FAIRFIELD — One of the biggest anomalies in FCIAC boys basketball is in the nearly three decades since joining the league nearly three decades ago, St. Joseph has appeared in the league final just twice.
The only championship occurred in 2000.
Last year the Cadets finished with the fifth-best record in the conference during the regular season, their highest in some time. And following today’s 62-47 road win at Fairfield Ludlowe, they are now 7-0, a half game ahead of the league’s two other unbeaten teams, Ridgefield and Staples.
“We’ve got good balance overall,” St. Joseph coach Kevin Wielk said. “We’re got some bigs, we’re got some guards, we have guys who can shoot it. We’re just going hard. We get after it in practice. These guys are playing for each other. Just to be out here, maybe that’s part of it.”
The Cadets are also playing with the idea of an FCIAC championship in mind, and for the first time in a while it is a realistic goal. Ridgefield is the favorite, but having now seen St. Joseph, Staples, New Canaan and possibly including Wilton, I think the talent is comparable and games will be decided on which team makes the most plays and fewest mistakes on a given night.
St. Joseph also has Jason James, who at the midway point of the season is the frontrunner for Player of the Year. Don’t just take my word.
“Jason James from what I’ve seen is the best player in the league,” Ludlowe coach John Dailey said after today’s game. “Tremendous. If you help so hard on him you leave Tommy Shannon open. They have a lot of weapons and they really speed you up and take you out of the game.”
James finished with 23 points, most coming on drives to the basket. When the routes were cut off, Shannon was the beneficiary of kickout passes. He made five 3-pointers and finished with 20 points.
“Jason is a special player but we’re pretty well balanced and pretty deep,” Wielk said. “We spread it out. I don’t care who scores the points, it’s all about getting that win.”
Glenn Manigault finished with 10 points for the Cadets, and his two 3-pointers came during the critical stretch of the game.
Ludlowe trailed after the first quarter, 18-5, but rallied within six following Sean Mockler’s 3-point shot with just over five minutes left before halftime. Maingault answered with his first shot from behind the arc. Ludlowe went on a 7-0 run before Manigault hit his second trey.
St. Joseph built the halftime lead to nine points.
“They punched us in the face, we were not ready to play, we seemed a little tentative and that was the difference in the game in my opinion,” Dailey said. “I cannot question the way my kids played tonight. I thought they played their hearts out. They got back in the game.”
St. Joseph operated with an eight to 12 point lead until pulling away late.
“I knew they were a tough team,” James said. “Last year they beat us here pretty bad. We knew we wanted to avenge the loss the best we could and close the game as strong as possible. I watched a lot of film from last year. I missed a couple of easy ones today but I’m glad we got the win. My teammates kept coming and I was coming strong at the end.”
Connor Lawlor scored 12 points to lead Ludlowe (2-4).
The Cadets are one of the league’s quickest teams and like to take advantage of it at both ends of the court.
“We’re just keeping the pressure on, that’s what we do, that’s our style,” Wielk said. “Their camaraderie in practice is great. Everyone buying into the system and practice. It starts with those seniors that came in with me day one. I told them they built this back up, it’s all on them. I’m proud of these guys. They set the tone.”
The seniors on the team started the same time as the coach, and they agreed they have been building for this year.
“I feel like the last two years really helped us for this year,” James said. “Coming in I knew we had a strong team and some people overlooked us. We’re pretty tight and we have a good chance of winning so we just have to keep going. I feel we still haven’t played our best but hopefully come playoff time we’ll be the best team in the FCIAC.”