NORWALK — As a freshman, Darien’s Raina Johns is making her first journey through the FCIAC field hockey tournament. If the early returns are any indications, the Blue Wave is in for a heck of a ride.
Johns scored on two penalty strokes, including one with 2:04 remaining as Darien defeated rival New Canaan, 3-2, in the FCIAC semifinals Monday at Brien McMahon’s Jack Casagrande Field.
The top-seeded Wave (17-1-0-0) will face No. 2 Staples (17-1-0-0) in the conference final at 7 p.m., Thursday, at McMahon. Staples defeated Ridgefield 3-1 in Monday’s late semifinal.
Darien, the defending FCIAC champion, will be making its third straight appearance in the title game, and has reached the final nine times in the past 11 years, while Staples has reached the final twice in the past three seasons but lost each time. The Wreckers’ last FCIAC title came in 2011.
Darien beat the Wreckers, 3-1, during the regular season, but that game was in the season’s second week and Staples was dealing with several injuries to key players, including Kyle Kirby and Laine Ambrose.
The Blue Wave, on the other hand, suffered its only loss this season against its semifinal opponent, as New Canaan won 3-2 on Oct. 18, a result which added a little spice to the semifinals.
“There’s a lot of history between these two teams and they beat us in a tale of two halves in the regular season,” Darien coach Mo Minicus said. “We definitely wanted revenge, but regardless of who we’re playing, we want to make it to the championship. It was a crazy game but played very well by both teams. I’m proud of my girls for fighting till the end.”
— Dave Stewart (@DStewartSports) November 4, 2019
For Johns, who started and finished the scoring, it was quite an experience to help lead Darien back to the final.
“We have been working so hard all season,” Johns said. “And to know that I’m part of the reason that we’re going to the championship is amazing.”
Fourth-seeded New Canaan (15-3-0-0) showed plenty of spark, rebounding from two deficits to tie the game twice — first on a goal by sophomore Carolyn Baran in the opening half and then on a goal by junior Anna Lindeis with 6:38 to play.
The Rams had nine penalty corners during the second half and kept steady pressure on the Wave defense. The defense also played well, with junior goalie Megan Lydon making nine saves and allowing just one goal outside of the penalty strokes.
“I’m proud that they left it all out on the field,” New Canaan’s first-year coach Mary Clare Snediker said. “It definitely wasn’t from a lack of effort. It’s two great teams going up against each other and that’s why we play these games. We have bigger and better things ahead and we’ll be hosting a first-round state tournament game next week. So we still have to keep our heads high.”
Johns put Darien in front with a penalty stroke goal 12:21 into the game, but Baran tied it for New Canaan when she scored on a rebound with 2:14 to play in the half.
The Rams had the better of play for much of the second half, but Darien’s defense, including senior goalie Monisha Akula (8 saves) kept the score tied.
— Dave Stewart (@DStewartSports) November 5, 2019
Wave sophomore Molly McGuckin then made it 2-1 when she scored on a fast break up the left side with 9:42 to go.
The Rams quickly tied it on a penalty corner with 6:38 to play. Baran delivered a pass to Lindeis near the base line on the left side and Lindeis placed the ball perfectly into the far side of the cage.
With just over two minutes to play, the Wave put the ball in the circle and a wild scramble ensued, ending with a whistle to give Darien another stroke.
Minicus considered switching it up with another player, but instead went back to Johns.
“We practice them almost daily and I have a bunch of good strokers, but she’s always money, money, money,” Minicus said. “We weren’t sure if we should do the same stroker, but we went for it. She has so many in her tool box.”
Johns cashed in again and out the Wave in front for good.
“It’s one of my strong suits and we’ve been practicing them all season. I just shot it to my same spot and it went in luckily both times.”
New Canaan had a final opportunity with a penalty corner as time expired, but the Wave defense cleared the circle to punch their ticket to the final
“We’re so excited,” Akula said of the trip to the final. “We worked together as a team. I made those saves, but if Raina doesn’t score those goals, and everyone doesn’t play the way they did, we’re not going.”
— Dave Stewart (@DStewartSports) November 5, 2019
Staples earned its rematch with Darien after taking a 2-0 lead in the first half and then rolling to a 3-1 win against Ridgefield.
Staples has won 16 consecutive games since its early-season loss to the Wave
“We had a different team then, we had three players who were out with injuries, so I had to play a different system to try and accommodate the Darien players,” Staples coach Ian Tapsall said. “It’ll be a much different game this time. Darien always gives us a really tough game and if they keep the momentum at us, it won’t be an easy game to play. But it’s great playing against Darien — you always want to play against the best.”
Staples controlled its semifinal game from start to finish, as Ambrose and Kirby scored in a four-minute span midway through the first half for a two-goal lead. When Izzy Deveney finished during a wild scramble in the circle with 21:18 to play, the Wreckers had a 3-0 advantage.
Defensively, Staples allowed just two shots, as the backfield of Deveney, Grace Cooper, Maisie Dembski, and Erica Fanning were impeccable.
“You see the confidence they’ve got when they pass the ball around the back. You know they’re going to stop it, you know they’re going to distribute it really early and that’s going to create gaps behind that we can play into.”
The Tigers (14-2-0-2) suffered just their second loss in regulation this season – two of their defeats were in overtime – and were playing in the FCIAC semifinals for the first time.
“Staples has had many visits to the FCIAC tournament and this is Ridgefield’s first trip ever to the final four of the FCIAC,” Ridgefield coach Jessica Smith said. “It was our first time playing at this high of a level and Staples is very comfortable in games like this. That advantage definitely played for them.”
The Tigers averted a shutout, however, as Aerin Krys found the cage with an assist from Riley Peters with 8:26 remaining. It was just the ninth goal allowed by the Wreckers this season.
“They do not give up,” Smith said. “You can’t count Ridgefield out, ever. We will fight till the very end. In our first game against Staples we scored in the last minute to tie it, so Ridgefield does not quit.”