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Ken Lipshez

How the Rams (and The Lip) are driven

I trekked down to Branford High School Wednesday to watch Cheshire and Daniel Hand play field hockey the way it ought to be in the SCC Tournament.

The voyage, which I made without using the menacing “Q” Bridge, filled me with memories, conclusions about those hard-working, high-achieving Cheshire girls.

THE VOYAGE: I love maps. Always have. And I find the map programs on the Internet to be exquisite. I don’t need no darned GPS.

So what’s the best way to get to Branford? Try Route 150, Woodhouse Road in Wallingford, follow it to Route 22 in the Northford section of North Branford. You hit Route 80 for a left and a right quicker than Muhammad Ali’s combination and wind through the Twin Lakes/Mill Plain region of Branford.

You get to see foliage, old New England saltbox homes, and bodies of water in the twilight of a classic autumn day. Armed with a steaming cup on Dunkin’s finest, I found it relaxing for the soul and kept the road-rage meter at an all-time low.

Gee, I missed the two construction areas in and around New Haven and the traffic backup before the bridge, which was still ongoing when I streamed up I-91 for the ride home during the 9 o’clock hour.

THE VENUE: So, I was in the right frame of mind when I got to the James L. McVeigh Alumni Athletic Complex – the sparkling turf-covered Home of the Hornets -- an hour before game time.

I knew the late Mr. McVeigh. I was serving an internship for The Shoreline Times for the late, inimitable Hal Levy when he asked me to edit Mr. McVeigh’s copy. I blew it. In an effort to impress Mr. Levy, I straightened out all the verbs and adverbs and curbed the hometown blather that tooted the Branford horn.

Mr. McVeigh was somewhat less than pleased when he picked up the paper later in the week. Mr. Levy waggled his forefinger in my face and told me that sometimes the principles of journalism have to be bent to accommodate the hometown readership. Lesson learned.

The field sits beside the Branford River, which my geography background tells me is an estuary. That means it’s brackish water – a combination of fresh and salt water that definitely alerts your sense of smell, and a powerful sense it is.

ABOUT CLAMS AND RAMS: My memories of time spent in that area when Dad had a toy store in East Haven came rushing back to me. We would drive out to Dad’s store in the days before the “Q” was built, using the Tomlinson Bridge, which would open and stop vehicular traffic when a barge pulled into the harbor.

The car would be stopped and that briny smell would be captivating. The memory now manifests itself in my semiannual desire to eat a hulking pile of fried clams. Too bad all the clam places were closed by the time the game ended and I had to settle for Wendy’s.

Let’s get to the meat of the matter. The Rams combine resiliency, confidence, savvy and tons of talent to forge an identity that will lead them to the upper reaches of the Class LL tournament.

Emma Farrel and Michelle Federico rank as two of the finest female athletes I’ve seen in more than 20 years on the job. Imagine them being on the very same team. Unleashing cannonades on opposing goals comes as easily to them as picking strawberries in June.

On this night, they fell behind their foes from Madison by a goal at the half but simply would not be denied in building a 3-1 margin by the time the final horn echoed over the salt marshes.

Farrel’s second goal that gave Cheshire the lead for good is characteristic of the resiliency.

“It was off [a Hand defender’s] foot,” she said. “It came off the post, hit one of their feet and was going to be a [penalty] corner anyway but I continue to play. We always work on that in practice –playing through the whistles – and it really helped that time.”

SCC Coach of the Year Eileen Gallagher was far from ready to celebrate – 11 minutes, 39 seconds to be exact.

“When [Federico] scored that third goal, that was insurance. There wasn’t that much time left (1:24),” she said. “Hand, I think, will win Class M.”

The confidence percolates from Gallagher’s game plan. She instructed her girls to play in a defensive mode because she believed that Hand would grow frustrated if they moved freely through the midfield but couldn’t amass two or three goals as is the Tigers’ avenue to success.

She deduced that Cheshire’s talent would win the day.

“Patience,” Gallagher said. “Last game they face-guarded Michelle, and that’s a really smart move for any team to do, but Michelle handles it. She doesn’t waste her energy. She waits until they give her a free hit and then she goes. You can’t stop her once she gets going, especially not on turf.”

Both Federico and Farrel play ice hockey, which Gallagher said has influenced their stick-handling abilities and their aptitude. It was reflected in the most aesthetic goal of the game, perhaps the season, maybe any season when Federico controlled the ball as she sped up the right side, sent a screaming pass across the field to Farrel on the run. Farrel not only stopped it but adroitly shifted it into prime shooting position and tied the game.

“I give all the credit to this really talented senior class,” said Gallagher, now 94-20-2-2 over her six-year tenure.

“There’s the Federico-Farrel Factor, for an alliterative statement from an English teacher. Then you have Danielle Bellantonio who stepped up huge this year, Olivia Larson, Maddy [Levy] in goal. I’m so, so proud of my seniors – my juniors, too, but my seniors especially.”

Love the Rams, pass the clams.

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