SOCCER: Dream season for Cheshire girls dealt knockout blow by Staples in Class LL final

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HARTFORD — Over the course of 22 games, no opponent could land a punch on Cheshire girls soccer.

At least not one that could win a soccer game.

After 22 contests, after 1,820 minutes of game play, the Lady Rams stood 21-0-1.

Then came the first 10 minutes of the second half of Sunday’s Class LL state championship game at Trinity Health Stadium against Staples.

The first 10 minutes and 11 seconds to be exact.

Slicing and dicing with excellent speed and skill up top, the Westport squad extended a 1-0 halftime lead with three goals in the opening 10:11 of the second half.

In one fell swoop — well, three — top-seeded Cheshire’s undefeated season and state title aspirations were dashed in the final round, 4-1, by the No. 3 Wreckers, whose nickname never seemed more apropos.

Sophomore Annabel Edwards, working in combination with junior Evelyn Chudowsky, scored all three of those Staples goals to start the second half.

Freshman Natalie Chudowsky got the Wreckers out to a 1-0 lead midway through the first stanza, using deft footwork to create space and get off a curling shot to the corner from the top of the box.

Freshman Abby Sink scored for Cheshire, finishing a cross after never-say-die work on the right wing by senior Haley Shaw. But, by then, Staples led 4-0 and only 10 minutes remained to be played on a cold afternoon that slipped into even colder night.

Cheshire’s season, which included the SCC conference championship, still goes down in the history books. It just goes down at 21-1-1.

“I don’t think that this loss can take anything away from what the girls have done all season to get to this point,” said Cheshire coach Kylee McIntosh. “I think we still have the best record in the whole state, so I’m not mad.

“They worked hard; some games just don’t go our way,” she continued. “They’re an incredible team, so kudos to them.”

The Wreckers finished at 16-2-4 and finished atop Class LL for a second straight season. A year ago, before penalty kicks were instituted to settle championship game ties, Staples shared the crown with FCIAC rival Wilton after battling to a 0-0 tie.

Both McIntosh and Staples coach Bob Beattie agreed on this point: last year’s trip to the state finals, on the very same Trinity Health Stadium field, worked to the Wreckers’ advantage on Sunday.

“I think it did help us. We only graduated three kids from the starting lineup last year; we had 23 returners who already had this experience,” said Beattie. “I told the Cheshire coaches they’ve got a talented team and they’re talented coaches because they wouldn’t have got this far with the record they have beating the teams they have if they weren’t good. So I told them, ‘Use this and get back next year.’”

If the Rams do return, perhaps they won’t be so affected by the bright lights of the championship stage. Those lights can be awfully blinding on new eyes.

“I think some of it was our inexperience being in these kind of games, but at the same time I think we were just not ready mentally to take up the challnege,” McIntosh said. “I think we were a sort of scared and we gave them a little bit too much respect. 

“We talk about how we don’t let fear dominate our play, and today it did. But it’s a big stage and I understand it,” added McIntosh, who played for the Rams the last time they reached a girls soccer state final in 2008.

Cheshire lost that year to Trumbull, 1-0, in overtime. McIntosh recalled the Rams went after victory full-throttle in OT and wound up paying for it.

14 years later, against Staples, the Rams came out of the gate with alacrity, carrying the first 10 minutes behind the right-side forays of senior forward Anna Hurlbut.

But Staples settled in and steadily began to tilt the field.

Plus, the one big engine the Rams couldn’t get untracked was star midfielder/striker Gabby Tirado. Whenever the senior got the ball on her skilled feet, multiple Staples defenders closed on her and closed quickly.

The M.O. was clear: Don’t give Tirado room or time to operate. 

“Everytime I got the ball, a lot of pressure came on me,” Tirado said. “This happened a couple times during the season, so I moved around position-wise. But in the end, they got the better of it.”

Containing Tirado was high on the Staples game plan.

“She is quite a talent,” Beattie said. “We gave our two center-backs specific information on how to play against her and I thought they executed the game plan really well.

“Luckily for us, we’ve seen talented strikers all season, so the game plan’s kind of the same to stop the striker. You try to keep kids like that quiet,” Beattie added. “She had periods in the game where she was excellent. You hope she doesn’t score in those periods and, thankfully, today she didn’t. But she’s a great kid. She’s going to have a great future in the game.”

Tirado is almost certain to play in college. First, she’s likely to put in a prep year.

For now, she was waging a tearful war with her emotions as her high school career came to a close. After missing most of her junior season to a fractured fibula, Tirado rebounded with a senior season that surpassed the All-New England campaign she enjoyed as a sophomore.

“We worked so hard to get here and it’s still such an accomplishment to have made to it to this game,” Tirado said. “I know we had an incredible season; we couldn’t have asked for anything better. This (stinks), but that’s part of life, to lose. They’re a really good team; they had some good players. One had to win in the end.

“I’m going to remember the incredible team I had, my best friends,” she added. “We still made history no matter what and I hope our boys can take home something to make me a little bit happier tonight.”

As it turned out, the Cheshire boys did just that, beating Xavier 3-1 in the last of the eight 2022 state soccer championship games that played at the home of the Hartford Athletic, a big-league field where big dreams were realized or crushed in high school hearts this frosty weekend.

There were celebrations and consolations, and there was one Lady Ram walking away determined to come back better. 

“I guess I was angry,” said Haley Shaw, who truly battled to the final horn. “We didn’t play to our full potential, like how we usually play. But I think coming out of this I’ll use it as motivation when I train. I wish I was a better player now and then I could have carried my team better, so it’s motivation to train more and just keep improving.”


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