To be the best, you have to beat the best. The Rye girls’ soccer team accomplished that and then some October 2 at home, throttling Immaculate Heart Academy of Washington Township, NJ, by 4-0. Ranked No. 1 in the nation among teams that play fall soccer by the ESPN RISE website, the Blue Eagles had not allowed a goal in their seven straight wins prior to their ill-fated venture to Nugent Stadium.
“I think we won because every player – really, every player – on our team stepped up and played phenomenally,” said Garnet goalkeeper Tatiana Saunders, who made six saves and routinely punted the ball 60 yards up the field. “The defense marked up perfectly, the midfield stopped their runs and fed the ball upfield, and the forwards put it in the net. Everything just worked.”
Rye, quietly, fiercely, and with all the poise of professionals, seized the lead 10 minutes into the game courtesy an unbelievable throw-in by Amanda Benincasa. The ball arrived at the feet of senior captain Lia Bellizzi, who turned and ripped a perfect kick diagonally over the Blue eagles’ keeper into the goal. Benincasa was at it again just over 25 minutes later, as she delivered another precise throw-in to Carter Talgo, also a senior captain, who was able to win the ball in the air and score with her head.
“As a team, we were focused and together,” said Talgo. “We were able to execute our plan flawlessly. Benincasa works so hard as a defender and often does 60-yard sprints every game for her throw-ins. We stressed the importance of making each throw-in a dangerous scoring opportunity.”
While IHA exited the field for halftime in stunned silence down 2-0, the Garnets left in subdued exuberance, knowing full well the momentum could turn in the next half.
It didn’t. Rye returned with an even more intense focus and determination. As their opponent’s frustration mounted, the Garnets methodically moved the ball, and created more scoring opportunities. In the 52nd minute, Benincasa once again executed a perfect throw-in to Bellizzi, who was able to score into the upper corner.
Halfway through the second half, Saunders — back from starting for the England U17 team and who clearly a difference-maker on the field — produced her only really tough save, diving to her left to deflect a shot ticketed for the upper 90.
Vania Ludman added a fourth and final goal to Rye’s tally when Bellizzi hit her with an on-target pass from left to center. The undefeated Garnets, ranked fourth in the country by ESPN RISE prior to the match, were so dominant that head coach Rich Savage inserted many of his non-starters into the game in the closing minutes.
Aside from playing at home, 7-0 Rye held another distinct advantage. Saunders plays with some of the Blue Eagles on her club team in New Jersey, and has battled against other IHA girls as well. While she was able to help Savage prepare for the game, knowing what to expect and executing a strategy are two separate things. Nevertheless, Rye succeeded thanks to contributions up and down the lineup. Catharine Greer, a senior captain, shut down IHA’s leading goal-scorer. Talgo was strong in the middle of the field – Saunders said she was the MVP of the game – and both Maddy Chabot and Kaelyn Lucas were disciplined on the outside. They worked hard up and down the field to support on both offense and defense.
IHA Coach Steve Silver said, “Our finishing touch deserted us today, and you can give the credit to Rye. They take you out of your game and make you scramble in ways you’re not used to.”
Savage said the team was very excited, but understands there are many more challenges ahead.
“The target on our back just got about 100 percent larger,” said the coach. “Everyone will be very pumped to play us. As a result, we have to be ready for each game. We have one of the most difficult schedules, with league games against AA schools and crossover contests with teams ranked either nationally or regionally.”
Talgo seconded Savage’s thoughts.
“I think one of the downfalls of being such a highly ranked team is that everyone’s gunning for you,” she said. “We’ve been on both sides of the spectrum and came to play on Saturday. In the past we loved being underdogs and we were in the same position this weekend. It encourages us to prove people wrong, and I think that’s one of our strengths. We played as a unit and stressed being together – it has been one of our aims throughout our high school careers and we chose a good game to display it. We just have to be careful that this doesn’t go to our heads.”
Rye’s next game is October 9 versus North Rockland, ranked number 8 nationally, at Nugent Stadium.
– Melanie Cane