Ridgefield edges Darien, 1-0, advances to FCIAC semis

As expected, there were few good scoring chances during Friday afternoon's FCIAC girls soccer quarterfinal between Ridgefield and Darien at Tiger Hollow.

But it was Ridgefield that capitalized on its best opportunity.

Caitlin Slaminko's goal with 6:44 remaining accounted for the only scoring as the fourth-seeded Tigers defeated fifth-seed Darien, 1-0.

Ridgefield (12-2-3), the two-time defending FCIAC champion, will now play top-seed Staples in the first of two conference semifinals on Monday at 5 at Wilton High School. Second-seed St. Joseph and third-seed Fairfield Warde meet in the second semifinal, which gets underway at 7.

The game matched two of the state's stingiest defenses: Over 16 regular-season contests, Ridgefield allowed just eight goals and Darien surrendered only nine.

With just over seven minutes remaining, Slaminko posed the biggest scoring threat until that point, sending a shot to the left side of the Darien goal and forcing a diving save from keeper Kate Fiore. Less than a minute later, Slaminko didn't miss. Freshman winger Faith Arnold made a run down the left side, cut back, and provided an accurate service to Slaminko, who came through with a left-footed finish.

“Faith dribbled it up the sideline through a defender," said Slaminko, a sophomore striker. "She got to the end line and cut it back to me, where I hit it across to the back post with my left foot. I knew that we had limited opportunities to finish shots and I was determined to put that shot in the net."

That the goal was manufactured by a freshman and sophomore was vintage production this season for a Ridgefield team which graduated most of its top scorers.

“Being an incoming player for a program like Ridgefield comes with a lot of expectations, especially a reputation to be met, but the girls that have been here have shown all of us what this team is all about and the culture of it all," said freshman forward Tasha Riek, who provided an offensive spark as a substitute in the second half. “Obviously, being as good as the players from last year's [senior] class is difficult, but we’ve definitely exceeded where we thought we would be by now.”

Darien, which had gained a degree of familiarity with the Tigers after falling, 2-0, in a regular-season match Oct. 2, understood that the key to containing Ridgefield was preventing goal-scoring opportunities on corner kicks and free kicks. The Tigers excel at these set pieces because they allow them to utilize junior central defender Claire Middlebrook, who is a threat to score on free kicks and also has an uncanny ability to finish balls in the air.

In the 14th minute, Middlebrook took the only free kick of the first half for Ridgefield from 40 yards away, and Fiore did well to get to the ball first and punch it out.

Containing Darien striker Katie Ramsey was an essential part of Ridgefield's defensive game plan. Middlebrook and fellow central defender Kathryn Barlow limited Ramsey's touches, and the Darien offense struggled to get the ball to its dynamic striker. With limited impact from Ramsey, Darien’s offense became a headless unit that failed to penetrate the formidable Ridgefield backline. Relying solely on set pieces from Nathalie Bravo, the Blue Wave were unable to beat Ridgefield keeper Lauren Castle, who made multiple saves on shots from more than 20 yards out.

With both defenses settling in, the first half was devoid of even the hint of a goal.

“We came out a little too excited and nervous in the beginning, so we had some difficulty finding our stride," said Ridgefield senior midfielder Emma Jacobson. "Fortunately, we pulled it together in the second half and gained more composure and started being more physical and winning more tackles and 50-50 balls.”

In the 54th minute, Slaminko aggressively pursued one of those 50-50 balls, resulting in a collision with Fiore that nearly knocked the ball free. But Fiore was able to hold on and the scoreless stalemate continued.

The play, however, was a harbinger. Twenty minutes later, Arnold delivered her pass to Slaminko, and Slaminko deftly converted, beating Fiore and sending Ridgefield to the semifinals.