It was a hot late August afternoon and the Ridgefield football team was going through one of its first conditioning practices. Kevin Callahan, the Tigers’ coach, was optimistic he had the personnel to spend the days after Thanksgiving formulating a gameplan for a state-playoff opponent.
I can see us being a big-play defense at times but more importantly a bend not break-type thing,” Callahan said on that day.
Callahan’s words proved prescient. Ridgefield finished the regular season 8-2 and earned the No. 7 seed in Class LL. It will travel to face No. 2 Southington tomorrow in the quarterfinal round.
And it has been the defensive unit that has stood out most for the Tigers. During one stretch they had three straight shutouts and finished with a total of four. In a breakout win against New Canaan, the Tigers yielded yards but not points, making big plays and getting a field goal as time expired for a 17-14 win.
The only losses have been to Greenwich and St. Joseph, reigning state champions that have a chance of defending their titles.
“The step that we took in the right direction that you didn’t know if it would happen or not is we’ve been able to be a big-play defense when we need be,” Callahan said. “There have been times we’ve been bend but not break, but there’s also those times that have ended with a turnover or a late stop. There just seems to be someone that has stepped up to make a play when need be.”
Ridgefield has three players who should be highly decorated when the All-FCIAC honors are announced later this week: defensive lineman Reid Englert, linebacker Danny Moroney and defensive back Alex Hanna.
“We returned key players to the defense,” Callahan said. “I feel we have a tremendous player at every level of the defense between Reid, Danny and Alex. Not only do they give good leadership but they’ve been there and have a lot of experience. The rest of the team has three people they can look to at their positions.”
The trio are team leaders in different categories: Englert has 12 sacks, Moroney has 67 tackles and Hanna has three interceptions, tied with Moroney.
“We had our expectations high at the beginning of the season,” Moroney said. “We have played very well this year but I wouldn’t say we surpassed expectations because we expected a huge year this year. All around we just don’t have too many weaknesses. We get along really well and we just play really hard. Teams struggle against us.”
The three players share academic as well as athletic success. Englert is headed to Columbia, Hanna is looking at Penn or Hamilton while Moroney is getting heavy attention from top northeast Division III programs.
“Reid has played a lot of football for us and he’s a big, physical specimen with a lot of athletic ability,” Callahan said. “What he’s learned to do very well is play within his role and not just running around like a crazy man being physical. Danny has been that kid all year who makes big play after big play. He’s an unbelievable blitzer. He times it very well. He plays fantastic pass coverage. Alex is just a shutdown corner. He’s not 6-1, 6-2 but he plays that way. His ability to close on the ball is uncanny. You watch the first half of the play with him and you say this kid is not a good corner and then you watch the second half and the way he closes and the way he plays the ball. He’s a tremendous playmaker and with the reputation he’s earned people won’t go at him.”
Though the three players stand out on the field, off of it their humility allows them to blend in well with teammates.
“We knew we had more experience than other players and we had to step up and be leaders but everyone has made plays at some point this year,” Moroney said. “It is not just us but all 11.”
Ridgefield has only given up 122 points. More than half came in its two losses. Southington (8-2), which lost to Darien in the second week, 24-8, has given up an average of one less point per game.
Callahan said if the defense performs as it has so far, the odds of having another game to prepare for next week will be improved.
“We’re going to play a team that obviously is top notch,” Callahan said. “Realistically we are not going in planning to throw a shutout. We will play to keep the opponent out of the end zone but more than likely that’s not going to happen because of the caliber of opponent we’re playing. There are times we need to make a stop or hopefully turn the ball over. A lot of time of possession is going to win the game and a lot of field position is going to win the game. I feel if our defensive can give us some opportunities and put us in good position with the ball our offense can do the job maybe in some advantageous positions.”