The Trumbull boys basketball team opens the season in an unusual position. There are no titles to defend, yet the Eagles find themselves atop many hit lists. They have seven seniors and almost everyone back after a late run helped them advance to the FCIAC championship before losing to Danbury.
“I think the league is stronger and we’re playing a little bit more with a target on our back because we went to the finals,” Trumbull coach Buddy Bray said. “I don’t think we’re going to sneak up on anybody and it’s going to be a lot tougher on us because of that. I think people are going to prepare for us in different ways.”
Leading the Eagles are top scorer Timmond Williams and Chris Brown, who provides strong two-way play in the paint.
“We’re taking the attitude have a good season, take it one game at a time but they are not going to treat us like last year. I think we snuck up on teams some nights,” Bray said. “This year there will be no hiding.”
Williams said he has noticed differences from a year ago during the preseason.
“We have a lot of energy and we’re happy to get back together,” Williams said. “Everybody on the team has improved. We know what we have to do and we’re working hard in practice every day to succeed.”
Bray did a good job of putting last season in perspective.
“Last year we got a little taste of the icing,” Bray said. “We didn’t get the cake.”
The biggest change in the conference is taking place in Stamford. For the first time in 40 years, Trinity Catholic has a new head coach. Brian Kriftcher was promoted from assistant to take over for Mike Walsh, who retired with 633 wins, the fourth-most in state history, seven state and six league titles.
“It’s the same in a lot of ways,” Kriftcher said of what has so far been an easy transition. “Obviously it is more concentrated time in the gym with these guys. It has been great. They really have bought into what we’re preaching and the way we are trying to maximize their potential.”
The Crusaders have a unique situation, a case of role reversal. Walsh has stayed on as an assistant to Kriftcher.
“He and I have such a seamless relationship,” Kriftcher said. “I respect him immensely. I know this is tougher on him than it is on me. Being in the gym every day, transitioning roles. I am respectful of him and he is gracious with his time, giving me insights and things like that, but by the same token it is a team that I am running.”
Kriftcher has been a fixture on the Stamford youth basketball scene, running the Stamford Peace program.
“I think I have a lot of credibility with those guys and they are kids I know well and have seen and helped on the JV level or helped at the varsity level,” Kriftcher said. “Some I’m familiar with from club basketball. They trust we are putting them in the spots they can be most successful and they are buying into it.”
Kriftcher said while there will be many similarities to how things were run under Walsh, not everything will be the same.
“The two strangest aspects is there are things we run a little differently than when he was the trigger puller, and we have more depth than we’ve ever had, and even when we had depth he didn’t play a bigger bench,” Kriftcher said. “I think we’re going to play a deeper bench and the guys are going to understand they are going to be held accountable in different ways. Guys will be competing.”
Ridgefield is coming off winning the regular-season title…and then losing to Norwalk in the first round of the conference playoffs.
Brenden McNamara graduated and Jackson Mitchell is not playing this winter to focus on football.
With all the missing size, one would expect the Tigers to be in rebuilding mode.
Their breakout star from a year ago said consider otherwise.
“I don’t think Ridgefield is going to take a drop,” said James St. Pierre, who carried the team on some nights when defenses were overly focused on McNamara. “I’ve played varsity the last few years and I think this could be the best year yet. This year I think we are going to play differently and it will be a different style of play. We’ve got a lot more guards. We are going to be playing faster. A lot more transition play.”
That is not a style one associates with Ridgefield, but you play to your strengths and the Tigers are definitely backcourt-heavy.
St. Pierre said there will be an intangible attribute that fans may notice.
“We have a really good group of guys,” St. Pierre said. “We’re really good friends off the court and that translates to chemistry on the court. I’m really looking forward to how we are going to play.”
We will learn about the Tigers quickly. They open their conference schedule at home next week against Trinity Catholic and Stamford. After the new year they go on the road to Trumbull and Danbury. Those could end up being the FCIAC’s four best teams.
If Ridgefield gets through that stretch with a .500 or better record, watch out.
Speaking of guards, no team has a more highly touted bunch than Stamford. The Black Knights figure to be the most entertaining team in the league.
Who is their backcourt leader? Some will say Jaden Bell. Some will say Josh Thervil. Some will say Jay Jaudon. If there was a draft by opposing coaches, each would likely be atop a different team’s board.
The Black Knights, after Trumbull and Danbury, are getting the most hype.
“We return some guys who have had some experience and success so I guess that talk is natural,” coach Zach Smith said. “We still have to go out and prove it. We want to get back to FCIACs and advance this year.”
The Black Knights finished seventh last season. They would appear primed to make a big leap, though there is one big concern.
“We have guys that know how to score,” Smith said. “Good shooters who know how to get to the basket and finish. And they’re going to have to be able to guard big because we’re going to be playing small. We have to be mentally tough, physically tough and if we do those things we should be OK.”