RIDGEFIELD — The bar is always set high at Ridgefield, which had been a consistent state playoff contender of late until a year ago, when it needed to defeat Danbury in the final game to finish above .500.
The Tigers were a team with a number of first-year starters that needed time to gain experience. Many are back, a source of optimism for coach Kevin Callahan and his players.
The Tigers are coming off a 6-4 season, in line with what you would expect from a rebuilding situation. There were a lot of early growing pains, starting with a 30-6 loss to Darien that did little to boost confidence.
The good news is the Blue Wave is off the schedule. The opening game is at Tiger Hollow against Fairfield Warde. The bad is Darien has been replaced by New Canaan, the week two opponent.
Jackson Mitchell, the do-it-all receiver and defensive end, has graduated, but there are a lot of returning starters. And last year’s young offensive line now should be an asset.
“We had some offensive struggles on the line last year but I think a lot of the offensive starters are returning, so I think a lot of touchups will come with that and they already have been, it’s already showing,” said cornerback Alex Hanna.
Owen Matthews returns at quarterback. He spent a lot of last season under pressure, and was the victim of a state-record eight sacks by Grenwich’s Mozi Bici.
“One of his greatest abilities is his toughness,” Callahan said. “He got hit a lot last year. Just ask the kid from Greenwich. He never missed a snap. There is a lot to be said for that and he is doing a great job in camp right now.”
Matthews will get some competition from promising junior Declan McNamara. Gianni Gorham, who had a team-leading seven touchdown catches, will be a favorite target.
“The receivers, we have a couple of kids who are talented,” Callahan said. “We have Gianni Gorham, who is lightning fast, long, athletic and is going to be a threat.”
The schedule has potholes, with Staples up after New Canaan. St. Joseph and Greenwich loom over the second half of the season. There is also a road trip to Chatham, NJ.
“Last year for us, I don’t know if our season would have been different but I like to think we would have been more competitive,” Callahan said. “I don’t know if that would have changed the outcome but these guys feel a responsibility to take another step forward.”
Players To Watch
Hanna really came on as a junior in the secondary and is looking to build on that success.
“I hope more of the same,” Hanna said of his individual goal. “I kept working hard during the offseason. Nothing has changed really. Hopefully I can have even a better year this year.”
Callahan is also high on two-way lineman Reid Englert.
“I think Alex Hanna, one of our returning corners, is a pretty special kid,” Callahan said. “Reid Englert, who played for us last year, the other coaches know who he is. I think a lot of people will notice him as a defensive end and offensive lineman for us. He’s got a lot of attention from the Ivy Leagues so he’s a pretty good player.”
The Tigers, because of the schedule, could have a record similar to a year ago despite being much more formidable. They play three of the so-called big four teams. Can they come away with a victory or two? The Staples game may determine whether they finish with more wins this fall.
“I key I think is consistency,” Callahan said. “Keeping the ball on offense and controlling the clock, and defensively I can see us being a big-play defense at times but more importantly a bend not break-type thing.
“For these guys right now, you don’t want to get to ahead of yourselves, but the conversation in the weight room during the offseason was trying to express to them how special it is to be practicing after Thanksgiving. There are only so many teams that can do that so hopefully they’re going to have a burning desire to be in that position.”
Sept. 13 FAIRFIELD WARDE 7 p.m.
Sept. 20 NEW CANAAN 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 at Staples 7 p.m.
Oct. 12 at Chatham (NJ) 2 p.m.
Oct. 18 WILTON 7 p.m.
Oct. 26 at St. Joseph 1:30 p.m.
Nov. 1 STAMFORD 7 p.m.
Nov. 8 at Brien McMahon 7 p.m.
Nov. 16 at Greenwich 4 p.m.
Nov. 27 DANBURY 6 p.m.