Fairfield Warde has had two common traits during a recent run of four straight FCIAC Tournament appearances: a dominant go-to player and first-round exits.
Two seasons ago Sean Conway was one of the most prolific scorers in league history. Last year Matt Becker and Matt Houghton handled most of the offense.
But good regular seasons have not translated into any trips to the Final Four. There have been two overtime losses to Wilton in the quarterfinals, including last winter, when the Mustangs had what appeared like a comfortable late lead.
This season Warde coach Ryan Swaller might not have a player put up 30 points. He also might have his best overall team, one capable not just of getting to Wilton but making the first trip to the final by a team from Fairfield since 1993, when an unbeaten consolidated team lost the title game to Trinity Catholic.
“Going into the year I knew this could be one of the most complete teams I’ve coached just in terms of flexibility with lineups, good size, good guard play, we have four or five guys that can score double digits on any night,” Swaller said. “It’s not relying on one guy. And as a team, defense and rebounding, we do that pretty well. So far it has been successful. We have another half to go and I know the second half will be tough.”
The second half started last night with a road win at Danbury. The Mustangs are now 9-2 over all and 6-1 in league play.
The Mustangs saw a wide array of box-and-ones and other modified defenses in recent seasons with the intention of containing an individual player. But who do opposing coaches try now to make their focus? No one, because four players, led by sophomore Jordyn Davis, are averaging between 8 and 12 points a game.
Brendan McMahon is next at 11.2 points, followed by Davis’ twin brother, Justyn, and Ben Steele.
Swaller has several players who can lead the team in scoring on a given night, consistent with a roster where Swaller can find at least a couple of players to fill a particular need.
“I’m probably going 10 or 11 guys deep and many games we go five in and five out, mixing up different lineups, going from an offensive to a defensive type of lineup, a bigger to a smaller lineup,” Swaller said. “The flexibility is great to have because most teams don’t have that. We can match up really with any team that we go against.”
The two most intriguing players on the roster are the Davis twins. They received the most preseason hype from coaches that have watched them based on their potential, but their present has been important to the Mustangs’ record. They come from strong bloodlines: their mother is a former two-time All-State player who helped lead Norwalk to a run of three straight FCIAC titles from 1999-2001.
“I knew that they could be very good players,” Swaller said. “Being so young, the thing I tried to get them to think about early in the year was not think of themselves as sophomores and to try and play like juniors and seniors. So far they are getting more and more confidence, which for us is a great thing. They’re starting to realize how good they can be.”
Warde lost the final of the Fairfield Holiday Tournament to rival Fairfield Ludlowe. The lone league loss was to New Canaan, which came from behind to win in overtime.
“If we win the New Canaan game maybe we don’t learn the things we learned,” Swaller said. “To finish the games later in the season. New Canaan, we had such control in the first half and they just totally outworked us in the second half. It woke my guys up to realize we have to play a complete game to compete with the best teams in the FCIAC and the state.”
The Mustangs have a heavily back-loaded schedule in a balanced league. Starting on Monday, seven of their final eight games are against teams in contention for league playoff spots.
“We are going to need to continue to grow together, especially the offense,” Swaller said. “I think early in the year we were trying to rely on one guy or two guys to take the shot. We’re starting to learn that the open shot is the best shot.”
Inside The Top 8
With the FCIAC now on a Monday-Thursday schedule, I did a Bracketology yesterday afternoon and updated it last night just to see how much it would change. New Canaan got bumped back a few spots, Stamford fell out, St. Joseph moved up a spot and Trumbull remained in.
Not dramatic movement, but with so much balance this year, gone are the days where teams got moved up or down a spot on a weekly basis.
Warde, my new No. 1, was fourth a week ago. Trinity jumps from seven to three, admittedly based some on what I expect with Malcolm Newman eligible and its play the past week than the overall body of work. Trumbull fell from second to eight.
We are right now in a free-for-all where teams are so close talent wise that they are taking turns beating one another. I don’t expect that to change until the playoffs.
No. 1 Fairfield Warde (9-2, 6-1) vs. No. 8 Trumbull (7-4, 4-3)
No. 2 Ridgefield (9-2, 7-1) vs. No. 7 St. Joseph (8-2, 7-1)
No. 3 Trinity Catholic (7-5, 5-3) vs. No. 6 New Canaan (8-4, 5-3)
No. 4 Staples (10-2, 6-2) vs. No. 5 Fairfield Ludlowe (9-2, 5-2)