As kickoff approaches, the Staples and Ridgefield girls soccer teams’ players and coaches will experience the usual mix of nerves and excitement that mingle right before the start of any state championship game.
What neither side will feel is unfamiliarity.
The conference rivals are meeting in the Class LL state championship game (Sunday, 3 p.m.) at Ken Strong Field in West Haven for the second straight season. Ridgefield won the first state title in program history with a 2-1 victory over Staples in last year’s title contest.
Earlier this fall, the teams played to a scoreless tie in a regular-season game at Ridgefield.
“We don’t need scouting reports,” Ridgefield head coach Iain Golding, whose team is playing in the state finals for the fourth consecutive year, said. “The know us and we know them.”
“There’s mutual respect,” Staples head coach Barry Beattie said. “We’re looking forward to playing Ridgefield again.”
What Staples isn’t focused on is revenge.
“That makes for a nice story, but it’s never been a revenge mission for us,” Beattie said. “We just knew what we needed to work on to make it back to the finals. We were never driven by the idea of beating Ridgefield to avenge last year.”
Goals figure to be at a premium in Sunday’s game. Staples has allowed only nine goals in 21 games this season, and Ridgefield has been even stingier, allowing just four goals in its 23 games. The Tigers have yet to be scored upon in the state tournament.
“The most important part of the game could well be who scores first,” Beattie said. “Both teams have very good defenses, so that first goal might hold up. We know how tough it is to beat Ridgefield when they score first.”
“Since both teams have been doing really well on defense, you’d assume that one goal would be enough,” Golding said. “But I could also see it being a 2-1 game or a 3-2 game. It’s soccer, and strange things can happen.”
In last year’s state final, Ridgefield central defender Claire Middlebrook scored both goals on set pieces — one on a high, curling free kick and the other on a header off a corner kick. Now a senior, Middlebrook displayed her set-piece skills once again in the Tigers’ most recent game — Monday’s 3-0 semifinal win over Simsbury — by scoring twice on free kicks and then setting up Caitlin Slaminko’s goal with another perfectly placed free kick.
“She’s certainly dangerous on set pieces,” Beattie said about Middlebrook. “Any time Ridgefield gets a corner or a free kick you have to worry. But even though Middlebrook gets the headlines, they also have several other players who can hurt you.”
That group includes midfielders Megan Klosowski, Grace Michalowski and Julia Bragg, and forwards Tasha Riek, Julia Bragg, and Slaminko.
Golding has a similar outlook regarding Staples, whose standouts include defender Mia Gonzalez, midfielders Reese Sutter and Autumn Smith, and forward Ashley Wright. Smith, a sophomore playmaker, returned to the lineup in the Wrecker’s 1-0 semifinal win over Glastonbury after missing several games due to injury.
“They’re an excellent team with a lot of good players,” he said. “There’s no one player who you have to worry about; they have plenty of players that you have to worry about.”
No. 5 STAPLES (17-1-3) vs. No. 7 RIDGEFIELD (20-2-1)
When: Sunday, 3 p.m.
Where: West Haven HS
Broadcast: NFHS Network (subscription required)
Championship game appearances: Staples is 1-2, making its second straight appearance; Ridgefield is the defending champion and is making its fourth straight appearance in the Class LL finals and fifth overall. The Tigers are 1-3 in their previous state final games.
Players to watch: Claire Middlebrook, Ridgefield: part of a rock-solid defense that has posted 20 shutouts, including six in the postseason; Middlebrook is also great off set pieces: she had two goals and an assist in the semifinals against Simsbury; Reese Sutter, Staples: After scoring twice in last season’s semifinal-round win, Sutter scored the game’s only goal this season, handing Glastonbury its first loss.
What to look for: An All-FCIAC finals rematch. Ridgefield is in the final for the fourth straight year, finally breaking through for its initial title 2-1 over the Wreckers. Middlebrook scored both goals to earn game MVP laurels last season. Staples has rebounded from a loss in the FCIAC tournament quarterfinals to Darien. The Wreckers have 13 shutouts themselves. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that these two teams played to a scoreless tie during the season – and this game may not be decided until overtime, or end up in a co-championship.
You should know: Staples has only allowed more than one goal once: two to Darien in its only loss.
— Joe Morelli