Ridgefield beats Darien, 1-0, advances to state semis

Whenever the Ridgefield High girls soccer team scores first, head coach Iain Golding usually notices a spike in his confidence level. It’s what happens when you have a defense that concedes less often than Florida politicians. 

But Golding found himself unable to exhale after Tasha Riek’s goal less than three minutes into the second half staked seventh-seed Ridgefield to a 1-0 lead over 18th-seed Darien in Friday afternoon’s Class LL state tournament quarterfinal at Tiger Hollow.

“Darien was putting us under a lot of pressure,” said Golding, whose team improved to 19-2-1. “I wasn’t feeling as good as I normally do when we get the first goal. I was still nervous.”

Although the Blue Wave pressed for the equalizer, they were limited to three shots on net in the second half by omnipresent center back Claire Middlebrook and the rest of the Ridgefield defense. Goalie Lauren Castle stopped those attempts — two with ease, the other with a second effort —to preserve the Tigers’ 1-0 triumph.

Ridgefield, the reigning state champion, now enters Monday’s semifinal against 19th-seed Simsbury with a chance to reach the Class LL title game for the fourth straight year. The Tigers lost to Glastonbury in 2015 and 2016 before beating Staples last season.

Darien carried the opening half, pinning the Tigers in their own end for long stretches. The Blue Wave were rewarded with three corner kicks in the game’s first 10 minutes, and the third of those nearly produced a goal.

Nathalie Bravo lofted the ball into the box and it was kicked and headed back and forth before a Darien player poked a shot that was headed past Castle and toward the back of the Ridgefield net. But defender Carrina Dabroi was able to head the ball away before it crossed the goal line.

“For the majority of the game, I think we were the better team,” said Darien head coach Leigh Parsons. “Especially in the first half, we had corner after corner but couldn’t score.

“I’m proud of my players and their performance,” added Parsons, whose team finished the season with a 12-7-2 record. “But soccer can be a cruel game, and it was cruel to us today.”

Ridgefield survived the pressure and asserted itself in the latter stages of the opening half. The Tigers came close to taking the lead when Mackenzie Robson made a nice turn and sent a shot that just missed finding the top of the Darien net.

Ridgefield continued its control at the beginning of the second half, taking the lead just two minutes and 12 seconds after the restart. Julia Bragg won the ball along the left sideline and sent a pass to Faith Arnold. Arnold dribbled into space before delivering a beautiful through ball to Riek, who outran a defender and took a shot that struck Darien goalie Olivia Maniscalco and rebounded off the defender’s leg and into the net.

“I was making a run off the ball and Faith made a great pass,” said Riek, who was credited with the goal. “There was kind of a collision with me and the goalie and the defender, and then I saw the ball rolling into the net. I wasn’t sure how it happened.”

“I thought we were much better in the second half,” said Golding. “Tasha scored the goal, and then we had several other quality shots.”

Darien’s best chance to tie the game came with 15 minutes left. Ellen Harnisch ran onto a pass and struck a shot from nearly 30 yards out. Castle stopped the one-bounce shot but then dropped the ball, which nearly squirted into the Ridgefield goal before Castle scooped it up.

The Blue Wave had one more chance on a free kick following a Ridgefield foul. But this time Castle cleanly fielded Harnisch’s shot and the Tigers were on their way to the semifinals.