Ridgefield field hockey program eyes goal: Join FCIAC’s elite

Bella Carozza (left) is among the key players for the Ridgefield field hockey team.

Bella Carozza (left) is among the key players for the Ridgefield field hockey team.

Gretchen McMahon / For Hearst Connecticut Media

For most of the last decade, the Ridgefield field hockey team has resembled an airplane first in line for departure that then has to return to the gate because it’s been on the runway too long.

The Tigers have a flight plan, but the liftoff is elusive.

Where Ridgefield wants to travel is into the upper-echelon of FCIAC teams, who are also among the state’s best. Where it has been stuck is in the slightly less rarefied air just underneath those teams.

“Darien, New Canaan, Staples, Wilton, Greenwich,” said second-year Ridgefield head coach Jessica Smith about the teams who have combined to win all of the conference titles since 1990. “Those are the teams that have traditionally been at the top and are the ones we want to be considered with.”

Ridgefield has been no slouch, regularly qualifying for the FCIAC and state tournaments and occasionally pulling off a notable regular-season upset. But the Tigers have lacked the consistency needed to take the next step.

One mitigating factor has been turnover at the top: When Smith took over last season she became the program’s seventh new coach in 10 years. Career changes, job relocations or increased workloads led to the early departures of previous coaches, limiting Ridgefield’s ability to establish consistency and forcing the players to adapt to changing systems.

A former Division I player at Siena College, Smith is intent on making the Tigers a perennial power.

“Ridgefield has always had talented players, but not great field hockey teams,” she said. “My goal is to put all the talent together. You are only as successful as your weakest player, so we have to make sure the weakest player is also really good.”

So far this season, the Tigers have offered evidence that they belong in any conversation about the conference’s top teams. Ridgefield was 10-1-0-2 going into yesterday’s game against Trumbull and already has a pair of signature victories, beating Wilton, 1-0, and previously undefeated New Canaan, 3-1.

Ridgefield fell in overtime to Staples and Norwalk — both of those teams have only one loss this season — and dropped its season opener to Darien, 2-0.

“We haven’t lost in regulation since the first game,” Smith said. “That’s a nice accomplishment considering the level of play in the FCIAC.”

The Tigers have skilled players all over the field. Forwards Cate Irving, Aerin Krys and Izzy Redrup have combined for 40 goals; senior Bella Carrozza (who will play at Providence) anchors a strong midfield that also includes her younger sister, Julia Carrozza, and Riley Peters; and Bailey Harriott, Olivia DeStefano and Lily Daubenspeck and goalie Lisa van Gompel lead a defense that has allowed more than two goals just once this fall.

“The starters have been great, and we have a really good bench,” Smith said. “We don’t have the drop-off that some other teams do.”

Smith’s plan to shift the Tigers from a program on the brink to one playing for titles has several components.

“It started with the girls taking the sport seriously,” she said. “All but one starter plays club hockey in the off-season ... that is important because they can build up their individual skills and then we can work on other things like strategy and playing style.”

Smith has also focused on making her players mentally tougher.

“I think that in the past Ridgefield would look at some teams like Wilton, Darien and Staples and get intimidated,” she said. “I noticed last year that if one of those really good teams scored on us first our morale went down a little. I’m not seeing that this season.”

The Tigers will get another test in Friday’s home game against Greenwich before beginning the post-season with the FCIAC playoffs next week.

“We would love another opportunity to play the teams we lost to in the post-season,” Smith said. “The girls have confidence, which is something I’m not sure they would have had in the past.”