RIDGEFIELD — The members of the Ridgefield football team have heard the talk, about how this is a season in which a precipitous fall is inevitable. The Tigers graduated their starting quarterback, leading rusher and two top receivers after a 10-3 season that included a trip to the Class LL championship game.
It would be unrealistic to expect the same level of excellence. But at practice yesterday, the consensus was the dropoff is not going to be a tailspin, and while many of the faces have changed, the untapped potential will assure the Tigers remain contenders.
“Clearly the kids coming back set the bar high, which is really good because their expectations are kind of on their shoulders at this point,” Ridgefield coach Kevin Callahan said. “One of the things we talked about, with all the success we had last year what are we going to do differently this year to take that final step? That’s always a good question to put in their mind and clearly the answer is to practice better and practice harder and be more effective. It is good to pass on that responsibility if the guys want to take it as far as last year and hopefully a half step farther to seal the deal.”
The Tigers had a memorable postseason run, with wins over West Haven and Shelton before a 28-7 loss in the final to Darien, which just happens to be their opening opponent in two weeks at Tiger Hollow.
“It’s definitely good to get a shot at them and right away because we’ve waited all offseason for it,” quarterback Greg Gatto said.
Gone are quarterback Drew Fowler, running back Shane Palmer and receivers Chris Longo and Collin Lowe.
“Obviously it is going to be difficult to replace the great name players,” said receiver Matt Lombardo. “But we have guys who are ready to step up, guys who want to be a part of the team. I think we have a lot of people who are ready for the varsity level.”
The cupboard is not bare on offense. Gatto played four games after Fowler was injured in the second contest, against New Canaan, and the Tigers were 3-1. Gatto completed 57 percent of his passes and threw for 1,180 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“Greg did a great job last year,” Callahan said. “The one loss was to Trinity and it certainly wasn’t his fault. He had good numbers in the game, he was productive, he put the ball where it had to be. He gained a lot of confidence with that, waiting his time. Drew was a pretty special kid. He waited to get his opportunity and you can tell he has confidence. Every repetition is full speed, full go. He’s showing a lot of strength, a lot of durability and a lot of decision making. If you have to be a little bit younger on offense, with him coming back with experience is a great thing to have.”
Gatto has worked hard in the offseason and is confident the offense will continue to be an asset.
“We are working on being precise and getting open by running good routes,” Gatto said. “We definitely have a lot of good plays and a lot of good wrinkles this year to get guys open. I think we will have one of the most explosive offenses in the state. We’re looking really good. We lost a lot of talent last year but we filled it up with new guys.”
Lombardo, who plays receiver and cornerback, was a second team All-FCIAC selection a year ago. He is ready for more time in the spotlight.
“Obviously as a senior I’m going to have a bit of a larger role, but that doesn’t change anything,” Lombardo said. “It doesn’t change the fact that we are going to be ready.”
The Tigers won a number of games last season by outscoring opponents, but Callahan said the emphasis may switch to the defense, which has nine starters back. Linebacker Noah Isaacson led the team in tackles, Luke Gaydos in a lockdown cornerback and John Schneider wreaks havoc on the defensive line.
“Right now the defense seems to be a half a step ahead at this point,” Callahan said. “Showing the maturity of an extra year.”
Among the names on the list of players in the FCIAC you have not yet heard of but soon will, include junior Jackson Mitchell, a two-way player who has been getting looks from major Division I schools.
“We have a lot of guys ready to step up and they haven’t had their opportunity and now is the first time they will get the chance to step up and be leaders of the team,” Lombardo said. “We might have different personnel this year but I don’t think it will necessarily be a bad thing.”
The game against Darien will be a good measuring stick, and St. Joseph, Greenwich and Staples are on the schedule, as well as rival Wilton, an opponent the Tigers did not play last season.
Callahan is striking the appropriate chord with his players.
“The big thing is not to make the comparison to who was there before but also hold the responsibility that if the program is going to stay successful, that now falls on their shoulders,” Callhan said. “Don’t be the class on a team that was 4-6.”