RIDGEFIELD — Despite graduation losses as significant as any team in the league, Ridgefield football coach Kevin Callahan said he has not been using decreased expectations from outside of town as motivation.
“I won’t do that because I don’t think it is fair,” Callahan explained. “These guys work way too hard in the offseason where they want to be next man up. I don’t want to insult them. We’ve created a culture where year in and year out we are competitive and do well.”
That doesn’t mean Callahan’s players haven’t adopted such incentive themselves.
“I think this year everyone is playing with a chip on their shoulders because a lot of people think we lost a lot of guys and they don’t know what to expect from us,” said Jackson Mitchell, the Tigers’ versatile two-way star. “We’re trying to prove them wrong.”
With just a handful of starters back, predicting where the Tigers might finish means getting a grasp on too many variables. This is a program that expects to have occasional dips rather than free falls. It is possible they are not as strong as a year ago but still match the 7-3 mark, when the losses came to two state champions, Darien and St. Joseph, and Greenwich, a Class LL finalist.
“They have a responsibility to keep up the success that we’ve had,” Callahan said. “We’re not killing people and we’re not winning championships every year, but I think we’ve created a culture around here. I think you can see it when you watch these guys.”
The last time Ridgefield experienced this much turnover was in 2014. It finished 2-9. No one is expecting such a slide.
Remove that season and the Tigers are 70-23 during the past decade, affirming Callahan’s description of his program.
“It has been a great offseason,” Callahan said. “We did three passing leagues. We’ve had great turnout, great effort, great work. Our offseason weight training has always been very, very good and it has been tremendous. We have the kids. These guys buy in and want to be part of this. It is really important.”
There is uncertainty still at a number of positions, including quarterback, where Callahan has yet to make a decision with junior Owen Matthews and sophomore Declan McNamara. The Tigers have a number of players with huge upsides, like running back/cornerback Evan Wein, running back Ben Seward and linemen Pete Behnke and Nick Hall.
Then there is Mitchell, the UConn commit, who according to Callahan could play virtually any position on the field — and just might by Thanksgiving.
“Here’s the bottom line, Jackson wants to play football and he wants to be used as much as he can, which is great because I am going to use the heck out of him,” Callahan said. “We are going to use him inside, outside, backfield, defensively everywhere. We are going to put him to work. He’s going to be exhausted every day. We’re stupid if we don’t. He’s such a talented kid, especially defensively. We have to take advantage of that for us to be successful as a team.”
Mitchell led the state last year in receiving yards (1,124), yet may make a greater impact on defense. The Tigers will try to get him as many touches as possible, moving him around in a chess match as opponents put two and three defenders on him.
“I like our work ethic,” Mitchell said. “We are not going to be the kind of team that will blow teams out, like Greenwich and those teams. We are going to have to outwork teams and when it comes down to the fourth quarter we are going to be right there with them. We will be better conditioned and ready to go.”
Mitchell said he and his teammates are hoping the rest of the FCIAC will equate unfamiliar names with a greater chance for victory.
“A lot of people can think that way but we think the complete opposite and we’re trying to show it,” Mitchell said.