Unbeaten in regular season, Darien girls soccer wonders what might have been

Darien senior girls soccer captains Courtney Ball, Kate Chandler, Nelle Kniffen and Kate Bellissimo at Darien High School. Darien finished the regular season unbeaten at 10-0.

Darien senior girls soccer captains Courtney Ball, Kate Chandler, Nelle Kniffen and Kate Bellissimo at Darien High School. Darien finished the regular season unbeaten at 10-0.

Scott Ericson / Hearst Connecticut Media

The Darien girls soccer team will always be left wondering how good they really could have been in 2020.

As it stands, the team finished the regular season 10-0, giving up just five goals, with seven wins coming via shutout.

The Blue Wave will face rival New Canaan Thursday for the FCIAC-West Region Championship.

Though Darien has beaten the Rams three times this season, New Canaan has also scored three of the five goals Darien allowed and having to beat a rival for the fourth time for a championship is never easy.

What the Blue Wave will never know is if the team could have won its first FCIAC or CIAC Class LL state championships in school history.

“We will look back and know it was a good season comparatively with what we were dealt, but there will also be that little thing knowing that these girls were the real deal and probably really could have done something this year,” Darien coach Leigh Parsons said. “I really do think this is a group that could have made a run both FCIAC and states. This year’s team has a balance back-to-front and is as complete of a team as we have had in a long time. Yeah, it’s a great season and we have done very well but there is that little bit of what if.”

The key to Darien’s success is not just from the nine seniors on the roster but also a product of quality players on each level of the field and solid subs providing a deep bench.

“We knew what we had coming back and what we could build off from last season,” Parsons said. “We had a lot of quality seniors coming back and a lot of depth at forward, midfield and defense and a strong goalie. We had a good foundation to build on and we knew we had some strong freshmen coming in. We were looking forward to this season.”

The team got an additional boost with addition of senior Francesca Highton who played academy soccer in previous seasons.

With her academy season canceled due to COVID, the University of Rhode Island commit joined an already strong Blue Wave roster.

The core of the roster is anchored by senior captains Kate Bellissimo, Nelle Kniffen, Courtney Ball and Kate Chandler.

Those seniors would have loved the chance to play against the best in the state.

“We are missing the state tournament. It’s always fun to play teams you don’t get to come across in the FCIAC. Getting to play Glastonbury or other teams from upstate is always fun and great challenge,” Bellissimo said. “We would have loved a regular state playoffs. But, some of the best teams are in the FCIAC anyway. That was kind of a bigger heartbreak for us not to be able to play everyone in the FCIAC.”

Parsons, who took over as head coach in 2011, has brought Darien as far as the FCIAC semifinals but never to a championship game.

Darien made its only appearances in FCIAC titles games in the 2007 and 2008 seasons, losing both finals to St. Joseph.

“This season is really special for the seniors. We are all pretty close and it is just fun to spend time together. We are so happy we were able to get our senor season in. It gives us memories of one last season together,” Kniffen said. “Our undefeated season is something we are proud of but we still miss those bigger games against Staples, St. Joe’s and Ridgefield and other teams that are really good teams every season.”

The team opened this season with a 2-1 win over New Canaan and from that point forward, was locked in.

“Our first game was against New Canaan and we beat them and that was really big for us since they are our biggest rival,” Ball said. “We knew after that we could beat anyone in our division because we knew coming in to the season that New Canaan is a good team.”

The team also realizes that while they are missing out on traditional FCIAC and state playoffs, getting to have a season at all, was a blessing.

“We are really grateful because we all know how having spring sports entirely canceled affected us,” Chandler said. “That made us cherish our season. Even though it has not been normal, we are so happy that we were able to go undefeated and be able to have a playoff of any kind.”

With the biggest games not on the schedule, Parsons worried his team may lack focus but was quickly reassured that the senior leadership would not allow for that.

“We knew it would be difficult at times this season to maintain that focus and seriousness when we aren’t playing St. Joe’s, Staples or Ridgefield,” Parsons said. “Everyone has been dealt those cards and it was up to us to decide if we were not going to take it seriously and then look back with regret if we lost a bunch of games. We wanted to be able to look back and say, we did the best we could. That’s what our mentality was going into every practice and every game. When you watch our games, you can’t tell anything is different. They are all up for it.”

Still, Parson would have liked to see where this team wound up in a regular season.

Parsons has coached several very good teams at Darien including the 10-3-3 2013 team and the 2017 team which went 11-2-3 in the regular season. That team knocked off No. 1 seed and unbeaten Suffield 1-0 in the CIAC Class LL quarterfinals before losing 3-2 to Staples in the semifinals.

“It is tough to say without a full season,” Parsons said. “We have done very well the last six years and competed in every tournament. It’s tough, because I do feel this team could have won something this year. Just with the balance and being so solid all the way through. We have three or four girls that can be unplayable going forward and can be dangerous being able to score goals in so many ways.”

Sericson@stamfordadvocate.com; @EricsonSports