A peculiar, yet successful, 2020 season for the Fairfield girls’ soccer team came to an end on Saturday at the hands, or rather the feet, of District 12 champion Conwell-Egan.
The Green Knights, who won the District 3 Class 1A championship for the first time in three years, fell to the Eagles 4-3 on penalty kicks in the opening round of the state tournament. Despite the loss and impending departure of standout seniors Naia Roberts and Liv Cliber to graduation, coach Owen Phelan is excited about the program’s future.
“The season was great,” Phelan said. “We’re very proud of the girls’ accomplishments. It’s very hard to win the division. It’s hard to win the district, and it’s hard to win games at the state level.
“Fairfield graduated something of a golden generation last spring that set a pretty high bar. But behind them are talented girls who are anxious to have an opportunity to show people that they’re really good as well and are anxious to have more chances to show that quality.”
While Roberts and Cliber led the way this season for the Knights, who amassed a 12-2-1 record, that youth also began to shine through.
Junior Emma Dennison patrolled the wings, notching six goals to add to seven assists. Freshmen Breana Valentine and Maddy Fulgham led the way up top for the Green Knights, forming one of the top strike partnerships in the area in Fairfield’s 4-4-2. While sophomores Therese Phelan, who tallied 10 goals and four assists, and Erin Gregg, who scored the game-winning goal in the District 3 title game, also played crucial roles.
“With losing all the graduates from last year, I think that everyone that was on the team last year knew that we needed to step up. It was definitely an adjustment for us but with all of our summer workouts and practices we knew that we could go far this year,” Dennison said of stepping into a leadership role.
“I grew up playing soccer with Naia and Liv, so this being the last season with them definitely makes me sad and I will miss them both so much,” she added. “But I learned from Naia that no matter what team it is to play your heart out. She never backed down and she has always been that way. From Liv, I learned to have fun with the game. Liv was such a positive point for our team and she definitely brought our team together even at the worst times. As a captain since my sophomore year, I’m ready to step it up again and be a leader for this team.”
Dennison also praised Fulgham and Gregg, who often end up on the end of her assists.
“I love my strikers so much. I love playing with them and I love how they play the game,” he said. “Erin has the heart and the aggressiveness to do so well. Maddy is so fast and she is always there where and when she needs to be. As a freshman, she definitely stepped up when we had some starters out. Maddy and Erin are both some of the fastest girls on the team and they have both worked so hard to get where they are and deserved every second of playing time they got. We grew a connection throughout the season, and I know we can grow it even more next season.”
Phelan said that while his young players faced some early bumps in the road, he saw them develop from game to game and is confident that some of the younger girls are ready to take on larger roles in the future and handle the weight of playing for a prestigious program.
“They grew in confidence with each game and realized that they would be able to compete,” he said. “They recognized that soccer is still soccer and some of the more vocal girls, like Emma Dennison, Erin Gregg and Kayleigh Bollinger are ready to step up and step into those roles.”
Phelan also praised the likes of Fulgham and Valentine, who along with Gregg formed one of the more pacey attacks in the YAIAA
“I think Erin is a sophomore and Maddie Fulgham and Breana Valentine as freshmen were a little hesitant early in the year, but as the season went on they improved and developed and became strong dribblers and more willing shooters and that just made them even more dangerous,” he said.
That partnership and the chemistry off the field is something that Gregg says has made her a better player and has helped to ease the pressure that comes with playing for Fairfield.
“Maddy, Breana, and I are constantly asking each other questions, cracking jokes, and giving constructive criticism,” she said. “I’m so glad that I have such amazing girls up top with me.”
She added that while the season didn’t end as planned, she and her teammates who return next season and beyond are looking forward to the opportunity to make their own history.
“The end of our season is always sad because we lose teammates, but it’s also exciting because we can start to think about next season,” Gregg said. “With us having such a young team, it means we’re only going to lose a few girls and we have some pretty strong girls coming up from the middle school that we’re excited about. From a goal standpoint, I just hope we all play as a team, trust each other, and enjoy the sport we love.”