Fairfield Warde girls soccer eliminated by No. 1 Berlin

Fairfield Warde girls soccer head coach Tom Cunningham knew what his team was up against in the second round of the state Class L tournament. In 16 regular-season games, top-seeded, undefeated Bristol had scored 69 goals and given up only seven.

"I told the girls we needed to shut them down," said Cunningham. "Trying to trade goals with them would be very difficult, but the girls hung in there. We went down 1-0, but we came right back at them and maintained pressure on them the entire game."

The Mustangs' stubborn defense, led by seniors Caroline Lutz and Maggie Giambalvo and senior goaltender Ali Rocchi held the Redcoats to two goals, but the extremely physical Berlin defense limited Warde to one, advancing to the state quarterfinals with a 2-1 victory.

The Redcoats showed their brand of play early, tripping Warde striker Carly Mappa in the fifth minute of play. Lutz' free kick from 25 yards bounded off the crossbar, five inches from giving the Mustangs an early lead.

In the scoreless first half, each offense earned a corner kick and each defense rose to the occasion, but the offensive edge went to the Redcoats, with five shots to the Mustangs' two.

Striker Kerry Scalora led the Berlin attack, stymied on a near breakaway by Alex Kelly in the14th minute and late in the half firing consecutive long shots into Rocchi's waiting hands.

Giambalvo kept Scalora at bay early in the second half, forcing a weak shot that Rocchi handled easily. Unable to get past the Warde defense, Scalora found a path over it, rocketing a long crossing shot high into the Warde goal for a 1-0 Berlin advantage.

Faced with a very young squad, with only five seniors on a roster of 21, Cunningham had decided to name all five captains. His wisdom became apparent in the 2009 Mustangs' final 35 minutes of play.

The Redcoats had taken a vigorous approach to Sarah Duffy, the Mustangs' indefatigable senior striker, driving her to the turf at every opportunity.

"It was definitely a challenge because the refs weren't calling a lot of fouls," said Duffy. "We had to stick it out and hold our own against them. When you fell down, you just had to get back up and keep trying."

Two minutes after her team fell behind, Duffy got a half step on Berlin defender Nikki Kureczka and matched Scalora's crossing shot with a goal of her own.

"I just beat the defender and got it in," said Duffy. "We were only one down and it tied the game up and gave us a lot to work for till the end of the game, which I think we definitely did a really good job of."

Four minutes later, Warde fans would be calling for a penalty shot when Duffy was leveled a yard inside the penalty box, but the official gave a verbal warning to the offending player and possession to Berlin.

The Warde attack continued strong and the Berlin defense continued physical. Kat Young's shot flew wide of the post just before Lutz took free kicks after Duffy got slammed from behind by Kureczka and Giambalvo got flattened by Scalora.

In the 58th minute, Scalora broke past the Warde defense, scoring the winning goal, but not ending the game.

With plenty of time to score again, the Mustangs kept the pressure on. Emily Pullen centered to Duffy for a near miss. Mappa and Pullen each fed senior Hannah McGrath for good opportunities, but Berlin's Robyn Riggott kept her nets clear and the Redcoats went on to the quarterfinals.

Warde left the field sad but with no regrets.

"Every player who stepped on the field stepped up," said Cunningham. "It was a team game, 11 players. Whichever 11 players were on the field, they played as hard as they could.

"The seniors were great leaders this year," Cunningham continued. "It's tough losing them next year, but their impact on the program, we won't lose."

The concept of continuity was not lost on the captains.

"We lost a lot of people last year, but since the beginning of the season, we've come together," said Giambalvo. "I've never been more proud of the girls. With every practice, we kept on getting better and growing together and developing as a really cohesive unit. We just played awesome toward the end."

"I think we leave them with a lot of potential for the next couple of years," added Duffy. "There's a lot of sophomores and a lot of juniors on the team, so hopefully we'll be looking out for Warde next year and the year after that."