. The Falcons (7-5-6), no strangers to ties, were able to stay in the game because of Kelchner and her defense.
Ludlowe had its best chances late in the game after falling behind.
“That’s always the problem with not killing a team off. Especially someone like Ludlowe,” Beattie said. “They knew no matter what the score was it wasn’t over.”
The Falcons showed few signs of a team that just saw its season come to an end. There seemed to be more pride in the effort against an opponent with legitimate title hopes.
“That’s why I love working with them. They’re definitely disappointed with the outcome but boy did I like the way they finished that game,” Ludlowe coach Peter Nikac said. “They stayed in the game. We had a set piece, and we love to score on set pieces, but as far as their fight… (Staples) definitely had the better run of play but my girls were up to the challenge. We had our chances. We can’t say we didn’t have our chances. Good luck to Staples, they’re a great team.”