STONINGTON — Over the years, the best bet in Connecticut high school sports has been Stonington field hockey winning an ECC title.
The Bears had won or shared 34 of 36 ECC regular-season titles entering Thursday, including last year's win in the "regional" tournament, which took the place of the ECC tourney due to COVID-19. During the 2021 regular season, the Bears went undefeated in conference play, making them heavy favorites to accomplish the feat yet again.
But there are no sure bets in sports, not even with Stonington field hockey.
Thursday, in the sixth ECC tournament final, Fitch avenged two regular-season losses to Stonington and shocked the Bears, scoring with 2:53 left to win its first tournament championship, 1-0, at Palmer Field.
Fitch's Bridget O'Leary, an All-ECC offensive player, gathered a crossing pass 25 yards from the goal, stick-handled straight ahead on a mad dash to the goal for 15 yards and sent a low grounder into the back of the net.
Fitch lost to Stonington, 5-1, in September and 3-0 last month, but O'Leary was confident heading into what evolved into an evenly played game in final.
"We've come a long way as a team," O'Leary said. "In the past, to be honest, I would approach a game looking to play my hardest and accept whatever happened. But today on the bus to the game, I had a feeling we could win. I went all out 100 percent to attack the net on the goal. It was getting late."
The title marked the pinnacle of the Falcons' 10-year varsity run under their only coach, Diane Kolnaski, who is assisted by Ed Kolnaski, the brother of Stonington scorekeeper Paulla Solar, who was Stonington's first field hockey coach in the mid-1970s and a longtime girls basketball coach.
Solar would not admit whom she was rooting for at the scorer's table, but it was apparent the title, Fitch's first as opposed to one of many for Stonington, was special to the Falcons.
"I put more emphasis on the regular-season championship, going undefeated, and of course playing for the Class S state championship," Stonington 18-year coach Jenna Tucchio said. "The ECC tournament is like a two-game scrimmage where they pass out trophies at the end."
Tucchio did give credit to Fitch and was not surprised at the game's competitiveness. Both teams managed eight shots on goal and eight penalty corners each.
"Fitch has improved all year," Tucchio said. "We beat them handily early, but in the second game we just capitalized on penalty corners. They have good stick-handlers up front and good size on defense."
Stonington almost took a 1-0 lead when Hannah Nulick, an All-ECC offensive player, found herself open near the right post and nearly tapped in a shot off a penalty corner. But she could not make solid contact with the ball.
The Bears also had a narrow miss in the first quarter when Sam Harris sent a cross from the left that Maddie Mendez, an All-ECC pick, redirected just wide of the right post. Stonington also had two penalty corners in the last minute.
Fitch also had a close call at the end of the second quarter off a penalty corner and actually scored a second or two after the halftime buzzer.
Tucchio said she believes Stonington will rebound to make a run in the Class S state tournament. The Bears, who have lost to Class M Guilford and Class S contender North Branford in one-goal games, are seeded second.
"This game could help us," Tucchio said. "Now the girls know what kind of intensity is needed for a championship. Fitch showed championship intensity. We have to take it up another level."