History makers: Ridgefield beats Staples, wins first state title

On a fitting manner in an unlikely season, the Ridgefield High girls soccer team got the biggest win in program history.

Two second-half goals from junior defender Claire Middlebrook — both off set pieces — led the Tigers to a 2-1 victory over Staples in the Class LL state championship game Saturday afternoon at West Haven High School.

It was the first-ever state title for Ridgefield, a perennial contender that had lost in the last two Class LL championship games to unbeaten Glastonbury teams.

"I think the magnitude of it hasn't quite sunk in," said Ridgefield head coach Iain Golding as his players continued their celebration behind him. "At the start of the season a state championship was our goal, so to accomplish it this year — after the last couple of years we fell short — feels ecstatic. Right now I'm overcome with emotions, and if I let them show I'll probably cry my eyes out."

After beating Glastonbury on penalty kicks in the semifinals three days ago, the seventh-seeded Tigers exacted more revenge with their win over fourth-seed Staples. The Wreckers had shut out Ridgefield in two previous meetings this season, including a 1-0 triumph in the FCIAC semifinals that denied the Tigers a shot at a third straight conference title.

Quality scoring chances were rare in Saturday's game. Although Staples looked more dangerous during the scoreless first half, it struggled to unlock the Ridgefield defense. Central midfielders Emma Jacobson and Erika Linke shut down several Staples transition sequences, and central defenders Kathryn Barlow and Middlebrook cut off through balls. The Wreckers' best opportunity of the opening 40 minutes came on Reese Sutter's free kick, which went just wide of the Ridgefield goal.

Staples applied pressure to begin the second half — with freshman Autumn Smith eluding one defender before sending a shot over the crossbar — but it was Ridgefield that got the first goal.

A foul near the left touchline gave the Tigers a free kick from 25 yards out, and Middlebrook curled an expertly placed shot into the top right corner of the Staples net with 32:46 to play.

"Before the free kick I asked my coach is this a shot or a cross and he said shot," said Middlebrook. "I just used all my power and hit it toward the goal and it went in."

Ridgefield nearly doubled its lead five minutes later. Jacobson's cross was headed away from the goal by a Staples defender, but Ridgefield's Tasha Riek beat another defender to the ball and took a shot that Wrecker goalie Anna Sivinski was able to block. The rebound went to Faith Arnold, but her shot was blocked by a Staples player.

Undaunted, Ridgefield continued to threaten, earning a corner kick in the 59th minute. Caitlin Slaminko's first corner was deflected over the end line by a Staples defender, but her second attempt found an onrushing Middlebrook, who snapped a header past Sivinski for a 2-0 Ridgefield lead.

"I saw the keeper go out and I knew that the whole goal was open for me, so I just headed it and took advantage of my opportunity," said Middlebrook.

"We knew that there weren't going to be a lot of chances in this game, so we wanted to capitalize when we had a corner or a free kick," said Golding. "We have done well on set pieces throughout the season and, fortunately, we converted two of them today."

Staples was able to close within a goal when Arianna Gerig raced onto a through ball that split two defenders and scored, narrowing Ridgefield's advantage to 2-1 with 5:41 remaining.

The Wreckers tried the same tactic twice more, but Ridgefield goalie Lauren Castle came out to beat Staples forwards to the ball. A few minutes later, Castle's teammates were the ones rushing toward her, as time expired and the Tigers began their celebration.

That the elusive state title came this season was somewhat surprising. After graduating many of its top players from last year, Ridgefield didn't seem capable of returning to the Class LL finals this fall. Some of the Tigers themselves even doubted how far the team could advance.

But one player who felt confident all year was Barlow, a four-year starter on defense.

"I don't think that a lot of people believed we could win a state title, but I really did," said Barlow. "I think it was the chemistry ... all of us were so close right from the beginning [of the season]. So many new players ... that didn't really affect it though. We were just all so close with each other that I knew it was coming."

Notes: Ridgefield finished the season with a 16-3-3 record.

This was the Tigers' fourth appearance in the state finals. In addition to the losses to Glastonbury the last two seasons, Ridgefield fell to Simsbury in the Class L title game in 1992.