FAIRFIELD — One got a sense early last month that Fairfield Warde girls basketball coach Dave Danko was a poker player trying to conceal a strong hand.
Though the Mustangs lost talented sophomore Jenna Cetta for the year to a torn ACL, Danko had a number of players high on promise but short on experience.
That hand Danko is holding may be better than even he anticipated.
As the season nears the midway point, the Mustangs are 7-0 and, along with St. Joseph, the only remaining unbeaten team in what is an exceptionally strong league.
Warde has just one senior, though you wouldn’t know it by the poise demonstrated thus far.
“The way these kids have worked over the summer and committed to basketball, I knew if everything meshed we could be very good,” Danko said. “We got past the first hurdle and now we have the second hurdle to try and get over. Teams are packing it in against our two big girls but we have gotten good guard play.”
Sophomores Iliana Krasniqi and Shania Osborne, a transfer from Norwalk, have already established themselves as two of the league’s most dominant inside players. Krasniqi leads the team averaging nearly 19 points a game, and both players already have college offers, including from Division I schools.
Krasniqi and Osborne have been complemented by a deep backcourt, led by Sarah Cotto, who is averaging 12 points a game, and point guard Lejla Markovic, who is averaging 10.5.
“This year our team is really young but that doesn’t affect us much,” Markovic said. “We overcome it. We work as a team and keep up our defensive intensity.”
Another important addition has been on the sideline. Ed Huydic, who concluded a distinguished 34-year career last winter at Staples, where he finished with 453 wins, one state and four league titles, joined Danko’s staff.
Danko said his players’ AAU experiences have helped compensate for their lack of seasoning in FCIAC play.
“This team traveled all over the country and played against a lot of girls going Division I,” Danko said. “Are they battle tested? There’s nothing that will simulate a high school atmosphere, but they’ve had situations where they played in front of 200 college coaches.”
If the Mustangs are ahead of schedule, the players are the least surprised.
“No, I think we’ve worked well as a team, even in preseason and practice,” Markovic said. “There’s still room for improvement but we are doing really well.”
Warde made a statement on opening night with a win over Trumbull. There are also victories against three-time defending champion Danbury and a non-league game against crosstown rival Ludlowe. A rematch is Tuesday night.
Warde will have two difficult stretches the rest of the way. January closes with games against Greenwich, Stamford and Ridgefield, the final two on the road. The season ends against St. Joseph and Wilton.
Krasniqi said the players have adapted well from being hunters to the hunted.
“I don’t think it puts that much pressure on us,” she said. “We just have to keep our intensity in every game. We’re getting looked at, which is pretty good. As long as we keep up the hard work, we can go far.”
No. 1 Fairfield Warde (7-0) vs. No. 8 Trumbull (4-2). The Eagles would be the most skilled eighth seed….maybe ever. A testament to how strong the league is this season.
No. 2 Wilton (4-1) vs. No. 7 Fairfield Ludlowe (4-3). The Warriors have rebounded nicely from an opening-night loss. Erin Cunningham is the most underrated really good player in a long time. All of the Falcons’ losses have come against top teams.
No. 3 St. Joseph (7-0) vs. No. 6 Stamford (6-1). Two teams with backloaded schedules that will prove revealing. Anxious to see the Black Knights’ Tiana England for the first time this season.
No. 4 Ridgefield (6-1) vs. No. 5 Greenwich (5-2). An awful start a year ago killed the Tigers’ season. This year there has been a reversal. What to make of the Cardinals getting spanked by 40 points against Wilton?