WILTON — In a physical game full of hard challenges and fouls, it was fitting the only score came off a set piece.
Autumn Smith was able to convert on Gabby Gonzalez’s free kick with 33 minutes left in the second half, and the Staples defense made the goal stand up as the top-seeded Wreckers defeated second-seed St. Joseph 1-0 in the FCIAC girls soccer finals Thursday night at Kristine Lilly Field.
It was the fifth conference title and first since 2014 for Staples, which remained unbeaten (17-0-2) this season.
“It’s amazing for the team and especially the seniors,” said Wreckers’ coach Barry Beattie, whose team lost to St. Joseph in the 2017 FCIAC finals and also fell to Ridgefield in the last two Class LL state finals. “Now, finally, people can start writing stories about these kids being champions and stop reminding them of the finals they lost.
“Obviously we have some talent on the field, but you see the mentality of the players and it’s so high and they just drive each other forward,” Beattie added. “And finally they got their reward. Finally.”
A scoreless opening half featured frequent free kicks as neither team was able to build through midfield. Staples came closest to taking the lead when Kathryn Ialeggio’s shot hit the crossbar.
Early in the second half, St. Joseph was called for a foul to the right of its goal, well outside the box. Gabby Gonzalez lofted her free kick into the area and a St. Joseph player headed it to the side, where Smith was able to collect the ball and beat keeper Grace Hickey with a a tight-angle shot.
“We had to take the chance when it arrived,” Beattie said. “And Autumn stepped up big time for us.”
St. Joseph coach Jack Nogueira was upset about the referee’s decision to award the free kick and voiced his displeasure to the officials.
“I can’t comment on referee calls, so it is what it is,” Nogueira said after the game. “I thought it was a pretty evenly played game; it’s unfortunate that they scored in the way that they scored, but give them credit … they played hard and they competed.”
St. Joseph (15-1-3) nearly tied the game five minutes later, but Hannah Hodges drilled a shot that struck the crossbar and bounced away. The Cadets continued to apply pressure, with Staples goalie Marisa Shorrock doing well to snag a crisp crossing ball from Mary Lundregan.
After St. Joseph goalie Grace Hickey made a superb save on Ialeggio’s blast — tipping the ball over the crossbar — the Staples defense (led by Cornell-bound senior center back Mia Gonzalez) was able to shut down St. Joseph in the final 20 minutes, keeping the Cadets from getting quality chances.
The Gonzalez sisters, along with fellow defenders Alexa Frost and Cailyn Lesher and holding midfielder Reese Sutter, mostly prevented St. Joseph from seriously testing Shorrock throughout the game. Maddie Fried, the Cadets’ skillful junior striker, had some nice dribbling runs but struggled to find shooting lanes.
“We made it our goal to stop her [Fried],” Mia Gonzalez said. “We had to stay really, really tight on her and not let her turn.”
“The last time we played St. Joe’s (a 1-1 regular-season tie) they had the higher intensity; our girls were a little shell-shocked,” Beattie said. “What we learned from that experience was that we have to set the tone; we have to raise the tempo high; we have to press hard. And when you look at our players working all over the field, 80 minutes of that level soccer, that’s high quality.”
“We’ve really been waiting for this all four years,” said Mia Gonzalez, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. “To see it for our last time in the FCIAC finals is great.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Mia Gonzalez, Staples: The Wreckers’ central defender anchored a backline that allowed St. Joseph players little space.
“Staples is a very good team and they did a good job on us. We didn’t play our best soccer, but that’s a credit to them.” — St. Joseph coach Jack Nogueira
STAPLES 1, ST. JOSEPH 0
ST. JOSEPH 0 0—0
STAPLES 0 1—1
Scoring: S – Autumn Smith (Gabby Gonzalez assist). Records: Staples 17-0-2; St. Joseph 15-1-3